Bold as brass

Jim Ottewill explores the changing face of British brass bands...

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  • By Paul Nichols
  • 29 Sep 2014
  • min read
‘I thought we could work with brass after having a funny dream about a giant trumpet’, reveals British Sea Power’s Jan Scott Wilkinson. The band’s frontman is explaining the roots of the indie rocker’s Sea of Brass project, a re-imagining of their catalogue for traditional brass. ‘Brass bands may seem old fashioned to some,’ he continues, ‘but they were and still are a very powerful force.’

Sea of Brass is just one of a number of recent, critically acclaimed projects to utilise brass instrumentation. Alongside British Sea Power, chamber folk artist Jo Hamilton, contemporary composer Gavin Higgins and post rockers Lanterns on the Lake have all called on the sound to blow extra life into their musical endeavours.

Contemporary groups such as the Hackney Colliery Band and Youngblood Brass Band in the US doff their cap to the UK’s community outfits and New Orleans ensembles, while adding touches of hip-hop, funk and electronica.

Behind these musical strands is the UK’s network of traditional, community bands. With an estimated 4,000 bands and 100,000 musicians, this has arguably never been stronger. However, the stereotype of the traditional colliery groups, as depicted in nineties comedy drama Brassed Off, is still hard to shake.

As composer, conductor and founder of the Brass Band Heritage Trust Paul Hindmarsh says: ‘Whenever someone listens to brass, there is an association. Flat caps and Hovis are the clichés. It’s not like that anymore but they persist.’

Community roots

Part of the association is the length of time brass bands have been blowing their horns. Born almost 150 years ago, it is a long standing, amateur tradition which grew out of the Salvation Army and UK industry.

Philip Biggs is editor of the Brass Herald and organiser of the Great Northern Brass Arts Festival, an event taking place at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester this September. He describes the first brass banding forays as ‘the working man’s artistic and cultural pursuit’.

‘In those days many had tough manual jobs so this was a way of relieving the hard work. It was a gift for those who wanted to pursue an artistic ideal,’ he explains.

His festival will mark 100 years since the first brass band composition and features many of the movement’s most loved ensembles. Black Dyke Mills, Foden’s and the Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band will all be raising the roof as part of the programme.

The History of the World

Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass and The History of the World pieces have helped bring brass bands to new audiences. The former sees rave classics including A Guy Called Gerald’s Voodoo Ray and the KLF’s What Time is Love? reimagined for brass while the latter traces the links between brass and acid house. As Jeremy comments, ‘brass acts are clearly a big part of our musical make up ... [with their] traditional elements and industrial history.’ Acid Brass, performed live with the Fairey Brass Band, almost literally blew the roof off the Tate Britain in December last year when Warp Records chose to showcase the work.

The pits

While brass has its roots in past industrial strongholds, composer Gavin Higgins is using the instrumentation to mark 30 years since the pit closures. He grew up in a mining community and his forthcoming commission Pride is inspired by the miners’ strike of 1984-1985. It will be the first ever ballet to be accompanied by a brass band.

‘It’s a sense of community, focus and drive which these bands provide,’ he believes. ‘As those ex-mining towns have dissolved into what they are now, brass bands are a rock. They provide a sense of community people can’t get anywhere else.’

Music education

Alongside binding communities together, the amateur banding tradition has also played a key role in music education. Teaching of music in schools after the Second World War played an important role in boosting the number of players and raising skill levels to new highs.

Edward Gregson, classical composer and PRS Board member, is one of the most high profile to have recently worked with brass. Connotations, Of Men and Mountains and Of Distant Memories have all become key touchstones in brass repertoire.

He says: ‘From the fifties onwards the government introduced music in schools. They started to teach brass and those kids who went into conservatoires and music colleges studied the instruments, then formed brass bands. That’s significant.’

At the same time, the bands themselves are helping renew players through youth groups, while brass band competitions ensure that the standard of playing is pushed higher than ever.

