The Wind Band Composer in the 21st Century

The Wind Band Composer in the 21st Century Read the rest of this entry »

Year of Wellington City Concert Band

In January, 2016 I joined the Wellington City Concert Band (WCCB) under music director Simon Brew, no longer playing with the Porirua Brass. Read the rest of this entry »

The Coal is dead – Long live The Coal

Brassed Off, the stage play

“The Coal is dead – Long live the Coal”

Script by Paul Allen – based on the movie screenplay by Mark Herman

Maggie Thatcher had one thing right in 1980 – coal is dead. When coal is burned the planet is heating up threateningly to an uncertain degree.  But what she had in mind as an alternative was oil – a different fossil fuel.  She was willing to destroy an industry with a history of strong union worker representation in favour of an energy source with an aggressive colonial history in the Middle East and other places; it was not about finding sustainable energy alternatives.

Brassed Off is a story of one coal mining town at that time, ‘Grimly’, in Yorkshire, England: coal country. This town, like many coal towns, has a brass band.  Apparently 19th century industrialization combined with improvements in the design and production of brass instruments served to move collieries to sponsor brass bands as a community activity.  ‘Grimly’ is based on actual mining town ‘Grimethorpe’ whose band was, and still is, perennially a contender for the British national championship brass band.

The Tory government intends to shut down the Grimly mine, even though it is profitable, and is going through the motions of a decision making process when they have already made up their collective mind. Locals differ on whether the government process is real or a PR exercise.  An attractive young woman, Gloria, returns to Grimly with a tertiary qualification and a job with the mining company to evaluate the viability of the mine.  (And she brings her flugelhorn, too, being the granddaughter of a famous local miner and bandsman.)  Many locals are struggling financially and may be tempted by the company’s redundancy offer despite their desire to support the union in their traditional work community (“The workers / United / Will never be defeated”).

The Grimly band is a good one. The director, Danny, is determined to carry them through the regional contest to the London national championships, but the pressures of the mine closure are taking their toll.  My favourite case is the one of the director’s son, Phil.  With a wife and four kids they are struggling to make it on a miner’s wage.  But Phil blows the family money and the repo men come to take away the telly, the tape player, the cabinet, and the kitchen table.  And even the baby carriage.  But Phil hasn’t blown it on booze, drugs, or sex; he’s blown it on a better trombone to use at the Brass Band Championships.  His wife Sandra feels no choice but to take the kids and move in with her mother.  Then Danny has a pulmonary attack and is in hospital.  Then Phil tries to hang himself (after poetically describing how God ran out of hearts and brains to go with all the bodies available, so created the Tory party without).

While many band members have recommended dis-band-ing if the mine closes, and the miner vote does decide to take the money, Danny’s and Phil’s troubles bring the band together to do their best at the contest. They win the regional.  They win the national.

Being a band show, the script calls for brass band music to be played. The Wellington production had a six piece brass band playing live back stage.  Other productions no doubt have had larger bands, but there is barely room for six at the Gryphon Theatre.  To have a live band lends more presence to the story on stage.  I loved it and the audience was very appreciative.

The band highlight is the scene where the band collects outside Danny’s hospital room to play the nostalgic “Danny Boy”, or “Irish Tune from County Derry”. The music director had made a fine attempt to adapt Percy Grainger’s classic dense harmonies, portraying a rich mix of emotions, to the five brass at his disposal.  Throughout the show the band played sections of Floral Dance, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (“Orange Juice”), March of the Cobblers, Colonel Bogey, William Tell Overture, and Land of Hope and Glory, and maybe others.

Danny is unable to conduct the band at the national contest, but the band having won the championship, he comes centre stage to give his speech – not an acceptance speech, but a refusal speech, having been moved to realize that the music in not the most important, but rather the solidarity of the people. He passionately rails at the Tory government’s destruction of communities and people’s lives, even bursting out at those who protest about whales but not about people and communities.  (Of course, the band accepts the trophy after all.)

The final spoken lines of the play are curious, here in 2016 twenty years after the original movie production and 30 years after the Thatcher years. Danny wants the band to play ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ but a band member reminds him it is the anthem of the Tory Party.  Danny replies “we’ll have to reclaim it for ourselves”.  That is a Brexit line well ahead of its time.


Analysis after shows by Repertory Theatre production at Gryphon Theatre, Wellington, October, 2016 (19-29). Apologies for no review of individual performances production.

