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Interview:
4BarsRest interviews Phil Lawrence - composer.

Phil Lawrence is a determined man. Next week he visits New Zealand to hear many of his compositions for brass band [including a championship section test piece and cornet concerto - "BLAZE" (dedicated to Rod Franks)] premiered by Waitakere City Trusts Brass.

Wanting to know more, we caught up with Phil and disussed [at length] his experiences at establishing himself and his music within the brass band movement and his thoughts on the movement as a whole.

Take time to read this article. Phil is a talented and dedicated man, who through his experiences has got strong opinions. What he has to say will make many of you reflect on your own position within the movement be you a bandsman, supporter, publisher or one of the 'faceless few'.


Phil – tell us more about your background as a musician, a composer and brass enthusiast.

I started playing the trumpet at the age of eleven, and it took seven years before playing my first professional engagement with the Liverpool Philharmonic. I freely admit to not starting in bands, but chose the orchestral route having lessons from Jack Stokes (father of Bill Stokes) and then studying with Bill Flood an eminent local orchestral pro freelancer. At 16 I studied with the legendary Alan Stringer (who had studied with William Rimmer) who had set a new standard in the UK for orchestral playing from the late 1940’s.

Composing music had always been on the agenda right from school age, it lacked opportunity though, and it was a little later at FE College where it manifested itself on a par with trumpet study. It soon became clear to me that I should join a brass band to improve my technique so (though at 14 I did a short stint with the “Sailors Chappell Band”) I joined British Rail Edge Hill Band at 17 under Bob Dean, ex Lairds & Fodens.

Deciding to commit to the study of the trumpet first, and composition and conducting second, I gained a place as a Post Graduate at the RNCM studying with John Dickinson, John Gracie and later Howard Snell, I also joined the famous Manchester CWS Band. This was the period just after Rex Mortimer, and the conductors at the time were Trevor Walmsley, Maurice Hanford, Frank Renton & Jim Scott. Within the first two weeks at the RNCM I was sent to the Ulster Orchestra for a month as sub-principal trumpet. Within that time at the RNCM, I worked with the BBCPO, the Halle, Opera North, Liverpool Phil and Manchester Camerata. I also composed brass fanfares for the Duchess of Kent and odd ditties for BBC Northwest Nationwide.

With limited work available on leaving Manchester and following a chance meeting with James Watson (then playing with Philip Jones) I took advice and opportunity and moved to London.

There, I worked with the Royal Opera, Philharmonia, West End shows, Wren Orch, BBCSO, Philamusica and Saddlers Wells. I also embarked on a solo career and became an endorsee of Signature Trumpets (Don Getzen) and recorded a piccolo trumpet album with Ian Tracy, Organist Anglican Cathedral of Liverpool.

In 1990 I purchased an Atari computer & synth, and by 1992 had launched the Victorian Virtuosi play-a-long Arban album. I had also completed my first ten music tracks for adverts on the box. Since then I have written around 200 music tracks for adverts (inc. NIKE), and TV programmes and worked for Classic fm. Currently I’m working on 2 film scores; some will be on offer at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.

As a UK based composer, why are the newly crowned Australian Champions - Waitakere - premiering many of your works in New Zealand next month?

I have 13 new premiers in Auckland on June 8th, by the top band in New Zealand and recent Australian Champions, “Waitakere City Trusts Brass”. Their principal conductor Andy Snell (ex BT Grimethorpe) is the instigator of the whole project. The concert will also sport an appearance from the Principal Cornet of Grimethorpe, Richard Marshall in a premier performance of my new cornet concerto.

Disappointed that bands from the UK weren’t so interested in the material I was massing, it was Andrew Snell who came up with an offer I could not refuse after promising offers from bands in Australia, Canada and North America.

Waitakere are also using my new test piece “Gregoritas” as own choice in the NZ championships shortly after the premier in the concert on the 8th. I’m very excited.

Tell us a little more about “Gregoritas”.

