Tuesday night’s concert in The Barbican’s The Art of Change season was an exhilarating and eclectic mix of contemporary works for augmented percussion realised by Powerplant – the virtuosic and versatile percussionist Joby Burgess, sound designer Matthew Fairclough and video artist Kathy Hinde.
The concert opened with Graham Fitkin’s Chain of Command, a slick demonstration by Joby Burgess of the possibilities of a vibra-synth (a vibraphone hooked up to a synthesizer, such that the ‘notes’ of the vibraphone can play any sampled sound). Samples of speeches by George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld became the ‘notes’ – caught in repeating, busy, loops that overlapped to form complex and insistent rhythmic patterns in a hypnotically compelling two-section piece (accompanied by decaying and re-constructing images of razor wire) whose tonality was disturbingly conventional.
Will Gregory’s 2014 work Incremental Drift (referencing both algorithms in process systems and the tendency of senior employees’ wages to increase exponentially) also employed looping techniques, this time via the splendidly euphonious marimba. Accompanied by a video of forming and mutating circles, the two-movement work explored echo effects from single notes (that died away to nothing, only to return accompanied by a fuzzed blown-air effect) as well as the intensely rhythmic amassing of rolled and trilled patterns.
Max de Wardner’s 2011 Im Dorfe took the opening piano phrase of the eponymous Lied from Schubert’s Winterreise as its start point. A soundtrack of three recorded pianos playing this (overlapped and mutated) provided the underlay for a series of sometimes-violent percussion riffs on a selection of metal springs, drums and cymbal. While certainly more visceral than some of its companion pieces, it was perhaps less satisfyingly complex.
The most engaging piece of the evening was Linda Buckley’s 2018 Powerplant commission, Discordia. It featured the haunting sound of a Canna Sonora, a ‘harp’ made up of tuned aluminium tubes that are stroked with rosin-impregnated gloves, to produce a series of ethereal sonorities reminiscent of a glass harmonica. The work presented a contrast of moods through a subtle shift from the description of an ice-bound Icelandic landscape portrayed through chilly, slowly accreted note clusters (accompanied by video of icicles melting), to downtown New York, and a response (through a disturbed Moog synthesizer backing track overlaid with increasingly frenetic ‘screams’ from the aluminium rods) to Trump’s 2016 election.
The title-work, The Filthy Fifteen – a mixed-media work (transformed video, modified soundtrack and percussion instruments) by Nicole Lizée – made a fittingly dramatic coda to the set. Its title is drawn from the fifteen songs (including numbers by Black Sabbath, Madonna, AC/DC) published by the USA’s Parents Music Resource Centre whose 1985 campaign was aimed at increasing parental control over young people’s exposure to what it saw as ‘porn rock’. The piece was full of witty, mutated musical references to some of the material, that included Susan Baker’s voice slowing into a clipped, repeated loop on the words ‘sex fiend’ over which a jaunty section of Prince’s Purple Rain began to play, Tipper Gore repeating ‘bandage’ over a riff of synthesizers and percussion, a turntable scratch of Mötley Crüe’s Bastard, and Frank Zappa’s enunciation of the word ‘censorship’ becoming a rhythmically pulled-out melisma transformed into dance rhythm by a typewriter and a cymbal.