Monday, November 26, 2012

Teenage Girls! Timpani! The Strange Cult Of The Cults Percussion Ensemble


Dame Evelyn Glennie provided one of the highlights of the London Olympics opening ceremony, leading 1000 drummers through a re-enactment of the industrial revolution in a thundering collaboration with Underworld. For Glennie, it was a moment of triumph in an extraordinary career.
Now, thanks to a remarkable story of vinyl archaeology, the roots of that success have been exposed, with the re-release of a record Dame Evelyn appeared on in her early teens, while at school in Aberdeenshire. More surprisingly, this disc – of which fewer than 500 copies were originally pressed – has been hailed by Tom Hodgkinson in The Times as “an avant-garde masterpiece”.
The group’s name seems to offer a clue to its future success, but the Cults Percussion Ensemble was just that: an Aberdeenshire schools group, tutored by Ron Forbes, who moved to the North East after a stint in the London Jazz Four, having earned his musical spurs in the Coldstream Guards. The album was made to sell at concerts, and had gone unnoticed by the wider world until it was spotted by Jonny Trunk, whose label, Trunk Records, specialises in library music and TV and film soundtracks (including porn – the label motto is “Music – Nostalgia – Sex”).He found the record at Spitalfields Market in London, and was immediately enthralled.
“It had the word ‘Cults’ on the front, and I didn’t know it was a place,” says Trunk. “I just thought it was some spooky thing. Then when I heard it I thought it was absolutely magical. From the second it starts, it’s just enchanting. And it’s so beautifully played. It’s amazing what a well-tuned group of 14 year-olds can do.”
Dame Evelyn admits to being “delighted” by the album’s reappearance, and readily concedes to the importance of the Ensemble in her development. It was under Forbes’s tutelage that she first explored percussion, and the success of the Ensemble – it won several inter-schools competitions – led to European dates, and an “unbelievable” appearance at the Royal Albert Hall. “I remember all the parents gathering to see us off on what seemed like the endless bus journey to London,” Dame Evelyn recalls. “It was quite an experience.”
She also recalls going shopping with her mother to buy the material for the full-length kilt that was the Ensemble’s uniform.  “She had to make the kilt. We got to choose the tartan; I think it was Mackintosh. I still have it somewhere, but it’s probably too big now. I was a chubby little girl!”
Forbes, now retired and living in Crete, is surprised by the album’s re-emergence, but has fond memories of working with Glennie. “It inspired Evelyn. Playing at the Albert Hall as a kid is quite an experience. I think she saw that what she wanted in life was going to happen. She was very single-minded and she went for it full time.”
When Glennie first auditioned for the Ensemble, she wasn’t completely deaf, recalls Forbes. “She tried to play the clarinet, but because her hearing was so bad she used to blow so loud she nearly blew the keys off, poor kid, because she wanted to hear what she was doing. So the music teacher at her school, Ellon Academy, said to me, ‘I don’t think she’ll be any good.’ But when I tested her, I knew she was a fine musician. She had perfect pitch.”
Forbes adapted his teaching to cope with Glennie’s deteriorating hearing, allowing her to “hear” the tuning by sensing the vibrations in the instruments. “She didn’t like listening to music so much then, because she was getting a lot of distorted sounds. When her hearing went, it was better for her, because she had a clear mind, and if she saw the notes she knew what they sounded like. So when I wrote the nine parts for the different players, she would learn them all, so she could hear the overall sound.”
At 13, Glennie is the youngest musician on the record, and she can be heard playing timpani and xylophone. “She was in the learning process then,” says Forbes. “It was the first chance she’d had to play something, and to make progress, to know that she was developing. 
“But she eventually became the principal player. A year later, she played all the hard bits.”
From these humble beginnings, Glennie has developed into a musician of international standing, but she acknowledges the importance of her time with the Ensemble, and the day Forbes gave her a snare drum and no sticks, and told her to create the sound of a storm, and then a whisper. “It’s not about the instruments,” she says. “It’s about the teaching, and using your imagination.”
As to the record being an “avant-garde masterpiece”, Forbes is modestly dismissive. “I don’t know how I feel about that. You guys do that – you classify it.” Suffice to say, the Percussion Ensemble isn’t the only cult record Forbes has been associated with. The London Jazz Four’s 1967 LP, Take A New Look At The Beatles has a growing reputation, with some critics – those who appreciate good vibes - suggesting that its arrangements surpass the Lennon/McCartney originals.