I decided to write a test piece for championship section (having written works for all other levels of banding), I spent around nine months on and off, working on a piece I hoped bands people would like. I had based it on 12th Century Gregorian chant, thus it has tonal roots and hymn like roots and plain song melody. I first showed it to Paul Cosh and then Paul Hindmarsh who were glowing about the work in general, but they also had some ideas to share on it. I made some changes. I got it played through in July 2001 at the Guildhall. Paul then put it on a lunchtime show in Feb 2002. The reaction was very clear from players and the audience - it was well liked! I made further revisions.

I then forwarded it to most of the panels and bodies - faceless few, shall we call them - and the personnel that run/decide (and don’t run/decide) competition events. I had a couple of interested observational replies from Jim Scott and Bram Gay & Bob Dean. They thought it very challenging indeed.

I sent it to two bands in Norway on a recommendation from Rod Franks, and much later, to some top bands in the UK (after I found out there was no chance of it being programmed anywhere in the UK till 2005). Unfortunately, with little or no feedback from any of the bands, I decided that I would ‘spam’ North America, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The response was incredible, and within days I had more than 100 replies from interested parties including such luminaries as, Dr Ronald Holtz. I then decided to put ‘Gregoritas’ on my web site so people could listen and decide for themselves.

[See bottom of page to find out how to listen]

The Brass Band movement has always had its favourite composers over the years – At the moment Mr Wilby is quite easily number one. Is this healthy for the movement?

One would think the brass band movement is awash with great music composed for them to perform and premier on a regular basis but in fact there is distinct lack of it. So one would think that composers from many walks of compositional life would bound towards this hungry medium. In reality, there are around ten composers that compose regularly (I mean works of significance) for the medium who are played & paid regularly. With so few regularly writing there’s no surprise that the movement has it’s favourites over the years. Are they good composers? You bet they are, and these ten are the top ten.

So why no others? Well, a lot of it is due to being able to compose in that contest format/recipe, and get it right time and time again, which a lot of willing composers (not from the brass band stable) are unwilling to do, but to contradict that we have one orchestral composer come out of the orchestral closet in Kenneth Hesketh (with help from Philip Littlemore/Faber) in last years 2nd sec final with “Danceries” and a jolly good piece it is too! Most composers would just rather write a piece to length with some obvious guidelines, and more importantly new composers would not like the idea of having their works deemed fit (for wrong reasons from their point of view) by the faceless few! Our top ten composers have an excellent record for getting test pieces right.

Judith Bingham’s ‘Prague’ created more than a stir when chosen for this years’ Regional Championships. What are your thoughts on the music and its reception within the movement?

We are so short of good original concert works/test pieces so “Prague” could never have been ignored. It is a work of significance for band! I first heard it in May 1997 under Paul Cosh. It is a strong work, with muscles of steel; it’s also the type/trend of piece that symphony orchestras were playing in the UK over 20 years ago and more. It is art though, but is that what banders want? As a pro player, I got a kick out of playing difficult modern works within a normal rehearsal time frame of 3 to 5 hours in one day, and then giving it an exciting performance (via the pub), and then it was bye-bye to it. I’m not sure that bands-persons will want to work on such works for weeks on end and then expect camp followers to listen to ‘umpteen’ performances. It’s art, not a Goff Richards ditty! There is a distinct line between, music-art/ a concert/South Bank platform/area competition held in a sports centre. But it is a great piece.

Eric Ball gets celebrated over the next 12 months. Is the movement going overboard to celebrate the man and his music?

Yes, next year sees an Eric Ball festival and the man is worthy of such a salute, I’m not sure about all of his works spread across National Contests but I’m sure in the wake of ‘Prague’, many will welcome this comfort food.

I too was brought up on Eric Ball’s works, and love to listen to them still. Many of these works are known backwards, so many performances will reflect the interpretations of our teacher’s teacher, and our conductor’s conductor. Bands will not have to take major decisions on board because there won’t be the learning process of a new or undiscovered work. Incredibly though, there will be many (players) on the platform, that will be performing that piece in public for the first time themselves!

