Interview with Dame Evelyn Glennie
De Montfort University (Leicester UK)
With contributions by jef chippewa and David Eves.
[eContact!] Dame Evelyn Glennie, you are an internationally-known percussionist, composer, improvisor, and educator, so let me start off by thanking you for taking time out from a busy schedule and offering us the chance to interview you. This issue of eContact! is specifically about “Hearing (Loss) and Related Issues,” and we would like to speak to you about your various activites as a percussionist, composer, improvisor, as well as your related activities as a speaker giving workshops and lectures.
Education and Learning
Much is known about Dame Evelyn Glennie the performer, and we will come back to this, but perhaps we could start off talking about education and learning.
Your writings, talks and workshops seem to appeal to a broad range of musicians, whether they have any history of hearing-related issues or not. The fact that your approach to hearing seems to be so novel to many would indicate that these issues are rarely — if at all — taught or even addressed in the majority of existing music education programmes. What is it that your unique perspective on hearing can contribute to the musicians’ experiences, perception and understanding of music that is not typically addressed in the educational programmes today?
[Evelyn Glennie] The answer is really very simple, I basically ask musicians to listen. And in order to do that they have to focus and concentrate, get rid of distractions and really simplify things. and that means to actually pay attention to what the body is doing and what the other senses are doing and for me that is a form of listening; to concentrate, to focus to observe to analyze is a form of listening. In order to do that I feel that it’s quite a different experience when you’re listening with people, than it is when you’re listening by yourself. It’s a different experience to listen if you’re sitting on a sofa, than sitting on a hard-back chair or something, or sitting listening at 12 noon as opposed to 8pm and so on and so forth. I think that the main thing is that listening is fluid. Therefore what you might perceive on one particular day may change the following day, through one reason or another, usually because of the emotional baggage that we all carry. There’s nothing really unique about that at all. It’s simply just taking the time to listen and digest, it can be one note, it can be stroke on a string, it can be one note on a wind instrument, it can be one note on a synthesizer, but really delving into that experience.
In your Hearing Essay you write: “everyone’s hearing is different.” (1) This idea is easily confirmed from a philosophical and physiological perspective, and quite naturally leads to an expanded understanding of hearing as but one component of the larger concept of perception of sound. However, for various reasons, in the earlier stages of education experienced by the average music student, a certain level of homogenization in the teaching hinders — or at least postpones — the dissemination of such ideas. What sort of practices or approaches have you been proposing in your presentations and workshops to help students develop their own individual understanding of sound and musical perception?
Basically with the presentations and workshops. These are the kinds of things that I don’t do that much of. I think perhaps we have the impression that I give a lot of these things. Not really at all and its mainly to percussion specialists or musicians. I think what I’m more interested in is just the general public.
But what I do find is that improvisation really helps the students’ listening skills. Because they have to have the confidence of experiencing something within their own imagination first, so they have performed the scene, as it were, first and then they can project that. And very often with improvisation things can be exaggerated, dynamics can be exaggerated; the sense of touch can be exaggerated. Once you get over that sort of timid approach, we’re often quite scared of the word “improvisation”, but once you sort of, again, simplify things and just say well choose one note and lets concentrate on dynamics and dynamic extremes, and the emotions of dynamics, so it can be an angry loud for example or it can be an aggressive loud, or a panicky loud or a fat loud or it can be a scared loud; it can be many different types of loud and the same sort of thing with soft, or whatever dynamics you choose. You could concentrate just on rhythm or you could just concentrate just on sound colour and so and so forth. This simplification just allows people to breathe really in what they do. Because very often with a musician you can forget to breathe. If you’re coming across a complicated passage or something that’s technically difficult, or if your asked to improvise suddenly you sort of tighten up completely. The body tightens up and you literally forget to breathe. If the body isn’t breathing there is no way that the sound will reach the body for it to make sense. Really that’s very important; the improvisation and the extreme element is important a well. Again, I don’t suppose there anything too unique about that.
