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This month’s Guest Editor asks for opinions on some of the new music being written for brass band from musicians and journalists Christopher Thomas, Iwan Fox, Paul Hindmarsh, Kenneth Crookston and David Childs, and why this is perhaps not more widely recognised.
1) Crossing the Classical Divide
From the early years of the twentieth century when the National Championships fell under the enlightened auspices and leadership of impresario John Henry Iles, brass bands enjoyed a vital and life affirming connection with the classical music world that produced a string of works by composers of world renown.
Those very same works, by the likes of Elgar, Ireland, Howells, Vaughan Williams and Bliss, remain the backbone of our repertoire nearly a century later.
In the 1970’s it was Elgar Howarth, a man whose international repute as a conductor of contemporary music and links with Grimethorpe Colliery Band, who was responsible for a number of new works by leading classical composers of the time including Henze, Birtwistle, George Benjamin and Anthony Payne.
Such vision, passion and leadership from figures that are able to cross the artistic equator between the brass and the classical musical worlds is crucial if those vital lost links are to be restored and bands are once again to be given the artistic credibility they deserve outside of the insularity of our genre.
It’s a point that was highlighted during a recent interview I conducted with the Musical Director of ENO Martyn Brabbins, a man with a passion for brass bands who speaks of the ‘disconnect’ between those two musical worlds and the need to forge new connections and relationships once again.
There are of course those figures, including Edward Gregson and Bramwell Tovey, that have tirelessly campaigned for the brass band cause whilst promoting the integrity of our movement through their own activities and music. Yet if brass bands are to make new musical inroads in the twenty first century, then the contribution and inspiration of the likes of Martyn Brabbins that possess the reputation, contacts and insight to encourage new creative talent from outside of the medium to contribute to its future, is essential and ignored at our peril. In this respect at least, the future artistic prosperity of brass banding remains very much in our own hands.
2) Breaking brass band boundaries with ballet
The 2015 collaboration between award winning composer Gavin Higgins, the renowned Rambert Dance Company and Tredegar Town Band, can rightly be seen as one of the most significant artistic achievements ever to involve a brass band in the UK.
The resultant contemporary ballet suite ‘Dark Arteries’ achieved widespread critical as well as popular acclaim; going on to be nominated for a prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award, and subsequently being performed on tour throughout the UK and in Norway.
Inspired by a poem entitled ‘G84’ by author Mervyn Peake, it is a deeply evocative exploration through the medium of contemporary dance of the visceral struggles and human costs mining communities have endured in extracting coal from the rich seams – the ‘Dark Arteries’ – that lie hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth.
Those struggles have not just been physical, but as the poem revealed, also political.
The score of ‘Dark Arteries’ is performed by the brass band, not in the traditional orchestra pit of the auditorium, but in full sight of the audience on the stage – an integral part of the visual as well as the musical experience.
The appearance of Tredegar Band sat behind specially designed Perspex music stands to perform the score at the world premiere at Sadlers Wells in May 2015 was a potent reminder of the riot shields used by police against miners in many of the infamous conflicts of the historic year long strike that ended almost 30 years to the day of the premiere.
Incredibly, the gasp from the packed audience at that first sight of the band on stage was immediately followed by prolonged applause – as the impact of the dramatic set sunk in.
At its close, the standing ovation received by the performers, and the warmth of the reception reserved for the band in particular during the initial week long premiere was equally remarkable.
It has invariably been repeated on each occasion the work has since been performed.
And whilst the dance critics of the London press were mixed in their reviews, the desire to bring such an innovative creative collaboration to the stage certainly won many plaudits.
The Guardian newspaper praised Rambert for continuing what it called its ‘long and proud tradition of performing with live music’ – one it added, ‘has rarely been on more impressive display than in Dark Arteries’.
Meanwhile, The Independent called Tredegar Band’s playing, ‘sonorous and splendid’ and ‘hugely charismatic’, whilst the influential on-line Artsdesk publication lauded Gavin Higgins for his music which they felt handled ‘multiple textures and harmonic and rhythmic complexity in a way sadly too rare in contemporary dance scores.’ They also felt that, ‘Tredegar Town Band, who share the stage with – and, frankly, steal it from – Rambert’s dancers.’
Further positive reviews as the production went on a 2016 tour, the nomination for a RPS Music Award, and the recent production of new concert suite for brass band, derived from the original ballet score, has ensured that ‘Dark Arteries’ will have a lasting performance as well as musical legacy.
It will also be one that will ensure that it retains its significance as perhaps the most important artistic collaboration in the history of the brass band movement in the UK.
Iwan Fox, Director, 4barsrest.com
Rambert Dance Company and Tredegar Town Band, Gavin Higgins Dark Arteries, 2015
3) The RNCM Brass Band Festival
In 1989, I was in my fourth year as a BBC Radio 3 music producer. I had just taken over the production of the station’s programmes of band music and was asked by R3 Controller John Drummond to come up with fresh ideas to replace the long-lived weekly Bandstand studio programme, which he was going to axe. Along with a number of one-off series, the idea of an annual series showcasing the best of the more recent original repertoire for the medium was agreed. I gave the series the ambitious title BBC Festival of Brass.
