99% of the time I feel like an outsider looking in, however I was sitting in London at the British Composer Awards ceremony a few years ago and was listening to Rory Boyle give his acceptance speech (to an influential audience in the classical music world and fellow composers) and witnessed the room laughing as he recounted how much abuse he had been given by certain areas of the brass band community upon delivery of his work Muckle Flugga. Naturally I was a little disappointed as my work A Child Like You that had been nominated for an award (i.e. made the final three) hadn’t been named, but suddenly I felt angry, angry that everyone was laughing at the brass band world, it felt as if I was the only insider in the room. Surely this was a golden opportunity to tell your colleagues about the fantastic work that is undertaken in the brass band world? However, I guess that Rory must have felt compelled to mention what he did and he I’m sure has his reasons.
My concern was that these comments would only continue the misguided thinking that brass bands are from times gone by, performing in the park, playing musical lollipops, performing for each other to men in a tent at competitions, which of course is only a part of what this wonderful idiom has to offer.
By the way, there’s no sour grapes here, I was fortunate enough to win a British Composer Award in 2006, and was again nominated for my brass band work Spirit of Mingus. For me there’s a bigger picture here……..
Has anyone in the brass band world commissioned Django Bates? He is a musical genius (composer, pianist and tenor hornist!). I played a beautiful piece by Maria Schneider, The Pretty Road, to a couple of very well respected brass band musicians in the UK, saying that she’d given me permission to arrange it for brass band, what did they think? The answer, we think that it’s pushing it too far for brass bands. What?! Check it out for yourself, this music is beautiful.
I was in a privileged position to have written the only own choice piece to receive a world premiere at the European Brass Band Championships in Utrecht this May, with lots of people commenting to me that it’s good to see a different composer name in the programme. Does the brass band world rely too much on names that are established in the band idiom? Does it do enough to nurture and develop young composers as they find their way in the brass band world?
There’s more background information about Defiance in the previous blog if you’re interested.
There’s always pressure writing a new work, you give everything of course, and naturally you want people to like it. I have been incredibly fortunate (really very lucky) to have been approached by Foden’s Band to become its inaugural Composer in Residence in 2008. Fortunate because they have been musically open-minded, supportive, programmed my music, and throughout all this I’ve had a strong rapport with conductor Mike Fowles, and learnt a lot from musicians such as Bram Tovey & Howard Snell, inside the Foden’s band room and outside. This positive environment has allowed me to write and, importantly, not be afraid of making mistakes. Ego has to take a back seat, for the best results I like to collaborate closely with musicians, I’ve learnt this from being a professional saxophonist for 30+ years, with the Apollo Saxophone Quartet alone we have commissioned 100+ works since 1985, and in hindsight my composition lessons (I’ve never had a formal lesson) were when sitting in a rehearsal room with the ASQ and composers such as Michael Torke, Richard Rodney Bennett and Louis Andriessen, listening, absorbing and digesting their musical ideas.
I was gigging at Middelburg Festival in Holland three days ago, a new work by a Dutch composer scored for four saxophones, seven percussion and piano. It’s always interesting to see how others do things. Likewise, the years that I spent playing saxophone in orchestras such as the Halle, CBSO, RLPO, BBC Philharmonic and more, usually means counting a lot of rests in classics such as Bolero, Romeo & Juliet, Rhapsody in Blue, American in Paris etc., which in turn gives a wonderful opportunity to listen to musical ideas, scoring and voicing, all from one of the best seats in the house!
In January Foden’s will give the world premiere of a specially-commissioned work from me, Edwin. It is a tribute to Edwin Firth who was principal cornet with Foden’s and killed in action in 1918 towards the end of World War 1. This piece required a lot of thought before writing a note, this is a heavy subject and real, Mark Wilkinson will be playing Edwin’s cornet in the world premiere (yes the cornet that he used in Foden’s 100+ years ago!). I found that I experimented with ideas, took musical risks, tried to extend myself as a composer, some of it will work, some of it won’t, maybe there will be a couple of tweaks with voicings but the form and concept is set in stone. It’s the on-going working relationship and trust with Foden’s and Mike that has enabled me to even take these musical risks, and I’m very grateful for that. Edwin isn’t a stroll in the park for the audience or players, and nor should it be, thankfully we live in a time where we haven’t experienced first hand the atrocities of a world war.
