She puts the boom in music Soloist: Evelyn Glennie can play percussion to beat the band.

April 03, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Evelyn Glennie can beat out a musical groove on old cooking pans.

She can transform oil drums, exhaust pipes and car wheels into fine musical instruments. And she can play "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" and "Born to Be Wild," without sounding like an embarrassed opera diva singing rock and roll.

At 31, the Scottish-born Glennie is the world's dominant percussion soloist. And yet there's one fact that Glennie would prefer go unnoticed.

She is profoundly deaf.

Glennie's rise to international stardom is now classical music legend. She has played with most of the world's top orchestras, collaborated with pop stars like Bjork and created soundtracks for television shows and advertisers.

Queen Elizabeth II awarded her an Order of the British Empire for her contribution to music. CBS' "60 Minutes" acknowledged her extraordinary tale -- and popularity -- with a profile.

At 24, she wrote her autobiography, "Good Vibrations." Her eighth album, not yet released, is a collection of greatest hits. Her Web site on the Internet contains a percussion master class.

She even watches MTV.

With fast hands, bare feet and an inner drive, Glennie brings percussion from the back of the concert stage to the front. Standing 5-feet-2, her brown eyes darting and brown hair waving in unison with the music, she simply dominates a concert hall, forcing audiences to look, listen and marvel.

She wowed a Meyerhoff Hall crowd at her last appearance in Baltimore in 1995. This week, she begins a new three-week U.S. tour that kicks off tonight in Pittsburgh and takes her to Hartford, New York, California and Arizona.

"People imagine percussionists to be strong," she says. "The most important thing is to be supple, to be flexible. And this will allow the speed to come on."

Glennie owns and plays hundreds of instruments, from drums to cymbals to the marimba, the five-octave mellow musical-maker that looks like a giant xylophone. When she hits the road, she travels with as much gear as a chamber orchestra.

"I haven't had a role model in solo percussion," she says. "There has never been another full-time soloist before. I am constantly -- experimenting with the structure of programming, with simple things like, 'What do you wear? How do you project a percussion concert? What do you play? How do you record?' It has all been one big experiment."

Glennie admits that her journey from Scotland to stardom "is a little unusual. I feel proud I've had the opportunity to develop. I didn't have to be a musician."

The fact is, she was once advised by a school guidance counselor to take up accounting instead of music. Glennie simply ignored the suggestion, and held fast to her favorite slogan: "If you want to do something, there is nothing in this world that will stop you doing it."

Glennie has written that "music isn't just a question of sounds. To be a good musician, there must first of all be the seed that comes from the heart, something to grow from."

She dislikes discussing her hearing, telling one persistent interviewer, "If you want to know about deafness you should interview an audiologist. My specialty is music."

As a child, Glennie enjoyed playing the piano and clarinet. But she began to lose her hearing because of gradual damage to the nerves. By the time she was 11, she was wearing hearing aids. At 12, she taught herself to read lips.

According to her husband, Greg Malcangi, a recording engineer and composer, Glennie can hear at a reduced volume with poor sound quality. For example, when a telephone rings, she hears a crackle. On stage, she often feels low sounds in her legs and feet and high sounds on her face, neck and chest.

Malcangi, too, tries to play down Glennie's supposed handicap. "No one really understands how Evelyn does what she does, me included!" he has written. "Please enjoy the music and forget the rest."

As a schoolgirl, Glennie picked up drum sticks and mallets and never looked back.

"I loved the clarinet," she says. "I really wanted to play that clarinet. Because of my hearing -- and I was very ambitious -- my parents felt I was stretching it too far. I wanted another instrument. As I looked around the school orchestra, I knew I wasn't interested in string, in brass. Percussion seemed quite interesting. It was literally that. I might give that a go. It wasn't a burning desire, or anything like that."

Still, percussion became a passion. She worked her way to Britain's top classical training ground, the Royal Academy of Music, and ended up earning the school's top prize for all-around excellence.

"You remember the buzz that went around college when someone profoundly deaf showed up on campus," recalls Philip Ellis, a conductor who studied with Glennie. "And then there was the shock of meeting her. Not only could she play the music. She could mimic your accent by lip-reading."

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