Ian Brennan's Blog, Review

Ian Brennan and Dame Evelyn Glennie Feel the Music

By Ian Brennan
Talk House
May 10th, 2024

The collaborators talk the physicality of sound and the creation of Another Noise.

Dame Evelyn Glennie is the only deaf musician to ever win a Grammy (which she has done twice, while also being nominated five other times) and she’s been bestowed with 29 honorary doctorates around the world; Ian Brennan is a Grammy-award winning music producer (Tinariwen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Parchman Prison Prayer, Zomba Prison Project) and author whose latest book is Missing Music: Voices from Where the Dirt Roads End for which Glennie wrote the Foreword.

This year, Glennie is receiving a Royal Academy of Music Award alongside fellow recipient, Rufus Wainwright. She has also won the Polar Music Prize, a select honor bestowed upon peers like Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Ennio Morricone, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Springsteen, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Metallica, Patti Smith, and Yo-Yo Ma. Since 1988, she has recorded almost 50 albums and collaborated with such artists as Björk, Fred Frith, Bela Fleck, Bobby McFerrin, and filmmaker Danny Boyle. She was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary, Touch the Sound, and was even a featured guest on Sesame Street. Her stated mission is to “teach the world to listen.” 

Brennan produced Glennie’s forthcoming album (Another Noise) of improvisatory collaborations with Jamaican British, Ted Hughes Award-winning, spoken word artist and poet, Raymond Antrobus.

Ian Brennan: We recorded the collaboration together with poet Raymond Antrobus at your headquarters in England, and afterwards you said that was the first time you’d ever worked with a spoken word artist even though you’ve done so much diverse playing over the decades. The results were amazing, but I’m wondering what that experience was like for you.

Evelyn Glennie: Yeah, I mean, I think what’s so interesting about the profession that we’re in is that you never know where the opportunities are going to come from so I was very grateful for this. But also it gives you the chance to think, well, how far outside of your comfort zone do you want to go? And I love, moments like that because they are moments whereby you’ve got absolutely no idea what’s going to happen — you don’t know whether you’re going to enjoy it or not enjoy it, or whether it’s going to be productive or less productive or whatever it might be, and I think that’s a really important position to be in, especially when you’ve been in this type of profession for a long time.Otherwise it’s quite easy, you know, to just get into your comfort zone and think, OK, that’s fine, I’m happy here, and so you remain there. But it’s really crucial to just keep peeping round the next corner or opening the next door and really considering the next opportunity that might come your way.

So really it’s thanks to you that this project came about. And yes, I think that in a situation where you’ve got two people who’ve never met before, I didn’t know how it would be. I think what’s vital is that you have people who are quite willing to just take the space as it is and take the building as it is and take the circumstances as they are. When you brought this project to me, I immediately went on the internet and ordered Raymond’s books. And I was just enthralled by them, ranging from his children’s books — which are so delightful — to his poetry. And I became immediately aware that, my goodness, this is an extraordinary person actually. Unbelievably talented. And I think that when you meet someone like Raymond, you realize that actually they’re very normal people who are great thinkers, and they too are willing to be in a situation where they’re slightly uncomfortable and not quite sure what’s going to happen.

Ian: Yeah, in taking that type of leap of faith, for me most of the time my expectations are wildly exceeded. This was another case of that— with every track a first take and you never having heard the poems before and having no plan what to play or even which instruments to use, but just following your impulses over the course of one afternoon. Working with you and Raymond together was one of the most special days of recording I’ve ever experienced. I hoped for that, but also in hindsight, it’s not entirely surprising — since you and Raymond are both so gifted — that the two of you together would be magical. And it was. But you never know what’s going to happen and that’s part of the beauty of 100% live recording, that suspense and mutual trust. A delivery guy barged in downstairs during one track, so this was far from a clinical affair.

One of the things that made a big impression on me was at the end of the day when Raymond and I were heading back to London, you said that you were probably going to go home that evening and practice music. I was someone who was obsessed with practicing guitar growing up. Unhealthily obsessed, really, particularly from age 13 on. I would play almost every waking hour for many years, but now I’m so the opposite. I make music all the time, every day, but I rarely touch a guitar anymore. So, I’m curious if you generally still practice every day?

Evelyn: Well, maybe not every single day. But yes, I’m afraid practice is something that just needs to continue. It really, really does. So, you know, it’s one of those things that nobody else can do for you. You just have to knuckle down and get in the room and weed out your, kind of, sound garden as it were and get things growing. But I’ve always enjoyed practice. I don’t see it as something — well, how can I describe this? I mean, obviously each practice you’re trying to be better than when you walked into the room. So, there has to be some kind of feeling of progress. But it’s not done in a way where you feel under pressure of having to be better. I think it’s more the feeling of discovery. What kind of curious thing can you try to develop in your playing or how can you make a part more interesting musically?

