Synthesisers and Brass

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Saturday evening, the start of what was a busy long weekend, saw us driving over to Liverpool for a concert at the Art Deco Philharmonic Hall. We had tickets to see a concert – a double header with Hannah Peel’s Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia and Tubular Brass’ arrange ent of the classic “Prog Rock” album from the 70’s, Tubular Bells, arranged for a brass band.

These days, I’m a regular listener to BBC 6 Music and I’d heard selections from the Tubular Brass album and the single released by Hannah Peel in advance of the album. I enjoyed both enough to buy tickets to go and see them performed live.

Now Prog Rock has had something of a bad press these days, the cliche being that it was about pompous, overblown tracks by self indulgent musicians. There’s an element of truth in that but I that isn’t the whole story. As a teenager, like many other six formers, I was a fan of bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and the likes and before they started to take themselves too seriously, I think they produced some good music – even if it did mainly appeal to male sixth formers and students!

The audience was  mainly well over 50 with a scattering of younger faces. Probably made up of an interesting mix of brass band aficionados, prog rock fans of a certain age and others attracted by the plays on Radio 6.

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Hannah Peel was on first and played the whole of her album that had been released only the previous day, although she had performed it at some festivals over the summer. It’s a 7-movement odyssey composed for analogue synths and a full 29-piece colliery brass band and tells the story of an unknown, elderly, pioneering, electronic musical stargazer and her lifelong dream to leave her terraced home in the mining town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, to see the constellation of Cassiopeia. It’s seems a crazy idea mixing synthesisers and brass but it worked. Hannah was on stage dressed in a silver trouser suit behind a bank of instruments, bringing back memories of the likes of Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, accompanied by the musicians of the Tubular Brass ensemble and with swirling visuals projected on an overhead screen.

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Swooping stellar synths combining and merging with the more down to earth brass and finishing with a recording of Hannah’s grandfather from Manchester Cathedral when he was a young choir boy at the end of the final movement The Planet of Passed Souls.

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After the break it was time for Tubular Bells scored and arranged by Sandy Smith who first encountered the Mike Oldfield album as a teenager when it was released in the mid 70’s.

The original vinyl album was central to our frequent Saturday night house parties, especially as the night drew late and a combination of fatigue and the effects of early experiments with alcohol took hold. It is almost impossible to convey to those not around at the time the seismic impact which the release of Tubular Bells had on young, enquiring musical minds.

The original album consisted of two pieces of music, each taking up a whole side, made up of several sections of multitracked instruments played by Mike Oldfield himself. In the Tubular Brass version the music was played by different combinations of brass instruments. Hannah Peel joined in, introducing the instruments at the end of the first half, originally done by Viv Stanshall on the original album and contributing some synths during the second half. I thought the brass arrangement really worked and, if anything, worked better than the original.

To end the performance the ensemble played 3 prog rock pieces, finishing with a brass arrangement of ELP’s version of Fanfare for the Common Man.

Two great performances. Brass and synthesisers – what’s not to like?

4 thoughts on “Synthesisers and Brass

  1. Can’t quite imagine Tubular Bells in brass and I can’t get the sound to work on my iPad at the moment, so I’ll keep an open mind for now! I remember teenage parties while the boys all sat and nodded to the bass you mention while we just wanted to dance to ABBA.

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