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Evelyn Glennie

Interviewed by Steve Alspach
Interview With Evelyn Glennie from 2002

MSJ: I'd like to talk to you a bit about the Shadow Behind the Iron Sun CD. First off, I'm curious as to how you got that album recorded on RCA's Red Seal label (the classical label for RCA Records). ?
The idea was mentioned to them years ago, and I really mean years ago; six, seven, eight years ago. And they didn't get the concept at all. It was always something that was bubbling around in my mind, until eventually they had promised to let me meet this producer, that producer, every time I was in New York and it never happened. So I thought that they weren't going to do anything about it at all. I chose one of the names and basically found out how to get his number away from BMG. I happened to say "Would you like to do this recording with me?" He didn't know anything about me; he didn't know any about percussion as such. The lady who was looking after me from BMG in London (who was just a super woman) was absolutely behind me. I called her up and asked when a studio I happened to like would be free and if Michael (Brauer, the producer) would be free. She basically got the thing up and running. We said to the people in New York "Right, this is what we're doing, Michael's coming over, et cetera, et cetera," and that was basically it. We did all the arrangements within one afternoon. Unbelievable! And I was so furious with BMG for spending years and years, and in the end I realized that you just have to do it yourself.

Michael came over, and he saw the concert I gave in London the night before the first session. He suddenly realized what a Marimba was, and he said, "What do you want to do?" And I said "I just want to go in and improvise - just whatever comes into my head, get it down, and then work with that material." And BMG was nervous because they needed something they could listen to, or look at, before committing, and that defeats the object. At the end of each of the three days we telephoned the material - we called them up, telephoned them what we recorded. After the three days Michael went off and did post-production. We sent it off to BMG and they were absolutely bowled over, and they said, "This is not what we expected it all! This is wonderful!" and I thought "God, what does it take?" And then after that they hadn't a clue how to market it. They put on a big splash in New York. A week later they said our contract had been terminated! I got an email from my agent Vicky that said "You're not going to like this..." and I said "Well, it's fine! I actually feel okay about it. I feel free!"
MSJ: I've heard from others who've gotten dropped from the label and their thinking was "Well, I still have a show to do, and people are still coming to hear my music," so...
It's a strange thing. We still have a recording with Christopher Rouse, the Philharmonia in London with Leonard Slatkin and myself, in the BMG can somewhere. Meanwhile, they could have had two years with the recording out, orchestras recording the piece because it's readily available. It just makes no sense whatsoever. It's very sad. I think it's very confusing for younger people who are coming up.
MSJ: I would imagine that's why you get a lot more independent labels and do-it-yourself efforts.
A lot more people are creating their own record companies. Anyone these days can make a CD, and the amount of CDs we get sent through to us with their pieces, or their performing, is pretty good, and they've done it. For me, since the BMG days, we've recorded on a number of labels. This upcoming show (Michael Daugherty's "UFO") will be on Naxos. The production of Naxos is done inexpensively, but the distribution is good! Compared to the likes of Sony who are not recording any new music at all, yet they have this great packaging, this great marketing, so you can't have everything by the looks of it at this point in time.
MSJ: One listens to the "Shadow Behind the Iron Sun" CD and you think, "Okay, how would you market this? What kind of music is this?"
Yeah! People would ask me "What is it, what sort of music is it..." I have no idea. It's not something I would want to reproduce - that's not the intention. I don't want to create something similar. That was just improvisation at that point in time, and nobody else can really copy that! You just accept it as it is! A lot of people have been interested in that CD by linking it to dance productions, with theater, with advert music. We use it to promote my writing in TV, radio, that kind of thing. I wouldn't mind doing something like that again. Take it further, actually, and see where it goes.
MSJ: The piece "Land of Vendon", which is twenty-seven minutes - when did you know when to quit?
It's rather funny. I called Phillip Smith (the pianist) on the morning of the recording and said "Maybe we should do this track with a piano, so are you awake or what?" So he came in, and we finished the piece because I cut my finger on the batonka and it started bleeding. So I'm (mimics waving frantically to the console room and pointing at her finger), and Phillip cottoned on, so we decided to wind it down. Then we realized how long that number was and we thought "should we break it down into separate sections or what," and we decided to keep it as a whole with the lulls and the highs.