Ultimately, it’s always about listening to the body, you know, the physical body and what it can produce and making sure that the body is as supple as possible and not strained in any kind of way. That’s really, really important whether you’re starting off or whether you’ve been playing an instrument for 60 years. It’s a suppleness in the physical body and the suppleness in your thinking as well as to how something can be negotiated. So, I always find that quite fascinating really. But I think also when you play an instrument, it’s like peeling an onion. There’s always another layer, another layer, another layer of discovery. 

But I would just like to go back a little bit to the recording with Raymond. That worked out because, I really think a lot of the credit has to go to you. And I’m not just saying this because we’re talking right now, but I think when our recording was made, it was complete teamwork and I think you gave us such freedom to just go with the flow. I think that things can become strained when we’re watching the clock or there’s a producer nitpicking at something saying, “We need to do this again… again, again, again,” and then it becomes a real mental exercise and that’s where the body begins to strain, and stress comes in all sorts of ways. So, I think that with so many of the projects that you’ve been involved with, you’ve just allowed the musicians and the situation to evolve in its natural way.

I remember just the other day catching a program about gardening and the presenter said, ultimately you have to “let the garden come to you.” And I thought, Oh, yes. You know, just enjoy the garden for what it is. Just let it come to you and give it that space and breath. I think that’s what you definitely allowed us — Raymond and myself — to do. Otherwise, it could have been a very different feel.

Ian: Well, I’m glad. I mean, it was my pleasure. Thank you. It was really, truly a special experience. And when you played, there were no mistakes, no extraneous noises. And I’m not used to that with 100% live recording. [Laughs.] So, your practicing showed — the discipline that’s there. But I agree that it’s either “first thought, best thought” or there’s this whole other end of the spectrum which is something very developed and belabored and epic like Dark Side of the Moon. But I think that it’s most everything in between that’s so dangerous — when people get primarily into the left part of their brain and become judgmental and critical. In that state, there will never be the freedom there that comes from playing something spontaneously for the first time. 

I talk about this in the new book, that we have a little beat up mini piano in our apartment. Whenever our seven year old daughter’s friends come over for the first time, almost every one of them goes straight for that piano. And it’s incredible, almost every kid instantly plays something coherent. Even though they don’t know how to play, their innate instincts are so strong that they find a pattern. I’m not saying they play anything complicated or coherent for 10 straight, but for 30- or 60-seconds or so, it’s sheer beauty to behold. And I believe that is often what is trained out of people with music education. People lose trust in themselves and begin to think in terms of right and wrong and what’s musical or not musical, and the fear sets-in that they aren’t “good” enough.

When you mentioned “let the garden come to you,” it reminded me of a landscape architecture book I read where the expert advised that you should never pre-set pathways in a park. You should instead wait and first see where people tend to walk, and then you place the pathways there, following that energy. There’s a park by our house where they’ve got these rigid, grid-like paths, but you can see where people have inevitably wandered and cut those corners. So, consequently there’s this battle to keep people between the designated lines, but unfortunately the set boundaries are not ones that most people clearly feel make sense or respect. Still the authoritarian attempt is to force people to walk the authorized way. But the majority have rebelled and etched a more intuitive pathway through the grass. The government stubbornly refuses to practice acceptance in spite of it being clearly demarcated that the route planned is not one that most people will follow. And so why not create around this inevitability rather than having what was envisioned and mandated in advance being destroyed repeatedly by people that wander elsewhere? Instead, work with the energy that’s already there and respect that momentum.

Evelyn: Absolutely. Yeah, I love that analogy. And I’d love to see orchestras and symphonies doing a lot more improvisation as part of programming. Because this could be such a fascinating part of a program where we could feel much more the identity of the players as well as the collective. I think what I found very interesting in working with Raymond is that sometimes we get so used to our own environment when we do things. And I think that when you see the energy of someone delivering words coming from their own voice, their own mouth and body, where you’re seeing the facial expressions, you’re seeing the subtleties and how something is being expressed, it is fascinating. You’re seeing the kind of build-up before the first word is spoken. But often when that last word ends, then that’s it. 

I think that the difference between poetry and music, of course, is that with music something still resonates, something is still reverberating. And for someone who has stopped speaking, to wait for that musical reverberation to end can feel like an awful long time. So, it can be slightly awkward for the poet as well, but I think that this is how we can learn from each other’s disciplines while still being connected with what is actually happening and being felt in the room. And I think that’s what’s interesting about improvisation, you know, is at that point that it’s no longer about showing your virtuosic wares. It’s actually instead incorporating every aspect of the environment. So, I think we can learn an awful lot from each other’s disciplines in that sense.

Ian: In your collection of percussion instruments — which is one of the largest in the world — how many instruments approximately do you have now?

Evelyn: I think there’s slightly over 3,800. 

Ian: Wow. It’s interesting because coincidentally one of the poems that Raymond did and that that’s on the record is “Resonance.” So, what we’ve been discussing makes me wonder what is the longest resonating instrument you have? How many minutes does it last?

Evelyn: Well, that’s interesting because since you were last here, I actually have acquired a rain tower that is made of oak and so it’s like a rain tree. It’s made by a German company, Schlagwerk. And when you turn this “waterfall infinity rain tower” over it lasts, by our count, something like 33 minutes.

