Two of the world’s greatest creative percussionists unite for Celtic Connections, writes Jim Gilchrist
The art of listening, as much as playing, and the very nature of music itself, become considerations when talking to percussionists from two very different cultures, Dame Evelyn Glennie and Trilok Gurtu, who perform in a unique collaboration at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival, which opens later this month.
Entitled The Rhythm in Me, the concert has been commissioned to mark this year’s 70th anniversary of Indian independence and will see Glennie, with her regular collaborator, classical pianist Philip Smith, and Gurtu, with Indian violinist Kumaresh Rajagopalan, engage in some potentially incandescent improvisations.
Glennie and Gurtu, while well aware of each other’s work, have only played together once, in an impromptu session when they were judging at a music competition in the Dutch city of Eindhoven some years ago.
“Trilok is someone whose work I’ve admired for a long time,” says Glennie, who has been discussing the programme with Gurtu via Skype, although they’ll only physically rehearse the day before the performance on 1 February.
“I’ll probably start by playing a piece with my pianist, Philip Smith, and may then play a piece on my own,” says Glennie, speaking from her home in Cambridgeshire. “After that … who knows? Trilok and I will have an improvised session, and he has three pieces he originally composed to perform with a big band, which he’s adapting for the obviously much smaller forces.”
Both percussionists have established international reputations for pushing their music well beyond conventional boundaries. The Aberdeenshire-born Glennie carved out a unique career path as a solo percussionist and, while regularly performing percussion concerti (of which some 70 have been written for her) with some of the world’s leading orchestras, has also collaborated with such non-classical artists as Björk, Fred Frith and Mark Knopfler.
Originally from Mumbai, Gurtu, whose mother was a celebrated classical Indian singer, has forged a distinguished career in the fusion of Indian music with jazz and wider world music elements, playing with such superstars as Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin and Jan Garbarek, as well as exploring African and other traditions.
Glennie, who led massed legions of drummers in the opening celebrations for the 2012 London Olympics, sometimes performs with a percussion gantry of rock band proportions. One this occasion, she says, she’ll just bring as much of her 2000-odd percussion instruments that will happily fit into a van.
Guru, for his part, crouches within his drummer’s lair that combines Indian tabla with western kit and a conjurer’s box of tricks ranging from wobbly water chimes to bird calls.
These days it is virtually an aside in her compendious CV that since the age of 12 Glennie has been profoundly deaf – an issue, she has written, “that bothers other people far more than it bothers me.”
In glorious paradox, she states that “losing my hearing made me a better listener”, as she uses her entire body as a resonating chamber to pick up the sounds that she and other players are generating. Will responding to Gurtu’s wonderfully idiosyncratic playing present any particular challenges?
“The most important thing,” she replies, “is that I know that Trilok is a very free player, and I’m a bit like that myself. It’s important for all the musicians involved to be completely flexible in our thinking.
“What will be really important for me will obviously be the visual aspect, and just knowing that Trilok is unbelievably sensitive as a player - and by that I mean the colours, the dynamics, the space, also, that he allows. Both of us know that in this type of collaboration there are going to be peaks and troughs: it’s like driving through scenery, with really interesting parts, then other parts where we’re finding our way and then … Wow, something else happens.”
Following Celtic Connections, Glennie, who was made a Companion of Honour in the recent New Years Honours list, has a busy schedule before her. This month she commences her tenure as first musician-in-residence at the massive public/private King’s Cross development in London, before heading to Los Angeles to give a presentation to music educators.
Her international recital schedule will include premiering five new pieces in Calgary, Canada, while in the summer she comes to Glasgow to record a percussion concerto by John McLeod with the RSNO and will add an honorary doctorate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to an already impressive tally of honours.
She has stated in the past that she simply wants us to listen – to each other as much as to musicians – and it’s a mission statement she reprises as we confront the uncertainties of 2017.
“The idea of teaching the world to listen is something that affects all of us, not just musicians.” she says. “In today’s world when there are all sorts of challenges, it’s down to listening, actually. If we had a better understanding of what listening means to people in different situations, it may just help bridge some of the challenges that we face.”
For his part Gurtu, who lives near Hamburg, expresses his admiration of Glennie’s way of hearing and reckons that The Rhythm in Me, which is the brainchild of Mumbai-based promoter Aishwarya Natarajan, “will be a big surprise for audiences, who will have never seen anything like this before. With my background and Evelyn’s background, some people might expect Indian, some might expect world music or dialogue. They’ll get it all.”
While renowned for industriously dismantling “all these old fallacies that east and west will never meet”, Gurtu confesses that for relaxation he listens to Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff – “I love it.”
He has played in the past with classical musicians including pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque and the Italian Arkè String Quartet, while his fabled duo with the late Weather Report founder, Joe Zawinul, would see extemporised outbursts of Stravinsky alongside Duke Ellington.
Now 65, he has played in Scotland frequently over the years, including at Celtic Connections, but also, on one memorable occasion, working with pipers, drummers and other local musicians for the opening of Perth Concert Hall in 2005. “I had to drink Scotch whisky and learn Scots folk music. So I’ve had a lot of good experiences in Scotland,” he assures me.
Like Glennie, Gurtu relishes a challenge. His last album, Spellbound, featured an A-list of trumpeters such as Paolo Fresu, Nils Petter Molvaer and Ambrose Akinmusire, by way of tribute to his mentor, the late Don Cherry, trumpet player and world music pioneer, and this year may see him embarking on an orchestral project as well as reuniting with the Arkè quartet.