Onyx Brass

Acclaimed group Onyx Brass have been blowing their horns for over 20 years - we quizzed trombonist Amos Miller on their latest work, Tour De Brass!

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 14 Oct 2014
  • min read
Earlier this year brass chamber group Onyx Brass embarked on their Tour De Brass!, a new project bringing brass music to Britain’s historic band stands.

It’s the latest initiative from an outfit that has been doing its best to establish the brass quintet as a medium for serious chamber music for over 20 years. They've done a great job, having commissioned and performed the world premières of well over 100 new works from the likes of Michael Nyman and John Tavener.

Tour de Brass! was a collaboration with composer David Sawer and took place as part of the PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music Biennial, a feature of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Cultural Programme.

We caught up with trombonist Amos Miller to discuss this latest work and the health of British brass banding…

How did you get into brass?

I started playing the violin as a kid. But I was an extrovert and wanted to play something loud really. It was as simple as that.

Onyx as a group aren’t technically a brass band. Three of us came through the brass band tradition. You’ll probably find that in all the orchestras in the UK, I’ll hazard a guess that at least 80 percent of the professional brass players came through the brass tradition. But as a group we think of ourselves as a chamber group rather than a brass band.

We all met in the National Youth Orchestra about 21 years ago, hence the slightly silly name as it’s an anagram of XNYO, that’s how we got started. We were founded through a more orchestral perspective rather than a brass one.

What was the thinking behind Tour De Brass?

Since we started, we’ve always been a group that innovates in terms of commissioning new material. Chamber ensembles with trumpets, French horns, trombone and tuba have only been around for 50-60 years. We’re not like a string quartet which can call on 350 years of Bhrams and Mozart. So we had to create a repertoire for ourselves.

Among the landscape of arts cut backs, we’d been thinking for a long time that the band stand is a space for free culture. That’s why they were built in the first place. The Victorians were enlightened educators and liked to have ways for people to better themselves.

It was sad that band stands are in different states of unlovedness so we thought it would be nice to put on some free concerts and in these spaces.

We commissioned David Sawer, a high powered, uncompromising sort of composer, to write a piece for us to go with the tour. The idea is that it’s the first thing we play and starts a bit like a flash mob in the sense there are none of us on the band stand – everyone will appear outside –then we all move into the band stand and play more accessible pieces. That was the basic concept.

Why did you decide to work with David Sawer?

He was really keen. Not every composer leaps at the chance of working with a brass quintet. But we’ve been lucky, we’ve had probably over 150 composers write new material for us in our 20 years together.

David is an imminent opera and orchestral composer, someone who really fancied exploring the possibilities of brass. He’s pushed us quite hard in this piece. The tuba has to play over a range of five octaves in this piece. So he’s given us some fairly severe choreographic challenges. But it’s been really good for us. We’re lucky to have him on board.

How have the performances been received?

The responses have not always predictable. We’ve done it ten times so far, probably had the best response at the Southbank at the New Music Biennial.

We played it at Durham’s Brass Festival. Someone said they hated it but liked the other pieces we played. That doesn’t worry us too much. Even the woman who said she hated it, she didn’t say she wished she hadn’t heard it. It was more I like, I heard it, was interested and I’m glad I did but I didn’t like it. That’s fine. There is a place for that in art.

That’s what we’re about. We’re not going to start playing arrangements of Pharrell – that’s not our bag. I think sometimes people without any background in music at all react to it better than keen radio listeners. Because the keen listeners have an idea about what they like and don’t like. Those that haven’t heard any live music before, they don’t have any parameters as to what they like or expect.

Have you achieved what you wanted to from the piece?

We didn’t really have a set of expectations from it. ‘Let’s do some out there brass in the open air’ was as far as our remit went really. There wasn’t a hoped for response. We’ve all found it uncompromising from a performing point of view. But that’s quite useful and we’ve got a lot out of it. In our own small way, we’re not world famous, but it has furthered the cause of brass playing and brass chamber music.

Is there still an audience for brass?

I think there definitely is. People have a stereotype in their mind to what brass do, perhaps more for so than any other instrument. We can turn up to a recital and no one will sit in the front row, as they think we’re all hooligans and it’ll be terribly loud. But whenever we play, people are surprised at how flexible the group and its sound can be. We can use our ears, play chamber music and play quietly. Five brass instruments playing with a matching timbre very softly is one of the most magical sounds there is.

Visit the Onyx Brass band website for more information.