Featuring the country’s leading brass bands and some from Europe, the series ran for seven years. The BBC agreed to enrich the small but rapidly growing repertoire of substantial concert, rather than competition music by commissioning leading composers including Philip Wilby’s Paganini Variations (which has become a modern classic), Judith Bingham’s Prague, Elgar Howarth’s Songs for BL, Michael Ball’s Whitsun Wakes and later John McCabe (The Maunsell Forts, for the British Open Championship in 2001). In the late 1990s, BBC Festival of Brass transferred into the Royal Northern College of Music Brass, thanks to the encouragement of the Principal at that time, composer Edward Gregson. With the exception of two years at the turn of the century, the RNCM Brass Band Festival has evolved into a unique international weekend of concerts, workshops and discussion featuring the country’s best bands and star international soloists, with the emphasis on new writing, composer development and themed programming, which I have had the privilege of curating ever since.
The 2018 RNCM Brass Band Festival has been built around major commissions from leading British composers Paul Mealor (Paradise for Choir and Brass Band) and John Pickard (Rain, Steam and Speed). Set alongside these are classic scores and new works inspired by Land- or Seascape, including Tide and Time (Liz Lane) and Tunnel Vision (Ian Stephens). The weekend also showcases the work of a several rising creative stars from this country and beyond. The festival takes place between 26 and 28 January.
Paul Hindmarsh, Artistic Director RNCM Brass Band Festival and Band Consultant Faber Music Ltd
4) Is original brass band contest repertoire heading for the buffers?
Brass bands were born in Victorian Britain, with literally thousands of such groups formed in industrial communities providing artistic outlets for the working classes. The simultaneous arrival of the railways signalled the birth of the brass band contest, at which villagers would use their new-found ‘freedom’ to compete at places like Belle Vue, Manchester and London’s Crystal Palace where, in 1900, the impresario John Henry Iles founded the National Brass Band Festival.
In those days, contests relied largely on operatic selections or ‘Gems’ from the great composers out of copyright until, in 1913, Iles and his ‘right-hand man’, Herbert Whiteley, inaugurated original brass band repertoire with the commissioning of Labour and Love from prominent light music composer Percy Fletcher. Bookended by world wars, the ensuing ‘Golden Age’ saw Bantock, Bliss, Holst, Elgar, Ireland and others writing major works, later followed by Vaughan Williams and Rubbra.
Notably, all the above were commissioned to write for band, a situation far less likely to occur today. The National, the main driver of brass band repertoire for almost a century, now invests rarely in the creative side of our beloved art-form. From its privately-owned organiser’s point of view, there is no longer any need when there is an endless procession of ambitious brass band composers happy to offer their latest opus for potential selection to its music panel; only a fool would turn down such a kind offer, assuming that the music is up to scratch, of course! When nothing deemed suitable has been available, the simple solution has been choosing something already popular, possibly from the continent.
We need to go back to the interwar years to find the leading mainstream composers of their time writing regularly for brass band. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms wrote their music a long time ago too, and no one doubts their enduring appeal, so perhaps it’s not a major worry that the work of Elgar, Ireland, Bliss et al is still regarded by many as our finest. It’s unlikely to be bettered without the very best we can find to write it, though.
Why should their successors at the top of the composition pyramid be motivated to write for us? Not only is there rarely money on offer, but there is a fair chance that their work could be trashed for its ‘lack of a tune’, in the manner of Judith Bingham’s Prague or John McCabe’s Images, two entirely worthy compositions from the late 20th century.
Grimley Colliery Band convinced most people in Brassed Off that the extent of our ability/ambition is Death or Glory or the famous bit from William Tell. Past experience, however, shows that brass bands can be relevant within the wider musical community by engaging cutting-edge composers for our main competitions and numerous other occasions. The alternative is mere existence in self-imposed isolation in an industrial museum.
I know which option I prefer.
Kenneth Crookston, Managing Editor of British Bandsman, the world’s oldest and widest circulating brass music publication
5) From a performance perspective
Naturally, there has always been a disconnect between the orchestral and brass band genres. Despite some fine repertoire and unbelievable playing standards, by nature of their amateur status, brass bands find it difficult to command the same level of respect as professional orchestras who have a wealth of repertoire from true Master composers. Gradually that ‘disconnect’ is getting smaller in my opinion. Our best brass bands are now full of music graduates that studied alongside orchestral musicians – operating in the same training ground seems to have bred mutual respect that can be found between many brass band and orchestral players. Similarly, our finest orchestras continue to appoint brass players from a brass band background.
Philip Cobb (LSO principal trumpet) still plays with Hendon Band every Wednesday and James Fountain (RPO principal trumpet) can often be found playing cornet with the likes of GUS, Fairey or Carlton Main Frickley Colliery. That this type of ‘professional’ player is happy to demonstrate such respect for the brass band genre can almost be seen as an endorsement and certainly helps to diminish any perceived disconnect between orchestral and band brass players.
On a personal level, and as a brass band player myself, it continues to give me great joy playing for audiences and orchestras that know nothing about the euphonium or its home! ‘I had no idea that brass band instruments could sound like that’ is a common message I receive, and one that never fails to put a smile on my face! For me it is not about trying to educate anyone though, it is simply a case of making the most of opportunities to perform in a professional environment (opportunities usually born through the commissioning of new music), then delivering to the best of my ability, as any musician would hope to. If the music and musicianship is of high quality, the instrument, its background and any stigma attached to it, tends to end up being of little importance.
David Childs, international euphonium soloist and editor of Brass Band World magazine