Saturday 20 June 2020

A work usually starts with a conversation: I chat to percussionist Joby Burgess about new repertoire, collaborating with composers and playing during lockdown

Joby Burgess with a wind wand (Photo Nick White)
Joby Burgess with a wind wand (Photo Nick White)
Percussionist Joby Burgess has quite a diverse portfolio, his CV includes work with a wide variety of artists from Will Gregory of Goldfrapp and Akram Khan, to Peter Maxwell Davies, Max Richter, and Eric Whitacre, as well as playing on a number of major film and TV scores.  He has done a lot to develop the percussion repertoire, including signficant collaborations with Graham Fitkin and with Gabriel Prokofiev. Joby has worked with Prokofiev on a Bass Drum Concerto, and a suite for found objects including Fanta bottles! I recently met up with Joby over Zoom to talk about the modern percussion repertoire, collaborating with composers, his nine-foot aluminium harp, and what he has been doing during lock down.

So what does a percussionist actually do?

The big difference between a percussionist and many other musicians is that percussionists play a large number of instruments. Whilst in lockdown, Joby is relatively lucky as he has a studio where he can record, along with a set of instruments there, and lots more in storage.  And he points out that all musicians are similar, it is just that a percussionist plays families of instruments rather than one or two. Joby has his own collection of 100s of instruments, and regularly plays dozens.

Joby Burgess (Photo Nick White)
Joby Burgess (Photo Nick White)
But when he is playing a solo concert he tries to come up with a group of instruments (drums, woodblocks, and so on) and combine them together to form an instrument which forms a focus to be used regularly in a mix of repertoire. So that there is particular combination of drums which he uses for piece by Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), and which he can also use for a piece by Tansy Davis, and by others. The combination forms a single instrument so that for each work there is the same layout, the same reach for each of the drums.

The learning process is very much a journey, as different instruments require different techniques, with variations in the way they make the sound. So there are plenty of skills to hone.

When I ask Joby if he always wanted to be a percussionist, he laughs and says that he started out as a frustrated songwriter. His father had a large collection of records and the young Joby would listen to a wide range of music - opera, jazz, rock and more. From the age of seven, Joby learned the piano, and he wrote a lot of songs. When he moved to senior school he had to decide on an instrument, and he wanted to play the bass guitar, but that was not allowed. Instead, he chose the drums, which strangely was allowed, and played a lot of rock and jazz. At sixteen, he was taking marimba lessons, and got on to the classical percussion course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, though at the time he did not necessarily plan to be a classical percussionist.

What Joby enjoys is the variety of his job, and he feels that he has been lucky to work with a wide range of composers and songwriters. He says that it keeps him fresh and opens him up to new ideas. He often finds himself challenged, and that is something he enjoys, which keeps the job interesting.

"though the repertoire is young the idea of percussion is old,
starting with simply banging rocks together"

What he enjoys are the conversations which take place between him and the composer, songwriter or producer. He enjoys the collaboration, the conversations about finding solutions to a challenge; this is what he enjoys most about making music.

By and large, the music he plays in solo and chamber concerts is 75-80% new repertoire, and even the older pieces are relatively recent, from the past 50 years. He feels that as a performer it is important to look back, and whereas a cellist will have Bach's Cello Suites as their daily bread, for Joby it is the music of Xenakis. Yet the strange thing is that, though the repertoire is young the idea of percussion is old, starting with simply banging rocks together. But whilst percussion in Western classical music dates from the 20th century, in other world musics it is very different.

Since Joby has been playing, he has seen the percussion repertoire grow immensely. There were major figures in the past, and he mentions the Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta who worked with Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) and Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) in the 1960s, and toured as a solo percussionist. But it is only more recently that percussion has been at the front of people's consciousness. As an interesting digression, Joby mentions that the first percussion concerto was written in 1916 by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), whilst the first work for solo percussion is Zylkus written in 1959 by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). Whilst it is a young repertoire, a lot of composers have looked back to archaic ideas for their soundworld, tapping into a wealth of ancient sounds, as well as being influenced by World Music.

"A work usually starts with a conversation"

A work usually starts with a conversation, something that Joby enjoys as the composer is going to be writing for a particular person. It can often been going into a room and trying things out, experimenting, seeing what instruments are available.

He has fruitful relationships with composers Graham Fitkin and Gabriel Prokofiev, partly because as well as playing their music he has also played music with Fitkin and with Prokofiev. He plays in Graham Fitkin's band, which Joby describes as a nonet of Fitkin's favourite instrumentalists. Joby and Gabriel Prokofiev have toured together, Joby on percussion and Prokofiev on electronics. So he has a strong sense of each composer's style, which means that a lot can go unsaid as they understand what the music is about.

