2008 National Championships of Great Britain: 4BR Interview - Kenneth Downie


Chris Thomas catches up with the composer of the London test piece to find out more the man and his music.

DownieThe fact that Kenneth Downie and his music have become such an integral part of the brass band world in recent years could be said to be the result of two happy coincidences. 

Firstly, a return to serious composing in the early 1990’s after a gap of many years saw a rich new seam of inspiration for a man who despite early musical studies, had largely moved away from music to concentrate on business interests in the 1970’s.

Secondly, the relaxation of the boundaries that existed between the Salvation Army and the secular banding world both opened up a whole new world of opportunity for SA composers, as well as enriching the wider banding world with the talents of players such as Derrick Kane and Philip Cobb being displayed on the contest stage and composers like Downie himself and Robert Redhead bringing their music to a wider audience.

For Kenneth Downie one of the milestones of his creative resurgence was his appointment, at the invitation of David King, to become Composer in Residence with YBS in 1998, marking the beginning of a steady stream of both major works and concert items.

Pieces such as St. Magnus and Visions of Gerontius have made their mark on the contest stage, whilst the Cory commissioned The Promised Land was the source of much interest when the band played it as their own choice work at the 2006 European Championships.

On a smaller scale the success that In Perfect Peace has found has brought his work within reach of an even wider range of bands.

As Grimethorpe prepares to defend its National title with Kenneth Downie’s Concertino for Brass Band standing between them and what would be a historic first National hat-trick for the band, 4BR’s Chris Thomas chatted to the composer about his life, his music and what we can expect to hear at the Royal Albert Hall.   


Chris Thomas: Can we start by taking you back to your earliest musical memories? Was music with you from the very beginning? 

Kenneth Downie: The first music I heard would have been at home; my father singing in his tenor voice and my mother playing the piano. I was taken to the Salvation Army from the very earliest days and there the band made a great impression, especially traditional marches with their bass solos! 

I was sent to piano lessons at the age of seven and started to learn to play the cornet at the Army at a similar age. I also sang a great deal as a boy soprano, often through SA opportunities and at music festivals in my home town of Greenock.  I also sang once on BBC Radio’s “Children’s Hour”.

Chris Thomas: Who were your earliest and subsequent musical “heroes”?

Kenneth Downie: The earliest ones were all from Scotland. Alistair Massey, my inspirational music teacher at Greenock High School and Hector Kilgour, the deputy bandmaster of Govan SA Band who presided over the grand organ at St. Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow.

Later on they were nearly all composers, initially from the SA in Ray Steadman-Allen, Wilfred Heaton and Eric Ball. I did not hear the International Staff Band until I was 17, but when I did they also came into the category of “heroes”. 

Later, as I discovered the larger world of music, I came to love Brahms and the symphonies of Bruckner. I am also very fond of the choral music of Herbert Howells.

Chris Thomas: Did composition form the major part of your studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music and Durham University?

Kenneth Downie: At Durham the course was full of musical history, harmony and analysis and I loved it. Everyone could play, but performance did not form part of the course for examination purposes. Prior to that at Manchester the emphasis was very much on performance, which did not suit me! 

I did not really study composition at all at that time. I have taken an intelligent interest in it for many years since and finally took a Doctorate at Salford University with Peter Graham a few years ago.

Chris Thomas: Having embarked on a career in teaching, in 1976 you left behind your position as Head of Music at a school in Poole to go into the jewellery business. What prompted you to make such a major change and how did it affect your musical life?
Kenneth Downie: Although I enjoyed my teaching, when an opportunity came my way to go into the jewellery business in the 1970’s I decided to take the plunge rather than wonder for the rest of my life if I could have been successful in business. 

Initially, it was a great disaster and I soon had to extract myself from the partnership I had joined. Going back to a teaching appointment of a similar standing to the one I had previously left did not seem an option, so I decided to “go it alone” in business. Happily, it worked very well for nearly 30 years.

Chris Thomas: Did you continue to compose over the subsequent years? 
Kenneth Downie: The only years in which I wrote, albeit very little, were those from 1983-91. At that time I was not a Salvationist. When we came back to the Army in 1991, the writing all came back.

Chris Thomas: Looking back, are there any specific works that you feel to form significant landmarks in your output for any particular reason?

Kenneth Downie: My first work on returning to the Army was a very short one, based on an old prayer chorus, “He can break every fetter”. It has always had huge significance for me and has proved helpful to other people also. I shall always be grateful to Markus Bach who out of the blue, gave me my first commission for a contest, the Swiss Nationals, for which I wrote “Music for the Common Man”. 

I have been astounded by the way that “In Perfect Peace” has become as well known outside the SA as it is inside.