Your hearing is a “whole body” experience, so there are several things which inform your perception of sound, of music, your ears being only part of them. How have these changed — how have you continued to refine them, for example — and what other techniques have you developed since the exercises you speak of with your percussion teacher playing notes on the timpani? (2)
I think that I haven’t consciously tried to refine the way I listen or the way I approach instruments simply because I’m continually coming across new instruments and new combinations of instruments. Also just your general journey through life means that you’re experiencing a lot more whether you want it or not. You put yourself on one platform and then the next day you’re on another platform in another hall and another type of acoustic, you’ve got to be completely fluid and know that your listening skills are going to be developed daily really.
What I’m inclined to do, when I’m practicing I try to vary where I set the instruments up and not become comfortable with being in one position. this is really crucial because all these instruments are put on different platforms each week. You have to get used to feeding the sound and perceiving the sound quite differently because it just travels differently. It’s like going to work each morning and you decide to go to work Monday through Friday using five different routes You’re going to have a different experience each time you come in to work. You might have a really beautiful route you might have a really congested route you might have a plain sailing route easy you might have a really twangy route and you might have a fairly mundane motorway route. That will have a bearing on your emotions really and how you are ready to perceive sound, so that’s very important to just keep an open-mindedness.
The CD and liner notes of Shadow Behind the Iron Sun give some idea of what seems to be a fairly astounding collection of instruments and sound objects. (3) (Percussionists seem to get all the best toys!) Your percussion arsenal contains instruments which are commonly found in percussionists’ cases such as thundersheets, trash cymbals, diverse cymbals and chimes, as well as uncommon instruments and objects like car exhaust pipes and a resonant water tank. How long have you been collecting instruments, how big is the arsenal these days, and are there favourites?
I’ve been collecting instruments since I began percussion from the age of 12. Obviously the collection has been seriously added to since the age of 20 when I became a professional musician. I think nowadays we have about 1800 instruments and this is continuing to grow of course. That’s quite fun.
What encourages you to choose a particular instrument: instrumental timbre, resonant qualities, strength of the sound vibrations, movement of the instrument once struck? Or does it have to do with how it might be used compositionally or in an improvised setting for individual projects or pieces? Is it how they feel?
There’s all sorts of reasons. Sometimes a composer specifically asks for an instrument and that is what you use, or if I’m improvising I really do want different kinds of textures, different lengths of sounds, different attacks, different registers, different sound colours and so on, so a real spectrum of sound, different extremes of sound, different dynamics. That’s very important to me. It’s not really about how they feel, I’ll have to say, it’s just knowing that a plastic tube is going to create a very different sound to a cymbal and because I know that I will want to have that different texture really.
For composed pieces of music I have to be vigilant to the composer’s needs. However, the sort of challenge with percussion is that a composer may ask for a particular type of cymbal, or a tam-tam, or a gong or something, where one player will have one type of cymbal like a 16-inch crash cymbal and another player will have another 16-inch crash cymbal and both will sound completely different. And this the challenge with percussion that you have so, so many variations and because often you’re dealing with something that is hand hammered or hand made, or you’re dealing with different types of heads, often calf skin or goat skin or sheep skin, walrus, you name it, then of course it’s going to change according to the temperature of the room and so on.
Are there certain sounds and instruments that appeal to you primarily on the basis of touch and feel for your hands, feet, torso, skin, is there anything in particular that you really like the feel of?
I think really any low sounding instruments I’m more attracted to. So it can be bass drums, like big orchestral bass drums, that are maybe something like 36 inches or 40 inches. Timpani is great with the resonance and the low sound. Anything that feeds the body more. A lot of the high sounds are much more distracting more painful or difficult to differentiate. It’s just more difficult to get a grip on the length of resonance and therefore how to join the sounds up from one sound to the next sound. That’s a real challenge. If you’re playing the vibraphone with cymbals and crotales and triangles and any sort of gold sound, what I call gold sounds, the real resonant sounds, then it’s much more of a challenge to control all of that.