Richard Keller

“the bass drum heard ’round the world”

Today I was looking up obituaries of Frederick Fennell (looking for birth and death dates, but that’s another story).  Fennell is known as the father of the mid-century band revival in North America with his fifties Mercury Living Presence recordings of existing band classics, played by his creation the “wind ensemble” (45 piece band with only one player on many parts), at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.  A generation of band masters was influenced by his conducting style which physically evidenced both his passion and his nuanced understanding of those works and which was clearly evident in those recordings.  When I was an impressionable high school/university player and first heard those recordings, Fennell instantly became my band hero.  The first one I owned was “British Band Classics” which included the Holst First Suite.  Fennell captured Holst’s third movement success at reaching a polyphonic climax made up of the themes of the first two movements and crowned it with a gigantic bass drum accent, before a more subdued ending. 

 One of the Fennell obituaries I read was from Telarc.  Telarc’s story was that they were one of the first recording companies to use digital techniques in the mid seventies and were looking for a way to demonstrate the superior dynamic range of their invention.  They soon thought of the Fennell Eastman Mercury recordings and, since both Telarc and Fennell had originated in Cleveland Ohio, it seemed appropriate to have Fennell recruit the Cleveland Orchestra brass, woodwind, and percussion sections (and friends) to carry out the demonstration recording.  According to Telarc that original digital recording made a great impression on audio-philes, bragging about the many reports of home speaker systems blown apart by what they dubbed “the bass drum heard ’round the world”.*


  • For the benefit of non-Americans: the iconic quote “the shot heard ‘round the world” was (is?) known to every school child in USA to describe the opening gun shot of the American Revolutionary War. “heard ’round the world” may not seem amazing in the global digital age but in its time may have been an example of an inflated American national ego.

Hiawatha – praise for percussion from composer, Robert Hanson

Hiawatha – praise for percussion from composer, Robert Hanson

On 1 May, 2016 the Kapiti Chorale performed Robert Hanson’s (Chicago, USA) ‘epic oratorio’, Hiawatha, based on Longfellow’s poem, Song of Hiawatha. This involved an orchestra of 25 or so including four percussionists.  Read the rest of this entry »

“10 musical drummers and 110 frustrated plumbers” – TBDBITL

“10 musical drummers and 110 frustrated plumbers”

Fifty year anniversaries seem to be popular right now.  The 2012 OSUMB did ’50 years of the Beach Boys’ and ’50 years since John Glenn’s orbit’, and in 2013 ’50 years of the Beatles’.   Recent TBDBITLetters have stories of 50 years of the red beret , the T-row Tail (I didn’t remember that one at all), and bus “commodores”.  And almost 50 years since the first air trip is noted in the new 2013 Script Ohio.  And about 50 years after I was in the OSUMB I’m moved to offer a reflection on director Dr. Charles Spohn’s provocative comment as quoted in both the new 2013 Script Ohio (Tradition of Excellence) and the 1989 one (Time and Change):

“It was a standard thing that the band was 110 musicians and 10 drummers.  In my time there that got turned around so that there were 10 musical drummers and 110 frustrated plumbers.  The quality of the drum section far exceeded the quality of the rest of the band.”  The 1989 Script Ohio book suggested there was a bit of hyperbole in that comment, but said it was perhaps acceptable given Charlie was the percussion instructor in the School of Music and proud of the development of the section. Read the rest of this entry »

“. . .transfixing in its awesomeness…” Entertainment Weekly 081012

“. . .transfixing in its awesomeness…”  Entertainment Weekly 081012

It may not be unusual for Entertainment Weekly (USA) to engage in the type of hyperbole evident in the quote above, used to describe the halftime band show by The Ohio State University Marching Band (OSUMB) on 8 October this season.  Still, it is extraordinary to describe a marching band in those terms: Read the rest of this entry »

Brass Band Association of NZ – National Championships 2012

Brass Band Association of NZ – National Championships

Timaru:   4-8 July, 2012

Brass Bands are a presence in New Zealand mostly through their own interest in competition.  Competitions are a means of motivating players and bands to do well and provide an opportunity for them to find an appreciative audience, mostly other bandsmen.   This year’s national competition in Timaru (moved from Christchurch) had one aspect that especially caught my ear. Read the rest of this entry »