Simon Dobson

Contemporary brass composer and conductor Simon Dobson tells us why UK brass banding needs to look to the future if it is to flourish.

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 20 Nov 2014
  • min read
Contemporary brass composer Simon Dobson is one of the scene’s youngest and most leading lights.

Alongside the likes of Gavin Higgins and Lucy Pankhurst, he’s strived to re-invent the music through new commissions and using less conventional influences to break the stereotypes associated with the sound.

How did his career begin? Well he studied composition at the Royal College of Music before winning the European Composer of the Year Award 2002 at the European Brass Band Championships. Simon was also honoured with a British Composer Award in the Wind or Brass Band section for A Symphony of Colours, a piece based on the work of Olivier Messiaen.

More recently, he premiered his first feature length film soundtrack. Commissioned by the British Film Institute for the 105 minute long WWI epic The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands, the soundtrack was performed to film by live orchestra during the Archive Gala concert of the London Film Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall back in October. Prior to the performance we managed to catch up with him to get his thoughts on the health of British brass banding and why he fell in love with the sound...

What first attracted you to brass instrumentation?

It was literally the first thing I remember. My father was a tuba player, so even though I was very young when I started playing (three I think) it seemed a natural thing to do!

What are the challenges of arranging /composing for brass?

Some of the challenges are as basic as trying to create sounds that don't get boring, or not replicating things others have done before.

Brass ensembles and bands are homogenous in sound. So to prevent the music sounding boring or getting tiring to listen to you have to try to think about brass instruments and the ways in which they interact in a different way every time you compose.

Why are brass bands and their sound still relevant? What is their cultural importance?

Brass bands continue to hold their relevance because they are one of the only surviving forms of community based amateur music making left in the UK.

Brass bands have been around for 150 (plus) years and at the heart of many community’s lives for as long as they can remember. Children can be given an instrument, tutoring and guidance free of charge and the ensemble still is at the heart or many towns and villages around the country.

Brass bands (especially in Europe) are garnering excellent musicians and commissioning very high quality contemporary music and so the level of musicianship is still on the rise.

What are the challenges and opportunities facing the music?

On a very basic level I'd say the two main challenges facing brass band music are firstly trying to keep the medium interesting and 'cool' enough that young people start. It’s also important to continue to be part of it and so gradually moving the movement from its archaic seeming roots to a fresher future.

It is also crucial to commission new, well written music (this has not always been the case in recent years). Brass bands are and have always been caught between trying to safeguard the traditional. Just think of the Hovis advert. We need to ensure that brass bands will one day have a relevant place amongst other contemporary forms of music making. Brass bands, after all, at their highest levels comprise some of the most technically gifted brass musicians to have ever lived.

What does the future of brass look like?

The future of brass bands looks bright, especially in Europe (Norway, Switzerland and Belgium most notably). However, if the UK scene is to survive to maturity it needs to focus on the new and not the old. If quality new music is commissioned (and not just things to 'get peoples feet tapping') and more faith is put into a modern audience being able to accept contemporary music, we may just have a chance of being taken seriously amongst the widening musical landscape in the UK and beyond. The heart is certainly there.

Other than yourself, who are the exciting new talents working as brass composers and arrangers?

There are some truly excellent composers writing for the genre the best of which, for my money are Gavin Higgins, Paul McGhee and Lucy Pankhurst.

Read our full length feature on the health of British brass as well as interviews with Gavin Higgins and Lucy Pankhurst.