4BR Interview - Andy Scott

10-Dec-2010

4BR's Chris Thomas talks in depth to composer Andy Scott.


Andy ScottIt's just three years since Andy Scott wrote his first work for brass band, yet within that short time his working relationship as Composer in Residence at Foden's has spawned several pieces that have earmarked him as one of the most refreshing and innovative creative compositional voices.

The spirit of that originality stems from Scott's background as a professional saxophonist and a career that has taken him into widely diverse musical territory – from the Halle Orchestra to the successful Apollo Saxophone Quartet.

However, the nucleus of his style is rooted in big band jazz, Latin and funk.   

2010 has seen the release of two CD's that have featured his music.

‘Double Trouble’, shares the limelight with fellow jazz saxophonist and composer Barbara Thompson and focuses on several solo tuba works written for James Gourlay and Les Neish.

‘A World Within’, meanwhile comprises a retrospective of his music for brass band, including the title track, ‘Salt of the Earth’ and ‘The Battle of Barossa’, a musical commemoration of the Irish Fusiliers defeat of Napoleonic forces in 1811.

4BR's Chris Thomas chatted with Andy Scott about his music, his relationship with Foden's, and his thoughts on topics such as open adjudication and the public perception of brass bands in the 21st century.


Chris Thomas: It seems remarkable that it is only three years since you wrote your first work for brass band, ‘Salt of the Earth’. Could you tell us how your initial acquaintance with Les Neish and the resultant commission came about? 

Andy Scott: Yes - it’s been a roller coaster three years; great fun, hard work and a privilege to work with Foden’s.

I met Les via Tubalate, who commissioned ‘Bite the Bullet’, which was premiered at the Warwick & Leamington Festival.

As I usually do before writing a commission, I went to a rehearsal and had a chat with the players, listening to their ideas and taking on board general comments about existing repertoire which seemed to involve a real consideration for clarity and avoiding closely harmonised chords in mid to low registers.

’Bite the Bullet’ is scored for two euphoniums, two tubas and drum kit. It’s written with a heavy New Orleans influence and was given a great premiere by Tubalate and Ben Gray.

Around this time Jim Gourlay commissioned ‘Going Down’ which I wrote during Jim’s time at RNCM where I teach saxophone. It was a piece that Les covered in lessons with him. Jim has always been very supportive of my music, which I really appreciate.

Les liked ‘Bite the Bullet’ and ‘Going Down’ and asked me to write a Concerto for him with funding secured from the BBC.

In November 2006, I was fortunate enough to win a British Composer Award for my Concerto for Saxophones, ‘Dark Rain’, and a result gained funding from the Worshipful Company of Musicians that was earmarked towards a commission for Wind or Brass Band.

So - fortune has it that lots of things came together that enabled ‘Salt of the Earth’ to be realized.  The main thing though is that Les asked me to write the piece, for which I am very grateful!


Chris Thomas: Your own background as a saxophonist has seen you in very different musical territory to that of brass bands. Have you always been conscious of the brass band tradition?

Andy Scott: As a saxophonist I do find myself in all sorts of different stylistic and creative situations – from playing with the Halle, to the contemporary ensemble Apollo Saxophone Quartet.

When I moved to Manchester in 1985 to study at the RNCM, I had no knowledge (to my shame) of brass bands.

However, a good friend was Martin Winter. A group of us would head to the pub on Sunday evenings for a catch up, and I’d hear Martin talk about brass bands and in particular Foden’s. Martin also had an amazing capacity to remember jokes, so he always he had us all in stitches!

Over the following 18 years I was increasingly aware of brass bands, especially with teaching at Salford University and the RNCM, but still didn’t really know about the movement.

Looking from the outside I always thought that it was strange having competitions, quite military looking uniforms and everyone playing the same piece in contests!

It’s only during the last three years that I’ve really been immersed in it, and probably still don’t know that much about it!

However, I’ve been spoilt and very lucky working with Foden’s and my eyes have been opened by the amazing musicianship and camaraderie that players in the banding world possess.