Gavin says that the brass bands are a key training ground. ‘The focus on up and coming brass players is much more than in schools. Bands put all their energies into them and players learn by doing concerts every weekend. That’s a really strong and positive thing.’

Classical composers

While it’s hard to claim brass isn’t a minority sport, Edward argues that just like jazz, it’s still very much a valid form of artistic impression. It’s something validated by some of the great classical composers who have turned to the sound. Edward Elgar, Harrison Birtwistle and Gregson himself are just some to have composed brass works and expanded the repertoire.

Edward says: ‘Some of the most important classical composers of the last 100 years have worked with the sound. Names you’ll know, even if you’re not into classical, like Elgar, Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams.’

Philip Biggs, who also works as the administrator of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain, agrees. ‘The brass band world is really blessed that there are great composers working with brass the world over. What started in its current form at The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851 has gone global.’
‘From traditional banding to the brass sound, we get a sense that there’s potential for so much more.’

Arts Council support

British brass banding could be entering a new phase thanks in part to Arts Council England (ACE). In the latest round of 2015-18 funding for National Portfolio Organisations, Brass Band England was bestowed an annual budget of £142,000 - an increase of 142.3 percent on its existing amount of around £62,000 per year.

Craig Monk, Music Relationship Manager from ACE, says this heralds an exciting time for brass, particularly as new artists are investing in the sound. ‘We’d like to see more bands themselves taking the initiative on these commissions,’ he states. ‘From traditional banding to the brass sound, we get a sense that there’s potential for so much more.’

Brass appeal

So why are new composers using brass? At the recent Brass: Durham International Festival, a range of artists premiered new commissions tangling with the sound. These included folk singer songwriter Jo Hamilton, who debuted Fractal Sparks as a multimedia performance in the Durham Cathedral with musicians from the Corps of Army Music.

‘It’s such a dynamic instrument when played with a band,’ says Jo. ‘To have them enhancing moments was such a treat. They can do beautiful, desperately sad whispers to tremendously joyous sounds. It was awesome.’

With Sea of Brass, British Sea Power collaborated with composer Peter Wraight, best known for his work with the Matthew Herbert Big Band, on new arrangements of their songs. Jan says: ‘The brass orchestra as a whole is very versatile. I could imagine the traditional set up continuing incorporating modern ideas and technologies. Our own cornet player uses amps and effects. This approach could be taken a lot further by a full orchestral outfit.’

London Olympics 2012

Brass is such a part of the British musical psyche that the sound featured in the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony. The Hackney Colliery Band performed a set to a global audience of hundreds of millions.

‘It’s unlikely that a brass band is going to be playing a stadium any time soon,’ jokes trumpeter and Hackney Colliery Band member Steve Pretty.

The group perform a riotious mix of hip-hop and yacht rock classics plus their own material. It’s a winning formula which has seen them become a firm festival favourite. ‘I like messing with people’s expectations,’ explains Steve. ‘When people hear the name, they think it’s going to be traditional sound. But then we really go to town when playing. Crowds are surprised by the sound you can make with people blowing through bits of tubing and hitting sticks on drum skins.’

At the same time, the band offer a contemporary take on traditional banding. ‘Obviously our name is an homage, which started off slightly tongue in cheek. But increasingly we really see ourselves as a modern update of it,’ he adds.

The future

So where does this leave the future of brass bands? With a thriving network and a whole world of competitive banding, with international rankings and brass acts active across Europe and in North America, it’s a tradition which only appears to be getting stronger. At the same time, new commissions are increasing brass repertoire and finding new audiences.

Gavin Higgins says: ‘It’s got to come kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Of course it is still relevant. It’s just many people in the UK haven’t heard or seen a brass a band. When I take people to see them, they sit there open mouthed and amazed. No one can believe the sound that comes from them.’

Read our profile interviews with the Hackney Colliery Band and the Riot Jazz Brass Band and look out for more brass-related interviews in the coming weeks.