Besides your hundreds of percussion instruments, do you perform regularly on your other instruments, the highland bagpipes, the double bass?
The double bass no, that was for a particular project, but it was an interesting experiment because you’re dealing with a different set of muscles in producing sound. You are basically dealing with a different type of connection with the instrument. The double bass is leaning against your body, which of course often percussion is not. You’re often detached from the percussion instruments through the sticks and mallets. So having this kind of real resonance you really did feel one with the bass, much more so than with percussion actually. Likewise when I play the great highland bagpipes, again because you have the pipes leaning against your shoulder, right against your neck, and your head, and you’ve got the bag underneath your arm, the fingers on the chanter and so on, you have got a lot of connection with the instrument. Coupled with the fact that it has a loud sound, it’s a very prominent sound that it is again a very different experience to percussion. I somehow think that if I’d happened to start playing seriously a wind instrument or a brass instrument that I’d probably find it reasonably difficult moving over to percussion, simply because you’re not really feeling the same thing, obviously not the same thing, but in such a great degree compared to some of these other instruments simply because it’s not attached to your body really.
You have provided encouragement to a large number of people with hearing issues as well as to many people with “typical hearing.” David Eves’ article (also in this issue of eContact!) explains how he overcame the stigma of being a musician with hearing loss and describes the changes in his perception once he began to wear hearing aids; his article can also serve to encourage students who are “experiencing difficulty due to hearing loss to come out of the closet.”
What I find interesting that there’s been this development I’ve see over in the far-east , in particular in Japan as far as hearing impaired people are concerned. When I first started playing in Japan people didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t know how to deal with it, I wasn’t allowed to be in contact with other deaf people. It was really a taboo subject. Deafness was still referred to as “deaf and dumb” and it was really quite an interesting thing. Therefore the whole aspect of a musician, a hearing impaired musician, was just very difficult for them to grasp. Of course now what I’m finding is a lot more people, hearing impaired people, young people who come along to the concert, of course with the explosion of the internet has provided greater means of communication. There’s just a lot more openness in talking about it, and that really is pretty vital. Especially when people realize that hearing impaired people really can benefit from participating in music. It’s just that we do need to keep hold of the live performances as opposed to the cosmetically enhanced synthesized sounds that we’re often fed with nowadays. I think it’s the live element that is really the crux of listening, because you are using all your senses to digest the sound. You’re using the visual aid and the whole experience and excitement of being part of that live performance. I definitely encourage people to try to experience real musicians that raw hand create the sound.
In informal discussions (on email lists and in private), several international educators have noted significant hearing loss in some students today. Issues related to hearing damage and other hearing issues (such as tinnitus etc.) are far from, being a rare thing in the music world. Could you speak to us about the nature of and extent to which this situation is present on the educational system today?
As far as “informal discussions” I really don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that, simply because I’m not in touch with students on a daily basis or on a regular basis so I don’t really think I’m qualified to talk about that one. All I do know is that I have found in my own experience after having gone through two auditions in order to enter the Royal Academy of Music and then obviously completing the degree and going on to a professional career that that in itself has allowed people to think “well hold on a second” with what to really think about this situation regarding deafness and music that we’ve got to open up the channels here, and we’re not talking about a black and white subject. It’s hugely complicated. You don’t just shut your eyes and think that that’s what blind people experience. It isn’t. Likewise we don’t just cover our ears and expect that all deaf people experience this type of situation. I do think we have to be very sensitive to the fact that we do all hear differently and perceive sound differently, and we have to be quite vigilant towards that.
Hearing-related problems can often develop so slowly that they are sometimes unnoticeable (yours, for instance was gradual) —unlike muscle pain or a cut on the skin — until it is too late to correct. As you also suggest in the Hearing Essay, some form of hearing is crucial to a musician. Most musicians are aware of and strive to avoid the injuries which are typical to a career as a musician (according to the instrument), but it is curious that one of the most important “tools of the trade” seems to be treated so lackadaisically. Even something as common as tinnitus seems to be accepted by musicians as being “part of the job.” Is it simply that these issues are not addressed in the education system, or are there other “personal” issues that musicians prefer not to bring into the public eye (ear)?