The exciting thing is to get together and try things out. For the last fifteen years or so, this has been the way that he tries to work with composers, rather than simply getting the score through the post. Instead, he wants to share the journey with the composers, and the shared expectations. Sometimes Joby might have an idea for a piece, and will talk to a composer; this might not work, but he feels that this sort of conversation is fruitful.

Joby and Gabriel Prokofiev ended up being connected via a group of string players, the Elysian Quartet, with whom they each worked in the early 2000s.  Joby played at one of Gabriel Prokofiev's Nonclassical gigs at Cargo in 2005 (Prokofiev was a pioneer with Nonclassical in taking music out of the concert hall). Joby played at the Nonclassical gig and Prokofiev was the DJ; Joby had heard the Elysian Quartet performing one of Prokofiev's pieces. Prokofiev suggested working on a piece for Joby, who liked the idea. Joby was already using electronics, looping and processing, so the two were quite a good fit.

"a long conversation about coffee, music, art "

They got together and had a long conversation about coffee, music, art and the result was the idea for a solo piece. Joby was playing a Xenakis piece for drums at the time, and he wanted a work to sit alongside it. However, Prokofiev spied a Fanta bottle from Nigeria in Joby's studio; it was a glass bottle with a serrated finish to it which Joby used as a scraper. Prokofiev had been in Tanzania where he had seen people playing glass bottles as cow bells.

They workshopped ideas over 18 months and the result was a piece for electronics and Fanta bottles which explores different ways of getting sounds from the bottles, the sounds taped, looped and processed. He played it a lot in 2007 and 2008, and got a good reaction to it as the piece creates strong electronic dance music on two Fanta bottles! Joby describes it as fun and hip, yet a serious modern composition. And so was born the idea of a suite for junk, Import/Explore where Joby uses an oil drum, packing palette, plastic bags and more. Kathy Hinde made a video, and they toured the music and video with Joby's project Powerplant, and there have been hundreds of performances over the past 12 or 13 years.

SIGCD584: Gabriel Prokofiev - Saxophone Concerto & Bass Drum Concerto
Some time later, having recorded Import/Export, Joby was talking to the London Contemporary Orchestra about a concerto, and the idea was that Gabriel Prokofiev might write it. It seemed nice if, for the concerto, they did not litter the stage with instruments but to concentrate on one object (as each movement of Import/Export concentrated on a single type of found object). It was Prokofiev's idea to use a bass drum, an instrument which is at the back of classical music but which is endemic in music all over the world. It was initially a challenge to see if there were enough sounds and material to justify a concerto. They decided yes. Each movement explores the drum in a different way, to create a brilliant concerto and a novel challenge.

"an instrument
which is at the back of classical music
but which is endemic in music all over the world"

Joby recorded the concerto in Russia, with the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Alexei Bogorad, and it was released on Signum Classics late last year paired with Prokofiev's Saxophone Concerto, played by Branford Marsalis. Whilst Joby likes the idea of concentrating on one instruments, he knows that each time he plays the concerto, the orchestra and the audience think 'what is he going to do with the bass drum', but you can do an awful lot with it.

Joby's project, Powerplant has been a huge part of his musical development, including a sold out concert at the Southbank Centre. Powerplant brings percussion together with electronics and video. Over the years Kathy Hinde (artist), Matt Fairclough (electronics) and Joby have developed how to bring the three together. They have performed commissions from Gabriel Prokofiev and by Graham Fitkin, whose work used a Xylo-synth, a keyboard playing midi samples and in this case just the voices of Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush. More recently they played a work by Max de Wardener based on a film by Michael Hanneke, The Piano Teacher, which used 'Am Dorf' from Schubert's Winterreise from the film. Joby describes it as Schubert put through the mincer, just five minutes of music and video but very powerful.

Joby Burgess with his Canna Sonora (Photo Nick White)
Joby Burgess with his Canna Sonora (Photo Nick White)
More recently Joby performed a commission from Linda Buckley, Discordia, for a nine foot aluminium harp (long rods of aluminium played with gloves covered in powdered resin).. Joby was at Air Studios when he had come across a copy of an instrument made in the 1920s by JC Deagan (whom Joby describes as the Stradivarius of tuned percussion).  Deagan made staples such as marimbas, but also novelty instruments like the aluminium harp (another novelty instrument was the vibraphone!). Aluminium harp instrument never quite disappeared, and was used by Jerry Goldsmith in the 1982 film Poltergeist. Joby has a modern version, Canna Sonora, a two octave instrument; he describes it as beautiful instrument, and he has been excited to use it for the last five years.

Like other musicians, the present crisis has changed a lot; Joby lost all his existing work and his diary quickly turned into a snowstorm.  One of his first lockdown projects was to create a virtual marimba choir. Recently Joby had been recording the music of Eric Whitacre, and the third week of March he was driving his children to school when the radio was talking about Gareth Malone creating a virtual choir, and Joby remembered that Eric Whitacre had done something similar and Joby ended up talking to his son about the idea a marimba choir. He felt that Eric Whitacre's music would work for large numbers of people.