MSJ: The "African Sunrise/ Manhattan Rave" CD is also interesting. "Manhattan Rave" is very much orchestral rock.
Dave (Heath, the composer) is also a great improviser. He's a terrific flute player as well. He's not an academic composer. His view is "If it sounds good, go write it" respective of whether or not that's the right kind of thing to do academically. And that's great - I love that, really. And he gives the musicians a skeleton - he'll say, "Please create such-and-such mood," and there's a tremendous amount of freedom.
MSJ: I get the impression where, compared to the early days of progressive, where people in rock were leading the audience to classical, you're starting from classical and leading the listeners to more rock and improv.
Maybe. I don't know - it's not really a conscious decision. It depends on the composer. Someone like Christopher Rouse, who has a rock-like section in his music, and he's very much influenced by rock drumming and uses a lot of drums in his pieces, and it's wonderful! Someone like Joseph Schwantner who has a distinctive sound with a lot of brass and gold sounds and it just sparkles! Dave Heath's music is very atmospheric. You can feel yourself in New York, or feel yourself in a rain forest in Africa - it's much more mood creating. Some of the commissions we're doing this year are actually quite contemporary in their language. It depends on the composer which direction I seem to go in!

MSJ: There are bits in the first movement of Schwantner's "Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra" that sound very Yes-like, a bit like "Changes."
Yes, it does!
MSJ: You seem to be in the enviable position of having composers lined up from here to the horizon to write pieces for you.
I think it's super to have composers who are very keen to delve into the world of percussion. And if they see an opening for a performance or an individual who is keen to work with them, then that's great for all involved. Likewise I'm always open to looking for composers and really, I don't care who they are - if there is something interesting in their musical language, than I'm interested. In Seattle the other day we premiered a piece by Margaret Brouwer and nobody knows Margaret's music! And her music is quite beautiful and we wonder "Why haven't we heard of this before?"
MSJ: So, you know Steve Hackett!
Yes! He wants to record an album - for him, I mean - and he wants to use some of the stuff that we did at the Queen Elizabeth Hall ("The City in the Sea"), so we'll see when we can get together. Possibly the next couple months.
MSJ: So tell us how "The City In The Sea" all came about.
Paul Cameron, who helps run Rhythm Sticks in London, mentioned Steve Hackett, and I wasn't that familiar with his later work. So I got a couple of his recordings and I was quite intrigued by the diversity and the honesty that was coming through the music. So we met up last Christmas and talked about things. And then he was almost like a stalker! He started coming to many concerts, which I was grateful for. He even came to Germany and saw a master class and that helped him delve into the marimba and how other people play it. The Rhythm Sticks people wanted to commission Steve to write an hour-long piece.
MSJ: In the pre-concert interview you said that you were familiar with his work. Were you familiar with his work with Genesis?
A little - I wasn't familiar with his recent work, though, so I had to listen and digest some things. I've used some of the work for some of my multi-media concerts as well and that has given us a chance to develop some ideas. He's very easy to work with.
MSJ: The impression I got of the piece was that he left a lot open and it wasn't going to be sixty minutes of totally composed music.
No, we're talking about two totally different approaches here. His approach, coming from the pop side, is where groups get together, they rehearse for several weeks, they go to the studio, they experiment, and all that. In the classical world that's not the case at all. You meet up the day before you're due to record and that is that. You rehearse the day before the concert, sometimes even on that day. Steve was completely and utterly flabbergasted with the fact that we would not be meeting up to practice a week beforehand. So, from that point of view, he had to leave a lot of the piece open, otherwise we never, ever, ever had been able to get this project together. It was a stepping stone to "Okay, there's some interesting things there. We can go away and take those ideas and develop those more." So this was really like the first step. This was not the definitive "City in the Sea" program. Also, with the Rhythm Sticks program there are things happening in the hall every day, and sometimes in the evening, so we could not really get in until that day. The sound engineer, who is very good, met us on that day and he had to work out all my percussion stuff and try to deal with that, so there was an awful lot of work to get the basics started before even thinking of developing this into anything more than what we could give.
MSJ: I'm curious about your influences early on. Were there any rock influences?
I actually don't have any influences as such. There were really no influences other than my percussion teacher at school. Likewise, my fellow colleagues who were learning percussion. We weren't listening to music - we weren't asked to listen to music. We really didn't have any listening equipment at home. We grew up in the northeast part of Scotland, in an agricultural part, and you had to drive a couple miles to get to the nearest concert hall. We just didn't go to concerts. My first orchestral concert I heard, through the school, was just wonderful! It was the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and they played in Aberdeen. It was great to see them! And, of course, taking part in concerts in youth orchestras. It wasn't until I was a full-time student in London, between the ages of 16 and 19, that I obviously got to see more concerts. But I still didn't have real influences as such in terms of individuals because I was a solo percussionist, and where were there solo percussion concerts happening in London? And I wasn't influenced by any one particular percussionist. It was more a cumulative sort of thing. Being with an orchestra, or seeing the London Symphony Orchestra, or spending a week with (composer) Michael Tippett at the academy. It was the series of experiences that were influential rather than saying "Ah, that person really did something to me." I mean, someone like James Blades, who is almost the grandfather of percussion in the U.K. and a walking encyclopedia of percussion, is such a huge character and a great musician that you just wanted to be with him all the time. You wanted to be his shadow and hang on to his coatstrings. The first drum set player who really did something for me was, in fact, Jon Hiseman who was with Paraphanalia...
MSJ: Wasn't he with Colosseum?
Yup. He was one of the most musical drummers I have ever come across. And he just gets better and better. He treated his kit like an orchestra. It wasn't just beat-fill, beat-fill. No one sounded like him at all. And I haven't come across anybody who has sounded like him. Yes, nowadays there are better technicians, but he was able to be so inventive, sound wise and rhythmically, with the kit. It was the first LP I had.
MSJ: I'm reminded of "Larks Tongues In Aspic"-era King Crimson with Jamie Muir and Bill Bruford. It's a very percussive album
Bill is another one where you never know what he's going to come out with. And again, there are better technicians, but this sheer inventiveness and "Wow, that's interesting!" rather than "Whoa, that's amazing." I mean, sometimes you forget that they're drummers and you say, "Ooh, that's interesting" or "That I really like." It's a different feeling altogether.
MSJ: I remember when I first heard Fragile, that was the first time I heard drummer, rather than "buddabuddabuddabuda bam bam bam," really play as part of the band.
Yeah, people like Jack DeJohnette, or Peter Erskine to an extent, who are extremely melodic musical drummers.
MSJ: I was listening to Rush's "Vapor Trails" and Neil Peart, who hadn't picked up a set of drumsticks for four years, was really something.
{Nods head in agreement) Yup, he's terrific as well. Another one we saw recently was Mike Mangini, and he was doing a solo clinic and it was terrific in every sense.