This whole sound level aspect is quite interesting because of course as a percussion player you’re dealing with real extremes, but it’s often the attack of the sound that can be the most frightening thing of all, as opposed to the duration of the sound. You can get a french horn player or a trumpeter or an oboist or something who’s far more damaging in the sound that they produce than percussion is. But of course you have time to digest that sound of an oboe or a trumpet or something and we’re sort of used to the sound. We know what sound is going to come out of those instruments. With percussion it’s often that sudden attack, one stroke on a snare drum that can really jolt us. So that’s when people think “well that’s very loud” and yes it can be loud, but it isn’t often the duration of the sound, and this is where the real discussion point can come in. Sometimes, as an example, I night play a snare drum piece of music and technically speaking I would be over the threshold as it were to what is possibly legal. But at the end of the day, this is what the music requires. So what am I going to do about it? Do I make everything in sort of a gray dynamic area, so that I’m not able to express myself properly as a musician? And for me, my job as a musician is to deal with sound, and the extremes of sound, and the emotion of sound. It’s like having a law put in place where no one’s allowed to scream anymore, you’re simply not allowed to shout above a certain level. Can you imagine going to a football match where people are not allowed to shout? To cheer? You have to choose the type of environment you want to work in, and choose the type of environment you want to be present in. I think in order to be a musician you have to know that your job is to have to deal with those extremes. There could be, as there are on cigarette packets where cigarettes can damage your health, there could be little warning signs that certain pieces are over a certain threshold. Really I’m not very sure of that answer either.
It’s a good answer. You’re in a dangerous job.
Well it’s true. Can you imagine Stravinsky or Shostakovitch perhaps more so, or Mahler or something like that where the musicians were suddenly asked to play within a certain dynamic range then they arrive at that real heart-wrenching moment. That is achieved sometimes through dynamics. So I think it really is important for us to be able to express ourselves in that kind of way.
You gave a talk at the Sound Off — Noise Reduction at Work conference in 2005. (4) What specific issues did you address? What kinds of people participated and how are the various ideas presented during the conference to be implemented in the workplace?
We were really talking about what I just mentioned now and the specific issues of if you’re a wind player, a woodwind player and you have the trumpets or the trombones of the french horns sort of blasting down the back of your neck, then that’s going to be different experience than what the violins would experience with the horns and trumpets and so on. It (the talk) was basically dealing with orchestras taking time to delve into the technical aspects of earplugs and for the companies to work very closely with the players of the orchestra and the management, knowing that the same earplug or type of earplug is not necessarily going to be suitable for every single player. Because of course, as I’ve said, a double bass player is positioned in a very different place to an oboist or something so different requirements have to be considered for all individuals. Certain people want to hear certain things. There has to be that choice element. But mostly the investment, in having the time to experiment with these types of things. I know in my own situation I sometimes have instruments set up at the front of the stage and before I’ve even played anything people are putting earplugs in assuming that it’s all going to be very loud. It may be that I have a marimba positioned at the front of the stage and immediately the earplugs go in, while if you have a piano in front of the stage it’s going to be far louder really than a marimba is. Yet the physical aspect of seeing a mallet come down on a surface and being struck gives the illusion that something is going to be loud. So it’s often a psychological thing as well.
I was really only involved in a small part of that giving my talk and giving the snare drum demonstration. But it was interesting how people found that in order to see the musician project the sound and project the performance, that overrode the feeling that something was loud or soft, or something was damaging to my hearing or not. They were sort of intrigued by the overall performance, and that’s what our job as musicians is.
Composition and Improvisation
Let’s return to your activities as a performing musician. In the liner notes for Shadow Behind the Iron Sun, you mention that you had wanted to do a completely improvised recording for years. Perhaps you could speak to us about your interest in improvisation: what does improvisation bring to you personally as a musician that is different from your activities as a composer and interpreter of your works and the works of others?