"over 200 percussionists from 40 countries playing Eric Whitacre's 'Sleep'"

Should he do it? He discussed it with colleagues and Eric Whitacre was enthusiastic and positive. So Joby spent two weeks at home creating resources. He was keen not to use a click track, so he created conducting videos of himself, learning a lot of new skills. People involved in the project would look at his conducting and follow it, with the score scrollin. He also created demos, putting it all on line and gave people three weeks. The resulting video, on YouTube, has over 200 percussionists from 40 countries playing Eric Whitacre's Sleep, and not just marimbas but whatever people had at home. Joby even did a demo on a bottle-phone, though no-one took him up in it.

Joby felt that it was a great way to spend 300 hours, and was helped by a terrific team in post production. He thinks it was a very positive thing to do in lockdown, both learning the new skills and also finding a new audience. And he has been do virtual masterclasses from home. He also has a few more recording projects with new people, as a result of lockdown. Also he has a new commission project to look forward to, it was supposed to be in November but has been put back to 2021, and Joby has half the pieces already.

Joby Burgess (Photo Nick White)
Joby Burgess (Photo Nick White)
He also detects a few green shoots. He will be taking part in a festival this Autumn which will involved live performance, socially distanced, and he has already done a concert for Tamsin Waley Cohen's Living Room Live. Joby and Tamsin are newly acquainted, and he finds her a positive force, getting things done . But he feels that it will take a while for performances to really come back. He is also interested in creating more video content for pieces, and is interested in sharing his new commission project more widely. We will have to find what is going to work and change plans.

It will take different parts of the industry different times to come back. His commercial recording work has started to come back; when we spoke he was planning to return to Abbey Road Studios as the Musicians' Union has been working hard in the background to find a way back to being able to record.

Whilst lockdown caused Joby's diary to empty, the wierd thing is that during the period he has been busier. He feels that if you are reasonably proactive and entrepreneurial, then there is a tendency to get stuff done because it needs to be done. He has found it exciting too. There has been one concert, for Living Room Live [see Joby's concert], and he has done some recording.

It is very much a new work, and moving forward Joby feels that interesting things will come out of this period, with new ways of working.

Joby Burgess on disc:
  • Gabriel Prokofiev - Saxophone Concerto, Bass Drum Concerto - Branford Marsalis, Joby Burgess, Ural Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexei Bogorad - Signum Classics - SIGCD584
  • Eric Whitacre - Marimba quartets - Joby Burgess, Sam Wilson, Calum Huggan, Rob Farrer - Signum Classics SIGCD625
  • Electric Counterpoint: pieces by Reich, Kraftwerk, Burgess, Fairclough - Powerplant: Joby Burgess (percussion), Matthew Fairclough (sound design), Kathy Hinde (visual artist), Elysian String Quartet - Signum Classics - SIGCD143
  • 24 Lies per second - Graham Fitkin, Matthew Fairclough, Max de Wardener, Conlon Nancarrow, Dominic Murcott, Steve Reich -
    Powerplant:Joby Burgess, Matthew Fairclough, Kathy Hinde - Signum Classics - SIGCD313
  • Gabriel Prokofiev - Suite for Global Junk - Powerplant:Joby Burgess, Matthew Fairclough, Kathy Hinde - Nonclassical
  • Bela Bartok - Sonata for two pianos and percussion - Pascal Roge, Amy Roge, Joby Burgess - Onyx Classics

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Venice's Fragrance: this delightful disc from Nurial Rial and Artemandoline celebrates the 18th century's love affair with the mandolin - CD review
  • A journey over the rainbow: Ailish Tynan & Iain Burnside take us from mature Grieg to Harold Arlen - concert review
  • Contemporary re-invention: the String Orchestra of Brooklyn's debut disc features two works which re-invent fragments of classics - CD review
  • A picture of a musical collaboration: In Seven Days from Thomas Adès and Kirill Gerstein - CD review
  • Richard Wagner's heir, innovative festival director, opera composer, homosexual: the complex tale of Siegfried Wagner - feature article
  • An organist in lockdown: I chat to Edmund Aldhouse, director of music at Ely Cathedral, about his work, the English romantic organ, & how to keep choristers motivated without regular services - interview
  • Hee-Young Lim: the young Korean cellist in Prokofiev & Rachmaninov cello sonatas on Sony Classical - CD review
  • Cultured, well-made songs: The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook from Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow - CD review
  • From the pen of the septuagenarian swan: Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis from the Choir of Keble College and the Academy of Ancient Music - CD review
  • Early Beethoven, late Faure and Schumann's birthday: Steven Isserlis and Mishka Rushdie Momen at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Adventures on the Green Hill: Tony Cooper explores Richard Wagner's villa Wahnfried at Bayreuth - feature article
  • 'Home

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