2009 All England Masters International - Test piece review

19-May-2009

Paul Hindmarsh looks closely at this year's test piece - 'Masters of Space and Time' by Bruce Broughton.


Masters of Space and Time is a great title – evocative of the big bang, offering all those epic, cinematic images that are so popular with some brass band composers at the moment. 

But forget all that, because this is not picture music. Forget Lost in Space, Tombstone, Harry and the Hendersons or any other of Bruce Broughton’s marvellous Emmy winning tv or movie titles. (19 Emmy nominations, with 7 awards is testimony to of his imagination, skill and longevity).

Music and performers

Masters of Space and Time is all about the music and the performers. 

You can probably count the number of major rass band test pieces of this abstract kind on the fingers of both hands. We seem to like our music with pictures and stories in the brass band movement don’t we? 

Engaging

Somehow it is easier to get to grips with playing our part or engaging with a new piece as a listener if we have some kind of image or something musically familiar like Mozart (Vienna Nights), Mahler (Titan’s Progress) or a well loved hymn tune (St. Magnus) to latch onto. 

But in my view listening and playing new music should not always be easy. Getting to grips with the unfamiliar, overcoming misgivings and prejudice over what appears to be new or radical, trying to appreciate what the composer might be driving at, is part and parcel of the evolution of the musical experience. 

Fascinated

Without that sense of progress (or perhaps more accurately progressive understanding), the great works of Beethoven of Bach might have been consigned to the archive of the history books. Within the confines of the brass band world it’s fascinated me that a work like Contest Music by Heaton is now one of the all time favourite test pieces, despite its uncertain beginnings. 

Yet there isn’t a picture or story in sight. It’s not about anything other than what you hear – a beautifully engineered and transparent musical argument, full of light and shade, humour, high spirits and poignant lyricism. Bruce Broughton’s score is also just about the music, its character, argument and momentum.

Contest Music

The rejection of Contest Music as a Nationals test piece in the early 1970s (because of its length and arguably the sparse scoring in places) was mirrored in 2001 when Masters of Space and Time, a joint commission by the British Open Championships and the North American Brass Band Association, was not used by the Open. 

This was not a reflection of the quality or of the music – that was never in doubt – but what was considered to be its challenging idiom, in audience terms. It will be fascinating to hear how the strong field at the Cambridge International Masters approaches the work and how it is received by the audience, which will include Bruce Broughton himself.

Unconventional

From a traditional brass band contest angle, Masters of Space and Time is unconventional – refreshingly so if you want to experience a different approach. The work is notable for the absence of sustained lyrical paragraphs or extended technical solos. 

That is not to say that the work is straightforward – far from it. Every player is tested technically and lyrically at some point and the work requires a symphonic breadth of tone and reserves of stamina to maintain energy and vitality right to the final flourish. Most of the technical passage work is subsumed within the intricate musical texture or doubled on instruments of different colours. 

Aural space and time

As the composer says in his explanatory note, ‘the piece is structured in groups of aural space and time’ – by which he means contrasting instrumental groups or families of instruments, rather than individuals, playing musical paragraphs of gradually expanding duration and complexity. He goes on: ‘sometimes the masses are very great, sometimes they are very small.’

At the outset, all seems rather random and chaotic. The first two bars are given over to the percussion alone – by the way, audible, well-focussed tuned and unturned percussion is a vital ingredient adding variety and range to the colour of the whole piece. What appears to be nothing more than a little flourish on the crotales (a series of eight notes) is in fact the musical kernel of the whole piece. 

Tiny seed

Out of this tiny seed all the tonal and harmonic aspects of the work evolve. But you would hardly know it for the first minute or so, where first the cornets, then the horns and back to the cornets play what sound like random notes. These clusters with their little accents and discreet rhythms sound highly dissonant and chaotic, but are in essence elaborations around one of the pitches played by the crotales at the outset. 

The shifting patterns of notes – very busy but essentially static in pulse – contain much of the thematic material that Broughton goes on to use.

Contrasting

The contrasting sections that he describes as being the main structural pillars of the piece, are quite short to begin with and lead after about 30 seconds (Bar 18) to a short chorale-like passage. This is the other main musical ingredient, which takes on an increasingly important role as the piece evolves.  It provides the slow music of the work – notated at half the speed of the fast music throughout. 

