Evelyn Glennie Interview: Nothing like this Dame

LIFE never stops for Evelyn Glennie. Like many successful classical soloists, she zig-zags between concerts worldwide – performing about 100 a year – but this Scots-born percussionist is currently multitasking like no other.

Her story has already provided the material for a bestselling autobiography and a play. Now the Dame Evelyn brand is expanding into motivational speaking, private teaching, the "Cultural Olympiad" for 2012, and this summer – the most surprising move yet – a range of musical jewellery made from silver worked in Orkney.

On Monday Glennie was presenting at the Sony Radio Awards in London. On Tuesday she was in Edinburgh, touting the new DVD of Touch the Sound, the award-winning documentary feature made about her in 2004. Yesterday she was set for a stint on Radio Five Live, and tomorrow she'll be back on centre stage in the US, performing at an arts centre in Virginia.

It is hectic by anyone's standards. "I can't really see myself stopping," says Glennie, describing how she tries to stay open to change. "As we live longer and (stay] healthier for longer, we need to keep ourselves busy… the diary is pretty full."

It is five years since Touch the Sound was made, produced by the Edinburgh filmmaker Leslie Hills. "Other (countries] have released the documentary," says Glennie. "It's one of the mysteries of the film world in the UK, which seems to have been the last territory to pick it up."

The film, directed by Germany's Thomas Riedelsheimer, centres on Glennie recording an album with the experimental guitarist Fred Frith at an abandoned sugar factory. It follows her from New York to Japan, travelling the world with a suitcase full of drumsticks.

At her Aberdeenshire home, it charts the story of a headstrong young girl who, with her father's and teachers' support, refused to be put off her stride when she was diagnosed as deaf in secondary school.

Five years on, the changes in Glennie's style are striking. Playing a snare drum in New York's Central Station in the film, she looks like a wastrel rebel, with bright blonde hair and a tattoo on her bare shoulder. In the scenes filmed in Germany, by contrast, she has opted for a sober, more European-looking dark-red hair colour. In person, at a screening of the film this week, she has gone for locks of a striking silvery grey, matching her outfit of a grey diaphanous skirt worn over black leather trousers. It complemented the silver and black-stamped jewellery to which she has put her name, and which is just taking shape with the makers, Ortak.

Touch the Sound tells the Glennie story, of the young Scottish girl who, with her percussion teacher, opted to take off her hearing aids and set out to use her body as a resonating chamber, "hearing" partly through her bare feet on the floor.

It explores the recurring Glennie mystery – of how she built a stellar career as a solo percussionist, a Grammy-winning, mesmerising performer of orchestral music of the subtlest quality, when she is "profoundly deaf". "My role on the planet is to bring the power of sound," she declares.

Touch the Sound was recently screened at an offbeat Beijing film festival backed by the Scottish government. The DVD has already sold well in Germany and the US; here it was only just picked up by Signum, a classical music distributor.

"The performances keep going," Glennie says, in something of an understatement. Last week she was in Sweden; from Virginia she will head off to premiere a new percussion concerto in Poland, then on to another in Slovenia.

She is working with a Canadian composer, ahead of a tour in that country this September. This summer she's in concert at the Albert Hall in June with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and two Edinburgh appearances are slated for July, at the Usher Hall and Napier University.

Asked if she can maintain this kind of pace, she responds: "I don't really think what will happen in the future. As far as slowing down, at the end of the day you listen to the body, listen to the muscles, how the body is functioning."

Last year Glennie joined the launch of the Cultural Olympiad as an ambassador for the effort to develop the cultural counterpart for the London Olympics in 2012.

Officially launched last autumn, with multi-million-pound government funding, the Cultural Olympiad has signalled its involvement in projects from Cornwall to Scotland.

Increasingly, however, it is attracting withering comments from right across the cultural scene, mainly for producing reams of pompous, Soviet-style rhetoric about blending culture, education and the Olympic spirit, yet with very little to show for it. One arts chief was quoted as saying it made them "ashamed of my profession".

