The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


INTERVIEW: Powerplant
Leo Chadburn , June 11th, 2013 07:42

Ahead of his show at the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival this weekend, we talk to virtuoso percussionist Joby Burgess about his collaborative project

In the last ten years or so, Joby Burgess has made a name for himself as a leading classical percussionist, immediately recognisable for his flamboyant stage presence and whip-crack virtuosity. His schedule includes solo performances and appearances with various contemporary music ensembles, ranging from the minimalist to the modernist.

However, he is most committed to his Powerplant project, a kind of multimedia band which combines Burgess' mercurial percussion skills with live electronics and live video. Their third album, 24 Lies Per Second, was released earlier this year and receives a live outing this weekend as part of the Spitalfields festival.

How do you end up being a percussion soloist?

Joby Burgess: Well, I grew up playing drums, rock and roll drums, trying to write songs on four-track tape recorders and playing in small jazz bands. Then when I was 16, I heard [Stravinsky's] Petrushka at the Proms, and through that got to know The Rite Of Spring - this amazing music, which really changed the direction I was going in. And I also started listening to Frank Zappa, who'd just released The Yellow Shark [Zappa's 1993 'final' album, a wild selection of his orchestral music, performed by Ensemble Modern].

Around the same time, I bought a compilation record from the [now defunct] Argo label, who did a whole series of records of new music in the early 90s: Michael Nyman, Bang On A Can, that sort of thing. The first track was Ensemble Bash playing Graham Fitkin's piece Hook [scored for four marimbas], a piece loosely based on Chicago house music and I immediately thought, "wow, what's that sound?" and I really quickly gravitated to wanting to play marimba and percussion instead of drums.

And those musicians who inspired you are now the people you work with - you're a member of Ensemble Bash, for example.

JB: Yes, I think that period of time, when there was the idea of 'post-minimalism' (or whatever you want to call it) in the air, was really interesting. There was a fusion of rock and classical aesthetics: composers started adding drums to their ensembles, or industrial beats. I was really turned on by that stuff. It was really captivating. It made me want to dive in.

The Powerplant project is interesting because the visual side of things seems to be as important as the music.

JB: Well, there's an inherent physicality and theatricality to playing percussion. In the early part of my career I was lucky to end up working with lots of amazing artists, in lots of amazing ensembles, but when it came to making my own music, I knew I wanted to include video, but also work in the studio, expanding the percussion sound with delays and effects. So I started working with Matthew Fairclough, who's a brilliant sound designer and composer and [video artist] Kathy Hinde. The reaction to it was good, so we've carried on. We're a group who work well together, but we can also push each other in fresh directions.

Rather like a 'real' band?

JB: Yes. We spent about two years developing a way of communicating, and setting up the electronics so we could tour.

And that tour was based on music by Kraftwerk, hence the name?

JB: Yes - this was in 2008. I'd been into Kraftwerk for about 10 years, and the idea was to make new arrangements for percussion and electronics and strings. It seemed like an obvious fit. And then it was taken up by the Manchester International Festival, so it obviously connected with people in some way. Kraftwerk are a great model band, the way they integrate visual art and new instruments and new sounds. Even now, they're pushing things all the time, with the use of 3D in their shows, for example.

The new album contains collaborations with a variety of composers - Max de Wardener, Graham Fitkin, Dominic Murcott. How do you go about choosing which composers you work with?

JB: I really like to forge longer term relationships with composers. I'm less interested in the old model of classical musicians commissioning composers and maybe playing their piece once. For instance, with Graham Fitkin's new piece [Chain of Command, featuring samples of the voices of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld], there was a year-long gestation period. The result is one of the hardest pieces I've ever had to play. Other pieces like Matthew Fairclough's The Boom And The Bap developed slowly in performance - originally it was based on the Amen Break, but it gradually evolved through us performing it live so often.

That's quite an unusual way of working, in classical music at least...

JB: Yes, it's a very different piece now. The live percussion triggers all manner of material through a MAX/MSP patch. It's become very detailed and complicated. Being able to try the piece in front of audiences so many times means that it's mutated in a really interesting way.

Being a percussionist means you become a kind of obsessive collector of instruments, is that right?

JB: I have no idea how many different instruments I own. They fill 600 square foot of space! Glockenspiels, tuned percussion, instruments of every kind and colour. But then a lot of music I commission tends to focus on perhaps one instrument, or a small selection. If you have a really nice cymbal, why not try to find every subtlety of sound it can make? That seems like a good way of working. It's something I really explored with Gabriel Prokofiev's Concerto For Bass Drum, which obviously featured just one instrument.

One of the most interesting tracks on the new Powerplant album is a previously unrecorded Steve Reich piece, My Name Is.

JB: It's a very early piece, from 1967, which Steve Reich And Musicians attempted a few times, but never made a definitive version of. I'd read about it and it sounded interesting. I've been lucky enough to have worked with Steve a few times, so I got in touch with him and his publishers sent me a score - just a couple of lines of text. The idea is that you record people saying their name, frantically splice loops onto 15 reel-to-reel tape machines and perform a 'phase' live.

We were keen to make it work and the technology is now evolved enough that we can do it live, more or less in real time, with members of the audience providing the voices. It turns out it's a really engaging piece and Steve seems pleased with the version we've done - we did it live for him in Glasgow and he liked that this thing he'd abandoned had a new life. But we still have other ideas about it - we'd like to make an interactive version where people at home could create their own realisation. Maybe that's a year or two down the line, but it's evolving all the time. We're always looking for new ways of creating and performing this music.

Powerplant plays Spitalfields Music Summer Festival on Saturday 15 June at the Bishopsgate Institute; get hold of tickets here