Interview: Evelyn Glennie on her experimental new direction with Trio HLK

There was a time when pinning down Dame Evelyn Glennie for an interview was nigh on impossible. Emerging like an explosive force in the 1980s, as the world's first full-time globe-trotting percussion soloist she was forever on the road, one moment in East Asia, the next in America, with the odd moment spent back in the concert halls of the UK and Europe.
Evelyn Glennie with Trio HLKEvelyn Glennie with Trio HLK
Evelyn Glennie with Trio HLK

But times have changed. “The actual process of travelling doesn’t really interest me any more,” admits the Aberdonian, speaking from her home in Cambridgeshire. “It helps that the nature of the music business has changed a bit – it’s more project orientated, like the music I’ve recently been writing for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Troilus and Cressida.” That said, she was off to Mexico on tour the day after we spoke. She’s still a world player, but more on her own terms these days.

She even has time to return to Scotland over the next couple of months, where she’ll appear in three very different scenarios. The first is a Queen’s Hall gig in Edinburgh (13 May) with the experimental trio HLK, with whom Glennie recently started collaborating. “Basically they asked if I would perform in two pieces for a recording last year which I was happy to do without really knowing their material at all,” she explains. “I found it hugely difficult. It’s very complicated stuff, really interesting material that definitely made me sit down and work on it.”

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“However, half jokingly I said ‘wouldn’t it be an idea if we did more of this,’ not thinking anything would come of it. Lo and behold they came back with [tour] dates.”

With Glennie in the mix, HLK’s music is genuinely intoxicating: an alluring mix of sophisticated jazz harmonies, catchy rhythmic vibes and dreamy improvisation. “It’s an experience that has really pushed me as a musician,” she says. “The trio have been incredibly good-natured and patient with me coming at it from a slightly different angle, but that’s what makes these collaborations so interesting and productive.”

Barely a fortnight after the Queen’s Hall concert, on 25 May, Glennie is one of several big name classical stars set to team up with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at Scone Palace as part of the BBC’s Biggest Weekend. She’ll be playing the opening movement from the popular contemporary American composer Michael Daugherty’s Dream Machine, for marimba and orchestra.

“Like all the other guest artists, I was asked to keep the instrumentation minimal because of all the necessary stage changes. They clearly didn’t want a barrage of drums, so I opted for marimba and this really well-orchestrated piece by Daugherty. I just thought it would be a little bit different and manageable for the time we have to rehearse,” Glennie explains.

Glennie’s third Scottish visit (15 June) is to help celebrate the 90th birthday of Scottish composer Thea Musgrave. She’ll be playing Two’s Company – a concerto for percussion and oboe which Glennie commissioned along with oboist Nicholas Daniel – with the BBC SSO in Glasgow’s City Halls.

“Thea is an extraordinary lady and her energy and curiosity are unbelievable,” says the percussionist, who first encountered the veteran composer when she premiered an earlier marimba concerto by Musgrave, Journey Through a Japanese Landscape, in 1994. “So when Two’s Company came about I was already a bit of a fan and, of course, Nicholas is such an extraordinary musician as well, so the experience was glorious.

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“To be so close physically on stage, you just feel this amazing creativity coming out. The orchestration is lovely, although the piece finishes all too abruptly for my liking. But you sense in the music this kind of love between two people, with a kind of disagreement in the middle, but ultimately this very beautiful music.”

These days, approaching 53, Glennie is as much in consolidation mode as she is still a busy performer. She’s developing a centre whose mission statement is “to teach the world to listen” – somewhat appropriate for a musician who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. Just exactly how it will manifest itself is still a little hazy. More interesting just now is the groundwork being done to establish it, which is the development, through a team of volunteers, of the official Evelyn Glennie Archive Collection.

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The old fascination for fast motorbikes has all but gone, however. “I still have one, but my latest hobby is metal detecting,” says Glennie. So far she’s found “a whole lot of nothing”. Does that bother her? “No, it’s just a fun way to chill out.”

Evelyn Glennie performs with HLK Trio at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 13 May; with the BBC SSO at Scone Palace on 25 May; and as part of Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday celebrations at the City Halls in Glasgow on 15 June