The indomitable, trailblazing Scottish percussionist is headed to Mona’s Mofo in January.
Evelyn Glennie performs at Mofo, Mona’s Festival of Music and Art in Hobart, January 17 2016.
Limelight readers receive a 25% ticket discount when booking via the link below.
It’s difficult to pick just one reason Evelyn Glennie is such an astonishing trailblazer. Not only is she considered one of the most in-demand and internationally respected percussionists in the world – a discipline that has traditionally been dominated by men – but she has also joined that rare handful of classical artists who can genuinely be regarded as a household name.
Her pioneering successes are more than just a triumph for gender equality. Before Glennie, the notion of a professional solo classical percussionist – male or female – was unheard of. Since the mid-1970s, she has paved the way not only for countless other percussion virtuosos but also a generation of composers enlightened to the possibilities of writing for percussion through her groundbreaking performances. Over 170 new percussion works have been penned especially for Glennie, including James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which she premiered in 1992 at the BBC Proms – the first time a percussion concerto had ever been programmed at the world’s biggest classical music festival. Her place as the torch-bearer of her craft was beautifully illustrated at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, where Glennie led an ensemble of a thousand drummers, before delivering a spell-binding solo on her self-designed Aluphone during the lighting of the Olympic cauldron.
Hers is a proverbial trophy cabinet of truly epic proportions, boasting three Grammy Awards, a Polar Music Prize, a Queen’s Commendation for all round excellence and no less than 15 honorary doctorates from Universities across the UK. Her OBE, awarded by Her Majesty Elizabeth II in 1993 was promoted to a Damehood (a DBE) in 2007, and within her native Scotland, she has been named both Scot of the Year (1982) and the 1990’s Scotswoman of the Decade. Her talents have attracted collaborators from the most unlikely of places including Icelandic songstress Björk, Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch, American vocal icon Bobby McFerrin and jazz improvisation legend Fred Frith.
But if you had to pick just one thing, perhaps most extraordinary of all is that Glennie has carved out this world-leading career while being profoundly deaf, having started to lose her hearing from the age of 8 with the complete loss of her hearing by the time she was 12.
This potted résumé makes for impressive reading, but behind the accolades and global success is a quirky, uniquely mercurial spirit that has unquestionably been the driving energy underpinning her numerous accomplishments. Dame Evelyn speaks a rare dialect of Scot’s Gaelic called Doric, which is only spoken by a few hundred people in the world. She is an avid collector including unusual jewellery, rare motorbikes and perhaps unsurprisingly over 2000 percussion instruments from all over the world. She has designed her own pattern of Tartan known as The Rhythms of Evelyn Glennie. She is a keen amateur metal-detectorist. She has a Law degree through the British remote learning institution, the Open University. She even plays the bagpipes. All this paints a portrait of an extraordinarily determined, yet free spirited person, who is, in Glennie’s own words “stubborn but patient.” Quite simply, Evelyn Glennie is irrepressible.
Despite her skill, her numerous awards, her potently charismatic stage presence, one question has consistently been posed to Glennie throughout her career, to the point that she is notoriously irritated by it: how can a musician perform if they are deaf? It might perhaps seem like a reasonable question, like asking a chef with no sense of taste how they would know if their food was palatable? But if Glennie has proven anything beyond doubt, it’s that music isn’t only sound.
Ironically her deafness has been both her biggest challenge and yet one of her greatest motivators. As a child, the isolation that hearing loss brought with it, as conversations with her friends became more challenging, prompted her to focus on music, an activity she could do on her own. At the age of 15, the Royal Academy of Music in London initially denied her entry on the basis that she was hearing-impaired. However her steely determination and unwillingness to be discriminated against overturned this decision, insisting that she be appraised exclusively on her musical merits – a pivotal moment for all disabled musicians who would follow her.
But yet, the curiosity persists: how does such an accomplished musician, known for her sensitively crafted performances, deliver these astonishing accounts without hearing a note? For Glennie, it’s a mixture of the extraordinary and the obvious. Like all musicians, she feels, interprets and responds to the music as it is performed, except in Glennie’s case she perceives the vibrations of the sounds she plays as physical feedback via her hands, body, and her trademark bare feet. Beyond this, her abilities are rooted in the same aptitude and intuition that all great musicians are equipped with, an artistic insight and empathy that comes from within.
It may be a source of irritation for the indomitable percussionist, but despite the lingering curiosity that her deafness attracts, Glennie’s career has been one unstoppable defiance of the labels and obstacles that have stood in her way. On her website, a statement in relation to her hearing says, “Evelyn doesn’t know very much about deafness.” Given the peerless calibre of her performances, her audience doesn’t need to either.
Evelyn Glennie performs at Mofo, Mona’s Festival of Music and Art in Hobart, January 17, 2016.