Chris Thomas: In 1998 David King invited you to take the position of Composer in Residence with the Yorkshire Building Society Band, a position you held for six years. Do you view your time with YBS as being of particular importance to your music?

Kenneth Downie: It was great to have some awareness of the contesting world at close quarters, through David and YBS. It also meant that I had some memorable recordings of new music commissioned by them, including Spirit of Celebration, Dance Fever, Beautiful World and The Piper o’ Dundee, the latter with the redoubtable Sheona White. 

David and YBS also produced the fabulous recording of St. Magnus which won the European Championships in 2004.

Chris Thomas: You have produced a large body of music for the Salvation Army over the years. Do you find that your music and your faith are completely entwined?    
Kenneth Downie: I find that music often enhances worship and makes me more aware of God’s presence. This can happen in the SA, or in Evensong at our local Cathedral in Winchester. A good deal of my music for the SA is geared to worship services. I find that kind of work especially rewarding.

Chris Thomas: 2001 saw you take the position of Creative Musical Consultant to the Salvation Army, a position you still hold. What duties does this involve you in? 

Kenneth Downie: I spend time reviewing music, writing music, overseeing the development of others who are writing music and also working to bring together the two brass band fraternities. 

My work includes special projects for the International Staff Band with Stephen Cobb and also vocal music for the International Staff Songsters.

Chris Thomas: Moving onto Concertino for Brass Band, your test piece for the National Finals, do you approach the composition of an abstract work such as the Concertino, significantly differently from a work that carries a spiritual theme?

Kenneth Downie: Yes, I sometimes feel a greater sense of freedom when approaching this kind of music. I feel that I am involved exclusively in the business of creating and developing themes and that I am joining company with the “masters” of the past, all the while hoping that they might inspire me!

Chris Thomas: You wrote the Concertino in its original form as the Concerto for Brass Band, for Treize Etoiles to perform as the band’s own choice selection in the 2007 Swiss National Championships. Was it therefore originally conceived and tailored with the specific strengths of Treize Etoiles very much in mind?

Kenneth Downie: I had a very free remit from Geo-Pierre and Treize Etoiles. He said that I could more or less write anything I wished, but he specifically wanted it to be technically challenging. He told me that there was great skill all round the band, a point which was amply demonstrated when they performed the Concerto so amazingly well.

Chris Thomas: In revising the work for the National Championships of Great Britain, you have shortened it by removing the Scherzo. Has it been necessary to make any revisions to the other three movements or were you satisfied that these could stand alone in their original form?
Kenneth Downie: No other revisions have been made and I think that the piece is convincing in both three and four movement versions. I hope to hear it in its full form in the future as well. The second movement Scherzo is a lively, exciting movement in an approachable musical language.

Chris Thomas: The first movement of your Concertino pays tribute to Wilfred Heaton and thinking of “Praise Tribute” as an example, this is not the first time that you have quoted Heaton in your music. Has Heaton been an important figure to you over the years and in what form can we expect to hear his influence in the Concertino?

Kenneth Downie: I became very friendly with Wilfred Heaton in the last few years of his life, visiting him at home in Harrogate, sometimes with my wife, Patricia, on a good number of occasions. 

His influence has been there in my music for a long time, especially with regard to high, penetrating bass writing and thought-provoking harmony. In the Concertino, his influence shows most in the first movement, with shades of Toccata and Contest Music.
Chris Thomas: No doubt technical challenges will abound, but is it right to say that the heart of the work is to be found within what now comprises the central Lento movement?

Kenneth Downie: Yes, I’m sure that is true. There is a great deal of activity in the outer movements, some of which I fear will not be heard in the RAH. We will hear all the notes in the slow movement however and there will be plenty of scope for expressive, lyrical playing. Experience suggests that this will provide the biggest test of the day.

Chris Thomas: Your music has of course been performed in the Royal Albert Hall before, but does the prospect of hearing some of the best bands in the world playing your music in such a wonderful arena still rank as something special to you?

Kenneth Downie: I have some wonderful memories of the ISB performing my music in the RAH over many years. In recent times, I have been fortunate enough to have test pieces performed at the European and British Open Championships. 

I am very excited, as well as a little nervous, at the prospect of my music being used as the Nationals test piece at the RAH. I feel sure that it will be a great day.

Chris Thomas: Looking forwards, you have a busy time ahead of you with your music being featured at the forthcoming Swedish Brass Band Festival where you will be the Guest of Honour? 

Kenneth Downie: Yes, it really is a great honour to be going to Sweden for their Nationals. I just hope they like my music, because all four sections are playing it! Swedish Festival Music is my new work for their Elite Section.

Chris Thomas: And looking forwards even further, are there any other new works planned that you can tell us about?    

Kenneth Downie: I am just finishing a commission for wind band, my first in that medium. I have enjoyed working on it and have plans for more.

Chris Thomas: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.


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