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Phil Wilby - Making Bullets in a Windmill

John Robert Brown

Phil Wilby
Phil Wilby

The late great Dick Hawdon, a trumpet player and educator of considerable achievement, once said that of all the musicians he knew, Phil Wilby was the one who most closely approached the standing of musical genius. I've known Philip Wilby for 35 years. Today he is known as a composer, but he began his musical career as a professional violinist, first at Covent Garden and later with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Wilby is also a competent church organist and choirmaster. Some readers may be surprised to learn that he also plays a convincing Dixieland trumpet. But it is Wilby's aural ability, his connection between brain, ears and fingers that inspires awe, being at the sort of lofty level of skill that Benjamin Britten possessed.

Once I watched, astounded, as Phil wrote a short five-part brass fughetta - on my motifs - while seated at his desk away from a piano. Simultaneously he chatted, rather as the average person would do while writing a note for the milkman. The resulting music was without fault. For that alone I would endorse Dick Hawdon's praise of Phil Wilby. Interestingly, in those pre word-processor days, Phil always wrote in black ink, choosing never to rub anything out. "I worked like a sculptor," he says. "You had to think before you wrote anything down at all. Once you'd written it down, that influenced the next decision. It came about as a result of teaching. The idea of sketching in pencil, and using the piano, was antithetical to what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a fair copy first time round. The intention was to get the pre-compositional planning as organised as possible before inventing the music."

Today, Phil's Northern residence is an attractive converted windmill ('1822, late Beethoven'), looking across the Yorkshire Dales, near Boroughbridge. "I'm a West-Riding lad. I come from Pontefract," he says. "Every musician in Pontefract was a brass-bander, apart from those who were in the church choir, or who played the violin. I was in the second category, so I went into classical music, then to Leeds Grammar School (because my father moved), then onto Oxford. I studied there, went into playing the violin professionally, came back to Leeds when I was twenty-three, and stayed there until quite recently."

Wilby studied at Keble College, Oxford, during the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. "We, as seventeen year-olds, didn't quite understand how the world worked," he says. "But there were some people in charge of the professional choirs in Oxford - Bernard Rose, David Lumsden, and so on - who were distinguished composers in their own right in the church music field. The chap who taught me, Sidney Watson, had been the Master of Music at Eton. Then he had come to Christchurch Cathedral. He was tremendously influential. Looking back, I think I probably underestimated him. He was a man of catholic tastes, who liked to conduct orchestras, so I was much involved with him at every level. He was quite fabulous. The other thing about Oxford as opposed to Cambridge is that Cambridge college music is run by professionals, by the staff. At Oxford it's run by the students, the asylum being run by the lunatics, as it were.

"As a result you are given unbridled access to these fantastic medieval chapels and buildings. You are expected to take a full part, so you're doing a concert every day for eight weeks, then lying down in a dark room for six, then going back to do it all again. So it was a fantastic, wonderful, opportunity for everybody that I knew there. It has been interesting to see many of the most talented from that time not succeed, but the ones with killer instincts become significant figures. As for composing, I don't suppose new music featured much at Oxford, though I did the fourth year composition degree. That allowed me to focus pretty seriously on writing music."

The curriculum seems to have been the sort which Nadia Boulanger would have taught. "All the traditional skills," he says. "The five-part Palestrina, the Bach chorale, which taught you note manipulation, so that you became fluent. At least, that was my experience. I don't think you could improve on a contrapuntal education in the sort of skills that Mozart taught to his pupils, and Bach taught to his sons. That was the tradition I inherited. I couldn't fault it. I did enjoy it, there's no doubt. Subsequently, I think some of the added-note harmonies of jazz have also been influential. The enhanced octatonicism has always been more influential than the tonal system.

"However, some of my academic work has been reconstructing some of the unfinished pieces of Mozart. I have quite a few of those published now. For example, the C Minor Mass, his masterpiece which was left unfinished at his death, and the violin and piano concerto, pieces of that sort, wouldn't have seen the light of day without some of the academic work that I and other members of the Mozart-completers' club have done over the years. We have put some of this magnificent music back in front of the public in the size and sound that it was intended to fill.

"I was at Leeds University for about thirty-five years, which is a long time. During that time I became a composer. I left the violin behind, and started writing music, originally for people I knew. Gradually I got into winds, then into brass bands. Then I've been into church music, because my wife, Wendy, is a vicar. She's at Bristol Cathedral now, as the Canon Precentor in charge of the music. So I've also been involved in church music for a lot of this time.

"Oxford was a revelation for a Yorkshireman, to rub shoulders with people from a different background. I was in the National Youth Orchestra (NYO), so I had an inkling of how the world worked elsewhere. While I was in the NYO they ran a composition class, which I was foolhardy enough to attend. The tutor was Herbert Howells. He opened the door for me, in many ways, and probably inspired my twin professional passions, which are church music and wind music. He'd done similar things himself. Although he wrote chamber music, and so on, this is largely forgotten. But his church music is staple diet for cathedral choirs. His two brass band pieces, Pageantry and Three Figures, are seminal works of that so-called golden age of the nineteen-thirties.

