4BR Interview - Simon Dobson


The talented young composer Simon Dobson continues to make new fans with his music – this time at the National Youth Brass Band Championships. 4BR caught up with him in Manchester and talked to him about his new work and his future plans.

Simon DobsonIt is not often you come across a talent like that of Cornishman Simon Dobson. The young composer and full time musician is perhaps the hottest brass composing talent in the banding world at the moment, and it is no idle boast either.

Simon came to prominence within the banding world in 2002, when he won the European Young Composer's Competition in Brussels as a 21 year old, with his work commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Benjamin Britten. 

That led to him being voted by the readers of 4BR as the ‘Newcomer of the Year' for 2002, and it also led to him writing the test piece to the Fourth Section Regional Championships for 2003, the very well received ‘Lydian Pictures'.

Since then he has been a very busy, and successful young man, with further compositions and a spell as Composer in Residence for the London Philharmonic Orchestra and with Brighouse and Rastrick. His eclectic taste has also meant that he has worked with wind bands, choirs and his own, what he describes as ‘acid/jazz/funk' group called ‘Men of Splendour'.

On the conducting front he has been making quite a stir, with his own band Zone One Brass, named after the central area of London to where he and his players are based. After gaining promotion up from the First Section this year, they put in a cracking performance at the Regionals on just three full rehearsals to come a very creditable fourth, and give the area another strong contender for a place in future at the National Championship Finals in the Royal Albert Hall.

4BR met up with Simon for the first time in a couple of years at the National Youth Brass Band Championships at the Royal Northern College of Music, where his new composition, entitled, ‘Lyonesse', which was commissioned by the Brass Band Heritage Trust and Paul Hindmarsh, was being used as the test piece for the Premier Championship Section of the contest.

This quite terrific piece, startling in its scope and musical vision provide the young players and conductors of the four top county and youth bands in the country with a work that extended them to the limit without ever losing its sense of musical perspective.

For some pretty experienced listeners in the press contingent in particular it was a startling piece of writing – a brilliant kaleidoscopic and atmospheric account of the mythical city of  Lyonesse and the musical story of its ultimate destruction beneath the waves off the coast of Cornwall, whilst the response from players, conductors and most importantly, the audience, was a mixture of sheer enthusiasm and awe at this accessible work.

Simon himself is a laid back young man, personable, enthusiastic, polite and full of talent. He is also very modest about his work and more than pleased that it had received such a warm reception in Manchester on its premiere.

"I have been writing full time now for the past six months," he told 4BR.  "I finished my degree course in the Summer (where he gained a B.Mus from the Royal College of Music) and have been working on a number of projects ever since – one of these being the composing of ‘Lyonesse'."  

The work takes its inspiration from the mythical story of a land which was connected from Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly, with its capital being the town of Lyonesse, which was destroyed in immense storms in 1099 resulting in the deaths of all except one of its inhabitants. The land was ruled by Tristan (of Tristan and Isolde fame) and the story itself has a direct parallel to that of Plato's ‘Atlantis'.

It is an immensely atmospheric tale, and the music evokes it all – from the serene beauty of the church and its bells to the tin mines and the machinery that extracted the valuable ore from the depths of the earth, right through to the fateful night when everything was lost and the eerie sound of the submerged bells can be heard as they sink beneath the waves.

The story though has something of a happy ending though (if ever so ghostly) as on certain nights of the year the bells of the sunken town can be heard in the distance for walkers and hikers on the coast of Cornwall as a ghostly reminder of what happened and as a confirmation that perhaps one day the land will emerge from the waves and the magical kingdom be restored to former glories.   

"It is a story that has stuck with me ever since I was told about it when I was a kid by my parents," he said.  "It is a magical story, but one that is also a bit frightening, and I thought it would make a great musical story as well, what with the scenes of destruction, mining and final redemption all mixed in with the sea."

It wasn't therefore a particularly difficult piece to write, although I was conscious of the need to make it accessible yet atmospheric. I really enjoyed writing it, and the performances from the four bands today were great. They all got into the spirit of the piece and tried to bring that atmosphere out – right from the opening carillon section in the cornets, right through to the way in which they really captured the sinking feeling with the ringing of the tubular bells in water. My congratulations go out to all of the players and the conductors – it was a great thrill for me to hear the work played so well."

For the critical seasoned observers in the hall, the piece was something of a revelation. After hearing so much poor playing at the recent Regional Championships, ‘Lyonesse' offers a tremendous opportunity for the powers that be to make a bold selection with this work for the Lower Section National Finals.

It is a work that would be a very stern test for bands in the Second Section – even though there might be some misplaced reservations about using a work that has been written for youth bands. That would be a horrible mistake to make with this work, as it is fresh and vibrant, full of authentic original material and musical thought, and contains more than enough technical challenges for both players and conductors for it to be a more than worthy test at the Finals at the Second Section level.  

That is something for others to look at closely, as is the prospect of this young man writing for Championship Section as well. The talent is certainly there, and so is the insight and approach. Someone to consider very seriously we hope for the years ahead at the new English Championships perhaps?

For Simon though the immediate future is building for himself a career in music and hopefully getting more of his works performed.

"I am enjoying conducting Zone One at present, and trying to carve out a career in music at the same time. I do some peripatetic work in Camberwell and Kensington in London (two very diverse areas) and also work in a music shop in Kensington called ‘Chimes'."

"Over the last month or so Zone One has performed some great music on concert such as ‘Grimethorpe Aria' ‘Danes and Habaneras' and ‘Festive Blues', whilst the group I belong to called ‘Men of Splendour' is just about ready to release our first CD. There is also a ‘Tuba Concerto' ready and waiting to be performed by the Coldstream Guards Band and I am always on the lookout for anyone who may be interested in my compositions."

There should be no shortage of takers we think at 4BR, as this young Cornishman continues to set a musical pace for himself that sees him head the field. The brass band movement should continue to try and catch him before he becomes too big a star, although this modest bloke may not think that that he is! 

Iwan Fox


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