From the archive: Powerplant in concert

April 9, 2013

Warp Ten: boldly percussive explorations with Powerplant

An icy-blue glow and plethora of audio-visual equipment turned Augustine Hall into a shrine to electronica last night, a dimly-lit hall and an expectant hush for the start of the Powerplant concert. The waiting audience was greeted by a screen on which the heads of sightless dummies rotated in endless circles, back and forth, a metaphor perhaps for the often de-humanising isolation of modern life which was about to be exploded in vigorous fashion.

Striding purposefully onto the stage, percussionist Joby Burgess launched into Piece for Percussion by Nancarrow, a work bristling with the familiar complex poly-rhythms that characterise the Hermit of Mexico’s later pieces for player-piano. Projected onto the screen behind was a parade of still-photographs of horses, famous from zoetrope, each of which was triggered by Burgess into stages of movement; this almost detracted from the technical mastery Burgess displayed as he moved around the various pieces of percussion.

20130409-223616.jpgMatthew Fairclough’s The Boom and the Bap, a homage to a sixties drum-break for solo drum-kit and electronics, builds from small fragments in a series of samples and loops into full-on grooving with subtle warping bass-lines – a kind of drum’n bass-meets-Radiohead collage, with Fairclough himself at the mixing-desk. This was followed by Fitkin’s Chain of Command, written for Burgess’ trademark instrument, the xylosynth, an electronic xylophone which triggers all manner of samples and effects; the piece builds a dense tapestry of sounds from speech samples à la Steve Reich, with snatches of speech from George Bush Jnr and Donald Rumsfeld; behind Burgess, uncomfortable images of barbed-wire and obscene graffiti blossomed piece by piece on the screen like drops of blood pooling on a surface, reflecting the menacing political overtones of the sampled speech about Guantanamo Bay, created by artist Kathy Hinde.

24 Lies per Second by Max de Wardener brought the first half to a close, a trio of pieces ranging from shimmering and swooping electronics (occasionally reminiscent of Mark Snow’s incidental music to ‘The X-Files’) to tinkling glockenspiel, a menacing child’s lullaby, into a breakdown of Schubert’s Im Dorfe, a Kagel-esque collage of percussive effects, piano samples and film, in which rapid jump-cuts between a pianist’s hands and a metronone reflected the changing textures. This last movement was almost Nancarrow-esque in its dizzying whirlwind of rapid piano figures and flashing syncopated stabbed chords, perhaps a nod to the piece with which the concert had begun.

By far the most interesting piece began the second half, Temazcal by Mexican composer, Javier Alvarez. This was a tour de force for maracas and electronics, in which Burgess turned playing the shakers into a real performance art. A rich sonic tapestry clothed his frantic playing, in which instrumental effects were morphed electronically into warping gestures and drum-beat samples drifted in and out of focus, accompanied by a haunting and lonely repeated figure. The piece slowly assembles into a Venezuelan folk-song, from which all the material previously heard is generated, a sudden, bizarre transition into a sunny folk-song greeted with amused laughter by the audience; the contrast is extreme, and the piece finishes in far sunnier climes than expected, the change into a guileless calypso-style a little head-scratching.

Gabriel Prokofiev’s Import/export; suite for global junk brought the evening to a close, a piece which is basically a ‘concerto for sound effects’ built from an oil-drum, plastic bags, bottles and a de-constructed packing-crate, all held together by self-sampling and looping. What the piece lacks in concision, it makes up for in the diverse range of sounds distilled from unorthodox materials, all consummately played, as the whole performance had been, by Burgess with real flair.

(Originally posted by Daniel Harding on 10 May, 2012).

Images © Peter Cook / Sounds New

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Three Questions: Powerplant

April 17, 2012

Joby_BurgessI first came across Powerplant in the form of the novel twist Burgess provided on Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. Originally written for jazz-guitarist Pat Metheny, with Metheny playing against pre-recorded multi-tracks of guitar and bass guitar lines to create Reich’s trademark tapestry of interlocking sounds, I approached a percussive incarnation of the piece with some trepidation; but played on Burgess’ trademark ‘xylosynth,’ it remains true to the spirit of Reich’s vision whilst providing an interesting sonic and visual alternative take on Reich’s pulsating work:

Burgess recently gave the premiere of Gabriel Profiev’s Concerto for Bass Drum:

I caught up with Joby ahead of his imminent tour with Peter Gabriel (a busy performing calendar means Joby is fitting the concert for Sounds New in between gigs in Germany and Poland!), and put a few questions to him.

Tell us about Powerplant

JB: I formed Powerplant in 2005 to perform and develop music using live electronics and live looping, although a percussionist I have always been a bit of a studio rat, needing to find the latest toy, box or noise. The group generally tours as a trio with myself playing a mixture of drums, percussion, found objects and a xylosynth, alongside Matthew Fairclough handling the sound design and Kathy Hinde creating film and live visuals, to create a truly multimedia experience. Powerplant has recorded two studio albums: Electric Counterpoint – the music of Steve Reich and Kraftwerk (2008) and Import/Export – Gabriel Prokofiev’s suite for global junk (2010). Powerplant has performed extensively throughout the UK and given performances in Europe and the USA.

What excites you about contemporary music ?

JB: I am lucky to spend nearly all of my time working with composers, song-writers and improvisers in creating and bringing to the world at large new music and performances. I am not interested in the label it might be given, as long as the music is good and has honest intentions. Over the past two years, I have spent much time working with a range of artists including Peter Gabriel, Gabriel Prokofiev, Graham Fitkin, Adrian Utley and Will Gregory.

Tell us about your concert for Sounds New next month

For Sounds New, Powerplant will present recently developed music for the group including Conlon Nancarrow’s Piece for Tape – an early pre-pianola experiment arranged for drums and blocks by composer Dominic Murcott, Matthew Fairclough’s The Boom and The Bap – a piece for drum set and and live electronics exploring the world of break beats and Max de Wardener’s 2011 commission 24 Lies Per Second – a suite of pieces inspired by the films and words of Austrian director Michael Haneke, including a particularly special mash-up of Schubert’s ‘Im Dorfe’ from the Piano Teacher. Alongside these Powerplant plays its two major commissions from late 2008, Graham Fitkin’s Chain of Command and Gabriel Prokofiev’s Suite for global junk Import/Export.