It was quite extraordinary that, really. It was almost expanding what Billy Cobham did with the contrary motion type of drumming, like (mimics playing tom-toms in outward arcs from the middle), where he can go to his right as well as to his left, and it opened up the drum kit in terms of sounds and the patterns he could play. It was as though you were listening to two drummers. Well, Mike has taken this to another level. Same kind of idea kit-wise, but physically kit-playing has moved on, even more so, from the likes of Billy's time, and he's quite an incredible human being. We just don't know when all this is going to stop, really.
MSJ: Other than an orchestral setting, are there any other drummers or musicians you would want to play with?
Not really, because it's something that really hasn't been done. For me to collaborate with anyone is quite unusual at this point. It's not intentional, but I've spent so many years getting the solo repertoire out, and that has taken a while. And commissioning a piece can take anywhere from a year to four years to be realized. So that's a lot of time from your career, really. And I've felt that it's been the right thing to do that. I should develop this and create some kind of dent so that others can take this on board and say "I want to be a solo percussionist" and not hear "Oh, that's not possible. What are you going to play?" Now there are plenty of things to play and it's their duty to expand it more, so I think now I feel ready to collaborate a wee bit more. Working with the likes of Steve is quite an unusual thing for me to do, so I haven't done much of it at all.
MSJ: But you have worked with the King's Singers and the Black Dyke Brass Band.
Yes, well, the King's Singers, what can I say? They're such an institution. This was very much an experiment. That kind of collaboration is something you can really do once, and then you move on, really. Someone like Bjork, given the nature that she works in, she's constantly moving on. She moved on with her producer. She moved on with her percussionist. She doesn't spend a lot of time with people. And that's good, because she's always "What next?"

