Interview: Edward Gregson

Edwardgregsonlargeweb2013 has been a big year for brass band music.

It’s 100 years since the first original brass band composition and acclaimed classical composer Edward Gregson has done his bit to help celebrate this milestone for the music.

His piece – the substantial 15 minute work Of Distant Memories – is a homage to the past 100 years of brass composition. It’s been incredibly well received, earning Edward a BUMA International Award in the process as well as being performed at the Royal Albert Hall. He was also nominated for a British Composer Award for his Symphony in two movements, adding up to a busy year for the composer.

Not only is he an accomplished writer of music but Edward has also done much work on behalf of his fellow songwriters. His CV includes stints as an academic and teacher as well as at PRS for Music as writer-director board member. M quizzed him about his long career and recent award…

How did you first get into brass?

As a teenager I played in brass bands. Most teenagers play in rock bands but there are a lot of kids in the north of England in Yorkshire and Lancashire who learn brass instruments. It’s very much part of the musical fabric of the north – and still is.

I went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London for four years. I was taken on by a publisher to write new contemporary brass band music and enjoyed some radio broadcasts and commercial recordings. After that I moved on to writing choral and orchestral music.

Has this brass background always informed your compositional work?

Yes I still love the sound of a brass band. The top British brass bands – Cory in South Wales and Black Dyke – these bands are phenomenal. The standard of playing is great and the sound has never left my psyche. Reviewers have said you can hear my love of brass in my work although I’ve gone on to write more orchestral compositions during my career.

Congratulations on the BUMA International Brass Award? Can you explain how you received it?

I’ve written a piece called Of Distant Memories. It’s recently been performed at the Royal Albert Hall to mark 100 years since the date of the first original brass band piece. Before that, brass bands would play selections from operas – but that year Labour of Love was written by Percy Fletcher for the National Brass Band Championships held at Crystal Palace. My new piece celebrates this centenary milestone.

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Edward receiving his BUMA International Brass Award

What have been the key moments from your career?  

There have been almost too many to remember! I wrote the signature music BBC Young Musician of the Year award back in 1988, which was nominated for an Ivor Novello. My good friend Chris Gunning won the award that year for the music for his Poirot score. I think he deserved it!

Then my biggest orchestral concerto is a clarinet concerto I wrote in 1994 for Michael Collins who is a very well known British clarinetist. That was premiered by the BBC Philharmonic as it was a BBC commission. It marked the start of a 20 year relationship with the orchestra. Then finally, two weekends ago at the Royal Albert Hall – this performance of Of Distant Memories. It was such a special occasion with so many people from the various musical communities there to celebrate 100 years of brass band music.

Do you approach writing for different medium in different compositional ways?

I haven’t written much music for film and TV – but one of the things I’ve done is ghost write. It goes on a lot in film because someone gets the credit for the score but cues are often farmed out to other composers. So I did the big climax scene in the original Superman 3 as a ghost writer. It was the first big thing I’d done and was just a matter of sheer discipline. It’s a different challenge as the art of film writing is all about enhancing the story but not dominating. You’re in the background enhancing the visual. I think the best film composers are fantastic – people like Bernard Herrman and his scores for Psycho and the Hitchcock films. I love the big symphonic scores of Jerry Goldsmith. Writing for these forms teaches you that you’ve got to be organised. You have a finite amount of time to write a piece of music.

How does the compositional process now work – does it get easier the more you write?

It’s not the initial idea that is difficult to come by. You might have a rhythm or melody but then what do you do with it? Part of the skill is about being able to mould that into an orchestral piece.

You’d think it would get easier but it actually gets trickier because you become more self critical. You can almost back yourself into a cul-de-sac because you self analyse more.

Is the world of composers/classical composers in good health?

It’s in a good place. There are always composers coming out of the colleges and schools. People want to play or write music this music. But are there enough opps for composers? It’s not easy. It’s more difficult to get published than ever before. The old days of beng a songwriter and getting published by someone like EMI has gone out the window.

But ultimately it is in good health. The BBC proms shows that off and there are some terrific talents emerging.

What’s next for you?

Well I’ve just picked up the BUMA award. The fourth volume in my latest collection of recordings with the BBC Phil will be coming out next year. We’re doing a piece called Dream Song, plus two concertos. I’m also writing my first string quartet for 2015, for the Manchester Mid-day Concerts. They were founded in 1915 and have commissioned me to write a piece for that. That’s as far ahead as I can see!

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