Take (as a comparison) “Masquerade”, the choice for last year’s finals. 20+ bands in the arena, quite plain to see that on the day 9/10 bands & conductors had not done their homework/practise and were frankly a long way from the mark of getting near the top 7 in comparison even in basic terms of tempi, and good musical line. These same bands will now be rubbing their hands with the prospect of the Ball festival with a chance of a closer result. Although, the top four will always sound like the top four.

Having said that, I think “Enigma” will still sort out the men from the boys, but the full version should have been chosen I think (but is time always money?)! There is also one nagging thought, that this mass choice of Mr Ball solves a lot of the music panels (faceless few) problems – in not having to sort individual new works per section, via an endless decision process! Easy way out? Who knows?

And, while I’m here talking about our dear friend, Albert Hall. Adjudicators! Please look at those bands that fall between numbers 6 to 12 on the day, it’s life or death for those who have made it there for that one day and sacrificed all to get there, they are in awe of that magical day and what it means for them to be there, the placing needs to be dead right, not a shuffled compromise. These bands in this sector deserve absolute accuracy for their “Reason D’etre”. It’s easy to place the first 5 (he says boldly), get 6 to 12 right!

Commissions. Is the UK brass band movement doing its bit to promote new music being written and performed?

There are more new (as in not been there/around before) composers commissioned every year at the proms than we have had writing for bands in total across the last 5 years. If there was that much more new music about, we could even think about stretching “Listen To The Band” on Radio 2, to a whole 35 minutes! Then, they could air just two works of some significance of 17 minutes each! (Spot the distinct air of levity here). In comparison, Classic fm broadcasts 24/7 with all the classical gumph you’re fed up hearing. Lets all cry “repertoire imbalance”. We must commission more at all levels of banding.

I guess there will be only 8 to 10 (if lucky) bands in the UK will premier a new piece this year under mediocre profile/PR and I'm talking of a substantial original work for band of more than 8/9 minutes for any section/standard. Of course there will always be new works tried by local bands and composers, but I’m really talking about works that will enter into the major repertoire on all levels.

Why don’t bands commission more often? Does it cost too much? Well, it depends on whom you commission. If one chooses from the top ten shelf I reckon there would be some change out of £3.5K. One might find a willing composer within a band’s community who would happily compose to order for £400+. It may sound a lot to some, but there could be a few weeks’ work, or around 70/80 hours for £400. The important thing is, that you inspire a willing local composer to work within the community and expand the brass band repertoire from inside out, hopefully. It’s not easy to get UK publishers to take notice of Jo Nobody, even if they are fab!

Do bands know how to commission and brief a composer?

If we had more commissions, we would not end up with lame test pieces like the arrangement of the “Ewald” brass quintet for the 2002 regionals. This deserved more complaints than “Prague”. One option - Instead of having to play music like this, those 200 or so 2nd section bands could have paid £10 each (per band) and had a nominated/chosen composer write an appropriate piece via brief. I’m sure each of the participating bands could come up with a tenner? There would be no shortage of good composers to write a 12.5-minute test piece for 2nd section for 2K! Food for thought?

What are the obstacles facing new composers trying to get published in this country?

Others may be more fortunate than the “Trail of Doom” I seemed to take. My first pro arrangement for band was the first movement of Rachmanninoff’s Symphonic Dances (a massive undertaking for a first start), a fantastic piece, not without similarities to “Plantagenates” (but we all nick stuff from the classics). I knew there was no money in it, but I did know it would sound great for band and it had to be done as far as I was concerned. I next wrote a 10-minute test piece for 1st section, penned a few more ditties and a trumpet book.

I sent my material to the big publishing companies in the brass band movement and between being kept waiting for 18 months on basic decisions, and being taken on, and then off, not being notified of sales for up to two years, being told one thing while the opposite is happening and waiting for months for that to transpire! Signing a contract to publish, waiting 4 months, and then being told it wasn’t going to be published after signing a contract as well! I had one well-known music editor sing my praises and I was happily left to produce what I wanted, only later to have the same editor interfere with well-formed musical lines! I don’t wish to sound bitter but I experienced delay, fluffy lies, indifference, badly drawn-up contracts, incompetence, lashings of insincerity, back stabbing and plain rudeness! If you’re not already somebody, you’re nobody apparently.