"People of my generation - I'm 61 now - were influenced by the aleatoric music of Lutoslawski. I'm thinking of the Cello Concerto, the Second Symphony, and the piece called Mi-Parti, (1975-76), which was a great favourite of mine. The Novel for Orchestra, the  Livre pour Orchestre (1968), which had marvellous sections of free music, big long bars with lots of complicated rhythms, all performed without a metre. These things are possible to word-process, but difficult. As a result of the computers coming in so strongly, such styles of composition have been replaced by something much more like a West-Coast American style, a John Adams/Steve Reich style, with eight quavers in the bar. That's been influential on every composer I know. Where we were once part of the intolerant, unreformed, Modernist movement, with computers that has all changed. The change means a certain loss of flexibility, but with the demise of modernism, and the rise of something much more approachable, embracing perhaps the amateur performer as well as the audience, I think that the music has been influential. Sibelius software played a huge part in that. So, the prevalent style of composition became perhaps less creative, but equally less 'interior', less aimed at other composers and much more at the wider public. That, of course, has been only good for the brass and wind band movement.

"Technology has been helpful in that sense. Of course, music is now much more popular than it was. If I think of a composer, for example Karl Jenkins, who is bound to be one of the top-selling composers of, as it were, new music, in Britain, none of that would be possible were it not for the work of a lot of other people, not least those people who create technology. His music is widely available. Commercialism is no longer thought to be such a bad thing.

"The death of Modernism has been the biggest seismic change in my professional life, in that Modernism was the style that we were all brought up to admire so much. I think of my early days at Leeds University, when Alexander Goehr was the Professor. He appointed me. Then he went on to be Professor at Cambridge. With his move to Cambridge went the remnants of the British twelve-tone system, of which he was a leading exponent. The whole idea of William Glock at the BBC trying to make England into an internationalist, modernist, empire - not least through broadcasting - has largely gone. Native music, the music of Howells or Vaughan Williams, and their successors (Walton, Rutter), and the wind band composers (Michael Ball), all those composers have suddenly come back into the light, as it were. Having been consigned to the BBC Festival of Light Music, they are now back on Radio Three, albeit in specialist programmes about wind and brass bands.

"In my experience, the brass band has been more influential than the wind band, at least over the last fifteen years. I've been closely associated with the Black Dyke Band for that time, as their musical associate, which means that I've been helpful to the conductors in commissioning various people. James MacMillan is the recipient of our most recent prominent commission. We're looking forward to his new score. Because of the competition there has been a strong thrust for contemporary pieces, the sort of pieces that bands would not choose to play in concert. But because it's for a high-level competition they're obliged to play it if they want to enter. Of course, they all want to enter. Therefore they are used to tackling complexities.

"There are various sides to that. They need the complexities to defeat the opposition. But they also need the complexities to allow the amount of rehearsal time to be spent in pushing back the boundaries and developing new skills. So, in a sense those aleatoric phrases that I was talking about earlier on are quite common in the brass band world, as is the use of extended techniques - such as pedals and multiphonics. All those things are merely ways of pushing back the boundaries. But of course, from a composer's point of view they extend the palette."

I wonder how the emphasis on complexity goes down with audiences. Does Wilby observe much resistance?

"The brass band straddles Radio Two and Radio Three," he says. "The trick with a contest is to make the music immediately accessible, so that there are three people involved in the process: the composer, the performer, and the audience. You need to have a piece which is possible to listen to on repeated hearings. So, at the British Open we'll have twenty bands, perhaps. They'll all play the one test piece. It's important to keep the audience in the hall. If it's too contemporary...think of Elgar Howarth's piece Songs for BL, which contained many rhythmic complexities, lots of silence, and lots of complicated solos. If you got three bad performances in a row you would empty the hall.

"Contest music needs to be inherently competitive. It is gladiatorial; you are hoping to defeat your opponent. In that sense, it's exciting. I'm here in Yorkshire for a few days because we're going off to Linz to represent England in the European Championships. There will be a test piece called Spiriti, written by an Austrian, Thomas Doss. The spirits of Bach and Bruckner will be hovering round the music. Then they play an 'own choice' piece. Three bands have commissioned new works to play. I can't mention the names of the bands, for secrecy reasons, because if they knew who had written it, they would know who was playing. As you know, brass band contests are always done with the adjudicators screened from the performers, so that they only hear the sound, they don't know who's performing.

"Nevertheless, I've written a new one, Philip Sparke's written a new one, as has Nigel Clarke. They are all well known to readers of Winds. We've all written new scores in the own-choice section, so in a sense it's a contest of composers as well as performers. We will see what we will see."

Does Wilby see a similar trend in wind bands?  "I think the composers tend to be the same," he says. "People who write brass band music also write wind band music. Wind band music is the market, because it has such an international reach. But there is the big difference that the brass bands are all the same size, while the wind bands can be hugely different. In my early days, working with Larry Sutherland from California State University, Fresno, somebody we both know, he would be conducting groups of two-hundred people, with eighty clarinets, and groups of thirty people playing the same music.

