Lucy Pankhurst

We quiz British Composer Award winner Lucy Pankhurst on why the sound of brass is more vital than ever…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 29 Oct 2014
  • min read
Lucy Pankhurst is one of the most prominent female figures in the world of brass bands.

Having completed her studies at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) as a performer in 2004, she remained at the college to complete her MMus in composition with Adam Gorb. Two years later she was the only female composer to win one of the four places at the college’s Festival of Brass Young Composers Competition.

Lucy has gone to enjoy even greater success, winning a British Composer Award (BCA) in 2011 for her piece, Pitch Black, commissioned to mark the 100 year anniversary of the Pretoria Pit Disaster. She’s continued to compose for brass, receiving a second BCA nomination in 2013 for Divisions After Benjamin Britten, a new collaborative work with Simon Dobson, Gavin Higgins and Paul McGhee. She's also up again this year after being nominated for an electro acoustic brass band piece Th'owfen Raconteurs. We quiz Lucy on why the sounds of brass bands are as vital as ever…

What attracted you to compose for brass?

I’m a tenor horn player so some of the first things I started to write were for myself to play. The existing repertoire for the horn leaves a lot to be desired. All recitals at college tended to be the same pieces regurgitated over and over again.

At the RNCM, when people got wind of the fact I was writing new compositions, they started asking me to write pieces for them so they had new things to play. The band at the college exposed me to so many new ideas and made me realise I could play completely different sounds.

So you were looking to break away from the brass band stereotypes?

People are very confident that they know what a brass band sounds like. It’s a very stereotypical idea that people have. I’m in a unique position being a player as I understand from inside out what works, what doesn’t and ways around it. It’s become a personal mission, to use unusual sounds and push bands towards styles they wouldn’t normally play.

Are bands receptive?

It varies from band to band. Some are trying to seek out new challenges but the bread and butter of many bands are their weekly concerts. It’s a double edged sword. Most of the audiences want to hear a traditional brass sound, so when you introduce new things they don’t always respond. It can put off bands from being extreme or too contemporary.

What are the challenges of composing for brass?

The main one for most composers is the transposition element. That can prove quite a challenge as what you see on the page can seem different to what you hear. Many composers have been put off brass as bands haven’t always liked performing new works. They tend to be quite vocal with their opinions and that can put a lot of composers off.

Scoring is also a challenge. With a brass band, there’s very much a similar sound between instruments and you have to tease out different colours from the instrumentation you have.

Are there a lot of new players coming through?

Definitely. Bands always struggle for new players and very few have a full complement of players. But overall there are some amazing players coming through the ranks. In the back of people’s minds, they’re always worrying it’s a trad movement. Some worry that they’re going to run themselves into the ground and disappear. But there are so many people behind the scenes keeping them going. They won’t let it die. It’s going to be fruitful for many years to come yet.

To the uninitiated, what’s the appeal of keeping brass bands banding?

Brass bands bring music to everyone and anyone. There are so many musicians who started off from a young age with a local brass band. It’s way of people being involved in music, even if they aren’t in professional musicians.

It is something that is slowly but surely beginning to evolve. At the same time, it's so traditional and has so much history, it’s almost tapping into bygone times. The moment people hear a brass band they have a definite opinion of what brass is and what these instruments sound like. It can be old fashioned although for some people it can be a positive thing. When my mum hears a brass band, she's taken back to Christmas and hearing the Salvation Army perform. It has the ability to transcend the everyday.

For me, it’s all about the passion of playing, composing and writing. Everyone who you speak to in a band has a completely different story to how they got into it. But they do give so many people the opportunity to start learning. Particularly with the uncertainty of music in schools it needs to be preserved to help people start their musical lives.

Click here for our full length feature on the health of brass bands.

Visit Lucy's website to find out more about her and her music.