Joby Burgess – Photo Kathy Hinde

5 questions to Joby Burgess (percussionist)

Joby Burgess - Photo Kathy Hinde

Joby Burgess – Photo Kathy Hinde

As ‘genre-busting’ percussionist, whose work has led you to collaborate with musicians and artists of a variety of disciplines, I wonder where and how this collaborative approach began in your musical career?

Well the variety has always been there: I grew up listening to my Dad’s record collection of jazz, opera, rock, classical and world music, whilst saving my pocket money to buy the latest 7 inch. The categories and perceived barriers in music, to me, have always been just a way to navigate the record store or internet more quickly!

It took me quite some time to seriously pursue percussion—a late convert from drums to gain a place at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama where I spent much of my time writing songs and locked down in the electronic music studio. I’d hear something new and interesting and want to work out how to play it or how it was written. This creative urge has meant I am happiest when working in small ensembles and responding to composers who are actually in the room (not 6 feet under!).

Over the years I have worked on developing a certain set of skills, many learnt because it was simply required. In 2001 my duo, New Noise, commissioned Nigel Osborne. The piece contained a solo for berimbau (an ancient African shepherding instrument) that I quickly learnt to hold (then play!), whilst the music for marimba required 6 mallets with endless interval shifts, so I figured out a way of doing it – it was difficult but most importantly those chords needed all those notes. That same year, I learnt Tihai with Nitin Sawhney, worked on a un-scored / semi improvised production of Romeo and Juliet at London’s National Theatre, played Stravinsky under Boulez and joined percussion group ensemblebash.

Playing and working with so many different sorts of music and musicians keeps me constantly learning new methods and techniques, ready to come to each new project with fresh ears.

It was an enjoyable and intriguing evening when I attended the Powerplant performance as part of the Spitalfield’s Festival, in London, 2013. Particularly having my name recorded as part of Steve Reich’s ‘My Name Is’. What was the motivation behind Powerplant? I mean, how did it come into being?

Powerplant made its debut in July 2005 at the South Bank Centre and was simply a vehicle for me to bring together several of the things on my ‘wish list’. I had been performing some solo and chamber pieces using tape or simple signal processing, but was keen to develop this electronic part of my performance further. Initially I added a xylosynth to my instrument collection, which gave me a way of using synths and samples alongside my acoustic percussion set-up. I also added loop pedals to be able to construct much bigger sounding solo pieces, without being tethered to a fixed tape part. I asked composer and sound engineer Matthew Fairclough if he would get involved in contributing electronic processing of my acoustic percussion instruments and the first original compositions for the xylosynth.

I also wanted to up the theatrical presentation and brought in visual artist, Kathy Hinde whose video work I had got to know through pianist, Joanna MacGregor. Kathy’s video immediately added a new dimension to my performance and by working regularly together has helped great a cohesive whole for Powerplant’s music and images.

Powerplant’s initial performances featured the Elysian Quartet and focused heavily on the music of Steve Reich and Kraftwerk. The trio of myself (percussion and electronics) with Matthew Fairclough (sound design) and Kathy Hinde (visual artist) remains at the heart of the collective.

What’s your memory of the most successful relationship working with a composer? Can you think why that worked really well?

I feel really lucky to have built many very strong composer / performer relationships over the years and for me it is pretty essential that there is a shared vision from both parties. Working with Gabriel Prokofiev on what became Import/Export – a suite for global junk was a really exciting process and a very organic journey.

In summer 2006 myself and Gabriel had some initial conversations, followed by a meeting to play around with various percussion instruments. We had originally discussed a companion piece for Iannis Xenakis’ Rebonds B, but an empty glass soda bottle (Fanta) sitting in my studio changed everything. I had picked it up in Gambia and used it regularly as a glass guiro (scraper), whilst Gabriel had seen them played like cowbells in Tanzania. We started to explore further ways of playing this found object and began work shopping Gabriel’s ideas, using my live looping set-up over the coming months.

I premiered Fanta in Autumn 2007 and after a couple of dozen performances, we began talking about developing the music further by utilizing more found objects – an oil drum, wooden pallet and plastic bags completed the set-up. The complete suite (which has Fanta® as a middle movement) was premiered as part of a full UK tour in Autumn 2008. Our shared goal of getting maximum music from minimal objects was crucial to the success of that commission, which was then taken a step further in Gabriel’s 2012 commission Concerto for Bass Drum Orchestra.

Joby Burgess - Photo Kathy Hinde

Joby Burgess – Photo Kathy Hinde

What could be next? Is there something in terms of collaboration or is there something that you think needs to be done in terms of percussion writing?

Well there is always plenty under discussion, conversations with various composers, writers, producers and promoters, but sourcing and discovering new percussion instruments and computer software is also important.

Powerplant is currently working towards a new commission from Will Gregory, which premieres in Bristol this summer as part of the Filmic Festival. Will is best known for his work with Goldfrapp, but his musical interests are wide ranging and so his passions for synthesizers, Stockhausen and song (or text in this case) are all likely to play a part in his new creation.

I am currently excited to be experimenting with a new version of the ‘Aluminum Harp’ and testing newly developed hardware and software for the xylosynth, all of which will certainly feed into Powerplant’s work in the not to distance future.

I think by simply creating a environment where composers can experiment and take risks, both Powerplant and myself will continue to support relevant new work and fill some of the holes in the percussion repertoire.

How does all that you do in terms of commissioning and development of music filter into your education work?

Well all of my commissioning, collaborations and performances play an essential role in the education work that I deliver. These days that means performance master-classes, rhythm and composition workshops, private tuition, talking about my work and even the odd bit of career advice.

One of the things I often take forward in my education work is groove. I often see young musicians caught up ‘head in the score’, trying to play the ‘right notes’, whilst forgetting to really listen to the sound they are producing or the feel the ensemble is creating. For classical musicians this often means taking away the paper and playing less pitches, in order to really open up the ears and loosen up the body.

For me rhythm and groove is such an essential part of all music making, to the extent that I use the same approach for performing Bartok’s Sonata as I do to touring with Peter Gabriel. By sharing my own insights and experiences with music making, I am aiming to open a few more doors so that others can discover new techniques, resources and help achieve their own ambitions.

Powerplant play Will Gregory on Thursday, May 22 at St George’s, Bristol (UK). More information at