Dame Evelyn Glennie is the World’s Premier Solo Percussionist who, over the past 6 years, has developed The Evelyn Glennie Collection. We visited her to learn more about the stories as well as the educational potential of such a collection.
In unassuming surroundings, one rings the doorbell – in this case, a large, resonating handbell. The sound brought out one of the very friendly volunteers, Emma, who took us upstairs. Walking into the doors of Dame Evelyn Glennie’s offices one has an immediate feeling of being somewhere quite special.
Dame Evelyn started playing percussion at the age of 12. Since then, she has collected all the instruments she has played, those she saw on her travels and many that were gifted to her over time. The resulting collection now contains more than 3,500 pieces along with awards, honours and promotional material from throughout her shining career. It is quite simply awe-inspiring.
The aim of the Evelyn Glennie Collection is to create a database that will be open to the public. Not only will it outline the journey of Dame Evelyn’s career, but it can also be used as a resource for composers, percussionists, music/sound therapists, instrument makers, education purposes and the general public. It will provide a timeline of the social history and the trajectory of solo percussion, as well as the journey and development of the repertoire. A collection suited to anyone no matter their age, nationality, gender or musical ability.
It is clear from talking to Dame Evelyn that she has a strong interest in the outreach and education potential of the collection. One of the next steps in the journey of this collection is to collate sound files and/or videos of each instrument alongside the origin and stories behind them. This will allow teachers and students from all backgrounds to have access to the vast array of sounds and instruments and learn about them no matter where they are in the world.
A section of the collection housed outfits from throughout her career. Again, these provide you with a real connection to certain time periods, important performances, specific repertoire and even different parts of the world. In her early career, a local farmer’s wife lovingly made her frocks for her performances. One of these was a strikingly pink frock. While it may raise some eyebrows now due to changes in fashion styles, it was very stylish at the time – so I was informed. This can be seen in this performance of Ney Rosauro’s Marimba Concerto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPYSUWdIriE
Another stand-out item was the outfit for Dame Evelyn’s performance of Tan Dun’s ‘Water Concerto’. This was specifically designed with material that would allow the inevitable soaking without affecting comfort or style.
While the entire collection was very impressive, it is the array of instruments that is simply breathtaking. Over 3,500 instruments from every corner of the globe each with its own story of where it came from, how it was obtained, where it had been played, how much it was and the other people connected to it. While I would love to discuss every single one in length, I have chosen a few stand out items below:
First snare drum, sticks and practice pad – As the song goes, let’s start at the very beginning. Amazingly, Dame Evelyn had kept most of her very first instruments. Pictured below you can see her very first snare drum (amongst many others), practice pad and sticks. These were gifted to her by her parents for Christmas one year. She remarked that, while she didn’t say it to her parents at the time, she wasn’t very impressed by them. Of course, as most parents will know, when a child is only beginning to learn an instrument they want to buy something that won’t break the bank in case there is a sudden change in mind and lack of interest. Obviously, this wasn’t the case for this specific young musician. As well as these, she also kept her first bass drum and bongos nearby.
James Blades’ signed drum – James Blades OBE is known as the father of percussion in the UK. His most famous and widely heard performance was the sound of the drum playing “V-for-Victory” in Morse code (dot dot dot dash), the introduction to the BBC broadcasts made to the European Resistance during World War II.
This led to a rather amusing conversation between legendary Jazz drummer Gene Krupa and Blades as they debated who was the most listened to percussionist in the world!
In September 1988, Blades signed and gifted the drum to Acorn percussion who had manufactured it. Later, this was then gifted to Dame Evelyn to be added to her collection. But the story doesn’t stop there. Dame Evelyn remembered, even before she had begun playing music, that James Blades had visited her home county of Aberdeenshire to show off instruments to the kids and this specific drum was played on that day. This was the exact drum that was heard by millions every day and can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZi_6FUbo-Q
London Olympics Aluphone – While in various parts here, this is the Aluphone that Dame Evelyn played at the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games in 2012. Here’s a short clip from that night where she plays ‘Caliban’s Dream’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULjRfinS39g
Waterphone – Dame Evelyn notes that this specific instrument was the one that she has probably played the most in the entire collection. Invented amusingly by a man called Richard A. Waters, this versatile instrument provides an eerie collection of sounds – just add water!
The video below of an impromptu performance by Dame Evelyn shows the wide range of possibilities of this instrument.
Largest timpani in the world – This incredible instrument was used in many media projects in the past including ‘Whirlpool’, a short film about Helen Keller as well as the Oscar nominated film ‘Sounds of Metal’. When it was being moved from Dame Evelyn’s home to the collection’s building, there was the slight problem – It wouldn’t fit through the door. To overcome this, the moving company proceeded to take it apart piece by piece late in the evening and reassemble it inside – Dame Evelyn remarked that it would not be moved again any time soon!
Of course, this collection is not the job of one single person. Dame Evelyn has the help of 3 volunteers currently in cataloguing and researching every bit of information in the collection as well as compiling the origins, stories and correspondences of each piece into a database. Dame Evelyn remarked that “The incredible work of the volunteers over the past 6 years (and continuing) has been beyond words. I cannot stop praising them and being thankful for all they do.”
Overall, The Evelyn Glennie Collection is one full of stories. From modest beginnings on a farm in the north-east of Scotland to performing at the last night at the proms and the London Olympics as well as everything else in between. It is a truly special collection for a truly special musician.