WORKING with the Royal Shakespeare Company on its forthcoming production of Troilus and Cressida stirred childhood memories for Dame Evelyn Glennie. “I read Shakespeare in my English class at school, but I have never been involved with the plays since then, so this project is like opening up an old box to rediscover the treasures inside,” she explains.
The Scottish virtuoso percussionist has composed the music for the play, one of Shakespeare’s rarely performed works, which opens this Friday.
“Director Gregory Doran was looking for a really percussive music score as the production has a Mad Max feel to it,” says Glennie.
Troilus and Cressida is set during the Trojan War, where love and innocence are tested and exposed to the savage, corrupting influence of war – with tragic consequences.
The production is gender-balanced, which means men and women have the same stage time and line count, and the role of Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess whose curse is that none believe or understand her, will be played by deaf actor Charlotte Arrowsmith.
“The Greeks have a more edgy, unrefined, almost dirty, metallic sound world, whilst the Trojans are more dignified, stylish and organised,” says Glennie.
“Some of the characters have their own theme but I wanted to get away from what we ‘expect’ to happen. I wanted to allow people to broaden their listening experience.”
Doran has been quoted as saying Glennie’s input inspired “the very design of the Troilus set, as we devise ways of making the whole theatre resound with the rhythm of war”, as she was involved with the process from an early stage, taking inspiration from her discussions with the whole team.
“In every space I see, I imagine sound,” she says. “My early discussions with Greg meant it was natural to see the whole stage and performing area as an instrument.
“Some of the instrumentalists can be quite mobile and they can be positioned in so many different areas of the building, visible and invisible. This allows some flexibility as to where the sounds can be executed from.
“The challenges for the creative production team were to construct percussive playing surfaces from the walls, large crates and other parts of the stage, even possibly the costumes, while still allowing scene changes to happen – and for the whole stage not to become a hazard.”
She says, smiling: “We wanted to avoid real life tragedy from happening.”
The testosterone-fuelled play explores and challenges gender conventions. It is a theme which interests Glennie.
“As a percussionist I am involved in a very male dominated world; as a musician it is more equal; as a sound creator there are no boundaries of any kind as sound creation begins when we are in our mother’s womb,” she explains.
“In this play I am dealing with male and female sounds. There may be instances when female sounds are associated with certain male characters and vice versa. That’s the beauty of percussion – the sound world and tools are so vast, you can create the unexpected.”
For Glennie, the last 12 months have been a whirlwind of diverse, fascinating projects, including high-profile concerts and the release of three albums.
“It’s impossible to pick a highlight as each project has been so different,” she says. “To collaborate with John McLeod recording his Percussion Concerto, which he wrote for me 30 years ago, was a real privilege and an inspiration. To play Thea Musgrave’s Double Concerto for oboe and percussion as part of her 90th celebrations was also a wonderful moment.
“I have worked with several musicians this year who are still creating brilliant work in their 80s and 90s and one cannot help but be inspired by that kind of will, energy and belief.”
She adds: “I love being the age I am because I can learn from those older than me and from those who are younger, so I get the best of both worlds – the perfect aerial learning view.
“I’m also at the stage where I don’t have to accept every project or date that comes in. Doing things which intrigue me is what is interesting. It allows the creative energy to bubble away in different and unexpected directions.”
Glennie’s collaboration with Scottish experimental jazz Trio HLK, or her role presenting a BBC Radio Four programme about rhythm, which included witnessing open heart surgery, are cases in point.
Next year is equally busy, with a premiere of a percussion concerto in Istanbul, a European tour with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, concerto performances in South America and, a little closer to her Cambridgeshire home, a focus on women composers in London, all on the cards.
Glennie’s longer term goal, however, is to open a centre dedicated to ‘listening’ – something she believes is hugely undervalued in society today.
“Losing my hearing – most of it by the age of eight – made me a better listener,” she says.
“Life is full of challenges, but we can always find alternative ways of approaching our difficulties, which will often lead to new discoveries.
“My career and my life have been about listening in the deepest possible sense. Losing my hearing meant learning how to listen differently, to discover features of sound I hadn’t realised existed.”
Glennie hopes eventually the centre will embody her mission “to improve communication and social cohesion by encouraging everyone to discover new ways of listening.”
Four volunteers have spent the last two years bringing together every aspect of Glennie’s archive, from music scores and the instrument collection – she has around 2000 – to clothes, photos, press cuttings, programmes and correspondence.
“It’s quite a mammoth task but hugely rewarding,” she says.
At a time when some local authorities in Scotland are reducing musical tuition in schools, Glennie is passionate about inspiring young musicians and keeping music accessible for all young people.
“It needs to start with equipping and training primary school teachers with the basic skills needed to use the musical instruments – proper, dedicated time within teacher training,” she explains.
“Every secondary school should have its own orchestra, concert band and choir; and nurturing IT music skills is essential, because the music industry is huge, and has many roles for people who do not want to play an instrument.”
Glennie can still recall her first percussion lesson, at school in Aberdeenshire, at the age of 12.
“My first experience was seeing and being inspired by my school orchestra,” she says. “As soon as I saw the percussion section I knew this was the family I belonged to.
“I still remember the smell of the tiny annexe room where my first lesson took place, and the ecstatic feeling of holding a pair of drum sticks and striking a snare drum for the first time. I immediately fell in love with it.”
Now Glennie performs worldwide with the greatest conductors, orchestras, and artists. The double-Grammy winning musician, who has released 30 solo CDs, has more than 200 pieces to her name from many of the world’s most eminent composers. Highlights of her career have included playing 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 follow suit; and she performed at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
“Playing at an event like that was proof music really affects all of us, connecting us in ways the spoken word cannot,” she says.
Glennie has always ‘taken charge’ of her career – she admires Kate Bush, she says, because “she’s not just a brilliant singer/songwriter, she’s a strong-minded woman who managed to take full charge of her career right from the start.”
Glennie adds: “That was very important to me and thankfully, I’m blessed with north-eastern stubbornness, so I didn’t have to go against the natural grain too much.
“It was vital for me to be clear in what I wanted to do and for people to know exactly what that was. That’s still the case today.”
Troilus and Cressida is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from October 12 until November 17. It will be broadcast live to cinemas on November 14.
LIFE AND LOVES
Favourite film? Schindler’s List
Last book read? ‘Somebody I used to know’ by Wendy Mitchell
Best personality trait? Focused
Worst personality trait? Impatient
Career high? Holding my first ever solo CD in my first flat in London.
Career low? I had a period where I lost my sense of my direction for a while.
Best piece of advice given? ‘Turn up on time to all engagements’ by Sir Georg Solti
Worst piece of advice given? – ‘You can’t be a solo percussionist’ by …..well, too many people!
Ideal dinner guests and why? – Shakespeare and Beethoven because I’m currently writing the music for a Royal Shakespeare Play and it has a deaf cast member.
Source : HeraldScotland