Evelyn Glennie gets unhinged with Musicophilia
Considering that it denotes a terrible and soul-destroying malady, the word amusia sounds benign enough. It could be the name of a cruise ship, for instance, or something served at posh restaurants prior to the appetizer course. Instead, though, it’s a psychological condition that renders its sufferers incapable of making sense of music; those so afflicted hear everything from Gregorian chant to Sonic Youth as intolerable chaos.
Evelyn Glennie and Randolph Peters wouldn’t wish that fate on their worst enemies. Yet, a sonic depiction of the affliction is part of what they’ll present to local listeners at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert. Alongside works from Giuseppe Verdi, Paul Hindemith, and Maurice Ravel, the Scottish percussion virtuoso will premiere the Manitoba composer’s new concerto, Musicophilia, which is inspired by the Oliver Sacks book of the same name.
“It’s a rare condition,” says Glennie, on the line from her office in London, England. The percussionist is clinically deaf—she “hears” music as physical vibration, and interviews are aided by an assistant who mouths queries for her to lip-read—but that’s no impediment to our chat. “It’s where music sounds very cluttered: it’s just a whole lot of clattering going on, and you can’t quite decipher it.
“I’m playing inside the piano and the piano will be at the front of the stage,” she adds. “However, there will also be a normal pianist there, playing the same piano. The pianist will manipulate the sustain pedal when I need it to be just a barrage of sound, but meanwhile she’s also playing her part on the keyboard. So that will be really interesting.”
It’s a bold move for any symphonic presentation, but both Glennie and Peters agree that it’s a necessary first step if listeners are to understand how varied—and how bizarre—the human response to music can be.
“Logically, it made the most sense just to completely go unhinged at first,” says Peters, in a separate telephone interview from his Winnipeg home. “The ironic thing, though, is that it’s just a matter of perspective. If you think of something—even noise or street sounds—as music, you start to hear it as music.”
VSO subscribers alarmed at the possibility of having to unleash their inner John Cage will be reassured to know that Musicophilia ends by quoting a Johann Sebastian Bach keyboard study, although it will be orchestrated for percussion and transposed into an unfamiliar key. Other recognizable sounds will also appear in transmogrified form, and although the Straight has been sworn to secrecy about some of them, we can reveal that the 30-minute, six-part concerto’s third movement, “Hallucinations”, references the American composer John Corigliano, who makes an appearance in Sacks’s book as “John C”.
“I kind of sleuthed that one out,” says Peters, a long-time admirer of his fellow composer’s work. “I thought, ‘What if I had as one of my musical hallucinations one of his themes?’ So I used one of the themes from The Red Violin Caprices, but I alter it: the chords underneath are really from my own theme, which comes in after that.”
Corigliano, who constantly hears music playing when none is present, readily gave his permission. Whether local audiences will be as generous in their response remains to be seen, but Glennie has high hopes for her latest undertaking.
“It’s interesting, because it starts in such a chaotic way,” she muses. “You know, we may have to lock the exit doors or something just to stop people going out! But then the next minute you just have this wonderful little quirky melody. So you’ve just got to fasten your seat belts and off you go.
“Music isn’t all about leaving the audience wanting more,” she adds. “It’s also about making them think and giving them an experience, and I feel this piece will certainly do that.”