With the Black Dyke Brass Band - that was an example of the band turning up to record, you see the music for the first time, the arranger is there to sort out any blue notes, you sight read it, rehearse it, record it, next piece, read, rehearse, record, next piece, and so on. And I had a concert to give that evening so they could only record on the weekends and only during the day. It's just extraordinary what they do.
MSJ: My interest is in progressive rock and I'm trying to think - how much tuned percussion is there in progressive?
(stifles a giggle)
MSJ: And the two acts I can think of are Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant, especially the early days. They used a xylophone...
Was it xylophone? Well, Ruth's work (Ruth Underwood, Zappa percussionist) I'm familiar with, and you're right - the tuned percussion is something that hasn't really developed on the popular side of things as much as the drumming or the ethnic drumming has, but yet it's been the one instrument that has dramatically progressed in a solo realm since the 1950s, I'd say.
MSJ: You've also done work with gamelan orchestras. The other day I saw a piece on TV that featured Mickey Hart and how he is reviving these folk musics and indigenous musics.
He's really devoted a lot of his time and energy to exploring, even unknown, types of music as well as collaborating with the likes of kodo or gamelan ensembles - and that's a great thing to do, not just for him, but for all of us to observe.

My particular collaboration with gamelan - we went over to Jakarta and played with a 60- or 80-piece gamelan, I can't remember. This kind of wall of sound coming at you was amazing. And then you have the whole challenge of notation because they don't read western notation and I'm not a quick reader - I do understand some forms - of Indonesian notation, so we ended up with two types of notation. But it was great fun. And it was a great way to show that music really, really, really brings people together. There's absolutely no question in my mind, as I'm sure most musicians would say. When you experience that first-hand you think, "It's really great to be a musician!" It really is. You wish you could somehow probe all the leaders of the countries and say "Hold on a second! What are we doing here? We don't want to keep fighting each other!" (laughs) Just give them a big gamelan concert.
MSJ: Hey, I'm all for it! Bang on a drum for peace? I'll do it until the cows come home!

Have you had any less-than-stellar moments?
The only time I had something happen like that was two years ago with the North Carolina Symphony. My octobans were in the back of the stage. I was playing a cadenza, and basically one of four octobans gradually moved to the side of the stage and whoosh, they went over. The trombonists were standing there, and I just saw one trombonist just happen to look around, and he saw the octobans coming down, so he put his arm up to protect himself and almost try to catch them. But they're quite awkward and heavy, so they crashed down, and dented one of the trombones and caught the trombonist right on the knee.

We've had sticks break...
MSJ: That comes with the territory.
(To James, her technician): Anything happen to you?
MSJ: It's interesting when sticks explode. You have the sticks that are twisted wire in plastic frames. We were doing (Michael Daugherty's) "UFO" in the summer, and in the middle of this cadenza, with Evelyn beating the hell out of all this stuff, this stick just decides to explode, so there were these bits of wire all over...
It was lovely! And Marin (Alsop, the conductor) went like this (mimics putting her arms up to shield herself) because it quite literally exploded, and because the wire is so light it went in all different directions. And because of the lighting it looked wonderful, so people said! All I saw is Marin go like this (puts arms up in defense). People were asking "Wow! Was that meant to happen?" Absolutely not! (laughs)
MSJ: And then the cellist falling over...
Right. We were in Seattle a few weeks ago. The piece starts with the guiros, quite quietly, and I saw the whole string section get up and I looked around and one of the cellists had just basically collapsed and fell backwards in his chair, and the cello went in whatever direction it decided to go. So there was this huge commotion and everybody got a scare! So he was taken to the hospital. A few days later he came up and said, "Hi, I'm the cellist!" And I said "Oh, crumbs! Nice to see you!" He said it was nothing, but he spent three days in the hospital. He was just exhausted.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2002 Year Book Volume 3 at
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