Evelyn Glennie Biography
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Biography last updated: January 2017
Image: © Philipp Rathmer/Brigitte
The master of more than 1,000 traditional and unconventional percussion instruments from around the world has performed with a range of musical talents, from the Kodo Japanese drummers to Icelandic pop singer Björk, and with every major orchestra in America and Europe. Profoundly deaf (meaning severely impaired but not completely deaf) since the age of 12, the percussionist identifies notes by vibrations she feels through her feet and body; she insists her deafness is irrelevant to her ground-breaking, critically acclaimed work.
Evelyn Elizabeth Ann Glennie was born July 19, 1965, the only daughter of Isobel, a school teacher, and Herbert Arthur Glennie, a beef farmer. Raised outside Aberdeen, Scotland, Glennie and her two brothers helped on the family farm and, though her mother was an organist, didn’t grow up in a particularly musical environment. She was a promising student of piano and clarinet as a child, and she was blessed with perfect pitch, the ability to identify or sing a note by ear. At age eight, Glennie started complaining of sore ears and hearing loss. Her condition steadily deteriorated, and by age 11 she needed a hearing aid, which she found distracting and later discarded. She continued to play music and found she could perceive the quality of a note by the level of the reverberations she could feel in her hands, wrists, lower body, and feet. Glennie counts as her major influences cellist Jacqueline du Pré and pianist Glenn Gould.
When she was 12, Evelyn saw a schoolmate playing percussion. She started taking lessons, and, she told People, “… it felt right.” She graduated with honours from London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music in 1985. In 1985 she made her professional debut; the following year she left for Japan to study the five-octave marimba for a year. Evelyn’s first decade as a professional solo performer was filled with milestones: first performance of a new percussion concerto, first time an orchestra had performed with a solo percussionist, first solo percussion performance at a festival or venue.
Evelyn introduced her rendition of fellow Scot James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni, Emmanual–described by Billboard as “a devoutly celestial concerto”–at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1992. She released a recording of the work the following year. In 1996 she released Drumming, which she described to Billboard as “quite a personal album.” She wanted to make a “raw, … improvised” album using untuned percussion. Billboard critic Timothy White called her playing on the record “breathtakingly instinctive.”
‘My first experience with percussion was seeing and being inspired by my school orchestra at the age of 12. It was an inexplicable feeling but 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 ‘trial’ percussion lesson took place. I also remember the ecstatic feeling of holding a pair of drum sticks and striking a snare drum for the first time.’
Evelyn Glennie is known as the first person to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist. Evelyn performs internationally, with the finest conductors, orchestras and artists of our times. She reflects on having played the first percussion concerto in the history of The Proms at the Albert Hall in 1992: ‘Playing at an event like that was proof that music really affects all of us, connecting us in ways that the spoken word cannot.’ This paved the way for orchestras around the world to feature percussion concerti.
Evelyn had the honour of a playing a leading role in the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games in collaboration with director, Danny Boyle. In 2018, Evelyn has built upon this inter-disciplinary experience by composing the score for Gregory Doran/The Royal Shakespeare Company’s visionary new production of Troilus and Cressida and joining forces with Jazz Trio ‘HLK’ among a roll-call of other superb sound and performance artists.
Throughout her career, Evelyn has had the privilege of working with impressively diverse artists, from Bjork to Fred Frith:
‘‘Working with Bjork allowed me to break away from the written page and fall into a completely different arena, audience-wise. Giving totally improvised performances with Fred Frith is always an exhilarating experience. In this situation, we are asking the audience to listen in a completely different way.’
In 2012, Evelyn had the honour of a playing a leading role in the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games in collaboration with director, Danny Boyle. In 2018, Evelyn has built upon this inter-disciplinary experience by composing the score for Gregory Doran/The Royal Shakespeare Company’s visionary new production of Troilus and Cressida and joining forces with Jazz Trio ‘HLK.’
Evelyn’s solo recordings, which now exceed 30 CD releases, are as diverse as her career on-stage. Shadow Behind the Iron Sun and Sound Spirits continue to be bestselling albums that demonstrate her virtuosic improvisational skills. Evelyn recalls: ‘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.’
A leading commissioner of new works for solo percussion, Evelyn has more than 200 compositions to her name from many of the world’s most eminent composers. She believes this has been crucial to her success as a solo percussionist. ‘It’s important that I continue to commission and collaborate with diverse composers whilst recognising the young talent coming through’. A double GRAMMY award-winner and BAFTA nominee, Evelyn is in demand as a composer in her own right and is commissioned to write music for film, television and for organisations such as Audio Network. 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 of global instruments, consisting of over 2,000 items. “I realized as soon as my parents bought me my second pair of sticks that I was going to be a collector of something!
With over 90 international awards to date, including the Polar Music Prize, Evelyn continues to inspire and motivate people from all walks of life. Her masterclasses and consultations are designed to guide the next generation. ‘Listening is the backbone to every aspect of our lives. The challenges we face in business and at home can usually be overcome with better listening skills.’
Evelyn is looking to open a centre that embodies her mission to Teach the World to Listen. She aims to ‘improve communication and social cohesion by encouraging everyone to discover new ways of listening. We want to inspire, to create, to engage and to empower’.
‘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 realized existed. Losing my hearing made me a better listener.’
Evelyn lives in the beautiful countryside of Cambridgeshire in the east of England.
Awarded an OBE in 1993 and a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2007, she was made a Companion of Honour to the Queen in 2016.