2006 European Brass Band Championships - Test piece review


4BR looks at Ian Wilson's set work Seascape with High Cliffs and finds a test piece that will test the bands abilities to create a musical picture of a quite beautiful landscape.

Seascape with High Cliffs is musical geology. Inspired by the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland it is a work of great atmosphere and personal reflection. Many traditionalists may find it difficult to appreciate, but approached with an open mind and vivid imagination it reveals itself to be a work of delicacy, based on texture and colour, mood and balance.  Crash, bang, wallop it ain't, but immensely satisfying it is.

The cliffs themselves were formed over 320 million years ago and are primarily made up of Namurian Siltstone, shale and sandstone. That was about the Triassic time when dinosaurs first started to appear all over the place and the rock formations are found horizontal beds of strata impregnated with fossils and impressions of long deceased flora and fauna. They are 8km in length and rise at their highest point to 214 meters above sea level. Erosion over the years has allowed the harder sandstone to become more prominent in places so that promontory ledges appear thrusting out towards the sea that can be walked on. It is by all accounts a place of great austere natural beauty, much like Monument Valley in the United States, although horizontally rather than vertically.

The composer Ian Wilson has gained an international reputation for his musical output and this is his first work for brass band. He brings much of his trademark compositional techniques to the work: broad clear lines, immense attention to detail with an emphasis on timbre, balance and texture. He also allows the conductors to explore their own personal interpretations of the subject matter as his programme note for the piece is short, precise and very ambiguous.

"Seascape was inspired by a visit I made some years ago to the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland. The cliffs are hundreds of feet above the swelling sea, with the Aran Islands in the distance, barely visible the day I was there. Seagulls were floating in the strong breeze below me." 

With the composers own opaque description in mind the conductor must try and search for the atmosphere that the composer so clearly felt but so cleverly didn't reveal in his written notes.

Perhaps the secret lies with the imagination and allying that to the more obvious structural devices found in the score to the geological composition of the cliffs themselves. 

The opening statements are rhythmically precise but elongated over 16 bars. Other voices repeat the statement sometimes in almost canonic form, sometimes raised a tone or broken into octaves between different instruments.

In its way it echoes the shape and formation of the rocks; long layers, the sandstone sediment more prominent in balance between the shale and siltstone. The music reflects this with a stronger ‘sandstone' line appearing throughout the piece. The erosion of the softer rock (the addition of up to five layers of musical lines played at a slightly lower dynamic level) allows for this foundation theme to be heard most prominently in the basses, whilst the solo trombone also uses it to fine effect.  

Use your imagination and you can see what is trying to be achieved. It is like looking at a Mark Rothko painting; all huge slabs of horizontal colour, some more prominent than others, but with the margins ever so slightly blurring into each other. Much of the ensemble work is at times at odds with the beat patterns of the conductor; fives against fours, two against three as if nothing is quite as stable as the huge cliffs may appear. 

The ‘vertical' aspect of the music is also explored too. Wilson asks much of the soloists, especially the solo cornet, baritone and Eb tuba. Each is required to almost float like a seagull (there are up to 30,000 birds on the cliffs) as if on the strong air currents that blow in from the Atlantic Ocean. Each is given extended lines of almost free flowing expression that really do take some playing to sound as easy as a gliding bird. Some players will be flapping their wings like Kingfishers.

The best bands will surely be able to distinguish the balances in the score. Markings in many lines vary by just the smallest of degrees and with little use of mutes and of percussion the emphasis is on the performers to know their place in the scheme of things. Everything is very clearly defined and balanced giving a texture and a grain to the feel of the music. Get the balance wrong and it will become an almost indistinguishable slab of musical nothingness – a bit like cliffs made up of grey granite.

The piece end quite abruptly as if you have just walked off the edge of one of the sandstone outcrops and fallen into the abyss below.

Seascape with High Cliffs is a very interesting work to listen too – much like the rest of the composer's output. It asks questions and requires interpretation by the musicians (something that brass bands traditionally do not like or expect in the music they perform) and it could result in a vary scope of performances. 

It may not be used again for some time to be honest, but make the most of the chance to listen to 14 minutes of very interesting music.

Iwan Fox


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