Chris Thomas: As a professional musician, have you always composed alongside your playing activities?

Andy Scott: I used to form music groups and transcribe and arrange music when I was at school.

I was always fascinated with writing, especially harmony. This developed at the RNCM where I moved into writing as well as arranging for different jazz groups. It was via student groups that people heard my music and started commissioning works.

There wasn’t a big game plan in terms of a career. I was brought up in a family of musicians, wanted to study music, loved it and still do.  I’ve never had a formal composition lesson.

What I love is the collaboration between composer and performer, which I can appreciate from both sides first hand.

I’m not obsessed or pressured into writing music that is technically very challenging for the sake of it, and I won’t practice a piece these days unless I am convinced that the composer has something interesting to offer musically.

Music with an honest emotional connection and voice has to reign over colour, effects and technique alone, although it’s great if these aspects find their way into a piece as a genuine and integral part of the work.


Chris Thomas: I was at the premiere of ‘Salt of the Earth’ and saw the impression it made on the Festival of Brass audience. Were you immediately hooked on brass bands from that point?

Andy Scott: Foden’s and Les performed superbly that night, and as a composer you can’t ask for anything more when they deliver with such style and panache.

I came away with a lot of positive comments from players and the audience - which was a relief!

It got me thinking that maybe I could develop the idea of bringing my jazz and improvisation influences to Foden’s via my composing, as the recurring comment was that ‘Salt of the Earth’ was stylistically different to a lot of existing brass band repertoire.

At the end of January 2008 I found myself thinking about working with Foden’s again and was certainly aware that I was dipping my toe more deeply into the brass band waters.


Chris Thomas: Foden’s were quick to recognize the opportunity and sign you up as Composer in Residence. Did, you have to think carefully about it?

Andy Scott: No. I didn’t have to think twice.

I knew that I was dealing with honest people and great musicians. It was a great opportunity for me. Foden’s pay me a proper fee for each commission. 

They understand that writing and gigs is how I make my living, with one day teaching every three weeks at the RNCM.


Chris Thomas: Bram Tovey has been an inspirational presence at Fodens. Have you relished the opportunity to work with him? 

Andy Scott: Absolutely.

Bram was really complimentary about ‘Salt of the Earth’ and we have since had ongoing dialogue about the brass band movement, repertoire and musical ideas.

It’s no wonder that he is such a respected figure. There’s no ego and he simply lets his music and music making do the talking. I really enjoy listening to his CD ‘Maestro’.

He has a great musical imagination and is a master of clarity in his scoring.


Chris Thomas: Jim Fieldhouse has been involved in the brass arrangements of a number of your earlier pieces including ‘Fujiko’, ‘Roar!’ and ‘Paquito’.

How easy has it been to transcribe these pieces to a different medium, some of which were written for considerably smaller combinations of instruments?

Andy Scott: I was thinking very carefully about the ‘A World Within’ CD for about 18 months before the recording – about tracks, timings, variety, etc.

With other deadlines to consider, I knew that I wanted five short pieces that I had composed to be arranged for brass band. I felt that the tracks I would suggest to Jim needed clear melodies, specific rhythmic and stylistic characteristics. 

However there was a lot of imagination and skill needed to produce the arrangements. Jim was the ideal person for me to collaborate with.

Years ago I taught him saxophone at Huddersfield University. He plays in my large saxophone group, SaxAssault and has written a couple of numbers for us. I knew he was an exceptional musician, and put him in touch with Barbara Thompson when she asked me to arrange her ‘Concerto for Tuba & Big Band’ for Tuba and Brass Band.

Jim did a wonderful job, which is recorded on the ‘Double Trouble’ CD. What I didn’t realise until recently was just how good a euphonium player he is!

He agreed to arrange the five pieces. We chatted them through and he would send a file of the first eight bars or so and ask if he was barking up the right musical tree! Of course he was!

It’s great to work on different creative projects with friends over a number of years. The trust becomes stronger.


Chris Thomas: Your compositions demonstrate a multiplicity of styles and influences. Is this something that has developed naturally through your experiences as a player?

