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More to come at the Brass: Durham International Festival

One of the region's most life-affirming festivals is under way. David Whetstone looks at what's still to come in Durham's annual celebration of brass music

Hackney Colliery Band
Hackney Colliery Band

There was brass music on the sun-baked streets of Durham over the weekend but there will be music both outside and inside over the coming fortnight.

Brass: Durham International Festival has become one of the most firmly established events on the cultural calendar, not only in the North East but also further afield.

Brass as a musical genre can conjure up some stereotypical images of the northern landscape which, while nothing to be ashamed about, are not the whole picture.

Without being disrespectful to long tradition, Durham’s festival has taught us that brass is a versatile form of music that reaches out across the world and into some surprising corners.

One such corner is the Monks’ Dormitory Library at Durham Cathedral where an installation by award-winning composer John Kefala Kerr can be heard.

Book of Bells is one of many current works made in homage to the Lindisfarne Gospels, which are on display in the nearby Palace Green Library until September.

It features digitally manipulated brass and bell recordings made in County Durham and a selection of extracts from the library’s texts.


The work invites viewers – or listeners – to become part of the piece by locating extracts from the library’s texts and ringing a series of hand bells on completion of each search. Book of Bells is one of the artworks commissioned from artists and performers under the festival’s Brass: Pitch strand.

The brief was that each commissioned work must challenge people’s perception and understanding of brass music, either through exploring its historical and contemporary social contexts or by expanding the boundaries of the genre.

Another beguiling Brass: Pitch commission, by the sound and visual duo louie+jesse, is Stillaphone, a work which turns the concert room at Durham University Music School, Palace Green, into a musical instrument.

See what can be done with drops of water falling from the rafters into brass containers. Walk through the piece and it will sound different from every angle. Similarly, it will sound different according to the amount of water in the containers.

Intone, by Irish composer Ailis N� R�ain and visual artist Nicola Dale, can be seen in the Prince Bishops Shopping Centre, Durham.

The piece was inspired by the power once wielded by the Prince Bishops of Durham when County Durham was virtually an independent state.

All these Brass: Pitch creations can be seen daily until July 21. Admission is free but opening times vary (check the www.brassfestival.co.uk) .

Tonight the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra will take to the main stage at the Gala Theatre with a programme dedicated to the late Duke Ellington.

In The Spirit of the Duke recalls the verve and excitement of an Ellington gig through famous jazz standards including Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Mood Indigo and I Let a Song Get Out of My Head. The concert begins at 7.30pm and tickets can be booked via 03000 266600.

A very different kettle of jazz fish is the Hackney Colliery Band which will also entertain at the Gala Theatre on Friday.

The band’s sound – funk, hip hop, rock and a spot of Balkan jazz – reflects the multi-cultural nature of Hackney and should make for a memorable gig.

On Thursday, however, the band will give a special show for pupils at Framwellgate School before hosting a workshop for young musicians from the area.

The ramifications of this educational project may not become apparent for some time.

But Adrian Biddulph, manager of music education for Durham Music Services, says: “Durham Music Service has worked with Brass since 2010 to create opportunities for young musicians to work alongside some of the most inspiring bands and artists playing brass in the world.

“These experiences have made a huge impact on the students’ improvisational and performance skills.”

Grimethorpe Colliery Band – arguably the world’s most famous colliery band – will ensure a full house at the Gala on July 14.

And on July 19 we are invited to hear the results of an interesting collaboration between rising singer/songwriter Martin Longstaff – aka The Lake Poets – and Stanhope Silver Band.

Meanwhile there’s another chance to see two films which get to the heart of County Durham’s coal mining culture in the appropriate setting of the Miners’ Hall, Redhills Lane, Durham, on July 19 and 20. Will & Testament is a documentary about Tony Benn, the charismatic socialist politician who has been a regular for years at the annual Durham Miners’ Gala.

The Miners’ Hymns, a collaboration between American film-maker Bill Morrison and Icelandic musician Johann Johannsson, features archive footage and a beautiful brass music score.

The festival action isn’t confined to Durham City with various tours and satellite events taking place throughout the county,

For full details of all Brass: Durham International Festival events go to www.brassfestival.co.uk


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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