All images © Sounds New / Peter Cook
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.
Whilst 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.
And with the sound of the orchestral instruments tuning, the Universe of Sound was launched in Canterbury last night. Welcoming speeches from various dignitaries, including Richard Slaney, head of digital at the Philharmonia, and the Mayor of Canterbury gave way to a dimming of the lights and the familiar sound of the orchestra tuning up, before launching into the ominous ostinato with which ‘Mars’ from The Planets suite stirs into life.
Watching the efforts of the different sections of the orchestra on large screens around the hall, you gain a real sense of the physical effort involved in playing as part of the orchestra. Standing in the violin section during ‘Mercury,’ you really felt the hardship of the instrumentalists working away at those scurrying passages. At various stages, the installation will have members of the orchestra playing live as part of their virtual orchestral section; bring your instrument, and you can also sit at an unoccupied orchestral desk and play along too.
As you walk round the installation, you also experience the sonic nature of what it means to play amidst the different orchestral sections from carefully laid-out speakers; fragmented, exposed, not always able clearly to hear the solo line that might be occurring over in the flute; the brittleness of the reed instruments, the weighty chords of the brass, the rasp of bow on string; it makes you appreciate anew that magical alchemy that occurs when a good acoustic environment transforms all these disparate sections, moulding them as if magically into an homogenous sound. From your comfortable seat in the audience, the ensemble appears a perfectly-unified Rolls Royce; up close, it’s hard work, yet delivered with consummate skill by these professional musicians. An oboe solo line arcs lyrically and effortlessly overhead; from out of nowhere, a nerveless principal horn delivers exquisitely-crafted phrases.
There are also some wonderfully human touches that display the humanity of instrumental playing; brass players empty the water out of their instruments, or blow silently through their instrument shortly before playing; woodwind players check their mouthpiece. It’s a reminder of the fact that music like this is a profoundly human experience, performed by real people demonstrating consummate skill and craft on their instruments.
The percussion section, relegated to a Portakabin outside the hall, offers the most fun, the opportunity to try your hand at playing a variety of instruments, including a tam-tam, bass drum or mark tree, under the guidance of members of the Philharmonia. This is the part of the installation that children are really going to enjoy… There’s also a conducting pod, where you can try your hand at directing the performance, guided by on-screen diagrams of the beat-patterns which monitor your performance in a sort of ‘Just Dance’ experience.
This is only the second outing for the whole project outside of London. After its Canterbury residence, the installation moves to Birmingham. The experience offers insights into, and an appreciation of, orchestral playing and the act of music-making, both to seasoned musical visitors as well as to those coming to orchestral music for the first time, to adults and to children alike. The installation at Augustine House is free, and runs until 12 May.
You can watch the footage from BBC South East’s coverage online here.
If you’re going to be visiting the Universe of Sound installation at Augustine Hall over the next few weeks, we’d love to hear your reactions / thoughts / see your pictures (or even video) of your visit!
Sounds New and the Universe of Sound is our digital wall, where you can post your comments, reactions, and images of your visit to the installation: let us know how you got on, maybe even post footage of your trying out the Conducting Pod ? Go on: you know you want to!
Visit the wall online here.
Ahead of the opening of the Universe of Sound in Canterbury tomorrow, we sent third-year music student and trumpeter, Josh Thorne, to try out one of the Conducting pods which is already in place. Here, he gives us the low-down on conducting Holst, coughing machines and reveals his familiarity with Wi gaming technology…
As many may have seen, small black pods are appearing all around Canterbury. Yesterday, I decided to have a look.
As I entered the pod, I found a pair of yellow feet to stand on and three TV screens in front of me with a camera / sensor set up above them; similar to a Wi console. After selecting my first piece, Mars, by using my hands, I started to conduct the Orchestra.
Even though I am a conducting student, this was a lot harder than I anticipated, and needless to say there was lots of coughing made by the machine to inform me that I wasn’t doing a very good job! One thing which I did find useful was how it helped you to develop a use for the left hand in conducting, and how it can be used to change the dynamics of the piece.
After a slightly failed attempt at Mars, I moved on to Jupiter with a 90% success rate compare to my 20% previously! All in all, great fun.
Try your hand at conducting the Philharmonia, when the Universe of Sound opens tomorrow, running until May 12 at Augustine Hall.
The Universe of Sound is already making its presence felt around Canterbury, with only five days until it launches.
The Conducting Pod in the foyer of the Marlowe Theatre uses video screens and stereo speakers to immerse you in the experience of conducting part of Holst’s Planets suite;
Whilst the foyer to Christ Church University displays a giant poster advertising the installation, which opens this Saturday at Augustine Hall.
Only five days left…
Follow the making of the Universe of Sound in the Philharmonia’s April video podcast, which explores the creation of the project from January 2012; click here.
Sounds New is delighted to be a partner in bringing this exciting project to Canterbury; lift-off on Saturday 27 April.
With the Universe of Sound installation due to open in just over two weeks’ time, signs of its arrival are beginning to appear in Canterbury; seen yesterday in the foyer of the Marlowe Theatre is the Conductor Pod.
Image via Laura Callaghan (@lauracallaspam)
Ahead of the composition day at Sounds New next week, I caught up with Education manager, Peter Cook, to find out what’s in store.
So, Sounds New starts next week: what’s happening next Wednesday ?
PC: It’s the secondary school composition day, called Star Compositions and Darker Matters.
And what does this involve ?
PC: Well, we’ll be exploring the extraordinary exhibition installation called the Universe of Sound, which is on show as part of Sounds New this year and features a ‘walk-in orchestra’ viewable from wild and wonderful angles, performing Holst’s The Planets and a new piece by Joby Talbot.
Ah, yes: the composer of the recently successful ballet-score to Alice in Wonderland at Covent Garden ?
PC: That’s right! And the Head of Digital from the Philharmonic, Richard Slaney, will be at the composition day and will be talking about how he put the installation together and why it is a ‘must-see’ exhibition.
And how will you be exploring composing that day ?
PC: Paul Edlin, a former President of the ISM and a composer himself will be talking about Gustav Holst, as well as his own compositional technique. After listening and watching aspects of the installation on video, we will break into smaller groups to explore new sounds ourselves. I’ll be exploring improvisations connected to the theme of the day. We’re very excited to hear from both speakers and to work with young musicians to create something really special. And the day will end with a recording of what we achieve and a discussion about the relevance of new music.
We’ll bring you pictures (and maybe even some of the compositions) from the day. Find out more about the Universe of Sound, which comes to Canterbury on 27 April, here.
With exactly three weeks until the Universe of Sound installation comes to Canterbury, here’s a short video from the Science Museum about what’s in store.
Sounds New is delighted to be a partner in bringing this unique project to Canterbury. The odyssey begins on Saturday 27 April.