Ian: Incredible. Who needs artificial reverb! [Laughs.]

Evelyn: It’s absolutely extraordinary. But as far as an instrument whereby if you strike it once and leave it, I suspect the longest resonance would be the tam-tam cymbal. So, it’s a Paiste, 60-inch tam-tam and I think when we timed it, it was right about six or seven minutes, whereby you can see it still moving. You can no longer hear it, but you can still see it moving. So, therefore there is still sound. And there may even well be sound still going on even after that visible movement stops.

Ian: Yeah, one of the experimental things we tried while recording was your idea of having Raymond speak into the drum heads directly for two different songs and using a different drum for each track. It ended up working really well for both of those poems. I think that most people, if they don’t know the back story, would assume that what they’re hearing are effects on Raymond’s voice, but it is not something that’s been done to his vocal. It was 100% acoustic, 100% organic. It was born from the drum itself and the drum merging literally with Raymond’s voice, where we used the drumhead as a microphone essentially.

Evelyn: Yes, and I think that’s really interesting because you know, where these instruments are stored and where we did the recording is kind of a generic, business park area. It’s in an office space, you know. There’s nothing special about the building. But I think again, that’s another thing that we can think about is that every space is a performance space. We’re all communicating one way or another, even if it’s to ourselves inwardly. No matter what the space, it’s just a matter of acknowledging what that space is and being comfortable within that environment. And it just shows you how the objects themselves — in this case a drumhead — can sort of elevate something or give a different dimension or a different entry point to the existing space. So sometimes we’re waiting for the room to give us the acoustic, but actually it was the drum head that in a way became the room and in that instance that gave us the resonance. So, yeah, I think that’s a wonderful thing about percussion is that you see the instrument, but within that instrument there can be a metal ball or a drum head or, I don’t know, a brass shell or an oak shell or whatever hidden within the instrument. There’s a whole orchestra of sounds that we can discover inside.

Ian: Yeah, I think the overtones are what get lost a lot with digital music making — overtones that occur randomly in a room and are unique in each instance, and that are born often from the interplay and bleed between players. You know, the same physical instruments will never sound precisely the same. It could be same drum, same player or the exact same drum with a different player, and yet each instance will be particular. 

You perform barefoot a lot of the time in order to feel the sound.

Evelyn: A lot of the time, yes, and sometimes it’s because I have to be very quiet if I’m moving around. So, for example in the last concerto I premiered — which was in Wales — there was quite a lot of moving from one group of instruments to the other and often the orchestra would link the movements, and they would be incredibly quiet in what they had to play and how it was orchestrated. I really needed to be absolutely as silent as possible. So heels is not a good idea. [Laughs.] But yes, bare feet do also give you good balance physically. And feet are incredibly sensitive to sound. So, I definitely notice a difference when I’m wearing shoes and if I’m not wearing shoes.

Ian: Yeah, that’s quite something. I mean, my sister Jane has Down syndrome and she is deaf in one ear, and when I was growing up, for as long as I can remember I witnessed how at her school dances there were many of her peers that were not able to hear, but they were nonetheless incredible dancers because they could feel the music. This was in the 1970s, so there was a lot of disco, you know, four-on-the-floor, thump-thump-thump. And some of the most incredible dancers I’ve ever seen were these individuals. So, from a very young age, it made me think about different ways of music-making and vocalizing and expressing movement, and celebrating more holistic ways of listening.

Evelyn: Absolutely. And certainly with the work that you’ve done in so, so many territories throughout the world, you will have seen — and have written about in your book — how integral movement is to sound. It’s here in the West that we’re a bit wooden, and we kind of see sound as a separate entity and that we use only select objects to create that sound. But with so many other cultures, music is just such an integral part of life. And I think for deaf people, movement is something that is quite natural. It’s just something where you use your limbs to express something instead. If the voice is not able or if you’re not quite hearing your voice in a kind of “normal” way, then the instinct is to use your body more physically. So yes, I think that deaf people are using their bodies as a resonating chamber.

I usually use the analogy of a Marimba tube or resonator, and how if you put your hand on top of that resonator — closing it off basically — and then strike the bar that’s on top of that resonator, no matter how hard you strike that bar, it’s choked. So, the color doesn’t change. The tone just gets harder and harder, but not necessarily louder and louder. But as soon as you take your hand away and you strike that same bar, suddenly the dynamics go vertically as well as horizontally. And that’s really what deaf people do and how they’re using their body. Opening the cap of their body and letting the sound come into every single part. You listen to what’s coming through your feet, you’re listening to what’s coming through your fingertips or your chest or your tummy or your thighs or your scalp or your cheekbone. And you know, all of that stimulus means something, so you react to that. And that’s why I think resonance is so important. To me, I love resonance. I mean, I love loud sounds, but it’s not loudness that I value as much as resonance, and the feeling that the body is being filled with sound rather than just volume

Silenced by Sound: The Music Meritocracy Myth

Back to Ian Brennan’s Author Page