The Polar Music Prize 2015 is awarded to percussionist Evelyn Glennie from Aberdeen, Scotland. Evelyn Glennie, who has been deaf since the age of twelve, has a mission to teach the world to listen. She has widened our understanding of what music is and shown us that listening is only partly to do with our ears. Everyone, whatever their physical circumstances, can perceive and perform music, can feel and convey good vibrations. We all have our own, individual tone. In her home country of the United Kingdom, she has changed the criteria for acceptance by music schools, has been honoured by the Queen for her efforts and had a key role in the opening of the Olympic Games in London in 2012. As a musician, she is one of very few who have successfully made a career as a solo percussionist. She has played with the world’s foremost orchestras, conductors and artists and has released more than 30 solo albums. Evelyn Glennie shows us that the body is a resonance chamber and that we live in a universe of sound.
It was an inexplicable feeling but as soon as I saw the percussion section I knew this was the family I belonged to.
Childhood and musical education
Evelyn Glennie was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1965. She went to school at the Ellon Academy and discovered percussion at the age of 12, after having played the piano for a couple of years. Her parents bought her a snare drum and she began to take percussion lessons with teacher Ron Forbes, who taught her timpani.
Young Evelyn started to lose her hearing at the age of 8, but didn’t give up music. Together with her teacher, she realized that if you pay great attention, you can feel sounds in your body as well as hear them through your ears. Forbes adapted his teaching to cope with Glennie’s deteriorating hearing, allowing her to “hear” the tuning by sensing the vibrations in the instruments.This was a huge turning point for Glennie, who then started to seriously aim at being the world’s first solo percussionist.
”I would stand with my hands against the classroom wall while Ron played notes on the timpani. Eventually I managed to distinguish the rough pitch of notes by associating where on my body I felt the sound with the sense of perfect pitch I had before losing my hearing. The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet and high sounds might be particular places on my face, neck and chest.” – Hearing Essay, 2015
Cults Percussion Ensemble
In 1976, Forbes put together the Cults Percussion Ensemble with 14 teenagers from Aberdeenshire, who toured all over Europe and did one unforgettable show at the Royal Albert hall. They recorded one album, released in 1979. At 13, Glennie was the youngest musician on the record, on which she can be heard playing timpani and xylophone.
The Royal Academy of Music
Evelyn Glennie was first admitted to the Royal College of Music but not to the Academy, because of her deafness. But as she was at the standards for admission she couldn’t accept the refusal and challenged the whole system of admission and the argument that ”no orchestra at the Academy would accept a deaf musician.” As she wanted to become a solo percussionist, this was definitely not an argument. She persisted, and was finally admitted to the Academy in 1982.
Her admission to the Academy profoundly changed the idea of auditions and of who would be granted admission. Even in case of an impairment, if you reach the standards of getting in, you have to be accepted, and the institution needs to adapt to any special needs, not the other way around. Glennie herself refers to her upbringing in the spirit of inclusion, so being excluded so suddenly on false reasons just wasn’t acceptable for her.
- Can you set yourself up at the back of the orchestra?
- I am perfectly happy to do that as long as the next time you play a piano concerto, the piano is at the back of the orchestra!
The solo percussionist
Evelyn Glennie made her professional debut in 1985 and is the first person in history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist. Evelyn Glennie performs worldwide with the greatest conductors, orchestras, and artists. She played the first percussion concerto in the history of The Proms at the Albert Hall in 1992, which paved the way for orchestras around the world to feature percussion concerti.
Evelyn has done over 30 solo recordings, and her repertoire is as diverse as her career on-stage. Shadow Behind the Iron Sun and Sound Spirits are both that amply demonstrate her brilliant improvisational skills.
Of Shadow Behind the Iron Sun Evelyn remembers: “the freedom I had in choosing whichever instruments I wanted – playing what I wanted and how I wanted – was the most liberating experience I have ever had in a studio”.
Evelyn Glennie has also recorded and performed classical works from many of the world’s most eminent composers, from different generations. Her aim is constantly to bring down barriers between classical and modern music and between genres, which can be seen both on her collaborations and commissions. She is a leading commissioner of new works for solo percussion, and believes this has been crucial to her success as a solo percussionist.
Glennie has had many works written for her by major composers, including James MacMillan, Michael Daugherty, Yi Chen, Elena Kats-Cherning and Margaret Brouwer, among many others.
Evelyn Glennie’s collaborations always show a great curiosity for music and for the musicians, whatever kind of music they do. She has collaborated with a diverse range of artists, from Underworld at the opening of the Olympics in London 2012 to electric guitarist, songwriter, composer and improviser Fred Frith via Björk.
