Touching, playing, living sound |

Touching, playing, living sound

Stewart Oksenhorn
Percussionist Evelyn Glennie makes her Aspen debut, performing the U.S. premiere of Steven Stuckys Spirit Voices with conductor Marin Alsop and the Aspen Festival Orchestra on Sunday, July 3. Glennie is also the subject of director Thomas Riedelsheimers documentary Touch the Sound, showing that night at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the SummerFilms series.

“Rivers and Tides,” German director Thomas Riedelsheimer’s 2001 documentary centered around artist Andy Goldsworthy, was not exactly a profile of Goldsworthy. For one thing, it provided little in the way of detailed information on the Scottish artist. Instead, “Rivers and Tides” was a poetic, even mysterious exploration of Goldsworthy’s environment and materials, designed more to raise questions about the artistic process and the natural world than to answer questions about Goldsworthy.For his following film, Riedelsheimer wanted to take a similar approach to music. He envisioned not a portrait of a musician, not even, really, a dissection of music, but something that opened up bigger questions surrounding the topic. “I wanted the movie not to be about music, but about sound and rhythm,” he said by phone from his home in Munich. “Everything is sound, everything is oscillating and vibrating and relating to music. We don’t have a sensibility to hear it all, but everything is music.”As he did with Goldsworthy, who uses natural elements – stones, sticks, oceans and time – to make his art, Riedelsheimer wanted to find a unique artist to explore those sonic themes. He didn’t have to do much searching. During the filming of “Rivers and Tides,” Goldsworthy had given the filmmaker a CD of music by Evelyn Glennie, a Scottish woman who has become the first classical musician to create a career as a percussion soloist. Glennie struck Riedelsheimer as the ideal vehicle through which to probe sound and rhythm, an exploration made more complex by the fact Glennie has been profoundly deaf since childhood.Riedelsheimer’s film, “Touch the Sound,” “is about using the body as an instrument, as a resonating chamber,” said the director. “And for that, Evelyn Glennie is the perfect protagonist. That’s what she has made herself into.”

“Touch the Sound,” which features no concert footage but scenes of the 40ish Glennie playing in New York’s Grand Central Station, on a New York street and in a Japanese café, as well as her recording an improvised CD with composer/guitarist Fred Frith, is set for release in the United States in September. It will have a special preview screening Sunday, July 3, as part of the SummerFilms series, co-presented by the Aspen Music Festival and Aspen Filmfest at Paepcke Auditorium.Also on Sunday, Glennie will makes her Aspen debut, performing the U.S. premiere of Steven Stucky’s “Spirit Voices” with the Aspen Festival Orchestra and conductor Marin Alsop. Glennie is also scheduled to participate in a Q-and-A session following the screening of “Touch the Sound.”Going soloGlennie consistently downplays, even sidesteps, the subject of her hearing; “Touch the Sound,” in fact, doesn’t mention it until perhaps a half-hour into the film. There is the obvious reason for doing so, that curiosity about her hearing will distract from the music itself. Perhaps more significantly, Glennie has not made her hearing an issue in her life. As she notes in a speech she gave, posted on her website, lacking perfect hearing is an obstacle in the same way lacking big hands and long arms is. “I’m used to my hearing in the same way that I’m used to the size of my hands,” she concludes. Interviewing Glennie behind the Benedict Music Tent, without hearing aids, sign language or the slightest trouble communicating, any hearing impairment was invisible.A far greater challenge was establishing that a percussionist could have a career as a soloist. In her hometown of Aberdeen, a coastal town in the northeast of Scotland, Glennie gravitated toward percussion at age 12, a few years after she had taken up piano. It never occurred to her that the career opportunities for a percussionist would be any different than those of a violinist or pianist.”It was very normal for me and my percussion colleagues to play solos at community concerts,” said Glennie. “We grew up with improvisation, solo transcriptions for percussion. Nothing was originally written for percussion. We assumed every percussionist could be a soloist.”Glennie had her head turned around at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she studied in the mid-’90s. “That’s where I suddenly learned, ‘Where’s the solo repertoire?’ There were two pieces of solo music in the library,” said Glennie, who has gone through life without a single solo percussion lesson. “The whole attitude was, if I brought a piece of Bach to play, my teacher refused to listen to it: ‘We need to go over orchestral excerpts.'”So Glennie invented the soloist’s career. Keeping her activities hidden from the Academy, and aided by publicity from two TV documentaries about her, Glennie staged her own concerts. She commissioned a concerto from a student composer. Those who heard her music had no trouble with the concept of a percussion soloist.