Improvisation is such an individual thing. You never quite know how you’re going to improvise or what is actually going to happen, because it is based very much with the interaction you have with the audience, and with the room. Basically the hall, the theatre, the environment you are playing in is your main instrument. That you perceive everything you happen to use as your tools, i.e. the actual musical instruments.You do know that in improvisation that you’re never really to be frightened of space, of letting something take care of itself, letting the sound take care of its own journey, and that silence is very much a powerful sound in improvisation. Often it’s missed moreso in an actual composition so you can really really delve into people’s emotions much more so I think than in a composed piece of music.
You played a farm for a film. Was that improvised?
Yes, it was not for a film, it was a really just collecting sounds that were then used just for various television aspects. Basically that was totally improvised. It was a case of turning up with a bag of sticks and mallets and literally looking around the environment and thinking “How can something be approached? How can a great big sewage tank be played? What would happen if we got right on top of the sewage tank? If we played the side of it? If we would play underneath it? If we put microphones inside it? If I bent over and sang inside it?” That type of thing. So that was all completely improvised, but it was more sound gathering as it were. It was really such an interesting experience. You collected sounds that you’d never ever find from your own collection of instruments or from a synthesizer or anything like that.
Were you doing improv already while you were a student? Or did you pick it up only after finishing school? Is it something which for you complements or is separate from compositional acticities?
Yes we were encouraged to improvise as youngsters. Of course the Scottish traditional music is aurally passed over, so as a very young girl I was playing by ear on the piano. My percussion teacher at school in Scotland, he basically got us to improvise and make our own exercises up, and we’d be composing and we’d be doing all sorts of things that would really help us to find our own musical voice, as it were; our own style of playing, our own techniques. So we never studied from a study book. I was always self exploration. If we were playing a piece of music we would then pick out a phrase or a bar or a certain aspect of that music. It could be the mood or the texture or the dynamic or the rhythm or something and we would improvise on that. A really useful tool which often is not addressed in music institutions, but when you think of the great composers, such as Beethoven and Mozart, and Paganini and Liszt, they could all improvise. That was a huge part of the entertainment aspect, as it were, of what they did as performers.
What are your views on improvisation in music education? Is improvisation something that is being taught enough in schools… do you feel that improvisation can even be taught in an academic environment, or is it something that each individual best learns by interacting in ways which are suited and unique to them in relation to their particular instrument?
It can start — right — from — the beginning. Right from the start. At the end of the day this is what mothers do with their kids as soon as they’re born. You’re constantly improvising. You’re constantly finding ways to engage and to encourage the development of that youngster, and why not do this through sound? Through music making? I think this was a great thing that the likes of the late Jacqueline du Pré did with her mother and the interaction that she had with her mother and sister was literally making music a game, creating stories creating dance, movement, that kind of thing with sounds. She may have been playing a cello study or something like that but it was all related to some kind of other aspect of play. It really hauls out all sorts of techniques and tools that you’re never really going to learn from a tutor book.
You have spoken about the role acoustic vibrations have for you in regards to the physical perception and recognition of sound: you write that “Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch.” Are there significant differences in the function that sound vibration has for you as a performer, improviser and composer?
There are definitely differences. For example as a performer everything is exaggerated, everything is large, everything is projected much more profoundly through the physical element of this touch. But also, when you’re in a concert hall, a dynamic can vary. You might see the dynamic p marked piano in the music yet in a cathedral that p is at a certain level, you know you may just stroke the instrument and the sound will project itself, but maybe in another type of acoustic that same sense of touch is simply not going to work, and it may be that some of your dynamic level with the p has to come up to perhaps an mp or an mf or something. So you have to be very fluid as a performing musician in these different halls and know that the sense of touch varies from hall to hall. That’s why we always carry a whole range of stick and mallets to suit the various halls, and not just stick to the same pair that you happen to use in the practice room. Likewise if you’re hiring instruments or borrowing instruments and all of these instruments speak differently, so again, your sense of touch has to be so heightened in order to know what the levels are of those instruments, and that’s why obviously I like to use my own because I know how they can speak.