That relationship of fast and slower music is fundamental to the success of any performance. The tension between the fast moving, technical material and the sustained, ‘American’ chorale is what gives the music its energy and drive. 

Continuity

Throughout the first portion of the piece – up to Bar 103 – the primary issue for the performers will be to find a line or continuity through the short bursts of material. It’s as though Bruce Broughton is trying out as many transformations as he can in search of the idea that will best provide the coherence and bring order our of apparent chaos. 

As a listener you’ll be aware of the short bursts of material – violent outbursts, followed by further developments of the chorale tune, some of them overlaid with the fast detail. The energy seems to subside briefly with flugel horn holding the music together, only for the violence and passion to return. One passage sounds as though it has come from straight out of Bernard Hermann’s iconic score for Hitchock’s Psycho.  Soon after that a moment from Holst’s Planets seems to emerge!. 

Cluster

After that surge of melody, which actually expands the contour of the chorale, the whole band responds in rhythmic unison with a searing outburst taking the opening ‘cluster’ material to the height of desperation (it seems to me). 

Something has to ‘give’, and it is the return of the chorale motif, overlaid with an intricate ‘cluster’ based obligato on euphonium that sets the music on a new, more purposeful course. Over the next 20 bars, slow ‘chorale’ and fast ‘cluster’ chromatics gradually coalesce. As the music rises in pitch, the energy and activity of the ‘cluster’ material subsumes the expanded chorale. Fierce trombone fanfares add to the tension as the music winds up to a high unison. 

First climax

That first big climax yields to the only stretch of slow, atmospheric writing in the work, with brief trombone solos answered by delicate flurries on cornets and horns. The detail needs to come clearly through here.  But, the relaxation is short lived – so make the most of it ! – as a short rhetorical chord sequence provides the transition to the more conventionally symphonic  two-thirds of  Masters of Space and Time.

The tempo marking here is exactly twice as fast as the opening (minim = 72 rather than crotchet = 72), the pulse is more consistent and the musical phrases and paragraphs are longer. 

Building momentum

As I see it from reading the score and also rehearsing the work earlier in the year, this portion of the music is all about building momentum, using the tension between the expansive chorale elements and the drive which the fast semi-quaver and quaver patterns engender to provide the energy. It is a very long, sustained musical span, during which dynamic levels will need to be carefully graded so that there are plenty of stamina reserves left for the extrovert head-long dash for the line.

The key to the more purposeful momentum at bar 103 is the off-beat motor rhythm pattern in the baritones and euphoniums, supported by basses. This stops the long melodic strands in the cornets from getting stuck.  

Expansive melody

After that expansive melody comes a contrasting threatening march episode. And this is how Bruce Broughton organises his test, gradually simplifying and expanding the contours of the music. There are some lovely cantabile moments for unison horns, beginning expressively but eventually extending to a glorious written top C. This should have an F horn burnished sound about it. 

In striving to build momentum and maintain energy, the detail should not be overlooked. For example when soprano and  solo cornets enter high up with an inverted version of the chorale line at bar 166 (note that Broughton rarely doubles his melodic and thematic strands at the octave – so quality blended tone and finely tuned intonation will be crucial) the supporting chords and ‘cluster’ fragments need to be precisely articulated. 

Promise

By bar 174, in the composer’s own words, ‘the inchoate promise of the beginning has formed itself into a recognisable structure’. A new wide ranging theme in triple time – uniting elements of ‘chorale’ and ‘cluster’ – emerges with quiet purpose from the basses and gradually takes over the main thrust of the music so that by the time the chorale like music returns in all its glory (Bar 270), it does not need any scurrying adornments for us to appreciate the underlying intensity and momentum.

Splash and dash

In the final ‘splash and dash’ the pace suddenly quickens, spurred on by the ‘new’ theme, energised by  ‘cluster’ theme elaborations of the resounding home key of  E flat (in concert pitch). 

Right at the start Bruce Broughton deliberated obscured the tonality with his chromatic blurring. How those same chromatic figurations serve to emphasise the tonal resolution – which blazes out unadorned on trombones and cornets. 

Final burst

A final burst of the opened out chorale (listen out for top C’s on euphoniums and baritones) drives the music to a joyous conclusion. 

Masters of Space and Time is an intense, epic work – getting though it as both performance and listener will require stamina and concentration.

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