Gavin Higgins

Gavin Higgins is one of the UK’s brightest young composers to emerge from the UK’s brass banding tradition. We quiz him about his new mining community inspired ballet…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 3 Oct 2014
  • min read
Composer Gavin Higgins has been surrounded by brass since he was born.

Growing up in a mining community in a family of brass band players laid the foundations for a musical career which has seen him emerge as one of the UK’s most exciting young composers. This musical grounding means he’s impeccably placed to offer his perspective on the health of the British brass band community.

He followed an initial musical training in the family brass band, continuing with high profile commissions and performances for brass including Freaks (2007), Tango (2008) - both recorded by Black Dyke Band's main trombone, Brett Baker - Fanfares and Loves Songs (2009) for the National Children's Band of Great Britain and Destroy, Trample, As Swiftly As She, commissioned for the 2011 European Brass Band Championships in Montreux, Switzerland. Most recently Gavin unveiled new orchestral work, Velocity, as the opening piece to the Last Night of the Proms 2014 while he’s currently busying himself with a new brass band ballet inspired by the miners' strikes. We quizzed Gavin on his brass banding heritage and why these ensembles are more relevant than ever…

How did you get into brass?

I was born into a strong brass banding family. Pretty much everyone in the family played in a band. My mum played tenor horn, aunty played trombone, uncle played tuba. So I was thrust into that before I could even speak.

Why was the sound so prevalent within your family? 

My grandad’s granddad was in a band when they first formed and the tradition continued. I imagine it would be quite a common at one point for the whole family to play in a band. It seems strange now, but it was completely normal for me.

What was the thinking behind your miners' strike inspired piece?

It’s going to be performed in January as a concert piece, then used as a ballet after that. I was the first music fellow for the Rambert dance company in 2010 and when I joined, they asked me for ideas I had. I said I’d never seen a piece of dance with brass band and thought that something to do with the miners’ strikes would probably be the vehicle to do it. We bandied around this idea for a long time and weren’t sure of the logistics of touring a brass band. Next year is the 30th anniversary of the strikes, I went back to Rambert and suggested we should do something with this. We worked out we could use a local brass band in each area we go to.

Has it been a challenge to marry brass with ballet?

I’ve written a lot of dances so that’s not a problem. For a lot of people who haven’t heard a brass band before, the sound is going to be slightly shocking. But in a good way. I think people assume brass has a particular sound, but the best brass bands in this country can do anything you put in front of them and make it sound amazing.

The main challenge is more to do with staging as we want to have half the players in the pit and half on the stage. That’s going to be a challenge to rehearse. They usually play very closely together but it’s something we’ll have to worry about once we get to it.

To the uninitiated what is the value in brass bands?

In many ways it’s our only true folk music. Until fairly recently, brass bands only existed in the UK, more specifically in the mining communities, Wales and Yorkshire. It’s ours and something we should be proud of and preserve. Also the brass sections in our orchestras, from the LSO to the Halle, we owe those sections to the brass bands. They’ve come up through the brass band system. The reason they are so good and can do what they can do is because of this network.

Brass bands play a pedagogical role. I had a conversation about cuts to music education but brass bands have been training players for the last 100 years. The focus on up and coming brass players is much stronger with bands than what they’d probably get in schools where money and time is limited because of funding. The brass outfits put all their energy into young players and give them a platform to be fantastic. They’re learning on the job, next to people who are playing, doing concerts every weekend. That’s so strong and positive.

People worry about what kids are doing on the street. You just need to get them into a brass band. There’s a sense of community which they might not have in their own communities. As those ex-mining towns have dissolved away into what they are now, these brass bands are a rock. They provide a sense of community people can’t get anywhere else.

You think of the UK and you think of brass bands. It’s testament to what they do that now throughout Europe, North America and China, these places want their own brass bands.

So there’s an international network of bands?

In many ways, the international bands are overtaking us here in terms of what they’re doing and the people they’re reaching. In parts of Europe, certain bands are taken as seriously as contemporary music ensembles and orchestras. A lot of orchestral players perform with brass bands at the weekend. We’re losing that here and have to be careful about it. This needs to come from both within the brass band movement and how the brass band movement is seen from funding bodies and the rest of the country.

Is there a renewal of audiences for brass bands?

Brass bands can be their own worst enemy at times as a lot of what they do and the way they’re run makes them seem old fashioned and out of date. There are amazing people in the UK’s brass band movement who are trying to keep it fresh and commission new and interesting composers to write challenging music. For everyone of those there are two of these stalwarts who are digging their heels in. They’re either scared of change or unwilling to change. I don’t think they realise how detrimental that can be for the rest of the movement. It’s got to come kicking and screaming into the 21st century. It’s got to.

And it is relevant. Of course it is. They do these amazing things but there are a lot of people in the UK aren’t aware of that. A lot of people have never seen or heard a brass band. When I take my friends to go and see them they sit there open mouthed as they can’t believe the sounds that comes out of them. It’s just amazing. Why have I never heard this before? It’s because they don’t have platforms.

It’s getting them out there and making sure that people get to hear them. Giving them the kind of respect they deserve. These players are phenomenal and no one has really heard of them outside the brass band world. And that's a real shame.

Check out our Bold as brass feature exploring the current crop of bands and composers working with brass.