As an improviser there’s all of that but there’s also that sort of danger of trying to work out the journey of what you’re trying to say musically. But there is this realization you can really deal with time differently and know that silence is such an important sound, and to know that the physical aspect of playing whereby you may suggest that you’re going to strike something but you don’t actually do it; That can be interesting in itself, and can actually give the illusion that there’s sound happening for your audience. And because the audience do not have a piece of music to read about, they’re literally wondering, “well what are you going to do next? What are you going to say next?” So there’s a different type of listening skill coming from the audience as well.
As far as being a composer is concerned that’s different altogether simply because I’m mainly dealing with composition for the media, so I’m always writing for something for a car ad or a drama program. So there’s always a picture there, therefore the journey of the sound is really short. It can be 30 seconds or a minute or 20 seconds or something. You have to get that mood in there and it’s usually the mood that is more important than the ferociousness of how you project something. You’re mainly dealing with tone rather than real extremes of emotion.
Once again from your Hearing Essay, when you “see a drum head or cymbal vibrate or even see the leaves of a tree moving in the wind then subconsciously [your] brain creates a corresponding sound.” As you are quite an expressive, dramatic player, would it be correct to assume that your body language and other musicians’ body language contributes as well to your perception, and to what extent?
I think I am quite a dramatic player, and I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, I just mean that physically I put my point across. I think this is really because everything that I imagine within myself has been heightened when I actually play. So yes, it is a very physical element to the way that I put music across.
This is another area that is not so commonly discussed amongst musicians, the importance of each person’s physical presence on stage. Are there significant differences for you in the impact or meaning of body language in composed and improvised works? What about the differences in smaller formations and solo works in comparison to orchestral or large ensemble works?
It’s very important for me to feel the physical aspects of other musicians, so what I see another musician do is massively important. That’s why sometimes to watch orchestras from an audience perspective can really be quite frustrating, because you’re not really seeing a huge amount of emotion, physically that is, coming from them. There’s very often very little emotional content facially or otherwise. That can give the illusion that they’re not necessarily enjoying what they do. I think they are, it’s just that we’re often taught, as orchestral musicians just to sort of just have our own emotions in check and be relatively subdued and sort of let the music speak for itself. But as a solo player you really need to project all those different elements.
What are your immediate and summer plans? Are there new projects in the works, to fit in between the numerous master classes, lectures and concerts already planned?
With the immediate summer plans and so on. We’re just heading over to Korea and Japan for some recitals. I’ll be giving my first ever concert with two pianists on one piano. I’ve played with two pianists on two pianos and percussion but not two pianists on one piano, not that that is hugely unusual, but for me it will be the first time. Obviously I’m used to having one pianist on one piano in some of my concerts so it will be interesting to see the kind of breadth of sound that will come out of the piano. Of course the more sound there is, it can be more confusing actually, so that will be an interesting thing.
And then we’re heading over to Russia and to Israel and then Austria and these are all solo concerts.
We have during the summer a Prom concert at the Royal Albert Hall. This will be the first ever oboe and percussion concerto. So again it’s an opportunity to really delve into an instrument though I know what an oboe is, to really understand its dynamic levels, its projections and its sound colour, this is a great opportunity for me to be one-on-one with the oboe, with orchestra as well, as a concerto.
Dame Evelyn, we do appreciate you taking the time to talk with us, despite a rather hectic schedule, and have enjoyed very much talking with you. Good luck on the remainder of your tour.
- Evelyn Glennie, “Hearing Essay.” Last accessed May 7, 2007.
- Evelyn Glennie, Shadow Behind the Iron Sun (RCA), 1999.
- Sound Off — Noise Reduction at Work, coordinated by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) in partnership with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Earls Court Conference Centre in London, October 11–12, 2005.