Is this why we don’t have more composers writing for brass bands?

Yes, and no. Some is also due to the problem I mentioned earlier, about test piece format. But I don’t know how new brass composers will develop their skills by composing, if you and your material is largely ignored because you’re not known? “Go somewhere else!” I said to myself, I’m not easily beat, so I decided to set up my own company - Elms Publishing. Being a small publisher is hard work and the costs involved and difficulties in obtaining copyright for arrangements make it even harder to keep up with ‘big boys’. Not so long ago, it was generally fair game to obtain copyright permission (depending who you had to ask), but try doing a John Williams piece these days! No chance. Thanks IMP!

Of course, the main difficulty for us one-man band publishers is getting it sold/distributed. Fortunately (thank you up there), I teamed up with Tony and Maureen Creswell of Mostyn Music (www.mostynmusic.com). What a team. No politics, no hanging around, sound advice, a more than fair deal and cheques every three months. Ta! God bless you both, and keep working, till you drop!

Many composers that write for brass band generally seem to only write for brass band or wind and maybe the odd choral work. Have we anything to learn from other movements if we are to embrace the many talents that write for other mediums?

Some of our greatest band composers were often dipping into the orchestral scene, like Gilbert Vinter, he wrote a lot with the BBC Midlands Light Orchestra as it was known then, and the work was equal just about between bands and orchestra. We have to thank some of the great English composers for turning their hand on occasion to bands - Vaughn Williams, Holst, John Ireland, and a few generations on, Malcolm Arnold. I always felt it a pity that Walton & Britten didn’t turn out something substantial for band. But you are right, those that are predominantly played stay within our medium. As I said earlier, I also welcome the recent work from Kenneth Hesketh, Danceries, who has predominately composed for orchestra until now, but this appearance is largely due to his publisher Faber & Philip Littlemore. If he had been on his ‘Jack Jones’ I doubt if we would have seen this.

Those who keep writing for bands know the nuances really well and will continue to be very inventive. Those who come to the medium for the first time will often come up with the unpredictable, and sometimes the unusual. Does ‘Prague’ ring a bell here? I’d like to see more composers from outside ‘our ten’ and from the symphonic World composing for bands. May the Lord send us a 2nd Wilfred Heaton!

What are your thoughts on the current state of the brass band movement as a vehicle for encouraging new composers, new works and new ideas?

I’ve not got a short answer to this. Playing an instrument in what is fundamentally a football league environment cannot be altogether healthy, can it? If all you care about is winning and wanting other bands to splat the ceiling, then there are many other issues ignored. What about the music? Where is the next piece coming from? And why? And who chose it?

I have to applaud the recent Fodens Richardson initiative asking for young and unheard of composers to submit all. I’m right in that bracket too and sending stuff like everyone else. But, we still need to do more. All the sponsored top bands should follow the Fodens initiative. And, do it once a year, every year. The movement gets new works out of it, a reason to do an original CD and we see/hear new composers with new emerging styles. I have to say up until now the banding fraternity has been appalling at reaching out to composers and asking what can they do for the band. Its always been very much a PR/back-scratching venture for the band as well!

In general, the vision is too narrow, and beginning to border TV copycat styles. Pop [Sop?] Idol for example. Organised, ‘down yer throat’ massed media and no escaping it. The band world is beginning to go the same way, we need to open up and look further ahead. There are more than just five top bands, more than five top conductors, more than eight great soloists, more than 8 composers, more than three publishers (or should be), more than 3 CD labels, not enough unbiased publications (apart from 4BarsRest of course, he said in an unbiased fashion) and not enough independent event organisers for smaller local band events in disparate counties.

Banders! You are the only ones that matter? There are people who make a darn fine living out of your hobby, which costs you most of the time. You start playing the tune for them to dance to! You keep this whole machine afloat but you are not sure how half of the machine works, or how to manipulate it, or more to the point, what its doing, and where it is?

The bands and the people in them are the ones that can turn all of this round should you wish. There is no point refusing to turn up at a competition because the faceless few have chosen an inappropriate (in your view) test piece. You let them choose for you, so why moan about it if you abdicate from that decision! I have already seen some very good composers leave the band medium because it is too complex, politic, illogical, introverted and self-harming.