Andy Scott: As a saxophonist you’re expected to be musically versatile, at least if you want to give yourself the best chance of securing regular freelance work.

The saxophone is a hugely versatile instrument and when I graduated from the RNCM it was a case of accepting any and every saxophone gig, especially as I didn’t play the doubling instruments (clarinet & flute), which ruled me out of show work.

So these circumstances led me to working with a real spectrum of musicians and experiencing all sorts of styles of music.

It’s only really now that I feel that these diverse performing experiences are showing in my writing.


Chris Thomas: In your first work as Foden’s Composer in Residence, ‘A World Within’, the music passes through not only jazz, but also reflective, nostalgic moods that come close to the sounds of the traditional brass band repertoire.

When you started to write for brass did you make a conscious study of the existing or standard repertoire?

Andy Scott: I did, but it wasn’t an extensive study.

I was fortunate to be pointed in the right direction by John Barber and Foden’s librarian Jimmie Charles. They said ‘listen to this’ and Jimmie would lend me the score.

I would like to study the repertoire a lot more but there are only so many hours in a day.  

I try and make it down to some rehearsals and it’s good seeing how different conductors direct rehearsals and to get inside a piece of music.

‘A World Within’ has a couple of tricky solos for flugel and trombone and at times I was after the power of a big band whilst never writing in a swing style.

There are some swing sections in my Saxophone Concerto ‘Dark Rain’ and it’s very carefully scored in the wind band, only asking the instruments that are found in a Big Band to swing quavers.

The woodwind are scored starting a note on beat two or four and dynamically shaping sustained notes to create the impression of swinging whilst the Big Band within the Wind Band actually swings.

Playing swing is something that can’t really be taught fully. It’s a sense of feel that comes through lots of listening to the great players.


Chris Thomas: How do you approach writing for brass band? Do you think in terms of instrumentation and colour immediately, or does that come out of initial ideas later on?

Andy Scott: I spend quite a long time thinking about a piece before writing anything down - specifically the conceptual approach, the overall form, gauging the ebb and flow and emotional and dynamic balance.

This may happen when I’m driving or when I have a ten minute break somewhere. When I sit down at the keyboard with manuscript it’s a case of referring to these initial ideas and then seeing what develops.

A lot of the time I’m up against a deadline, which I love and hate at the same time.

I think that you have to be decisive with ideas and it’s dangerous to have too much time on your hands to pontificate. Nothing is ever rushed though because I’m at the stage where I know how long it will take me to write say a ten minute or fifteen minute work.
 
You’re transported into a different space when you really become involved in the compositional process, sometimes fourteen hours fly by as you are totally immersed in the journey.

It’s always a difficult and intense one though, and you’re exhausted when you finish a piece - but hopefully it’s worth it.

For me, melody, harmony, colours, timbres and so on all happen at around about the same time in the writing process.


Chris Thomas: Your other major commission for Fodens, ‘Battle of Barossa’, has something of a filmic structure bound by the story of the famous Napoleonic battle. Did you approach this work, differently to ‘A World Within’? 

Andy Scott: Yes  - very differently. I was given free reign musically with ‘A World Within’ knowing it would be premiered at the RNCM Festival of Brass.

No musical restrictions were placed on me for ‘The Battle of Barossa' either, although the circumstances were very different.

I accompanied Foden’s on their annual visit to Armagh in 2009. The attitude and generosity of the people towards Foden’s is incredible and it was there that Ivor Stevenson spoke with me about writing a new work to celebrate the 10 year Foden’s & Armagh collaboration.

A co-commission was confirmed and there was pressure in my mind to write a piece that both parties would be happy with.

I jumped on a plane and along with Ivor, explored Armagh for the day. The piece emerged as a theme that people there were extremely proud of. I didn’t want to write something with a heavy jazz influence, as it didn’t seem appropriate.

I received wonderful feedback following the RNCM Festival of Brass premiere and at the back of my mind I was thinking how appropriate the performance of 'Barossa' was to be a fortnight later in Armagh Cathedral.

