Home on the range

Evelyn Glennie, the Western world's only deaf solo percussionist, will hit anything in sight - even the kitchen sink
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The Independent Culture
The latest composition to emerge from the brain of Django Bates is a percussion solo that Evelyn Glennie will premiere this Saturday. "She asked me to imagine something entertaining, which could be personal to her," Bates says in his diffident way. "So I wrote My Dream Kitchen." The score looks conventional, but the instrumentation is not: tuned plates and bowls, cooking-timers, a cheese-grater, roasting-tins with corrugated bottoms, a rolling pin, a pedal bin, 20 palette knives. "I asked her if she thought it would be possible to actually cook something, and she said yes, as long as it had chocolate in it. I'm interested to see how she arranges her kitchen. I'm waiting to be surprised by what she does."

I find the lady in question presiding over a cooking range she has installed in her studio in the village of Upton, near Huntingdon. She knocks out a cheerful peal on the pots and pans, then demonstrates some problems. The palette knives don't make the hoped-for twang - they're noiseless - and the pedal bin is tricky, in that it only sounds when the lid has been released, rather than when the pedal is pressed. "But this is a piece which will develop as time goes on," she says. "I always have to put my stamp on things."

She seems very like a master chef, in this devil's kitchen. Every inch of space is stacked with beatable things from Africa, the Far East, Brazil, Alaska; the larder at one end is stuffed with drum-sticks of all sizes and colours. There is a serious-looking anvil - "for making an anvil-sound" - and some wheel-hubs she got off a skip. The adjoining room is pure hi- tech, with mixing-desks and video screens. This is where Glennie and her sound-engineer husband make their television programmes, and put out Glennie masterclasses - plus the Glennie newsletter - on the Internet. If this sounds corporate, that's because it is becoming so. Evelyn Glennie OBE - Scotswoman of the Decade, Soloist of the Year, laden with academic honours from all over the world - now resides in a mock-Tudor edifice called Heritage House, and is the figurehead for a rapidly growing industry.

But the Glennie who presents herself for interview in her gamelan-strewn drawing room has a no-nonsense air. One instantly senses the tenacity that has got her where she is, starting from the alarming period when, as an eight-year-old, her hearing began to deteriorate; profoundly deaf by 12, but concealing the fact from her teachers, and refusing to go to a special school; turning herself into a star timpanist at 14; auditioning for the Royal Academy, and in the process scoring one of the highest marks in the college's history; emerging three years later with top awards; the only full-time solo percussionist in the Western world.

The programme for her current tour includes a work for piano - an instrument she started learning at eight, and studied at the Academy. "I learn my scores by playing them first on the piano. It's all about touch, just as the marimba is," she explains in tones that are very Scottish, very precise. "With a piano you use co-ordination, and think about voicing and balance, just as you do with four mallets. Provided I see the piano as an extension of percussion, I can handle it."

The piano, she says, is a small orchestra in itself. "When somebody else is playing it, I can get the impact of the sound. And though I don't hear the pitch, that doesn't matter because I can see where the pianist's hands are on the keyboard." Stringed instruments she finds harder to "hear", partly because of the softness of their sound, and partly because it's almost impossible to deduce pitch from the position of the player's fingers. Orchestrally, the eyes have it.

"I get the line of the music from the score, and I depend on being able to see the other musicians - and on knowing that they can see me. We need a conductor for the same reason. He may regard the orchestra as his instrument, but his prime role is to keep us all together. It's as simple as that." Moreover, she says, orchestras "breathe" differently with different soloists, and are least accustomed to breathing in time with percussionists. "It's vital that they should see my stick come down, as if I were a conductor myself."

How does she judge the quality of other people's playing? "I don't - unless it's obvious they're way out of place. But - like you watching actors on television with the sound off - I can tell a lot from the way players move. Their movements don't have to be outlandishly extravagant for me to sense their quality."

As she talks, I try to square what I hear with what I have previously gathered. She has explained on television how she hears with her whole body: not just soaking up vibrations through the soles of her feet, but absorbing them - literally frontally - through her face, or with her abdomen, or via a delicately-resonating drum-stick in her hand. I've heard her describe how sounds of different pitch vibrate over correspondingly different areas of her body. I had expected to be aware of being lip-read, but she converses with such easy fluency that I don't notice it. One thing gives me a jolt. As we look down at Bates's score, I crack a joke, and she laughs. But she wasn't watching my lips! Is this a hoax?

Things are not so simple. "Without looking at you, I can hear that you're speaking, but I don't know what you're saying. I can pick up bits of words, bits of sounds, but that is not how I perceive either words or music." Glennie seems a mass of contradictions: she says she doesn't listen to music, and that she is only interested in experiencing it as a performer. Yet when asked by this paper in 1992 to nominate her best discs of the year, this same Glennie happily chose Annie Lennox's Diva and Sir Georg Solti's recording of Mahler Five. "I don't look for pleasure through my hearing," she explains. "Within myself, there is this pureness which I remember music to be, yet externally there is this completely different sound that's being produced. I have to connect myself - not with the external sound, which is horribly distorted - but with the pureness of the sound in my imagination." The word "connect" recurs again and again in her conversation.

"If I wanted to hear more, I'd wear a hearing aid, as I did when I was at school. But those distort, too, and you often can't tell where the sound is coming from. What deaf people need is not loudness, but purity, clarity." She actually tries to hear as little as possible, and believes she would be miserable if her hearing were suddenly to come back. "That would be like asking a musician to become deaf. I'm too old for the whole thing to be turned round again. I was lucky to lose my hearing so early - but also lucky that it was late enough for me to have understood how speech is inflected, and what pure sound is like. Really - I'm happy!"

This indefatigable 31-year-old is deeply immersed in educational work, and does a lot of campaigning for people with similar afflictions. As honorary president of the Beethoven Fund for Deaf Children, she spreads the word that deafness is not about silence, and that making music can be a delight even if you have impaired hearing. She gets angrily fired up about the prejudice she encounters in Japan, where the deaf are automatically categorised - as they used to be in Britain - as "deaf-and-dumb". "When I play in that country, where as a deaf woman I am assumed to suffer from a triple handicap, I get a lot of people coming backstage to thank me for what I am doing." She longs to work with the Kodo drummers, but though the drummers themselves are keen, their management are not. "If they don't believe in me as a musician, I can handle that. What I can't accept is being excluded for my sex, or for my deafness."

Wherever she goes, she collects new instruments, and tries out new collaborations - with sitar players, samba specialists, and stars from Andras Schiff to Bjork. She is constantly extending the percussion repertoire, composing, adapting, and commissioning. She has just started to play the bagpipes. "It's been a secret ambition of mine for years. I'm going back to my Highland roots."

"One last thing," she says in the doorway. "I don't normally like to talk so much about my deafness." Personally, I think it's good that she has.

n Evelyn Glennie on tour: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Saturday; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Sun; Hexagon, Reading, 7 May; QEH, London, 8 May; and on to Blackpool, Cambridge, Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow, Carlisle, Oxford

n Django Bates's new album 'Good Evening... Here Is the News' is released this month on Decca's Argo label

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