In 1996, a wonderful and yet quite natural musical meeting between Glennie and Polar Music Prize Laureate Björk resulted in two tracks; ”My Spine” from remix album Telegram and ”Oxygen,” released on one of Evelyn’s Greatest Hits album. She also claims to be a big fan of hip hop and its driving rythms and movement that works well with percussions.
Glennie crosses musical boundaries with unusual ease and sometimes connect them to other art forms, choreography, visual experiences and live experimentations. In addition to performances with most of the major European and American classical orchestras, she has worked with the Kodo Japanese drummers, Javanese gamelan ensembles, Brazilian samba bands…
Glennie is profoundly deaf, which means that she can hear certain frequencies and not others. To feel the vibrations of the sound in her body she often performs bare foot to be physically in touch with her environment as much as possible.
I will sometimes describe an acoustic in terms of how thick the air feels.
Evelyn Glennie, Hearing Essay , 2015“
Glennie’s revolutionary way of hearing and listening to music thanks to the impact the sound creates in the body is an overall important feature in Glennie’s career. It characterizes all the educational work that she has done, developing theories and educational features around this. She is not only a performing artist, but also a well appreciated speaker and consultant. The film Touch the Sound and her enlightening TED speech remain key testimonies to her approach to sound creation.
As a keen collector of percussion instruments Evelyn has gathered a private collection estimated at over 2,000 items, including homemade instruments, most notably a set of cut and tuned car exhaust pipes, as well as sounds from around the world.
A love for jewellery came early in her childhood. She went to the Orkney Isles and got inspired by the celtic arts. Today she makes jewelry as a hobby, the first range, ‘Percussion’, is inspired by her ancestral home on the Orkney Isles. Her second range, ‘Sound Colour’, is inspired by the shades of sound. Evelyn has also designed her own stage tartan together with Scottish Fashions International – another type of creativity.
Teach the world to listen
To this day, Evelyn continues to invest in realising her vision – to Teach the World to Listen. Evelyn is looking to open a centre that embodies her mission. Awarded an OBE in 1993 and Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2007.
With over 80 international awards to date Evelyn continues to inspire and motivate people from all walks of life. She regularly provides masterclasses and consultations designed to guide the next generation.
Stockholm, June 2015
The 24th Polar Music Prize was given to Emmylou Harris and Dame Evelyn Glennie during the second week of June 2015 in Stockholm. This year the Polar Music Prize was moved to the beginning of summer from the month of August, where it initially was situated when the prize was founded in 1992. The Laureates arrived in Stockholm on June 8th for two days of music, celebration and festivities. As always, a pre-party was held on the evening of the 8th with the Laureates, guests and associates at chairman of the Polar Music Prize Marie Ledin’s home. At the party, Evelyn Glennie met her former percussion teacher Ron Forbes for the first time in 25 years, together with Evelyn Glennie’s mother, they were both her special guests at the ceremony.
The week started with the Polar Talks at the Rigoletto theatre in Stockholm. Dame Evelyn Glennie talked about hearing and listening in her lecture “How to truly listen.” The Polar Talks also included interesting panel discussions and lectures on the power of music, creativity and science. Musicians, composers, professors, journalists, designers, among others, entered the stage to discuss the many ways that music and creativity can inspire and break down any boundary. You can find more info about the Polar Music Talks here.
Evelyn Glennie was honored by several amazing percussion performances during the ceremony and banquet at the Stockholm Concert Hall and Grand Hotel on June, 9. A solo performance was given by Japanese percussionist Mika Takehara and the percussion section of the Swedish Philharmonic Orchestra performed a percussion piece by John Cale. Peter Sellars, Polar Music Prize Laureate of 2014, came back to Stockholm specifically to read the citation for Evelyn Glennie at the ceremony.
The banquet at Grand Hotel was broadcasted live for the first time, with an amazing set design by Swedish designer Bea Szenfeld. Jill Johnson, a true pioneer for American country music in Sweden, hosted the evening. To honour Dame Evelyn Glennie, percussion ensemble GOT Motion opened the banquet with a version of Polar Music Prize Laureates Led Zeppelin’s ”Kashmir.” The Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron, had also sent a personal tribute to Dame Evelyn Glennie, read by Marie Ledin, chairman of the Polar Music Prize, however this was first revealed to Evelyn Glennie during an interview that can be seen below. As a tribute to Stig ”Stikkan” Anderson, the founder of the prize, several Swedish artists and singers, Barbro Svensson, Tommy Körberg, Pelle Eriksson and Sanna Nielsen, performed a medley with some of the songwriter’s biggest hits from his broad catalogue.