Music for brass ensemble is a big gap in my composing history, so I jumped at the chance to travel to Grimethorpe in South Yorkshire, whose brass band really deserves to be called 'iconic', perhaps the most famous symbol of this proud tradition (it's this band who feature in the film Brassed Off.) As an even greater honour, I was warmly welcomed to an evening bandroom rehearsal in Grimethorpe itself. Leading band members were kind enough to work with me on a few experimental (for me) solos I'd written, followed by a breathtaking tour of their repertoire. As many composers will remember, this band was for a while directed by Elgar Howarth, and amongst the composers to write for it have been Birtwistle and George Benjamin.
It really is another musical realm. At the bottom of the ensemble were four big tubas (in Bb and Eb) creating an overall floor level sound which we don't really experience in orchestral music. The next musical space up is again well filled by euphoniums and baritone horns. I began to get confused by instruments I didn't know the name of. The tenor horn principal thought that her instrument might be called an 'althorn' in classical music. We wondered where the Wagner Tubas would fit in a brass band, and what they were in the first place. To me, the most notable feature was the 10-strong cornet section, including a Bb cornet soloist playing all the impressive solos in an already high register; and, even higher above him, someone on Eb cornet, playing permanently in Brandenburg 2 trumpet territory with seeming ease for the whole evening. A huge musical register was being covered in great detail by this carefully graded range of instruments.
It was all a total ear opener. And an eye opener, travelling around the town and area, once a classic mining area. Coal was mined at Grimethorpe until 1992, and Cortonwood Colliery, the starting point for the 1984-5 miners' strike is just up the road. The surrounding land is now greened up, with the mine areas covered by warehouses and retail parks. The Band are working hard to grow their tradition, and the evening I visited, their youth band was re-starting after a long gap. Sincere thanks to Grimethorpe's players, and to their associate composer Liz Lane (to my left in the picture) who created my visit and was always on hand with sage brass advice.