Great Scot! Dame Evelyn Glennie: Grouch-kiteer extroardinaire

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Lay out the origins right and Dame Evelyn Glennie’s bio is the stuff of great comic books, folk lore, legend. Raised on a farm in Aberdeenshire (Hi, Krypton!) and starting with a mouth organ and clarinet she began to absorb a hoard of influences from the north-east Scotland indigenous tradition. Struck deaf at the age of 12, she took off her shoes and began to feel the music. Exerting a compensatory strength from her other four senses, she mastered the percussive tableau, a la Daredevil and the art of sightless vigilanteism, to become a pioneer in professional percussion as well as a door stomping beacon of hope for other potential musical geniuses discarded because of stuffy, old-guard technicalities.

As demonstrated in her wonderful TED lecture, Glennie acknowledges and then bypasses the rigorous stricture of academic musicality, that based on assigned notation and directed spatial movement. Unlike the Beatles, who never learned to read or write music but still mastered many of instrumental intricacies, Glennie has wholly studied the notations. But her treatment of notation is that of annotation, a bibliography offering further explanation to what initially may seem unclear but wondrous. Glennie also goes beyond that, though, having mastered the functionality of annotation she also creates annotiations of the annotations, thus a veritable sandwich of method in which the staid appearance is both deconstructed, manipulated, and eviscerated but kept for safekeeping (like a wax model!).

What’s great about her deconstruction is that instead of allowing the imposed definition to be swallowed up into a black hole of perpetual denial via the postmodern nitpicking of what’s real, the deconstruction provides the thrust of the wondrousness itself. Perhaps it’s because the tools for taking things apart aren’t words but physical objects that have immediate but also immediately changeable effects that the act doesn’t become increasingly depressing, but Glennie makes a leap of logic and suggests her wild intuitive streak is a good template for human relations.

Her acceptance into the Royal Academy of Music in London and subsequent triumph in professional musicianship involved a smart, and smart-alecky, subversive interpretation of hearing, one concerned not just with the direct relation between the person and the object but the inherent multitude of variables of how a person relates to an object. Merely hearing a drum doesn’t necessitate intimate knowledge with it, there’s an internal dynamic to the drum’s setup, one felt when playing it and playing with it. Merely seeing a drum brings the same inconsistency. Thus, a combination is required, experiential discovery of multiple truths.

As explained in the lecture, “all of my performances are based on entirely what I experience, and not by learning a piece of music, putting on someone else’s interpretation of it…because that isn’t giving me enough of something that is so raw and so basic, and something that I can fully experience the journey of.”

Her acceptance and subsequent success overturned the notion of what a music institution is supposed to do, because not anymore does it just dictate, but it had to improvise to! No longer were the partially limbless or sensorily deprived given the short-shrift based on the principle, but instead based on the ability. Meritocracy in a sense, where a new definition of able-bodied was instituted into entry requirements for music schools. And not just schools for the (insert disability here) but gen. pop. institutions as well.

Like Beethoven before her, she’s crossed arbitrary lines and made their actual non-existence a point of ridicule. She’s taken singular sensory experience and expanded something like the ability to hear beyond its one-note interpretation, where a deaf person can articulate the subtleties of a sound emanating from an object, and the intricacies of how that sound can be procured, in ways someone with functional ear can’t.
Not even the grouch could deny it!


by adam katzman

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