Podcast Episode 9 - Dame Evelyn Glennie on 'Wuthering Heights'

In a very special episode of our podcast, we welcome the world's foremost solo percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie on to the show. In a slight change to our usual format, this week's episode takes the form of an interview, in which we discussed how seeing Kate Bush's mesmeric debut single inspired Evelyn's similarly pioneering career as a young female musician. 

OTM: Evelyn, welcome - why don't you start by telling us what song you've chosen?

Evelyn Glennie: Well, it's fascinating, because of course my whole upbringing was not about 'listening' to music, it was experiencing raw sound, as opposed to music. And it begs the question, what is music? Is music noise? Is noise music? And so my upbringing was all about things that I saw. So if I saw a tree move, that meant sound - so the imagination created the sound. You nodding your head right now, I hear sound, I imagine sound, that the head, the neck, the body is creating that sound.

And that was my whole arena in a way,. So when I saw a particular lady stun the world on television, it was through her movement that was so extraordinary. To lip read someone as their singing a song, it's impossible to get that emotional input - you haven't a clue what they're saying. If someone is singing 'Heeeelllloooo', well, are they saying 'hell'? And then 'oh'? But when someone is saying 'hello' you've suddenly got that visual aid  to help you translate what is being said and how it's being said. 

So really it was the performance that stunned me with this particular artists, and I think you can probably tell who that may be - no less than Kate Bush herself, with 'Wuthering Heights'. 

You can imagine the dance element, the movement element that captured my interest so so much. I would have been about twelve, thirteen years old when that happened to be on television, and of course it was played on and on and on and on and on. And it was just a remarkable feeling, because most of the things that were being projected in the pop world at that time had an awful lot of effects. But I thought that Kate's performance was just so bringing so many elements together. And of course, as a percussion player myself, there is this natural movement when you strike something, that sense of touch will give you your personal sound. And I think she was giving us something so incredibly personal through the movement. 

OTM: Kate Bush is obviously such an influential performer for so many people. I think Bjork, Annie Lennox - even John Lydon from The Sex Pistols is a huge fan, and called her music the 'equivalent of The Koran in music' - I don't really know what that means - but even he was influenced by KAte Bush. Has Kate Bush influenced you in any way in your career.

EG: She really has, and I think that strangely not so much musically, because no one can imitate the likes of Kate Bush, no one can imitate what you do, what I do, we have to believe and listen to ourselves. But that's exactly what she taught me - belief and listen. Because when you think about it, 'Wuthering Heights' was written when she was 18 years old, it was released when she was 18/19 years old by EMI, and they were used to railroading their artists - do this, do that, we know better. And actually, Kate said, 'you know what, I want to release 'Wuthering Heights' in January, not before Christmas. I want to wear this, I want to look like this, I want the message to be this.@" And when you think about how young she was, and most of us, when we're presented with a record contract at the age of 18 - which indeed I was believe it, as a solo percussionist, which was most unusual - and the agents saying go go go with it, and I was saying no no no. Because I wasn't ready - I just felt, listening to myself I wasn't ready. So someone like Kate to take her career right from the beginning into her hands was quite extraordinary. And I think as a business woman she's definitely influenced me. If we could all be told that story as music students as part of being in the music business, it would be a fascinating thing, and something just for us to go away and truly think about. She had the belief of when to release that song, and the belief of how she wanted to present herself. And I suppose in my situation, the career of the solo percussionist had not yet existed, but in my mind it was already happening. So really there were no examples... no percussionists were represented by agents or record companies or PR companies... so you had to take control, you had to just plough through this journey by constantly listening to what feels right at this moment, when you can push your boundaries, when you just need a bit more patience and so on... 

So, and I think with Kate, we've all had to learn about patience, that's for sure. Because we've had to wait forever for the next project, but there we go. 

OTM:This is quite amazing - I just found this out today - that that song 'Wuthering Heights' was the first number one single written and performed by a woman. And that's in 1978 - it's incredible to think that it took that long to get to that point...

EG: And I mean, she's one of the few artists whereby no one really can imitate her. You just can't and I think that uniqueness is just a priceless thing. It gives us the inspiration to just believe, what is it that we can offer? What's our story? 

It's interesting to express what feels right to each of us, and to have that understanding really. 

OTM: You talk a lot about Kate Bush's performance - have you ever been lucky enough to see her perform live?

EG: No, not at all... I couldn't get tickets for her last performance that she did here a year or so ago. But I've still got the belief that one day, before I hang the sticks up, that we maybe could just plant a little seed (to collaborate).

OTM: Oh that would be amazing! We're going to hear the song in a minute, but before we do, you talk a lot when you talk publicly, and brilliantly in an essay on your website called 'Hearing'. You talk about how we don't really understand what hearing is... it's not just something that happens your ears, but something that can happen through your whole body, and I wonder if you can explain in a little way before we hear the song, how we might be able to hear that song with everything, and not just with our ears?

EG: Heavens, we've all got a choice as regards to how we listen, and listening isn't only about sound. For me, as the musician and as the sound creator, I basically have had to learn how to use the body as a resonating chamber, as a huge ear, and if you can imagine having a resonator with a wooden bar on top, and you strike that bar, but you're actually covering the resonator with your other hand - it's kind of choked like this. And it's a little bit like the ear - we're kind of overloading that resonator, and we're overloading the ear with the amount of sound that we feed into our system. So in a way I see sound as food - we don't eat 24/7 because we know we're going to feel pretty unwell. But somehow do we think the same with sound? So when I go into my home, I try every now and again to give it a sound spring clean - what's my sound environment at home? What sort of sound am I feeding my system? Are there a lot of high frequencies? Low frequencies? Mid frequencies? How much? And try and get that sound diet sorted out so that then when I do play and create as that sound creator, it really is something that is meaningful that can make a little bit of a difference. 

So seeing the body if you take your hand away from that resonator as you strike that bar, suddenly the whole thing vibrates. And that's basically what I do with my body - I distribute the sound throughout the body so it becomes like a huge ear. And it gives you a better appreciation as well as regards to breaking down the barriers - I like this, or I don't like that. It's a sound! If an alarm clock goes off at three a.m. most of us might be a bit annoyed. But if it goes off at three a.m. because we've got to get up and we've got an exciting adventure ahead, then it's a really good sound, it's something that we welcome. So really it's up to you - how you sit, what you're wearing... do you want to take your shoes off? do you want to sit up? Are you sitting on cushioned chairs, or plastic chairs? Do you want to lie on the floor - it's your decision. Just because you've been asked to sit here and take your sits, doesn't mean you can't use this part of the room... And that's what I do as a musician - you're always taught, 'strike on this part of the drum, strike on this part of the bar' because thast's the good sound, that's the proper sound. And that's the perfect sound. And so you strive for years and years and years getting that consistency. But being a Scot, if I buy an instrument, I want to use every nook and cranny of that instrument, and get my money's worth. So basically I will be exploring every angle, every surface, every part of that surface, both up, down, sideways, you name it, it will be used. So really, let it breathe, let that journey happen and see how that affects your body. 

So listening is just about focus, concentration, patience. And it means slowing the body down, and not being distracted by everything else that we're so easily distracted by.