Music interview: composer John Wallace innovates for East Neuk Festival

One of the country's top brass bands is learning to improvise for an ear-catching East Neuk Festival project
Composer John WallaceComposer John Wallace
Composer John Wallace

When John Wallace, former principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, told me his newly commissioned work for this year’s East Neuk Festival was for multiple brass bands and called De Profundis, I suspected he was playing with words. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to connect Fife’s brass bands, its historical mining tradition, with the gritty symbolism of something fundamental being hewn “out of the deep”.

Wallace himself is a product of Fife, having taken himself off to Cambridge University in the 1970s, before embarking on an illustrious career as principal trumpeter of the Philharmonia, international soloist, composer and writer and more recently, before his retirement, as gung-ho head of Scotland’s national music academy.

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So the opportunity to create this year’s “big project” for the East Neuk Festival, involving 60 brass players from the Glenrothes-based Tullis Russell Mills Band and his own ensemble The Wallace Collection, seemed a golden opportunity to dig deep into his own cultural upbringing and experience. The 45-minute piece – he calls it an “art installation” – receives its first performance on 1 July in an enormous Anstruther barn called The Bowhouse.

The Tullis Russell Mills Band. Picture: Michael StreffordThe Tullis Russell Mills Band. Picture: Michael Strefford
The Tullis Russell Mills Band. Picture: Michael Strefford

Previous ENF “big projects” have taken place out of doors, such as John Luther Adams’ Across the Distance of 2015 for a scattered army of French horns, but this year the action is indoors. “The audience will come into the huge darkened barn and walk around with lamps on their heads – cyclists’ lamps, not miners’ lamps”, Wallace explains.

The whole piece centres around improvisation. “I’ve taken part in this kind of thing with professional musicians before,” he says, “but never with amateurs, and never as the actual creator and director of the project.”

So how does he plan to coordinate so many raw recruits, from youngsters to old hands, more used to reading the music placed in front of them and following the conductor? More importantly, how does he ensure they don’t suddenly run out of improvisational steam?

To avoid that, Wallace has provided what he calls a “note mine”, basically prompt cards containing elemental musical motifs from which each player is invited to spontaneously expand and develop. There is also, of course, the safety net provided by the crack professionals of The Wallace Collection.

The Tullis Russell Mills Band. Picture: Michael StreffordThe Tullis Russell Mills Band. Picture: Michael Strefford
The Tullis Russell Mills Band. Picture: Michael Strefford

“The players have been split into four groups, each one led by a member of the Collection. We use a lot of ‘call and response’; we’ve been starting off most Sunday rehearsals with that before getting down to the nitty gritty of designing the bigger performance,” he adds.

Melodic snatches from the traditional De Profundis plainchant provide a motivic springboard, as do bits of Henry Walford Davies’ beautiful harmonic setting of the text. “We’ve been developing these ideas in the manner of a Hebridean psalm,” he explains, referring to that heterophonous cacophony practised by the Free Church in its hybrid Gaelic psalm singing.

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But the real challenge, says Wallace, has been to replace the brass players’ typically iron discipline with the creative freedom required for such unscripted, spontaneous music. “They’re getting the hang of it, but you’ve no idea how very, very difficult it is to get a brass band not to play together, even without a conductor.”

“It’s important for me that this becomes a piece composed by the band, not me. Some really exciting moments are beginning to take shape, like a big, jig-like climax that is working like a huge musical Mexican wave. They’re really taking ownership of the piece.”

For Wallace this is a momentous celebration of his roots. He himself joined the Tullis Russell Mills Band when he was a boy, as did fellow Wallace Collection members John Millar and Jim Gourlay. Moreover, Wallace is the fourth generation in his family to follow the brass band tradition, including his father, now 91, who remains both his biggest supporter and his sternest critic.

“He came to a recent rehearsal when we were all experimenting with weird multiphonics,” says Wallace, referring to that ethereal technique of playing several notes at the same time. “Being of conservative taste, my dad, who played in the band for 65 years, asked: ‘What the hell are you doing that for?’, before describing it as ‘a load of shite!’” Other views may differ.

The East Neuk Festival runs from 28 June until 2 July. De Profundis is at The Bowhouse, Anstruther on 1 July,

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