Mallets in Wonderland: an interview with percussionist Greg Felton

With the Universe of Sound installation in full swing at Augustine House, I caught up with percussionist Greg Felton, who’s a part of the experience; he told me about his involvement with the project, the ‘stress-relief’ possibilities of percussion-playing, and the discovery of some choice eateries in town…

Tell us a bit about your background

Greg: I trained as a percussionist at the Guildhall School of Music, and after graduation I worked as a percussionist for a couple of contemporary dance companies.  I eventually began to dabble in creating promotional films for musical projects and music videos, editing and website design, and so decided to do an internship with the Philharmonia’s digital department, in order to learn how to do all these digital things properly.

Greg_1Whilst I was at the end of my internship we filmed Universe of Sound in January 2012. Since completing my internship I’ve been working as a freelancer, doing camera operating, film editing, score reading, as well as performing as a percussionist and drummer.  I’m a regular freelancer for the Philharmonia’s digital department when they need an extra pair of hands, and I live in the Percussion room throughout Universe of Sound.

How did you come to be involved in the project ?

Greg: When we set up Universe of Sound at the Science Museum, we realized that it would require a percussionist in the room to help encourage people to join in and play along, and to make sure people have the correct drum sticks in their hands etc.  We’d filmed the on-screen tutorials, where two percussionists from the Philharmonia describe the next percussion entry, and these worked well.  But as the installation progressed,  I was able to devise a kind of ‘rolling-percussion-workshop’ which would shift depending on who was in the room and what they wanted to do, and at what time they had arrived during the piece.

What’s been your experience of it – visitors reactions; do they get stuck in, are they shy ?

Greg: I find that whilst some people can be a little hesitant at first, the moment you have tried one of the tutorials, it becomes addictive.  It wasn’t unusual to get people who played the entire hour-long piece through on percussion.  In some extreme cases, people were coming back, day after day, learning the percussion parts all from memory.  It works on so many levels, with wild schools workshops with bigger groups, to more personal detailed sessions where people get a real sense of what it involves to be an orchestral percussionist.

And now of course the percussion is in the Portakabin, which helps a lot!  Previously when the percussion room was attached to the main room, we’d need to be a bit sensitive during the quieter movements such as Venus, so that the music wasn’t drowned out by noise.  But now if someone wants to feel the full force of the bass drum and tam-tam, they can do so at any moment during the piece.  You’re free to hit anything you’d like, as loud or soft as you’d like, with or without a tutorial.  It’s more flexible.

What benefit or value do you think the project has ?

Greg: It works on all levels.  But I think it’s important to feel just how much expressive potential there is in the percussion section.  I love it when people are overwhelmed by the ridiculous volume of the tam-tam.  I can then confirm to them that it really is that loud in the orchestra.  The percussionists really do strike their instruments that hard when Holst writes ‘fff’ as a dynamic.  It’s important people see that there is nothing ‘safe’ about orchestral music.  It’s intense and brilliant.

Have you had any mad moments with visitors to the installation ?

Greg: So far in Canterbury we’ve had some brilliant moments.  At one stage we had about thirty people in the percussion portakabin all at once, comprised of a schools group along with some students from the university, and some adults.  Together, we all played through the Talbot piece, Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity and straight back round to Mars again. Yesterday, two students let off some ‘dissertation stress’ on the bass drum, which was hilarious!

And how are you finding Canterbury during your stay  ?

Currently loving Canterbury!  We discovered the Belgian beer restaurant, which also does stunning food.  Also had some amazing crepes in the Chocolate Café, and we even had an evening when we caught some bands at a gig up at the studio in the Marlowe Theater.  There’s a lot going on here, and we’re really enjoying ourselves.

Follow Greg on Twitter. With thanks to Greg for his time.

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