4BR Interview - Judith Bingham


4BR talks to one of the UK's leading composers - Judith Bingham. Prague seems a long while ago now, but did the reaction to the piece put her off composing for brass again? Chris Thomas finds out more...

Judith Bingham
Judith Bingham
Picture credits: Malcolm Crowthers

There has been no shortage of brass band works that have sparked controversy over the years, yet John McCabe’s Images and Judith Bingham’s Prague will stand out to many in the brass band world as the two that drew the greatest debate of all.

Welcomed back

In the case of Images, John McCabe was later welcomed back into the fold when Cloudcatcher Fells “redeemed” his image amongst the apparent legions of reactionaries and doubters, this despite the fact that a small number of fine works since, most notably The Maunsell Forts, remain shamefully underperformed and heard.

In the case of Judith Bingham’s music however, the initial and subsequent reactions to Prague being selected as the Regional Championship Section test piece in 2003 appear to have totally blinded the band world to two indisputable facts.

International acclaim

Firstly, as a composer, Judith Bingham has received international acclaim for her music across a wide range of genres, acclaim that has resulted in her being the recipient of no less than four British Composer Awards, with a further nomination for the 2009 Awards soon to be announced.

Secondly, and despite the fact that one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise such is the rarity of a performance these days, Prague is not Bingham’s only work for brass band. 

There are several other diverse and significant works that possess the ability to both challenge and entertain.

Serious question

It is true there have been a couple of high profile converts to Prague since its round of “area” performances but it remains a serious question as to why Bingham receives such acclaim and enthusiasm amongst audiences and performers in the classical world, when in the brass band world we are apparently unable to embrace a composer whose music is skilful, original, often brilliantly scored and vividly programmatic.

Perhaps then, works such as Prague are more than overdue for reassessment, whilst Judith Bingham’s further body of work for brass band, including the brilliant concert opener Four Minute Mile and the larger scale These are our Footsteps and The Stars Above, the Earth Below, are explored and recognised as the major additions to the repertoire that they genuinely are.

Worrying reflection

It’s a worrying reflection on attitudes to change and new music generally in the band world that possibly two of the most revealing answers given by Judith Bingham to the questions below, stem from the telling brevity of her one word answers to “did you attend any of the Regional contests in 2003?” and “have you felt any change in attitude to Prague since?”

Long term

In the long term and in common with a number of other composers that have entered the brass band world from wider musical spheres, it is brass bands and our culture that will be the poorer for the loss of a composer of Judith Bingham’s talent and individuality.

4BR’s Chris Thomas chatted to Judith Bingham in the lead up to the British Composer Awards and the nomination for her large scale Shakespeare Requiem.                           

Christopher Thomas: You grew up in South Yorkshire, close to the heart of brass band territory. Although singing became your own direction as a performer, were you conscious of brass band music and the banding tradition during your formative years and do you have any recollections of your earliest acquaintance with bands?  

Judith Bingham: I don’t have any specific memories, though sometimes I think there is a certain “northernness” in the way I think about brass instruments. In my brass quintet ‘A Dream of the Past,’ the opening prologue imitates a Sally Army band on a street corner, playing a Victorian hymn.

I think this is in some way a memory of my grandparents’ house in Nottingham, close to the old Shipstone’s Brewery. Both of my parents came from poor working class backgrounds which they had disowned and that sound world links me to my roots, lost memories of the past. Somehow brass bands tie me into that, even though the genre goes way beyond its starting point.

Christopher Thomas: Aside from your brass band works, you have also written several works involving brass ensemble, notably ‘Salt in the Blood’, ‘First Light’ and ‘The Snows Descend’. What is it that draws you to brass instruments and are you able to explain the fact that you write so idiomatically for brass? 

Judith Bingham: It’s a prosaic answer, but I write for whatever I’m commissioned to do. Especially in the past, I accepted lots of commissions where I was pretty daunted at first – a Guitar Quartet was one!

When Bram Gay asked me if I would like to write a brass band piece back in the 80’s I said yes straightaway, although I was pretty horrified at the thought! I went out and bought ‘Wind Bands and Brass bands’ by Kevin Thompson and Bram gave me the Enigma Variations in an arrangement by Eric Ball, which was extremely inspirational.

Then, when I first had something performed, I was knocked out by the sound, so thrilling and with such an expressive range. I also realised that the sound had a lot more potential than I had imagined. As to orchestral brass, there is something in the fact that as a choral singer I often sat behind the brass in orchestral pieces. Without realising it, I had sat behind Bram Gay when he was in the Halle and I was in the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus.

Later on, I got to know James Gourlay when he was in the BBC Symphony Orchestra and other BBC players like Paul Cosh. You learn so much by osmosis as a composer; hearing the way composers like Debussy, Stravinsky or Berlioz write for the brass when you are sitting near them is really instructive.

As to writing idiomatically, I think it might be that I think of brass instruments as close to voices and I try and write very expressively for everyone and not treat people as ‘fillers.’

Christopher Thomas: Before we move onto the subject of ‘Prague’, perhaps we could talk about your other brass band pieces. All of your works for the medium appear to occupy very diverse musical territory.

Has it been a conscious decision to try and explore in this way with your band music?

Judith Bingham: Everything I write occupies its own enclosed space and if I am writing more than one of any particular genre I’ll try and use the opportunity to explore different facets, different possibilities.

I think of groups of instruments as actors on a stage and each piece as a drama that has to play out in a certain way. My first piece ‘Brazil’ was in a way the most standard of all the pieces. I was trying to get my head round the scoring and transpositions!

The next piece was ‘The Stars Above, the Earth Below.’ I thought I would write the equivalent of an orchestral fantasy-overture, rhapsodic, very romantic and very much featuring the high cornets. I had a wonderful performance by Brass Band Berner Oberland conducted by James Gourlay.

His players didn’t seem to need to breathe at all! Immediately afterwards, I wrote ‘Four Minute Mile’, which is more of a fun piece.

Then came ‘Prague’, which is Gothic but constructed in a classical way, and finally ‘These are our Footsteps,’ a millennium piece that is maybe the most filmic of my band pieces and also very virtuosic.

Christopher Thomas: ‘Four Minute Mile’ is unlike any of your other band pieces, both in length and style; a brief, exhilarating dash to an imaginary finish line that is almost a physical, human equivalent to John Adams “A Short Ride in a Fast Machine”. What was the initial impetus behind the piece? 

Judith Bingham: ‘Four Minute Mile’ was for the BBC and was played by the then Leyland DAF Band, with Richard Evans conducting.

I’d been asked to do a concert opener and when I told my husband it had to be four minutes long, he said jokingly, ‘4 Minute Mile’ and that stuck. I’d already written the second commission, ‘The Stars Above, the Earth Below,’ and so felt much more experienced about how to handle the scoring.

Although the piece is light-hearted, I had felt very moved seeing a film of Jesse Owens winning at the Berlin Olympics and Hitler’s subsequent fury and there is a sense of a cloud passing over near the end.  It has a simple ABA structure, but I wanted the B section to sound like a slo-mo of the running.

There was endless trouble about the starting pistol at the beginning, health and safety and all that!

Christopher Thomas: All of your brass band pieces bear descriptive titles to some degree, including ‘These are our Footsteps’ and ‘The Stars Above, the Earth Below’.  

Do you find that the source of your creative imagination is nearly always extra-musical in this way? 

Judith Bingham: Yes, I’m a very programmatic writer. I think it comes from being an avid reader and also from the youth theatre I did in my teens.

I like pieces to be mini-dramas. But the programme is also a peg that I will hang a deeper meaning on. ‘The Stars Above, the Earth Below’ is ostensibly about migration and change, but there is a paradox in that there is constancy in bird migration.

I imagined what the birds look down on, the changing scenes below, so there are echoes of tragic Arthurian love and the battlefields of World War 1. I like bird-watching and am very moved by the vast journeys birds like wild swans make every year. ‘These are Our Footsteps ‘was a millennium piece, so I was trying to write about the roads of 1AD as opposed to the superhighways of 2000!

Is our behaviour any different under the layers of progress? Scenes of violence in the ancient world are contrasted with the laying down of the Nazca lines in Peru, a spiritual act of creation. 

I feel that the main problem for composers is getting air and space into the brass band texture, as it is bottom heavy and extremely homogenous. I tried at the end of ‘Footsteps’ to create a very airy texture.

I think it’s the hardest of all the pieces although players might disagree!

Christopher Thomas: You wrote your Tuba Concerto ‘Down and Out’ for James Gourlay. He has also been an ardent supporter of your brass band music over recent years?

Judith Bingham: Yes! I didn’t know James well when I sat behind him in concerts, but I recognised what a superb player he was.

I first worked with him when he conducted ‘Prague’, a very fast, high octane performance he did with Williams Fairey.

I had worked with Fairey before but with Peter Parkes. I used to see James and his wife Leah regularly when I went to Manchester and wrote a solo tuba piece for him ‘Der Spuk.’ I was knocked out by the expressive range of the tuba.

I remember James making a sound like pizzicato strings. After that the Goldberg Ensemble and Malcolm Layfield commissioned the Tuba Concerto. I knew that James could really characterise the music and so I wrote a piece about a down and out in Victorian London that required a lot of dramatic energy.

Christopher Thomas: And so to ‘Prague’. Perhaps you could first of all tell us how the piece came into being? 

Judith Bingham: Paul Hindmarsh asked me to write a test piece. I had just been to Prague and was really into all things Eastern European.

A whole collection of pieces were influenced by aspects of that, the folk-lore, Dracula, the appalling events in World War 2 and sightings of the Virgin Mary which had just started at that time in Medjugorje.

