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Sea of Brass: Investing in England’s Brass Bands

  • Date: 17 July 2014
  • Artform: Music
  • Area: National
From the screening of 'The Big Melt' with a live accompaniment conducted by Jarvis Cocker From the screening of 'The Big Melt' with a live accompaniment conducted by Jarvis Cocker and performed by The City of Sheffield Brass Band, the Forgemasters String Quartet and the City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra.

A new musical collaboration will see four of England’s best brass bands join British Sea Power on a UK tour to perform bespoke brass accompaniments to the indie-rock band’s back catalogue.

This autumn British Sea Power will travel to towns and cities across the country to perform with the Jaguar Land Rover Brass Band from Coventry, Redbridge Brass Band from London, Riverside Brass Band from Newcastle, and the Ulverston Town Brass Band.

Inspired by the industrial history which gave rise to grassroots brass bands more than a century ago, British Sea Power will perform songs from their back catalogue with contemporary brass accompaniments arranged by the composer Peter Wraight.

Supported by public investment through Arts Council England’s Grants for the arts programme, the ‘Sea of Brass’ tour will launch with a world premiere at the Durham International Brass Festival in July before touring to the Barbican Centre in London; De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-sea; Durham Brass Band Festival; QUAD in Derby and the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal.

British Sea Power's frontman, Yan Scott Wilkinson, said: "I actually had a daydream on a plane back from Scotland after a nip of whisky, and in the dream I was being chased by a giant trumpet. This is all true – and soon after there was the idea of playing with a brass band, which snowballed into a whole run of gigs with a series topnotch full-on brass outfits.

"We're having our first full practice with the first brass band the day before our performance at the brass festival in Durham. You could say we've always had our ears open to a bit of brass – there was a bit of French horn on our first album back in 2003, and then Phil [Sumner] joined the band, who plays cornet and trumpet and well as keyboards. We've also had the Brighton & Hove City Brass Band playing live at our Krankenhaus club nights in Brighton, and I can remember seeing a documentary on brass bands years ago and being blown away by their musicality and how tight they were.

"Now we're doing these shows with all these premiere brass bands – it seems amazing and flattering. Fingers crossed, they could be special nights - fingers crossed that the brass bands are tight enough to even make us sound good."

Investing in England’s Brass Bands

Across the country Arts Council England is investing in the commissioning of compositions, concerts, tours and projects that create new audiences for England’s brass bands and celebrate the important role they play in the country’s cultural heritage.

“It’s wonderful that we’re able to invest in and support the development of brass bands in a variety of ways,” said Alan Davey, Chief Executive, Arts Council England.

“Brass bands are an important part of England’s industrial past, our shared musical heritage and a key part of the country’s contemporary music scene. Our investment has seen the rise of the North East’s colliery bands remembered, celebrated and shared, and fantastic new work produced and toured for audiences across the country to enjoy. I’m excited to see how our investment will continue to support new projects in the future.”

Here, we look at how public investment over the last few years has supported the development of brass bands across the country, creating new opportunities, platforms and audiences for their much loved sound.

The Miners' Hymns

Critically acclaimed American filmmaker Bill Morrison’s documentary ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ is an evocative visual and musical homage to the former coal mining communities in North East England.

Using archival footage that spans a 100 year period, the film depicts the hardships of life working in the pits, workers’ rights and the role of trade unions, developments in technology and advancing mechanisation, and the strong regional tradition of colliery brass bands.

This footage, which was shot at the Durham coalfield, is set against an original brass score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and performed by a 16-piece brass ensemble.

In 2013 the creative producing agency, Forma, took the film and live performance version of Bill Morrison’s 'The Miners' Hymns' on tour, supported by investment from Arts Council England’s Strategic touring fund. As part of the tour the film was screened at venues in former coalfields, including, Redhill’s Miner’s Hall’, Daw Mill coal mine and Easington Miners Welfare Centre, as well as museums, cinemas and community centres.

As part of this tour the film was seen by more than 20,000 people and throughout 2014 the film has been screened at venues and film festivals across the country, including the Barbican Centre in London, Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham and the Sage in Gateshead.

Foghorn Requiem

The Souter Lighthouse Foghorn was the first in the UK to be powered by electricity. To celebrate its distinctive and majestic sound, artists Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway collaborated with composer Orlando Gough to create the only musical score to be written specifically for foghorns, ships’ horns and brass bands.

In a unique performance at the Festival of the North East, the foghorn played in unison with more than fifty ships anchored several miles off shore, and three of the North East’s finest historic brass bands: the Felling Band from Gateshead, the Riverside Brass Band from Newcastle and the Westoe Band from South Shields. 

New technology allowed the ships’ horns to play in time with the foghorn and musicians on shore, creating a sound that captivated the live audience lining the coastal cliffs.

Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band

The Brighouse and Rastrick Temperance Band was one of many amateur bands, choirs and orchestras that formed in the mid to late nineteenth century in the north of England. Now, more than a hundred and thirty years on, the band is still going strong and in 2011 was crowned ‘Champion Band of Great Britain’.

Supported by investment from the National Lottery through Arts Council England’s Grants for the arts programme, the band has set up a programme of artistic and business development that includes the appointment of a band manager, the creation of a new youth band and the development of new projects and collaborations.

In 2011, one such collaboration saw the band embark on a UK tour with English folk-band the Unthanks. The tour was commissioned by the Durham International Festival of Brass and supported by Arts Council investment.

Together the Unthanks and Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band performed new brass arrangements of songs from all four of Untanks’ albums, as well as new material. Following the tour, a live album recorded at these concerts was released in July 2012.

'The Big Melt'

In 2013 Pulp musicians Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley reunited to co-direct the soundtrack to ‘The Big Melt’, a documentary film which merges music and film to illustrate how Sheffield’s steel-making industry became an integral part of everyday life.

Using footage from the British Film Institute’s archives, filmmaker Martin Wallace cuts between scenes of fiery steel factories and the day-to-day lives of steelworkers and their families. The film was commissioned by BBC Storyville and BBC North and produced by Crossover Labs using public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

‘The Big Melt’ premiered in a sell-out event at the Crucible Theatre on the opening night of the 20th Sheffield Doc/Fest to an audience of almost 1000 people. It was screened with a live accompaniment conducted by Cocker and performed by The City of Sheffield Brass Band, the Forgemasters String Quartet and the City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra.

Following the film’s premiere the film and soundtrack were screened at the Curzon Cinema in Chelsea and broadcast on the BBC's Storyville. Here's a look at what went on behind the scenes during the production of the film's sound track: 

This film was produced by Sheffield Doc/Fest and shot and edited by Ed Cartledge for Sort Of...Films.

Find out more

You can find out more information about how Arts Council England invests in music here. For more information about our open funding programmes, click here