By Michael Neill
March 25, 1996 12:00 PM

EVELYN GLENNIE SWOOPS ONSTAGE. She takes her place amid a jungle of more than 50 instruments—among them the marimba, snare drum, Balinese gamelan and vibraphone—and slips off her shoes. Then her arms dart, her hands blur, and the hall fills with a stunning spectrum of sound—from the steady tock-tock of rainwater falling on a log to the crash of thunder. As Glennie plays, eyes afire, her body responds dervish-like to the vibrations of her drumming.

All musicians speak of vibes, but very few are as sensitive to them and as dependent on them as Glennie. Profoundly deaf since the age of 12, the 30-year-old, Scottish-born virtuoso cannot hear the music she makes. But she can feel it, as she explains, “through my feet and lower body and through my hands. I can identify the notes according to the vibrations.” The stocking feet are not an affectation but part of her musical antennae.

However Glennie hears her music, critics recognize it as the work of a major artist. “Ms. Glennie is, quite simply, a phenomenon as a performer,” The New York Times raved after she made her debut with the New York Philharmonic on March 7 at Lincoln Center, “and the fact that she is profoundly deaf is the least of it.”

Glennie’s journey to the world’s great concert halls began on her family’s farm in northeast Scotland, 21 miles north of Aberdeen, where she was the youngest of three children. “Apart from Scottish traditional music, I wasn’t really influenced by any kind of music,” she says. “I just basically followed my own instincts.” Although her mother played the organ in the local church and her father played accordion—but only at Christmastime—there was no record player in the home. “That just wasn’t the way I learned music,” says Glennie, who took up piano at age 8, later adding clarinet and recorder. “I learned by reading scores and by playing.”

Also at 8, Glennie began to notice that she was losing her hearing. As it continued to deteriorate gradually—doctors determined nerve damage was the cause—Glennie took the loss in stride. “I didn’t worry too much about what was happening to my hearing,” she says. “It was part of me, and it developed in a natural way.” Glennie was fitted with a hearing aid but found that it distorted sound, so she stopped using it. Instead, she learned to lip-read and, aided by her perfect pitch, continued to study music at her local secondary school. “When I was 12,” she says, “I happened to see a schoolmate playing percussion, and it looked interesting. I asked for lessons, and it felt right.”

After graduation, the budding percussionist spent three years at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she realized her deafness would keep her from participating fully as an orchestral player. In a vision that was both pragmatic and audacious, she saw her future as a soloist. In 1986, after giving a number of concerts and recitals in Britain, she went to Japan to spend a year studying the five-octave marimba. Her seventh CD, Wind in the Bamboo Grove, released last year, is made up completely of music by-Japanese composers.

Back in England in 1990, Glennie met Greg Malcangi, a recording engineer who has normal hearing. “I wasn’t trying to meet anybody,” she says. “I was really quite happy, so I was shocked when it happened.” The two, who wed in August 1994, live in a sparsely furnished house in Huntingdon, about 90 minutes north of London. A barn on the property houses the 600 or so percussion instruments that Glennie has collected from around the world.

Glennie, who gives as many as 120 concerts a year, also is president of the London-based Beethoven Fund, a charitable organization that provides music-based therapy for hearing-impaired children. Even so, she’s adamant that she not be defined by her disability. “I’m not a deaf musician,” she says. “I’m a musician who happens to be deaf.” Ludwig would have been proud.


ELLIN STEIN in Huntingdon