Glennie's current plan for the Olympiad is typical of her maverick approach to percussion, on all and any instruments. She is working on a project based on Portland Island, off the coast of Weymouth, to construct and play a lithophone, an instrument that resembles a large xylophone but with bars made out of stone. Last year she went to the island's Tout Quarry (where she will play a major concert in the Olympics run-up), for a test-run of the local stone's tones and harmonics.

Brenda Gillian, Glennie's "business adviser", is taking the lead on the Olympiad. A lot of what's planned has not come into detailed approved proposals, she says. "The projects that she is working on will not only serve the holding of the Olympics, but will last for a long time afterwards in the south-west and east England; we hope it will extend to the north and to Scotland," she adds. Glennie's role in the Olympics' opening ceremony – and whether indeed she'll have one – has not been settled, she says.

Glennie adds: "You just have to get on, power down and take the actions you believe in. A lot of things which come with a high profile will always be criticised one way or another. (These are] actions that are legacy-building for the next generation, (with] effects that will carry on after the Olympics do."

Glennie continues to commission a stream of new percussion work, as well as composing and recording. She has been a very public campaigner for children's music education and also stages masterclasses worldwide.

"There's still a lot I need to do as a player, as a musician, as a sound creator. I have commissioned 170 pieces: that's still not enough, there are still lots and lots of composers I would like to approach. When I see a composer and I see a performer, I think (how great it would be] to combine those forces."

A more surprising strand of the "Evelyn Glennie brand", as her website refers to it, is the motivational speaking. Next month she is due to appear at a London corporate event promoting a "new leadership curriculum", talking, and playing, on the theme of "How to Listen", which takes lessons from classical music.

The goal is to "develop high-profile leadership skills through better communication and listening". The sessions, Glennie says, explore "how it is that a soloist can go into an orchestra they have never performed with before, with a conductor that they have never met before and within two or three hours get this particular piece of music together. How this happens and how, musically, they come together.

"It's all about teamwork. It's something that isn't really talked about as much among musicians, but it's of great interest to companies."

The jewellery range comes from something simpler. She's been fascinated by it since she was a little girl, Glennie says. "It's something I can take with me all over the world, and it's a great educational tool. We are very excited about it.

"Most of the pieces have a musical influence. I want this to be the case, but in a very subtle way," she says. "It's appropriate for women of all ages."

One piece carries the first bars of a prayer that Glennie wrote when she was 13. A set of earrings "have the hint of a sound as it moves while you wear it". There's a charm bracelet that carries an enamelled piece of Glennie's own tartan, and tiny drums and cymbals. Another piece is based on the keyboard of a vibraphone.

"It's about design, how one person relates to one person, if not another. That's exactly the same as for a piece of music."



Born on 19 July in Aberdeen. Glennie was raised on a farm in Aberdeenshire, the youngest of three children. Her mother was the church organist and her father was an accordionist in a Scottish country dance band. She studied at Ellon Academy.


Enters the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she wins prizes including the Queen's Commendation Prize for general excellence. She begins playing professionally upon graduation in 1985.


Wins a Grammy Award for best chamber music performance.


Is named Scotswoman of the Decade by readers of The Scotsman.


Receives the Royal Philharmonic Society's Charles Heidsieck Soloist of the Year prize.


Becomes one of the youngest people to be made OBE. She is promoted to DBE in the 2007 New Year Honours.


Marries composer, sound engineer and tuba player Greg Malcangi, with whom she goes on to collaborate on a number of projects. The couple divorce in 2003, following Glennie's widely reported affair with the conductor Leonard Slatkin.


Collaborates on the duet My Spine on Bjork's remix album Telegram. Glennie has also collaborated with Bla Fleck, Bobby McFerrin and former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett.


Glennie's story is told through the documentary film Touch the Sound, directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. The film features a collaboration with the acclaimed English guitarist Fred Frith.


On 21 November the government pledges 332 million towards music education, following a campaign spearheaded by Glennie.