Editorial ~ 2003: January


Three thorny isssues plaguing the brass band movement in recent months include Judith Binham's 'Prague' - the championship section choice for the 2003 Regionals, the Government's proposed 'licensing laws' and also the issue of 'cheating

"Prague" the wrong piece but for the right reasons

We've been here before haven't we? "The Maunsell Forts", "Images", "Fireworks", "Spectrum". The history of brass band contesting over the past 35 years has had its fair share of contentious pieces, music that has raised the hackles of the bandsmen and women who have to play the set works on the contest stages of the UK. "Prague" it seems is set to join an impressive list of works that before it has been performed on a comprehensive scale has been pilloried as being as unsuitable.

There is a problem with "Prague", but it has nothing to do with it's value as a contesting work for brass bands. The reason why it is a wrong choice isn't to do with its musical value that is a matter of conjecture. The reason why "Prague" is wrong is that it is the choice made by a movement that is poorly structured, lacks coherent direction and has little or no idea of the need for medium or long term strategic musical and economic planning to secure its very future.

The brass band movement in the UK and to some extent Europe has an arcane amateur structure that lends itself to self-interest, lack of vision and coherent thought. This is highlighted by the way, in which music is chosen for our major contests. The BFBB appointed a Music Panel that chose works for the Regional's for the past few years, and in general did a good job. However, did the Panel have any Terms of Reference to work to, aims and objectives, or a medium or long-term strategy in regards to the music chosen or a policy of consultation with other contests or even the bands? It seems not, and therefore we were left with a process that involved choices that had no coherent lineage or pattern and ultimately reflected individual preference. That has led ultimately to the choice of "Prague", as without this structure to work to the choices become randomised.

The influence of the commissioning process from the BBC must not be overlooked either, as they are the most important providers of "new work" for the movement. However, in these economically stringent times these commissions must pay their way, and paying major money for works that only get one possible performance since 1995 doesn't quite meet their value for money criteria. Much better for it to have 90 performances (and sales) in a single year.

And that is why "Prague" is wrong. It is a choice not made with the well being of the banding movement in mind. It is a choice born of indecision and weak direction, not of Panel members themselves, but by a movement that hasn't the gumption or discipline of thought to place its future on solid detailed foundations. Short-term choices made with short-term vision will always lead to disastrous outcomes. The problem is that even with the end of the BFBB Panel, the new Panel from Kapitol will fall foul of the same pitfalls in the future unless a structure is put in place. Picking choices on the basis as one member stated "with tunes in them" is just as idiotic and short sighted as picking one to boost the image of the BBC. Knee-jerk reactions that make us become introverted and conservative in our musical choices are just as bad, if not worse than choices made to appease a wealthy patron.

In years to come the ghost of "Prague" will come back time and time again to haunt us. The sadness for us at 4BR is that the fractured chaos that now envelopes the administration of the contesting branch of the movement, means that things will not change, and by the next time another controversial choice is made there won't be an audience in the contest halls from Bristol to Motherwell, Swansea to Stevenage to care a damn. In fact, "Prague" may well do us all a favour and make us wake up to the fact that we have let things slip so badly as to come to a situation where we blame a single work for all that is wrong with our movement as a whole.

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License to Interfere

We have much to thank Howard Snell for in the banding movement, and even when he has decided to "retire" from the active contesting scene he still has the foresight to create debate and to enlighten us.

He has brought to our attention the proposed "Licensing Law" which will introduce a "charge" or "fee" for the provision of live entertainment at establishments. It is a poorly thought out and derisive piece of legislation that must have seemed like a good idea when it was first muted by the apparatchiks in John Smith House at Labour Headquarters, but in reality is nothing more than an extra piece of bureaucratic interference at time when Local Authorities in particular are awash with pointless "extra responsibilities".

The initial idea is fine the protection of vulnerable people, the law and order issue etc but the question remains. How will it be administered and who will have the responsibility for its implementation? When it comes to the collection of tax, fines or fees, Local Authorities are generally about the worse people to ask to do it effectively. Ring up your local Council and ask how much the arrears are for Council Tax for your Authority. You will be amazed at the millions of pounds that is outstanding and never likely to be recovered. Why then impose yet another needless fee for the provision of something that as far as we know hasn't really been identified as a social or economic problem?

It will cost your Council far more to collect the fees than it will ever receive in payments, whilst if the Government really wants to protect vulnerable people, why not let them take a closer look at the proposals for people with Mental Health problems. Now that would be a good idea.

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How to Catch a Cheat

At the recent meeting of the Association of Brass Band Adjudictaors the thorny topic of "cheating" was raised. Not the adjudicators we hasten to add, but those bands and their MD's who indulge in the dark art of swapping parts to different instruments, using dusters to make a cornet sound like a flugel, splitting solo lines and even the use of "special" mutes to allow pianissimo passages to be played with ease.

Much debate ensued to whether it was right or not, and the general consensus seemed to be that it "wasn't cricket" but nevertheless it was an accepted practice. Whether bands should be penalised for doing it though was a different matter though and our minds were therefore cast back to a year ago when we tried (in vain) to get ABBA to look more closely at Open Adjudication.

Surely the answer would be for Open Adjudication at our top contests, and if the judges spot what they believe to be an infringement of the type that wasn't what the composer intended or changed the musical picture that was intended, they could if they so felt penalise the band for doing so. Wouldn't that stop the practice once and for all?

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