“When they saw something like Chopin études on marimba, they were flabbergasted at what could be done,” said Glennie. “And it snowballed.”Glennie, named an Officer of the British Empire in 1993, has worked with Béla Fleck and Björk, Bobby McFerrin and the Brazilian Samba School, as well as with most major conductors and orchestras. Of most importance is her work with composers: Glennie has commissioned some 140 new works, virtually creating the repertoire written specifically for percussion soloists. Among the composers she has worked with are Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, Michael Daugherty, and Aspen Music Festival composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse, whose three works for Glennie include the 1998 concerto “Der Gerettete Alberich,” with Glennie taking in the character of Alberich from Wagner’s “Ring.” Performing on percussionIn composing “Spirit Voices,” Steven Stucky was challenged not so much by musical issues, but by Glennie’s way of performing. (The concerto, co-commissioned by the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Aspen Music Festival, had its premiere in Singapore in late 2003; this week’s performance is the first since then.)”She stressed to me early in the process that she wants the concerts to be a total artistic involvement, not just notes,” said Stucky, speaking from his home in Ithaca, N.Y., but who will spend five weeks in Aspen beginning this weekend. “She’s not only a great musician, but a great stage presence, a great performer, the way she moves. She pushed me in an extreme way to think about what would happen onstage. She was thinking about lighting and costumes and movement.””I like to play characters in pieces of music,” said Glennie, who doesn’t play an actual character in “Spirit Voices,” but does play several dozen different percussion instruments, grouped in pods around the stage. “I’m interested in the whole package, not just the delivery of notes. I ease myself onto stage with Steven’s piece.”Glennie’s interest in conveying a sense of drama while she performs is a small indicator of her vast curiosity about the world. She is currently studying for both law and psychology degrees, was the first classical musician to have her own website, and published her autobiography, “Good Vibrations,” in 1991. Her greatest interest, of course, is reserved for percussion. And she says that passion is not tied to her deafness.

“I’m not looking for an instrument that is best for me under my type of circumstances. I’m looking for an instrument that gives me pleasure,” said Glennie, who also plays piano and Great Highland bagpipes. “Why does a child play bassoon or trombone? You don’t often know. It’s just a chemistry thing.”If there is a legacy Glennie would like to leave, it seems more in changing the perceptions and opportunities for percussionists than for those with hearing challenges.”The danger with percussion is it’s extremely visual,” she said. “People assume that rhythm is the essence of the music, and when people see you’re musical, they go, ‘Whoa!'”The whole career of solo percussionist stemmed from this,” she added, meaning herself. “And now people can say, ‘OK, a solo percussionist,’ not, ‘Oh, how are you going to do that?’ It’s absolutely accepted now.”Along the way to clearing paths for percussionists, Glennie is also opening people’s ears to the worlds of sound, rhythm, vibration – what it is to hear, to touch, to perceive.”Music is fluid, sound is fluid, what you perceive is fluid, depending on your emotions, the weather, the time of day,” she said. “Sound is all around us, and how we perceive sound is up to each person. You can pay attention to it or not.””My whole life is about sound,” says Glennie in “Touch the Sound.” And what, she is asked, is the opposite of sound? “The closest thing I can imagine to death.”

The Aspen Festival Orchestra concert on Sunday, July 3, includes William Bolcom’s “Ragomania: A Classical Overture for Orchestra” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor in addition to “Spirit Voices.” The concert is preceded by a lecture, with conductor Murry Sidlin.Lawrence Isaacson conducts the AMFS Band in a free Fourth of July concert, heavy on Sousa marches and other American compositions on Monday at the Benedict Music Tent. The American Academy of Conducting Orchestra’s Tuesday, July 5, concert features works by Copland and Piston, plus Dvorák’s “From the New World” symphony. That night’s chamber music concert features pieces by Grieg, Bach and Brahms.Music Festival composers-in-residence Christopher Rouse and Robert Beaser are featured in the High Notes discussion Wednesday, July 6. A recital by the International Sejong Soloists on Wednesday, with violinist Adele Anthony and harpsichordist Anthony Newman, includes Schubert/Mahler’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet, plus works by Telemann and Hartmann.Harpsichordist Newman and the International Sejong Soloists are among the guests when violinist Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin is featured in a Thursday, July 7, concert. Also on the bill is pianist Joseph Kalichstein, with a program of pieces by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Stravinsky, Debussy and Vivaldi.Friday, July 8, brings a special event with the Kronos Quartet playing an eclectic program of works by avant-garde composer John Zorn, Azerbaijan’s Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, minimalist Steve Reich, pop band Sigur Rós and more. Kronos cellist Jennifer Culp is on a leave of absence; her spot will be filled by Jeffrey Ziegler.The festival’s season benefit, The Ninth on the Ninth: A Beethoven Celebration, has music director David Zinman conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and “Choral Fantasy.” Artists include pianist Joseph Kalichstein, mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, the Aspen Chamber Symphony, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus, directed by Duain Wolfe.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is