Sound! That’s the only way to describe last night’s event at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool. The crowning event of this year’s DaDaFest, An Evening With Evelyn Glennie featured performers from both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics.
DaDaFest is an innovative disability arts organisation based in Liverpool that, through the annual festival and other arts events, promotes high quality disability and deaf arts and creates opportunities for disabled and deaf people to access the arts through a young people’s training programme. DaDa – Disability and Deaf Arts, the company behind DaDaFest – was first founded in 1984. DaDaFest has taken place annually since 2001. Introducing last night’s event, Ruth Gould, CEO of DaDaFest, proudly stated that it was the biggest night in the history of the festival.
Before Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie took to the stage, the Liverpool Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra performed The Jasmine Flower, a new 10-minute work , accompanied by deaf children from the Liverpool Signing Choir and with video contributions from the Shanghai Deaf School. Formed in Liverpool’s Chinatown in 1984, the Pagoda is the first and largest Chinese Youth Orchestra in Europe It teaches young people how to play traditional Chinese musical instruments and offers a programme of training and performance opportunities throughout the year. In October 2010 the Orchestra represented the city of Liverpool at the World Expo in Shanghai, performing alongside the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Pagoda Orchestra and the Liverpool Signing Choir were fresh from their recent appearance at the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony. This YouTube video, I Go To The Pagoda, a short film recently made by kids from the Chinese Youth Orchestra, features some of those who were performing on stage at the Phil last night.
Evelyn Glennie then came on stage for a dazzling and totally rivetting performance, moving around the stage as lithe as a dancer, barefoot to feel the music’s vibrations through her body and selecting from a diverse range of percussive instruments that included snare drum, marimba, waterphone, wooden blocks and a collection of objects that you might find in a toyshop.
Glennie began with Ilijas by Nebojsa Zivkovic, a composition for marimba, titled after a small town in Bosnia and drawing upon Balkan folk tunes and rhythms. Then she moved over to the waterphone for an astonishing improvisation on an instrument that, she later explained, has become popular with theatre and film directors, featuring on the soundtrack of many films. A waterphone is akin to a Tibetian water drum or an African kalimba (thumb piano), consisting of a stainless steel resonator bowl with a cylindrical neck, around which are arranged bronze rods of different lengths and diameters. The resonator bowl contains a small amount of water giving the waterphone a vibrant ethereal sound when the rods are hit with mallets or, as Glennie demonstrated last night, bowed.
Next, Glennie sat on the floor surrounded by an eclectic selection toys that could be provoked into producing a variety of noises to perform her own composition Orologeria Aureola. In a variety of rhythmic patterns she improvised and had fun with these ‘toys’, playing at a bewildering range of dynamics from silence, through barely audible to very noisy and exciting.
On the opposite side of the stage to the snare drum stood a halo drum, looking a bit like like one of those expensive barbecues with a steel lid. It was on this instrument that Glennie performed Orologeria Aureola, a joint composition with Philip Sheppard. Slapping the surface of the halo drum with her hands, she produced a sound not unlike a Caribbean steel pan drum.
She followed that with Prim by Askell Masson on the snare drum, another display of virtuosity and total control for which, as she later demonstrated, she utilised two slightly different drumsticks to produce the piece’s varied harmonics that ranged from a fierce and furious passage where she attacked the drum with an unbelievable fusillade of strokes to a coda in which she tapped and stroked the skin until there was only silence – then the crack of one rim shot.
Glennie then moved to the marimba to play Libertango, composed by Astor Piazzolla. Originally, this was a piece for violin, bandoneon, cello, bass, and piano, but here it was transformed into a mesmerising demonstration of Evelyn Glennie’s preternatural skill playing anything you can hit.
Clapping Music by Steve Reich is, as Glennie said later, probably the most frequently played piece of pure percussion music; it’s about as pure as you can get, since it requires no instruments – just two pairs of hands.
What Evelyn Glennie does, however, is kneel down on the stage and, with her two hands wielding four mallets on a pair of woodblocks (plus a foot-operated tapper) perform it solo.
Then it was back to the marimba for Rhythmic Caprice by Leigh Howard Stevens.
Throughout this extraordinary performance – spellbinding and magical – I had the feeling that this was as close as I would ever come to the sense of being in the presence of a shaman.
After the interval, Evelyn Glennie returned to give a short talk about her personal approach to music and sound in the context of her having been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. She was born and raised on a farm in Aberdeenshire. Her parents were both farmers, but her father was also an accordionist in a Scottish country dance band. She began her talk by describing the beginning of her journey as a musician when, at the age of 12 she turned up for her first percussion lesson. Her teacher did no more than give her a snare drum to take away with her for week – nothing more than that. Glennie described how she spent the week exploring the instrument, gradually realising how it performed differently if hit in different ways and with different objects, and if placed on different surfaces.
All this is by way of introducing her main theme – the feel of music. She demonstrates how hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. A member of the audience is invited to distinguish the different tonalities of two drumsticks played on either side of her skull (she can). Sound is vibrating air: we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, but in reality they are the same thing.
So for Evelyn Glennie, her deafness is not a significant factor (her website makes no mention of it): deafness does
not mean that you can’t hear, only that there is something wrong with the ears. Even someone who is totally deaf can still hear (feel) sounds. Her school percussion teacher helped her to refine her ability to detect vibrations – so much so that she eventually rejected the use of a hearing aid because she found that it only boosted sound levels at the expense of clarity.
Glennie spoke about how, rather than simply practicing the notes, rhythms and phrasing of music, she rehearses. By that she means that she imagines the space in which she is going to perform and plays for that space – whether it’s a cathedral, concert hall or an outdoor festival.
After her talk, Glennie took questions from the audience. She responded to every question at length with warmth and good humour. Many of the points she amde in the talk and her answers to questions are covered in this TED talk, How to listen to music with your whole body:
Leaving the concert we recalled how Evelyn Glennie had first come to our attention. It was about ten years ago, when the Phil screened the documentary Rivers and Tides, a study of the landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. It was a ravishingly beautiful film with one of the best soundtracks, by composer and multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith, that I have ever encountered. We discovered, via Amazon, that Riedelsheimer had directed another documentary about Evelyn Glennie – called Touch the Sound. Another brilliant examination of the artistic imagination on film, it included an electrifying section, in which Glennie and Fred Frith improvised in a disused German sugar factory. The subsequent 2007 album, The Sugar Factory, was described by Allmusic as:
a listening experience unlike anything else. It’s deep, humorous, sublime, rattling, and warm. It’s a universe of sound and noise that becomes, by the time the disc has played its entire run of 49 minutes, a new approach to both playing and encountering that wonderfully magical and poetic thing called music.
A highlight of the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony was the Pandemonium section, in which Evelyn Glennie and 1000 volunteer drummers invoked the fire and fury of the industrial revolution:
A few years back, Evelyn Glennie made a memorable appearance on Sesame Street, finally convincing Oscar that she is worthy to perform in his Grouch Junk Band when she convincingly batters the living daylights out of his trashcans: