4BR Interview — Paul McGhee

4BR Editor Iwan Fox talks to the quiet man of the new wave of talented compositional voices for brass — Paul McGhee.

McGheeThere is always a quiet member of a ‘new wave’ of young artists.

For every Damon Hirst and Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor - Wood or Jake and Dinos Chapman, there is a Gary Hume or a Steven Pippen – the ones who don’t always capture the immediate spotlight of high profile attention.

Quiet voice

In many ways Paul McGhee is the quiet voice of the new wave of young and very talented ‘artists’ who have taken a specific interest in writing for brass bands - composers such as Peter Meechan, Simon Dobson, Gavin Higgins, Benjamin Tubb and Lucy Pankhurst.

Born in Corby near Northampton in 1980, Paul was something of a late developer, only considering composition seriously as a 17 year old, when opting to take A-level music at Beanfield Comprehensive School.

Get out of lessons

His latent musical interest had been sparked by a touch of self confessed teenage laziness (“I wanted to get out of lessons”), when he was given the chance to play tuba in the school band aged13.

Beanfield had gained a reputation a being a bit of a hot bed of musical talent in the mid1970s, but by the time Paul opted to miss a double helping of Geography, it offered the more mundane chance to play in school assemblies and parent evenings.

Undeterred, he started enjoying himself immensely and subsequently went to play with Youth Brass 2000 before graduating into top flight banding with Travelsphere Holidays (now Virtuosi GUS) and Staffordshire.

Compositional genes

The embryonic compositional genes were starting to form though. After a few small scale efforts and filled with youthful ambition he wrote his first serious composition for his course work - the grandly entitled, ‘End of Times’.

A man of dry humour Paul chuckles at the thought of it now. “It was 20 minutes long and took its inspiration from the Book of Revelations. It was a bit ambitious to say the least!” he says before breaking into laughter.

However, the work proved to be an important stepping stone, and after completing his A-levels he decided to move to Cardiff to study at the Royal Welsh College – a decision taken with his usual eye for the bigger picture.


“I had the choice of Manchester, Birmingham or Cardiff,” he recalls. “One was too close, one was not great and Cardiff had a cracking night life!”

And like that ambitious first A level work, it also proved to be a major banding ‘Revelation’.

“I loved it. There was the chance to work with great musicians and be taught composition by Andrew Wilson-Dickson. I was able to play and compose, work hard and enjoy myself: Getting into rugby with the help of the members of the Rogerstone Band was a real eye opener!”

Musical ambition

His musical ambition remained however, and in 2006 he enjoyed critical success with his short composition, ‘The Ministry of Love’, written for the RNCM Festival of Brass Young Composers Premiere series, and inspired by George Orwell’s ‘1984’.

Pain Hit

Following on from that, he was to achieve real success when he entered a Young Composers Competition to write a work for consideration for the Swiss National Championships.

'Waiting for a Pain Hit!??!!?’ was the result, and after gaining second prize, was chosen as the Championship Section set work for 2010 in Montreux.

The composer’s delight was tempered by the fact he was unable to attend the event due to a serious fracture of his ankle, but it was offset by the response to his contemporary work, with James Gourlay, who conducted the eventual winners Treize Etoiles calling him, '...a very original voice, with a lot to say'.

Warmly received

As 4BR heard first hand, ‘Pain Hit’ was warmly received in Switzerland, and Paul subsequently received numerous e-mails and telephone calls of congratulation following the competition saying just how much the bands enjoyed the challenge.

“That meant a lot,” he said modestly. “It was not the usual prescribed brass band test piece, but having such feedback was great. And being able to hear the performances live thanks to the Swiss making sure I received recordings of each performance goes to show just how open and progressive certain parts of the banding world are to new compositional voices.”


“I have a number of musical influences,” he added. “From the Flaming Lips, Frank Zappa and John Zorn to Lutoslaski and British composer Brian Ferneyhough.”

Paul is a big admirer of Ferneyhough, who is now Professor of Composition at America’s prestigious Stanford University.

“His writing is amazing and is a real influence on me. I also like to get musicians to think and act intuitively - not just look at the sheer technical aspects of my compositions, which are complex, multi layered and have many different facets. It’s very much what he has done, and it’s an avenue I’m keen to explore more deeply in future.”

Opened doors

The success has also opened more doors, with his compositions now published by Prima Vista Musikk.

And as he continues his long term recuperation, he is busy writing a large scale piece to be premiered at this year’s Cardiff New Brass Festival, as well as a new tuba work.

Two of his latest compositions have also just been published following well received premieres – ‘Clapp’ and ‘Meditation’.

New work

The new work is called, 'A Slow Fade through a Soft Cut', although he once again laughs when I suggest that it may be inspired by a love of golf.

“No. More to do with it being just a title that came into my mind – I’m not a great golf fan. My titles tend to be a little different.”

The Cardiff New Brass Festival is something he is looking forward to, whilst he is keen to provide more bands with works that challenge their intuitive musical abilities.

“I’m lucky to have been asked to be Composer in Residence with the Tongwynlais Temperance Band. They want to explore more contemporary repertoire, so I’m working on some projects for them. I’m keen to try and get more bands to try something different and challenging – not just be confined to traditional test piece disciplines.”

Welsh return

And although you suspect he is not as comfortable in the spotlight as perhaps some of his contemporaries, he is looking forward to a return to Wales.

“It’s going to be great to meet up with some old friends and enjoy the rugby again. The Festival is such an important opportunity for brass bands to reach out to a new audience and showcase just what diverse music they can play.”

Then he adds as neat afterthought – “…and the nightlife in Cardiff is great too”

A composer who can appreciate the bigger picture then.

The quiet man of the new wave, who may just become the biggest noise of all.

Iwan Fox

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