This contrasts with Brass Revolution! a commission from the Love Music Trust that was premiered at Birmingham Town Hall in July, as part of Music for Youth, by the combined forces of Foden’s, Lions, Poynton & Macclesfield Youth Bands, with Haslington School wider opportunities students. In one sense a carefree, pop/rock 1960’s vibe, Brass Revolution! also reflects the growth and visibility of the student population in America in its opposition to the approach and danger of the current leadership.
Back to my opening point (and maybe it’s 7 or 8 months of brass band writing that has led to this blog), how many people in our country realise the importance of music to all? Certainly not many politicians, but then anything that is subjective causes the numbers people problems, even though the entertainment business is one of the UKs biggest exports - the irony.
With Brass Revolution! it was wonderful for me to see first hand the enjoyment and buzz that young people get out of working together, being part of a community, forming friendships, learning how to communicate, appreciating discipline and respecting their teachers. It only confirms what I’ve witnessed in ten years with Foden’s; the players in leading bands have a responsibility and lead by example. There’s a selflessness that puts others before themselves, and it’s good to see.
So whilst the youth bands continue to develop, to me (and it’s only my point of view) the area that is lagging behind is at the other end of the spectrum. Thanks to Paul Hindmarsh, the incredible RNCM Festival of Brass continues to fly the flag when it comes to opportunities to have a piece premiered, and for composers to be encouraged to take risks and express themselves at that point in their own personal musical journey.
Allan Withington and Stavanger commissioned a programme from me for Siddis five or six years ago, a wonderful opportunity for bands to programme imaginatively in Norway. Bob Childs and Grimethorpe Band commissioned a work from me for premiere at Brass in Concert in the UK, and it was good working with Garry Cutt & Fairies at the Europeans. I like hanging out with the musicians at these events as I know how hard they have rehearsed, and as both performer and composer you deal with a lot of pressure in concert.
So why aren’t more brass bands commissioning, giving world premieres and thinking longer term, about the next generation(s)? Whilst it’s great having more commercially-based projects (good fun for the players and audience, potentially reaching a larger audience that in turn might have creative spin offs), where is the repertoire that is allowed to take musical risks and not be pressured by formulaic expectations? Howard Skempton wrote the Apollo Sax Quartet a wonderful piece with string orchestra, beautiful and plaintive writing with subtle shape and nuance, largely long notes and phrases, and, it’s difficult to play! This approach is music where music is the priority, and which technique and demands on the players follows accordingly, as opposed to a sterile hoop jumping technical exercise.
From my performing and composing experiences outside the UK, funding does seem more readily available in some other countries, plus a more open-minded approach from audiences, yet funding opportunities are available in the UK, both through tried and tested routes and new ideas.
Surely every good standard brass band can include at least one 15-20 minute piece within every programme? Think about it, this is a minimum requirement with orchestras, chamber orchestras and new music ensembles, and not uncommon with wind orchestras and big bands. It doesn’t have to be consecutive short items when programming for a quick fix.
When A Child Like You was performed by Foden’s, Anna-Clare Monk (singer), Lauren Scott (harpist) and four Foden’s Youth Band players narrating/playing at the Southbank Centre as part of New Music Biennial in 2014, all 20 pieces commissioned by this scheme featured a performance followed by a short talk about the piece, and then a second performance. I’m certainly not suggesting doing this in regular concerts, but rather making a point that new music may be appreciated with or without background information, however if an audience knows the journey, the concept, the thinking behind a piece then surely they will be more likely to be a part of the journey, and enjoy it?
So, the outsider looking in gradually, and maybe unknowingly, becomes attached and a little protective about the subject, in this case brass bands. With good reason, there are some fantastic people, musicians and characters in the brass band world.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way where all the great work that does happen with commissioning, creative projects and education was collectively recognised, where an event such as the RNCM Festival of Brass wasn’t a lonely but brilliant annual event? A co-commissioning consortium of bands that allow works from composers such as Django Bates and Maria Schneider to be a reality with multiple premieres on the same night in different countries (I did this with the Tenor Sax Consortium & composer Graham Fitkin), and an image and approach that reflects the lives that we live in the 21st century whilst respecting tradition.
To allow new voices and ideas into the brass band world I believe requires several things; bravery on the part of the commissioning body, belief and musical understanding, also being aware that there might well currently be figures that make a nice living from brass bands and that they might find this a threat… if this is the case then they and their insecurities need to be bypassed as there’s a much bigger picture here than the individual.
When the next composer sets foot on stage and picks up a British Composer Award after writing a work for brass band there needs to be a positive message to tell!
These semi-rambling thoughts are totally my own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of any one mentioned above.
29th August 2018
news items and blog posts by Andy Scott