2004 National Championships of Great Britain - Test Piece Review

12-Oct-2004

"…all the flowers of the mountain…"
by Dr. Michael Ball


Michael BallThis could prove to be one of the most intriguing set works for a major championship for a very long time indeed.

Michael Ball has of course produced some very fine contest compositions over the years, yet this could prove to be his most masterly for brass band.  "…all the flowers of the mountain…" is a work of great eloquence; an almost elegiac, poetic composition of reflective ambiguity, yet one that is a drawn from a kaleidoscopic palette of colours, timbres and rhythmic patterns that has a familiarity which makes it accessible to both the performer and the listener.

The composer's musical fingerprints are all over the score, yet they do not reveal themselves in all their splendour unless the interpreter has a complete understanding of what the composer wishes to portray. The result is one of the most satisfying original works for brass band for many years, and we can thank good old "Aunty" for it as well, as the BBC has stumped up the money for it. We have many a grumble about the coverage we receive from that venerable institution, but we still owe it a great deal (and Paul Hindmarsh in particular).

Michael Ball has reached deep into his artistic soul and has found inspiration in a most personal manner. The subject matter is Irish, yet the musical picture is certainly English in tone and even possibly, European in outlook, and the consequence is a work of powerful lyricism. It's importance cannot be underestimated.

There are clear influences of Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells to be heard in this piece (the composer was a pupil of the latter) but you can also detect a more expansive European approach as well, with a nod and a wink perhaps to the experiences he had when teaching in Sweden and beyond. There is even (we think anyway) a little piece of heavy metal homage as well, with a short section that is underpinned by the same rhythm that can be heard on "Smoke on the Water".  (It may just be us though)

The intrigue will surely come from the composer's intentions to portray a sense of a specific place – a musical GPS point of reference, which in this case is the short distance from his home on the southern edge of Dublin, in the area around Killiney Hill.

Unlike his "Whitsun Wakes" which paid homage to the glories of our brass band heritage, or "Ceremony" which was a celebration of the dawn of a new Millennium, this work is a specific portrait of a place that means a great deal personally to him. It could therefore be seen as a tad selfish in outlook – but this would be folly, as he depicts the beauty and serenity of his new found idyll with a reflective evangelical musical voice. 

It is also a brave work from one of our leading compositional voices as well. Not for him the big, bold and brash that could so easily have been written to accommodate the expectations of the players, MD's and audience for a work to be performed in the vast echo chamber that is the Albert Hall. No. This is a work that starts and ends in contemplative tranquillity; it presses the listener to open their musical mind and to appreciate the beauties of ensemble and solo playing that necessitates intuitiveness and elegance. It makes demands on the very things brass bands do not like doing, but when they do it so well, make them sound like nothing else on earth: ensembles playing with a compact balance and understanding of linear shape and soloists performing with musicality and a feeling for whole rather than just the effect of their individual contribution. This is brass writing that takes us in a welcome new direction.

The piece itself is underscored throughout by the composers stated intention to create a floating, spacious, flexible approach that is maintained by a broad triplet lilt. This is no Irish "higgledy piggledy, pint of the dark stuff, bodram, four leaf clover Oirshness" either, as the intention to create a musical picture of the Wicklow mountains is brought superbly to life without ever reaching into the musical make up box marked "stereotype". This is a work of real beauty.

The opening section moves along like a fine breeze unsettling the grass covered primary slopes of the Killiney Bay mountain – subtle changes of rhythmic patterns built on that triplet theme, before it builds to a sharp climax and a section of declamatory quasi cadenzas for bass trombone, solo cornet, trombone, soprano and baritone/euph. These however are all underpinned by the intention of the music to move forward (they do not stand alone as showpiece exhibitions).

A more complex rhythmic pattern then emerges (yet the metronome marking is essential the same) and there is a sense of a momentum being created. This continues further in a flowing 6/4 section that builds in intensity and complexity to a broad climax which reiterates three times before a final confirmation and release with the soprano and solo horn leading the sense of fulfilment. 

The lyricism returns with some beautifully created sections of tranquil writing (all still underpinned by the triplet lilt) with the euph leading the way. This is then followed by mini climax, as if the composer leads you to a false brow of a hill, before the soprano takes the lead and the tranquillity ends in peaceful repose.

Throughout the work there are detailed markings of emphasis, nuance and delicacy with the section before rehearsal marking 16 a gem of creative writing. The effect ise a flowing stream of notes created by almost the full band marked pianissimo, all playing different subtle rhythmic patterns.   When it clicks into place it becomes almost hypnotic. Listen out for it.

With that the tempo is ratcheted up with a 6/8 section of writing that sounds like something Paul Dukas may have written – a scherzo of the slightly obscure, yet once more underpinned by a constant triplet feel. That leads to a complex section of writing in 15/8 time that ebbs and flows (sometimes almost violently so) before the composer leads the traveller back to the nursery slopes once more and the reiteration of the opening statement.

However, here the composer does not end his work with a triumphal blast, as if the mountain has been scaled in heroic fashion, but in reflective contemplation; as if the person looks back over his shoulder and takes in the beauty of the conquest rather than just the sense of personal physical achievement. Therefore the works ends not with declamatory cadenzas from the solo cornet and soprano, but with expressiveness (marked piano) and a return to sense of floating spaciousness and flexibility.  It is a perfect ending to a quite superb piece of brass band writing.

"…all the flowers of the mountain…" would have certainly raised more than a few eyebrows when it was first played in the 20 bandrooms around the country a few weeks back, but from the reports we have heard, it is a piece that has found favour with cynical players the more they have got used to it. MD's in particular will enjoy the challenge posed by the expansive approach to creating a musical picture full of atmosphere, whilst the solo cornet and soprano players will have earned their beer money come Saturday night for certain.

The audience should approach this work with an open mind and sit back and enjoy its intricacies and beauty to the full. Forget about the slips (there will be plenty for sure), for it is the ability to create music that will surely sort out the very best bands on the day.  The "Clapometer" will thankfully be made somewhat redundant, as the finish will require nerves (and lips) of steel and not just the "one for all" blast for glory in the final few bars that so characterises many works.

The music wins out in this one for sure – and that is how it should always be. Congratulations to Dr. Ball.

Iwan Fox

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