Look at the amount of one-off compositions in the repertoire from composers who have never written again for bands, and ask yourselves why? You can bet you won’t get another out of Judith Bingham. You might well say, ‘good’, but who knows what her next work could be like. She is commissioned time & time again from BASWE (Wind Bands) from the UK to USA, Canada, Japan, and she is paid a fair days wage and they love her stuff. Are we so different from those well-practised amateurs in Wind Bands that perform Bingham with glee? If they can organise and harmonise and commission and grow and logically govern, which they have massively in the last 30 years, so can we.

All bands must also learn how to take their hands out of their pockets (and I know bands are poor, but awash with photocopy) if they want good music, both in purchase and commission and quality. Wind band stuff and orchestra sheet music is twice & three times the price that we pay, but there is far more original composition in those other Worlds than ours, and quality of print. You want to buy “Mambo No 5/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” well; you get what you pay for then.

There is also this great confusion amongst us all about who the music is for. Is the player also the punter? Well, yes. Is it for an audience? In a concert, yes. But you don’t get an audience at competitions, do you? You get supporters, and other bands players waiting for own goals. I heard somewhere that “Prague” will be good for the audience”. What audience? That music deserves an audience by their own choice, a concert hall fully booked, Dyke playing & £12 a ticket (fab), and, if you didn’t like the music, do more research before you spend your £12. How many times have you been to the cinema, after seeing what seemed to be a great trailer, and the film is duff! Ever tried to go back to the box office to get a refund because you reckon the film is a turkey? And box offices say’s “5,000 people have seen it this week, you’re the first to complain”. It’s all subjective.

As a pro, you are paid to play what the audience will want to hear. Should the pro like the music, will they play it better if they do? And vice-versa? I think not. If bands were paid to play “Prague” would they complain? Did some bands not play it so well because they didn’t like it? Are these issues of significance? No! But who is the punter at contests? Essentially the player, then the supporters.

My friends, take the high level politics out of banding, because most of the ones who are in bands for the politics are the ones that spoil it. Do this, and take control of your own movement. Nurture creativity at all levels, players and composers alike, and it will survive. Continue to let monopolies bend and twist the bands path to their own ends, let politics, megalomaniacs, and “I am” people run it; and it’s possible, that a healthy future will be compromised.

Your future Phil?

I have three passions. Film, conducting and brass bands. In five years time I’d really hope for a good UK film to score, I’ve done a one2one with Trevor Jones (‘Last of The Mochicans’, ‘GI Jane’, ‘Desperate Measures’ et al) at his studios. He thinks I’ve a good chance at the film score scene as I have a lot of TV work behind me now. I’ve also done three short films, two went to Cannes this year.

What I like about bands (now I have distribution that is) to a certain extent, is, I can compose/arrange something tomorrow and there is a good chance that some band could be playing it by next week, but I’m not going to be rich on it. I’d like to keep arranging and composing for band and produce some works of significance and help and encourage other composers into the brass fold. I’d like to be a played composer in the brass band world. The more I’m encouraged by bands and their conductors, the more I will write.

No doubt many who read all of this will want to take issue with many things I’ve said and I’m only just starting to upset people (not that this is my reason d’etre). From what I gather, no one likes that in our Masonic-like movement. I’m not saying I’m going to give birth to “Son of Prague” at some stage, but remember this - hundreds of punters on the Champs-Elysées were queuing up in 1913 to kick Stravinsky where it hurts after the premier of the “Rite of Spring”. Without that single work, most 20th Century music wouldn’t have happened! And, if had he got his sphericals converted, he might not have written “Pulcinella”, a complete neo-classic work!

So, be careful who you ‘kick’ out there! Come-on, give us, and new composers a chance!


To find out more about Phil lawrence AND to listen to "Gregoritas" and "Blaze" and other works, you can visit his website at:

http://www.impulse-music.co.uk/elms-studio/

To listen to the sound samples you need to download the 'Sibelius' plug-in. Simply click on the link provided and it will automatically install.

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