There were two big influences on ‘Prague’ – the legend of the Golem, a monster created by a Rabbi and a video I saw about Reinhard Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia.

I still think about the images in that video – Heydrich trying on the ancient crown of Bohemia and his extraordinary funeral, where torch-bearing SS officers lined the Charles Bridge in Prague at night.

There was a legend that whoever tried on the crown would die within a year if they weren’t entitled to wear it and as Heydrich did die within the year, I wanted to create a gothic scenario where the Golem has been called up. It was a shame that everyone got so heated about ‘Prague’, I was never able to talk about this aspect of it.

It is meant to be a piece about disruption and displacement, but I deliberately gave it a very classical form, much like a mini-symphony. The chaos and devilment seem to be trying to break out of it at times.

It was also based around the number 7, as there were seven locks on the vault to the crown of Bohemia.

Christopher Thomas: Were you particularly conscious of the controversy that was raging prior to its round of performances in the 2003 Regional Championships and if so what was your own response to it? 

Judith Bingham: Of course! I got a certain amount of mail, both supportive and hate mail, including a little hand written note from a man saying the only thing I had achieved was to put him off ever going to Prague! Ridiculous.

A lot of the raging about the score and mistakes in the score seemed to be people not liking the harmonies and trying to ‘rationalise’ them.

Things which are familiar 20th century gestures, like the aleatoric roulades of notes in the first movement, were treated as being completely impossible and unplayable, whereas to my mind they are nothing like as difficult as ‘Carnival of Venice,’ for instance. Ironically, my publishers and I had just gone through the original score (which was hand written of course) before it was announced as the test piece.

I was quite flattered to be so notorious as I am hardly radical in new music terms, but this in itself is a very sad comment on the brass band world.

There are many players, and not just young players, who come up to me and say they would like to do a wider range of new music. They want to be excited and challenged by what they play.

But there are also a lot of people who want the brass band world to be a safe and utterly predictable environment, a bit like Saturday sport, where they can have their enjoyable arguments about other ‘teams’ and their players and managers, but want to remain totally unchallenged and unchanged by the music. I get the feeling they don’t listen to much other music and are out of touch with the mainstream music world.

This is such a shame, given the extraordinary quality of playing that goes on. Any composer working with a brass band cannot fail to be thrilled by the virtuosity and quality of the playing.

It’s really important that young performers and composers are drawn into that.

Christopher Thomas: Did you attend any of the Regional Championship contests that year?  

Judith Bingham: No.

Christopher Thomas: Entirely appropriately given the history of the city that inspired it, Prague is a strikingly vivid and at times violent work, but ultimately and in common with all of your music the language is not excessively avant-garde or dissonant.  

Are you conscious that you write with your audience in mind?

Judith Bingham: I always write with players in mind. I was a professional singer for 25 years and I respect what goes on behind the stand. But when you talk about ‘the audience,’ I think of everyone both now and in the future. 

What’s important is that you try and give people the truth as you see it. That means taking big risks and as Prague demonstrated, the possibility that some people will be offended and offensive!

More than anything I want to fire up people’s imaginations, to draw them into the drama, spellbind them. It is easy to underestimate audiences.

Programme planners always seem to think that people want a diet of meat and two veg with no variation, but I am always very surprised and moved by the people who come up to me after a piece.

Often now it is older women, who can feel unrepresented. I believe that the majority of people go to concerts, the theatre and films, to see or hear something that will thrill them and move them; not to numb their brains.

Christopher Thomas: Have you sensed any changes in attitude to the piece since 2003?

Judith Bingham: Pass!

Christopher Thomas: Looking back on your brass band pieces, which do you regard as your best, or with the greatest affection and for what reasons? 

Judith Bingham: It is pointless asking composers to rate their pieces, they are the worst judges! The least thing can affect the way you think about a piece.

You can be feeling reasonably happy at a rehearsal and then someone says ‘did you know Ravel used the clarinet in that way?’ and suddenly your piece is the worst thing you’ve ever heard. All creative people are neurotic and paranoid.

But I have some very happy memories of working with bands and of the support I’ve had from people like Richard Evans, James Gourlay and Paul Hindmarsh. I met people in the 80’s that are now well known players, like the trumpeter Martin Winter.

I am so glad I got to write for bands; what started out as the need for a commission turned into a challenging and exciting experience for me and I feel that I learnt a great deal too.    

Christopher Thomas: Finally, can you see yourself writing for brass band again in the future given a suitable opportunity? 

Judith Bingham: I am hoping to be writing a quartet for brass band instruments for an American group next year.

I think it would be interesting to try and expand the repertoire for smaller groups as there are so many players in the colleges.

I think that brass band concerts could be more experimental and feature more pieces for different line- ups; it makes it more fun for the audience and more interesting for younger audiences and players.

Christopher Thomas: Thank you for talking to us. 


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