"Now, that's so unusual for anybody involved in the brass band world. The pieces I write use twenty-seven brass players on individual staves. So it's like a huge piece of polychoral music from Venice, or whatever. As an old string player, I suppose we were quite used to playing with twelve people the same music as we could play with eighty string players. In that sense the orchestra is a little bit like the symphonic wind band. The brass band is quite different. It's much more like a large brass quintet, for twenty-seven brass, plus percussion. That makes it exciting. You can't have two flugel horns, or five tubas, you have to use the instrumentation as laid down by the British Federation of Brass Bands.

"I left Leeds University after thirty five years because Wendy was appointed as Canon Precentor down at Bristol Cathedral. I retired, and we moved. Anybody who is contemplating retiring, don't do both in the same breath! Suddenly, not only do you lose your job, but you also lose your identity. It's taken me a little time to re-establish my balance down there - who I am. I've been happy to keep this house (the Yorkshire windmill), and to keep the connection with the brass band movement.

"As we were moving down to Bristol I think that allowed me to evaluate a lot of my work. I've been interested in writing for amateur choirs for a long time. Church choirs, of course, but also in the Bristol area there are some terrific choral societies of all shapes and sizes.

"Some of the music I have written for choirs with instruments. For example the Brontë Mass, which I composed for the Leeds Philharmonic Society, played by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, came out of a brass band and choir score. That's an exciting medium. The Mass is thirty-five minutes long. Recently it's been recorded by the London Bach Choir, with Black Dyke. David Hill, the conductor of the BBC Singers, is the conductor. So suddenly you're on a different musical palette. I enjoyed that. I'm working on a similar score for the world's oldest choral society, that's the one in Halifax, who will be celebrating their 200th anniversary in 2017. I've had this commission for a couple of years now, which will be a piece for choir and brass band. The Passion I wrote for Sefton, originally for choirs and young wind players in Liverpool Cathedral. I've now scored it for brass band. I must say that it's an attractive sounding idea. You probably need the organ to keep the accompaniments manageable. Obviously the brass has the ability to blot out the choir. Not the sound of the choir, but the sound of the consonants, so that you lose the text, which would be a shame. But this new idea...I know that Roy Newsome's recently done a big arrangement of Carmina Burana, for choir and brass band. I think that might be an interesting way forward.

"I've been associated with the British Open Brass Band Championship, which I still think is the World's finest contest. I've written six pieces for them. I would like to keep my connection there as well. So, various things are on the stocks. But, as I said earlier on, you perhaps become your own impersonator - and your own competitor - because people are only going to play one piece at a time in a programme. The more you write, the more of the other scores you knock off the end. Paganini Variations is the most popular of my brass band pieces. Now it's becoming popular as a wind band score. I've had various performances around the world, in Japan and Spain for instance. That's a popular piece, there's no doubt. Will I write another of those? Perhaps that's the work of a younger colleague.

"The wind band has always excited me, because of its natural affinity to big-band jazz, with groups or clusters of instruments. Big bands, with the trumpets not being with trombones, the trombones not being with saxophones, everything bound together by the rhythm section - there's quite a lot of that in the wind band, isn't there? It's never suited me as much as the brass band. When I wrote my first brass band score, I think I was forty. So I'd written a lot of music by then. But it was like coming home, like taking a long drink on a hot day. I knew straight away that was what I should have been doing. It's not that dissimilar from writing for strings, because everything blends together.

"With a wind band, the oboes and bassoons blend together, as do the flutes and the clarinets. But if you put all the winds together, they separate. You can have abrasive harmonies to suit abrasive sounds. If you want an oboe/saxophone/bassoon/muted trumpet chord, it will be a dissonant chord. So the sound of the instruments dictates the level of complexity in the harmony. But if you want something for bass clarinet/flutes and piccolos, it will all be superimposed thirds. So there is a degree of pastel quality, or oil painting, about the sound of the instruments in the wind band which also governs the nature of the musical creation.

"If it were cooking we were discussing, you would say that the brass band is a casserole in which all the ingredients had been cooked together for a long time. All the flavours had melded from the carrots into the meat, as it were, and vice versa. With the wind band it's much like something out of a wok, or like a plate of salad, where you have all those vibrant flavours competing with one another. In that sense, the wind band never suited me (as an old string player) as well as the idea of the violins, the violas and the cellos all playing. In a similar register, you can be deceived by the instruments. Even now, unless you can see a brass band, it's hard to know who's playing which line. Apart from the trombones (who come from another planet), it's a 'cylindrical' sound, the sound of saxhorns, from euphoniums to baritones, to tenor horns to flugel to cornet. With vibrato to merge it together, it is well-blended and generic. It suited me."

Wilby was at one time a superb violinist. Today he no longer plays. "When I went to Leeds I was a professional player. Then you don't practise as much. Then everybody wants you to play difficult things that they can't play themselves. There were so many good youngsters that it was better for me to make the bullets, then let them fire them. I play the organ a lot, which I've always enjoyed. But I don't play the violin at all - in fact, I've sold it. They are quite expensive instruments to leave in a case under the piano. You have pressures on your money if you've got two kids. My violin was 250 years old, a professional standard instrument, which somebody should be using."

First published in Winds magazine, Autumn 2010. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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