Beat of a Different Drummer

June 14, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Evelyn Glennie can look like a rock drummer, pounding away under the spotlight. But this is a symphony concert hall, and Evelyn Glennie is a classical music star. At age 33, Glennie is the world’s only full-time percussion soloist.

EVELYN GLENNIE: This is all –

JEFFREY BROWN: Born on a Scottish farm, she is today lauded by the critics wherever she goes. And she goes constantly, with enough equipment to keep several shipping companies in business. Composers are writing new works for her. Audiences seem to be thrilled. Conductor Leonard Slatkin.

LEONARD SLATKIN: People have always been attracted to drums. Every person I’ve ever talked to said, "I want to play the drums." Evelyn now shows you that percussion is more than drums, and it’s more than just being able to keep time. It’s a whole world of colors, and vitality and energy, and subtlety that perhaps most people didn’t know about before. She literally has single- handedly put the concept of a solo percussionist on the map.

JEFFREY BROWN: The concept of a percussion festival was put on the map in Washington recently by Glennie and Slatkin, along with the National Symphony and the group Nexus. Three days, more than 150 different percussion instruments — new music, much of it quite unusual — unless, of course, you consider a concerto for snare drum normal fare.

Creating emotions through percussion.

EVELYN GLENNIE: The thing about playing percussion is that you can create all these emotions that can be sometimes beautiful, sometimes really ugly, or sometimes sweet, sometimes as big as King Kong and so on. And so there can be a real riot out there, or it can be so refined.

JEFFREY BROWN: Onstage, Glennie is in constant motion. She plays traditional instruments– drums, marimba, vibraphone– but also a slew of lesser-known, even never-known concoctions, all within her broad definition of percussion.

EVELYN GLENNIE: Anything you strike, anything you shake or rattle, or just anything that can be picked up, and you can create a sound.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can make them up as you go.

EVELYN GLENNIE: You can make them up, absolutely. I subscribe to things like the Experimental Music Instruments Magazine and things like that, or journals, and it’s so interesting for me to see the shapes and the materials, and all of that, where I can get ideas for my own little things, you know. The first thing I do whenever I enter a room is have a really good look around and, you know, if there’s anything I think could be of interest. You know, it’ll probably disappear, maybe, but — no, I’m not saying that. (Laughs)

JEFFREY BROWN: By hook or by crook, Glennie says she’s collected more than 1,000 instruments. There’s the homemade, nothing but a twig, a string, and a hollow wooden cylinder.

EVELYN GLENNIE: You hear that?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Then there’s the ready-made, an old-fashioned mechanical siren. (Siren wailing)

EVELYN GLENNIE: A sound like that, difficult to stop.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is an instrument? But this is an instrument? Or this is a siren?


JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s the custom-made, a rather unique-sounding contraption called a botanka.

EVELYN GLENNIE: It all began when I had my garden dug up and there were some — they were laying pipes, plastic pipes or something, and they had some piping left over and I thought, ooh. So I asked an instrument maker to create two octaves of this instrument, which he did. So the sound was like –

JEFFREY BROWN: Using that very tubing?

EVELYN GLENNIE: Not that very tubing. It was a bit smelly. But, no — but the sound of the instrument made a kind of boink-boink sound, and so we came out with the name botanka.

JEFFREY BROWN: The piece for botanka– and many other things– is called "Gorilla in a Cage," by composer Stewart Wallace.

STEWART WALLACE: She really has in every nook and cranny of her house and her studio, there’s something to play. We would go around the room and she would hit something, or she would play something, and I would say, "Well, what happens if you scrape it?" Or "What happens if you bang it here?" So I really got a chance to see how she played with her instruments, too, in the relationship, and then I think the challenge was to choose. It was a big problem. I mean, there’s so many things that she can play.

JEFFREY BROWN: But beyond the number of instruments, beyond the new music, is the remarkable fact that Glennie plays at all. From age 8 to 12, Glennie lost most of her hearing from nerve damage. She is profoundly deaf; that is, she hears some sounds, but the quality is extremely poor.

EVELYN GLENNIE: I suppose I don’t hear things, but I listen, if you know what I mean. And there is a big difference between hearing and listening. So it’s like a conversation, you know. When you speak to someone, it’s one on one, and that’s exactly how I play.

Feeling the music.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, in conversation, Glennie reads lips. In performance, she plays barefoot, and hears her own instrument and the orchestra by feeling vibrations through the floor and in her own body.

EVELYN GLENNIE: When a particular sound is made, you can truly, truly feel that in certain parts of your body, and you just have to be so unbelievably sensitive to begin to translate certain sounds.

JEFFREY BROWN: But learning to translate sounds, she says, was not easy.

EVELYN GLENNIE: Before my teen years, I was losing my hearing pretty quickly, and I was getting very, very angry. I was beginning to become an angry person because of that. And my teacher, you know, he said, "Evelyn just put your hand on the ball of the tympani, on the copper ball," and this I did and, you know, I felt something, and so we would go on like that. And then suddenly my hands would be placed on the thin walls of the room, and he would tune the two drums to a very wide interval. And so he would say, "Which drum am I playing?" And I might say, "Oh, the lower drum." "And well, how do you know that?" I said, "Well, I can feel it from here to here." And so he would play the other drum. I said, "Yes, I can tell the difference." And I said, "I can feel that from there to there." And suddenly the intervals would become smaller and smaller, and so the teeny differences were unbelievable.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say you can feel from there to there, you mean feel somewhere?

EVELYN GLENNIE: Somewhere. I mean, higher sounds are in the higher parts of your body, and low sounds are the lower parts of your body. And so that was the start of all of this kind of truly, truly being involved in the actual sound. (Bagpipes playing)

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Evelyn Glennie is involved in all kinds of sounds. The newest is the bagpipe, not percussion, just Scottish.

EVELYN GLENNIE: I think that the trait of north-easterners from Scotland is this sheer and utter stubbornness and single-mindedness and, you know, I would desperately try to do this, whatever the cost. So, I think the aim now is to sustain this type of career. It just requires a great deal of imagination.

JEFFREY BROWN: So curiosity, stubbornness, and imagination?

EVELYN GLENNIE: I think so. I think yes, those are the ingredients.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re a solo percussionist.

EVELYN GLENNIE: Very simple, and you don’t even have to enter a practice room.

JEFFREY BROWN: The day we visited, Glennie, conductor Leonard Slatkin, and the National Symphony were indeed practicing, this time a rather familiar tune, Ravel’s "Bolero," with Glennie back on a rather familiar instrument. And who would have thought the plain old snare drum would be her favorite?

EVELYN GLENNIE: If I truly had to be stranded on a desert island, then I think the snare drum would be my instrument.


EVELYN GLENNIE: I love the snare drum. Yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just you and the snare drum.

EVELYN GLENNIE: Just me and my snare drum would be fine.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just a young woman and her snare drum. Of course, if you’re Evelyn Glennie and you get lonely on that island, you can bring along a conductor, an orchestra, a gang of other drummers, and have your very own percussion festival.