Simon Dobson counts punks, funk musicians and the National Youth Brass Band among his diverse group of associates. By his own admission, he’s as attracted to the dissonance in alternative rock as he is the cohesion of classical music composition. But it is the latter scene into which he is fast emerging as a force for change.
In December he received a coveted British Composer Award in the Wind or Brass Band section for A Symphony of Colours, a piece based on the work of Olivier Messiaen. The award marked an important milestone for the young composer, who had been twice-nominated before.
For Simon, now in his early 30s, has already received much recognition as an upcoming brass band composer. After studying composition at the Royal College of Music in London he won the European Composer of the Year Award 2002 at the European Brass Band Championships.
Since then, he has been Composer in Residence with the Leyland Band and Brighouse & Rastrick Band and is now Assistant Musical Director at the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain.
He is also busy working on a brass band album, which will weave in some of his electronic compositions alongside works for brass.
We talk to him about his award-winning composition A Symphony of Colours and receive a potted history of British factory and pit-based brass bands…
How did you get into composing for brass in the first place?
I’ve played in a brass band since I was really young – I’ve played tuba since I was five. I started composing when I was around 14 or 15. I would honk around on a terrible old piano I had in my house and work out tunes that I already knew. Eventually I worked out enough about musical harmony to put together little tunes. I had a little ensemble ready made for me to try them out on. It was kiddie stuff, but we had a real brass band so could play them.
Do you think the British brass band tradition is dying out?
I think there are two views on this. Brass bands are dying out to a certain degree, but I think that’s purely because there are simply less bands. I don’t believe the tradition, or the want to do it, is changing – I just think there are less bands.
The first reason for that is all the factory and pit closures. With the factories and pits went the bands. Also, financially, it’s not as an important part of the community as it once was, so there is less money for it. Maybe it’s because of the way brass bands present themselves? They are seen as archaic.
At the moment there is a big gulf between grassroots banding – the old style brass bands with the uniforms that are associated with the factories and pits – and the elite division brass band culture. If you go right to the top of the playing ability there is often a fair amount of money involved and some of the most talented players in the world, with very high profile events and new commissions.
The gap in the middle is becoming wider and that’s what people see as a decline.
Why do you think brass bands really caught on in the factories and pits?
Originally, factory owners would buy whole sets of instruments and hire people to lead the brass bands so there would be a social and musical focal point. Also, brass instruments were relatively cheap when they were first brought out. Compared to woodwind or string instruments they were very cheap to reproduce.
Brass band produced a warm homogenous sound and they brought everyone together. As the playing got better, factories actually started employing people just to be in the brass band. That reached its peak in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
You talked about the gulf between the high end bands and the community bands. Is there much opportunity to compose for either?
I have had some commissions in the past few years such as the European Brass Bands Championship. But I’ve also had commissions at community level too. There is money on occasion for brass band arrangements, but a Yorkshire town isn’t suddenly going to have £3,000 to commission a brass bands piece. Compared to other types of commissions with different instruments, I would imagine I get less work!
Are people still interested in brass?
I’m not entirely sure! If you have a ‘fourth section’ brass band – with the lowest technical ability – playing in a town centre the older generation will probably think its quaint while the younger generation won’t care at all.
My friendship group outside of what I do for a living is actually pretty different. My friends are punks. When I show them, for example, Symphony of Colours, they all like the physical sound world of the music. So I think brass still has relevance.
The longer brass bands keep playing mediocre music in archaic uniforms the more people will become disinterested. If you saw one of the great Norwegian or Belgian bands playing crazy contemporary music, dressed all in black, the perception would be a lot different.
You mention punk – do you bring those kinds of influences in to your own compositions?
I guess so, yes, but not intentionally. I never quote the Sex Pistols or anything! But certainly the way I act and dress is something very different to the brass band world. It’s not just that the music is fairly far out for the movement, the scene is also not used to that progressive nature.
I spend all my time with funk musicians, rock musicians and punks so inevitably something of that sound world is going to find its way in – even if it’s only dynamically and through the dissonance I use.
How did Symphony of Colours come about?
I’d always wanted to write a piece about Olivier Messiaen because the first time I heard Joie from L’Ascension – the organ version – I thought my world was collapsing. It was the coolest piece of music I’d ever heard. I knew then that one day I would write a piece of music about that. I had the idea 10 years ago.
I’ve always had this synaesthesia thing, while obviously not being as pronounced as someone like Messiaen, music has always been an incredibly visual thing for me. The colour, shape and pattern of music have always been the easiest way for me to keep hold of music.
How did it feel to pick up the award?
Amazing! My publisher all but told me I wasn’t going to win, but it was all coming from a very nice friendly place because he knew I’d be nervous if I thought I was in with a chance. It was a pretty formidable field!
Pictures by Elina Kansikas