I believe that Ivor has asked Foden’s to perform 'Barossa' in Armagh once again in February 2011, as the Battle of Barossa took place in early March 1811.


Chris Thomas: There has been a good deal of recent discussion about the need for brass bands to adapt to the 21st century.

Do you see scope for bands to move into new performance arenas and if so what do you feel the possibilities to be? 

Andy Scott: I feel a little awkward answering this question, as although I’m an experienced professional musician, I’m still a new boy to the brass band world.

However, I can’t foresee a developing future for brass bands if, for example, they insist on devising entire programmes of short lollipops or light music. 

Why not mix it up with a major work that was written in the last 30, 20 or 10 years?

Programme longer pieces if they’re musically satisfying, educate the audience with more communication and insight into works. I know Foden’s do this, so some people may be thinking, ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’

But, my argument is that outside banding I believe people think of brass bands as outdated, a thing of the past, and that the best that they can offer is a few musical lollipops on a wet Sunday afternoon at the local park.

We all know that that is nonsense of course, but the public don’t.


Chris Thomas: As well as a player and composer, you are also known as a teacher and educator. Do you feel that you would like to bring your skills in this area to the field of brass bands? 

Andy Scott: I just like working with musicians and have developed pieces that I use in workshops for saxophonists about improvisation.

I’m not sure that brass band players are particularly interested in this though! Banders don’t want to listen to a sax player waffling on.

At the moment I’m very happy to collaborate with Foden’s and other bands such as Desford and Lions Youth (who have both commissioned me to write short works for them) and learn more about the instruments and writing.


Chris Thomas: How do you feel about the competitive side of the brass band tradition? Do you feel it to be a healthy occupation? 

Andy Scott: Whilst thinking in a way that music shouldn’t be competitive, the fact remains that life is!

I like the way that bands get together at contests and devote so much time, energy and discipline to rehearsals and performance - and then have a massive social!

I do think that having three men in a tent adjudicating is a joke and something that really portrays the brass band movement as being something of a dinosaur to the general public.

All the nonsense that goes with it could be avoided with open adjudication.

My thinking is that regardless of it being a competition, live music performance should be an aural and visual experience.

That said, being an adjudicator for a brass band contest must be difficult.  I’m full of admiration for them and certainly wouldn’t like to be in their position. 

I guess that you take the rough with the smooth when results come out, behave like an adult and respect the decision on the day.

It’s no good spitting your dummy out.


Chris Thomas: Given the opportunity, could you see yourself venturing into the field of the brass band test piece? 

Andy Scott: Given the opportunity it would be a great challenge.

My life and livelihood doesn’t depend on it though even though it would be special. Maybe I’ll be considered one day when I’ve got a few more brass band commissions under my belt!

I come back to a point made earlier though.

If a test piece did transpire, there would be no gratuitous technical demands thrown in. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be easy to play, it’s just a case of not writing phrases that are deliberately intended to trip musicians up.

That’s not music to me. 


Chris Thomas: With a Euphonium Concerto for Glyn Williams already on the cards, what other plans do you have for the future?

Andy Scott: I’m currently writing the Concerto for Glyn (what a virtuoso!) for premiere at the RNCM Festival of Brass and there are plenty of projects and ideas being discussed with Foden’s.

2011 sees the recording of a CD with music composed for flute player Paul Edmund-Davies and Clare Southworth as well as a CD of compositions scored for Jazz Quartet & Strings with Lancashire Sinfonietta.

There is a ‘Saxophone Concerto’ for premiere at the World Saxophone Congress in 2012, a collaboration with opera singer Anna-Clare Monk and other commissions for big bands, saxophone groups and chamber music ensembles.

It’s very important to me to push Astute Music, to try and spread the word about the great work that this company is undertaking, and I’ll be doing that everywhere I travel in the form of performances, masterclasses and workshops.

In terms of the whole brass band experience, it feels as if stage one has been completed with the release of the CD ‘A World Within’.

It’s now time to move on to the next stage - hopefully developing as a composer in this fascinating musical arena.

There’s a lot to learn and it’s thanks to Foden’s that I have an opportunity to do this.

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