Evelyn Glennie – sounds of the underground

Maria Roberts speaks to pioneering percussionist Evelyn Glennie about teaching the world to listen and what it takes to succeed as a soloist

“There hadn’t been a solo percussionist on a full-time basis before, so I always had to be making that first step as it were,” says Glennie, as we chat over a cup of tea. “In that situation, you can’t look up to see an example of another person doing what you do – there were no examples.

“You very quickly realise that playing is only one aspect of what you do. And so, for example, when I started asking composers to write pieces for me to play, which I did as a student, I looked through the British & International Music Yearbook and wrote letters – this was some time before email – asking them to write pieces of music. Some of them came back to me saying ‘Yes, that’s fine, my fee is XYZ’. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that they needed paying. After which began the thought of ‘How do I get the money … ’ and on and on it goes.”

As we chat, the lilt and undulations of Glennie’s Scottish accent ripple through an entire universe of impressions – she is a naturally curious artist. But with so much to consider – public engagements, education projects, commissions, performances – does she ever waiver in confidence?

She says not: “When I get nervous, I feel excited about that because it shows there is an opportunity out there.”

Nor is she fazed by the digital revolution and she doesn’t hold much truck with notions that classical music is dying. “The whole industry has changed for everybody, and we’ve had to embrace that and see it as a really good opportunity. People have been saying for years that audiences are diminishing and it is all doom and gloom, but we can actually see [this pressure] as an opportunity to rethink what we are doing and how we are projecting that image. We can take a look at what we are actually presenting and rather than trying to water everything down, be excited about what we want to do.”

Evelyn Glennie
© Jim Callaghan

For Glennie, making music is about connectivity: connecting to the music, the sound and people. A percussionist, says Glennie, is a perfectly placed agency for engagement. “Being a percussionist you are so used to seeing your instruments in so many different arenas as it were – the street, the concert hall, the recital hall, a church, a bar a pub, outdoors – it can be in any kind of space. Psychologically, we are not disturbed by seeing percussion in all sorts of places.”

A major project for Glennie this year is King’s Cross Sounds, for which she will be the first King’s Cross musician in residence in partnership with PRS for Music Foundation. It’s a mass public engagement project exploring the London area’s past, present and future identity through sound. “We’ll be encouraging people to gather sounds and they can upload those sounds onto the King’s Cross website,” says says.

The residency features participatory events across the King’s Cross district, capturing the interest of local and international businesses operating in the area, schoolchildren, commuters and residents. But this will be more than simply compose a piece of music. Instead, she and a small team of collaborators will work to capture the essence and heritage of King’s Cross. This team comprises historian Christopher Lloyd, composer Jill Jarman, and outreach specialist Tim Steiner.

Glennie says she wants to examine how a changing soundscape, like the changing landscape, reverberates on the people who live and work there. And though sound-clip contributions may not be used in their entirety, they may influence the final score that they create.

For Glennie, the residency hits the heart of what makes music so important – it is not just about an artist playing to an audience, but a shared sonic experience that brings people together, whether that is in a concert hall or across a community.

“We think of colour and how that makes us feel, but we are just beginning to think about the sound business in that way, it’s really important,” she adds.

evelyn.co.uk | kingscross.co.uk 

You can read the full interview with Evelyn Glennie in the April edition of IAM. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.