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A Cambridge Composer: Brass Orchestras, Inclusive Music, and World-class Musicians (Part 1)

Jay Richardson (2015) is composer in residence at the Cambridge Corn Exchange and has just had his residency extended.  He talked to Kit Smart about his experiences so far, and what comes next. In Part 1 of this two part interview he discusses his previous works, and writing for brass.

You’ve just had your residency extended to the 2017-18 series, congratulations.  How do you feel about that?

I’m over the moon.  My last year at the Corn exchange has been terrific and filled with really great projects and also with really exciting ideas so I’m very happy to be able to continue with those ideas, and actually begin to realise some of them next year.

 What have you been doing?

I have had two projects this year.  I had my large brass orchestra piece, Distraction performed by Alison Balsom and the Cambridgeshire music combined brass in February. In May the Corn exchange launched their 2017-18 classical series. The idea for the composer’s residency was always for me to write a piece for that launch, and it just so happened that I was being announced at the time as the next composer in residence so that worked really well.  Because I’d been writing for brass this year, for Alison and a massive brass orchestra, I decided to write a chamber brass piece.  I had fallen in love with writing for brass and all the things that you can do with it that I didn’t know you could.  So I wrote a piece for the brass quintet from the Royal Philharmonic, who are the Corn Exchange’s orchestra in residence and have been for some time.  They have a close partnership and it was great to meet some of their orchestral players in the chamber context.  And actually orchestral players really enjoy doing chamber music because such a high degree of ensemble playing is required and, yes, it’s required in an orchestral context but when you’re playing chamber music you can hear immediately if your ensemble is not perfect.

I hope they really enjoyed that project, I certainly did, and I got to meet some very top of the line professional musicians in a way that I wouldn’t have done if I was composing for an orchestra.  With an orchestra the composer tends to meet the conductor, the principal, and maybe a couple of the section leaders.  When you’re writing for a chamber group you meet all of them and you get to know them pretty well.

What is it that you enjoy about writing for brass?

They have an astounding dynamic range.  When I wrote that piece for the brass orchestra there were about 75 of them and the waves of sound in the Corn Exchange were absolutely immersive.  I particularly enjoyed the combination of the corn change with brass because it has brick walls. Very few concert venues in the world have brick walls; one other that I can think of off the top of my head is Snape Maltings concert hall which is an even bigger venue and is just a converted Malthouse; it used to be a brewery.  It has the same structure as the Corn Exchange with tiered seating, brick interior cladding, and a vaulted ceiling with wooden beams.  Most concert halls like West Road in Cambridge or the Barbican have huge wooden panels suspended from the ceiling with a convex shape that are intended to reflect sound back down into the audience, particularly from instruments like tubas or french horns.  Lots of places have reflective back surfaces and a lot of sound travels up; most concert halls aim to reflect it back down.  With the corn exchange you get more vibration side to side because the walls are quite reflective, and that gives you a totally different soundscape.

With brass, they’ve all got bores, and most are pointing outward to the audience or side to side, so you get this amazing cross-bouncing. In most venues it doesn’t happen very well because you either have wood panelling which is reflective but not resonant, or you have plaster, which doesn’t do very much at all. Or you have carpeting, which the Corn Exchange doesn’t have.  The amount of resonance is amazing and that’s partially what made my string piece with Esther Yoo work so well, because her sound is so forward and projected, and so visceral.  It also happens with brass in a particular way because the more you give to a space like that the more you get back, and brass instruments have a lot to give.

I also enjoyed the fact they can play so quietly, particularly with an absolutely world-class trumpeter like Alison Balsom.  She can control down to the minutest detail the kind of sound she produces, and also the amplitude of what she’s doing.  I had solo passages in that orchestral piece for her, I had chamber passages.  The brief was to play with all of the different sonorities that a brass orchestra can have.  People tend to think that when they’re writing for a homogenous group like a brass orchestra or string orchestra, you get one type of sound out of them.  The idea of this project, because we were using players from local brass bands, we were using very young children who had learned to play brass instruments a year or two before the concert, and people all the way up to people like Alison Balsam through professional tutors or other bands. We had a whole spectrum of abilities and people all over Cambridgeshire.  The idea was to showcase the variety within that. I enjoyed playing with lower brass sections; in the middle of the piece there’s a part where the lower brass fully take control. I don’t think many people had realised before, and I certainly hadn’t, just how much you can do with tenor horns, baritone horns, and euphoniums. Three instruments that are not very well known, not very many people play, and that tend to get virtually no solos in the ensembles that they play in.  That was really nice to discover.

What was it like working with Alison Balsom?

She was lovely.  As always the more experienced and more gifted the artist you work with, the more happens. Alison very much did her own thing with the part which wasn’t what I had originally wanted but became what I wanted as she explained why it would work.  That kind of thing is a learning process that a lot of composers right now are dangerously closed off to.  The way people are taught now is that you know exactly what you want when you write a piece; it prevents so-called flabby writing and it prevents excess material which apparently risks boring your listeners. It keeps things distilled and technically proficient, and emotionally impactful.  That’s all very well to say but it means that quite often when people get into a performance context they don’t treat the performers as artists, they treat them as tools.  This reached a climax with the second Viennese School in the 1920s in Vienna.  The music became so technically difficult that performers didn’t have much room to maneuver, and part of the reason was that composers were micromanaging their scores.  They were writing three dynamic indications to a bar, sometimes with added hairpins and always with detailed articulation.

My part for Alison was fairly detailed but the greatest thing about working with her was being shown where I’m wrong, or if not wrong what I can learn from someone like her.

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