4BR Talking Point - Time to get serious?23-Nov-2009
Sandy Smith wonders if the banding movement is missing the chance to attract the best composers to the genre instead of relying on more and more 'lego' music.
The media and entertainment industry stand constantly accused of dumbing down our popular culture be it with the plethora of supposed reality television series, omnipresent talent shows or ghost written ‘celebrity author’ novels.
On the brink
The brass band movement seems to be on the brink of following a similar path with some of the new works being chosen for use in the top section.
The current trend seems to be to look for music that displays very little merit underneath its superficial surface.
All it does is tick the ever narrowing requirements of the test piece and which in many instances seems to result in an almost clone like reproduction of exercises cobbled together and clothed in very non-threatening harmonic language - what Bram Gay once called, ‘brass band lego music’.
We seem obsessed in finding the undiscovered boundaries of instrumental ranges or finding out how long a band can sustain three or four minutes of fff “bandsman’s bluff”, before collapsing through exhaustion. All this and at the same time restricting the complexity of the harmonic language and structure it is all dressed up in.
Film music has, by its nature, to make an immediate emotional impact on the listener, using various techniques to convey mood and intent instantly to accompany visual images.
That is music, which although it can be highly appealing, could rarely be said to contain enough musical depth to justify spending an intense period of time rehearsing for a contest or structure to expand into a continuous 15 to 20 minute work.
We are in danger of accepting such ‘structure’ for our top section test pieces as the norm - spectacularly OTT pieces of empty rhetoric made to appear very difficult by combining absurdly fast metronome marks with awkward key signatures.
If we are happy with this then why not cut to the chase and produce a little booklet of exercises for each player to perform in turn - finishing with a nice big chord? We can then have a quick split note count and hey presto!
Surely we are capable of getting to grips with music of real structure and depth setting out compelling, well wrought musical arguments and using musical language which in itself has to be worked on to be fully appreciated.
The ‘Golden Age’ of the 1920’s and 30’s saw contributions to the repertoire by Holst, Elgar, Ireland, Howells and Bliss, with works which are still held up as classics.
The following two decades saw very little enlightened commissioning, and so we perhaps missed out on the possibility of works from composers such as Britten, Walton, Tippett, Finzi and Moeran amongst others.
Through the 1970’s and 80’s the influence of Elgar Howarth, Ifor James, Howard Snell and others, saw works - albeit some not used as test pieces - from Robert Simpson, John McCabe, Joseph Horovitz, Derek Bourgeois, Arthur Butterworth, George Lloyd and Howarth himself, but we now seem to have lost touch almost totally with such figures and their successors.
Perhaps the intermittent, tired, knee jerk reactions to works by McCabe and Judith Bingham have contributed to the wider perception that the brass band movement is entrenched in its views on “modern” music, and has led to composers from the mainstream musical world giving us a wide berth. Why should they feel it beneficial to submit themselves to such treatment?
We have retreated so far from such compositional styles that I feel we have to make a concerted effort to re-establish a connection over the next generation.
Can we encourage those of the younger generation, educated through our conservatoires, with a broad enlightened outlook, and who can bring new interesting ideas to the table, to provide music which challenges the mind as well as the fingers?
I am not advocating a wholesale desertion of tonally based music for the latest avant-garde techniques, but more a reconnection with current good practice in the wider classical world of composition.
We are lucky to have the expertise of musicians such as Wilby, Gregson, Howarth, Tovey, Graham, Sparke and others in our corner. Should these senior figures be canvassed for their opinions on the subject?
Many of them are - or have been until recently - involved in education at conservatoire level, and have many connections in the wider musical world. Are they aware of composers who they think would be interested in writing for band?
Are there young composers already turning away from brass bands because their writing doesn’t fit the test piece template?
All of this needs to be done while still not losing sight of our rich heritage of quality compositions.
It has already been suggested that perhaps a three year rota of new commission, “modern” classic and a more traditional original work or transcription, be tried to vary the test piece diet.
This seems an eminently sensible idea as too many works are unjustly neglected – ‘Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, anyone? (although this doesn’t tick the box of the spectacular ending!)
While I’m still firmly atop my soapbox can we please lay to rest the oft spouted on the internet forums guff that:
“…………….(insert name of test piece here) isn’t a top section piece now because it is …….( insert number here) years old and has been used for the Areas/Grand Shield/Senior Cup/Pontins/Pilkingtons etc. contest”.
By that reckoning the near 100 year old ‘Rite of Spring’ must be a piece of cake for orchestra by now, and Bach, Mozart and Beethoven must hardly be worth bothering with for musical satisfaction.
New commissions need to be funded of course, but why commission more identikit music when, if we use the rich heritage of our repertoire carefully on some occasions, resources could be pooled and put towards funding commissions from composers with something more meaningful and stimulating to say.
I have nothing against the easy on the ear fare - everything has its place - but it needs to be balanced against the need to provide first rate examples of compositional excellence as a stimulus for future generations of players, conductors and composers.
We now have enough brass band “lego” pieces.
Lets start looking seriously at commissioning the best composers we are able to attract to the brass band and allow them to break away from our self imposed restrictions on “how to write a test piece”.
Perhaps then we can get back to the real music?
About Sandy Smith:
Sandy Smith was born in Scotland and began his career with Whitburn Band. He gained L.T.C.L. and L.L.C.M. teaching and performing diplomas was principal horn of the National Youth Brass Band of Scotland before moving to Yorkshire.
In 1981 he joined the Black Dyke Mills Band where he spent over ten years as principal horn.
During this time he played all over the world as well as being part of winning performances at the British Open, National and European Championships. In 1993 he joined Williams Fairey with whom he won all the major brass band contest titles.
In 2000 he joined Grimethorpe Colliery RJB and toured Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong with the band. He has also played with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in works requiring tenor horn.
Among the composers who have written works for him are Elgar Howarth, John Golland, Peter Graham, Martin Ellerby, and Andrew Duncan.
Sandy is in increasing demand as an arranger and has lectured on brass band scoring, arranging and the history and repertoire of the brass band at Huddersfield University.
His teaching activities have encompassed every stage of musical education from primary school to university standard.
He was Professor of tenor horn at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and has held similar posts at the University of Huddersfield and Leeds College of Music.
He has taught on many brass band residential courses including the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain, the Brass Band Summer School and the National Youth Brass Band of Scotland.
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