A BAND of super-sized ants was parping away outside the Gala Theatre in Durham to herald the launch of this summer’s Durham brass festival, officially called Brass: Durham International Festival.
The Ant Orkezdra, comprising beautifully disguised human musicians on stilts, was the first hint that this is not – nor indeed has ever been – a conventional brass band festival.
Despite the fact that brass band music is part of the North East’s heritage, a potent symbol of its traditional culture and industry, this annual festival has always been out to demonstrate that brass is a broad church.
Hence the ants and hence the “international” emphasis in the title.
Organisers Durham County Council boast that it “has established itself as one of the most imaginative festivals in the country, taking one of England’s most cherished and musical traditions and challenging artists and audiences to explore its past, present and future with fresh ears”.
Innovation and an education programme involving 18,000 schoolchildren across County Durham were key to securing Arts Council funding on top of what the local authority puts in.
There’s also a fortuitous link-up with the overlapping !Vamos! festival celebrating Spanish and Portuguese speaking cultures.
Coun Neil Foster, the council’s cabinet member for regenerative and economic development, kicked off the launch proceedings inside the Gala when the ants had finished, calling this year’s Brass “as diverse, challenging and enthusiastic as it ever was”.
He said the festival was “about a celebration of our own tradition of brass and about bringing in new and exciting ways of engaging with brass”.
Durham had a long tradition of developing festivals, he said. “A lot of great events happen in Durham. It’s about selling it as a tourist destination but it’s also about fun and enjoyment.
“You’ll see a lot of smiling faces. Whatever the weather’s doing and whatever’s going on in the rest of the world, things can’t be all bad if you’ve got a good brass band.”
The festival, running from July 6-22, features 59 bands performing at 83 different events over 17 days.
It starts noisily in Chester-le-Street on the evening of July 6 with the Brassy Hound Parade organised by Irish carnival specialists Macnas. That hound is an amiable monster with a gramophone tail and a band on top.
But just as you were never too far from an Olympic Torch Relay carrier, you will seldom be out of earshot of Brass if you live in County Durham. A wide-ranging community tour will see Brass performances in village halls and community centres.
The lively Streets of Brass festival-within-a-festival will see Europe’s finest entertaining outdoors in Durham City over the weekends of July 7-8 and July 21-22.
La Banda de la Maria (from Spain), Brasta, (the Netherlands), Cottas Club (Portugal) Beat ‘n’ Blow (Germany), Bandakadabra (Italy) the Pink Puffers (also Italy), Funky Style Brass (France) and Jazz Combo Box (also France) will vie for attention.
But the UK will also be represented by the likes of Oompah Brass, Perhaps Contraption, Wonderbrass and County Durham’s own Jazz In My Pants.
Here are some of this year’s festival innovations:
:: Brass: Pitch – A call-out to artists to come up with brass-inspired ideas resulted in 42 proposals from around the country. “We decided to support four of them and they are all really ground-breaking and cutting edge,” said Sally Dixon, Durham’s arts team manager.
Tyneside duo Aether and Hemera (aka Gloria Ronchi and Claudio Benghi) will present Which is Your Brass Voice? in the Prince Bishops Shopping Centre in Durham City. The “interactive, multi-sensory installation” will translate shoppers’ voices into a brass and light show.
Modular Projects used gaming technology to produce Trigger Shift, enabling people to interact with music via screens in the windows of the Gala Theatre.
Immerse, by Surface Area Dance Theatre, will be sited at Durham Railway Station. Dancer Nicole Vivien Watson and digital media artist Benjamin Freeth used brass sensors attached to Nicole’s body to produce a choreographed musical score.
All these will be available to see and interact with throughout the festival.
Meanwhile, from July 6-29 at Locomotion, the National Railway Museum at Shildon, you can see Band Stand, by Caroline Collinge and Edmond Salter who collaborate as Cabinet of Curiosity. Using paper craft techniques, they have put together work inspired by the parallel development of the railway industry and the brass band movement in Victorian England.
:: Brass The Baton – Terry Luddington, national liaison officer for the National Federation of Brass Bands, was on hand to explain Brass the Baton, a national Cultural Olympiad project in support of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“It’s a huge relay race of conductors’ batons,” he said.
Five batons were made, each in the colour of one of the Olympic rings, and they are being passed from band to band as each performs one of the five parts of Going the Distance, a new composition by Paul Lovatt Cooper.
The relay began at the European Brass Band Championships in Rotterdam in May and will come to a climax at The Sands in Durham City at 3pm on July 22.
“We are trying to get 2012 brass performers to come to The Sands for a great celebration when all five versions of Paul’s music will be performed together,” said Terry.
:: Will & Testament – This is the title of a new documentary about veteran politician Tony Benn. What he’s got to do with brass music? Well, Mr Benn has loyally attended the Durham Miners’ Gala for many years and brass music is integral to the annual event, along with the banners and the speeches.
Mr Benn will be up for the Gala on July 14 as usual and may also put in an appearance at the Gala Theatre where a 20-minute preview of the film – to be released later in the year – will be screened on July 13 and 14.
:: A Sign in Space – Composer John Kefala-Kerr was commissioned by The Forge, Stanley, which brings young people into contact with professional artists, to compose a new piece of music inspired by a short story by Italo Cavino.
He has since worked with youngsters from Spennymoor, the County Durham Big Band & Choir, Durham Cathedral Young Singers and others in preparing two performances in the cathedral on July 21.
Durham Cathedral and Durham Music Service have supported the project which is also part of an initiative called Sounding the Sacred.
:: Witness – Sounding like an elaborate form of Chinese whispers, this is a co-commission between Brass and the organisation Sound and Music.
Electronics composer Scanner created a piece of music to be performed for the first time on Saturday, June 23 at 3pm at Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee.
The rendition of that first performer or ‘witness’ will then be picked up and performed by the next musician down the chain. There’s no score or recording so each witness will have to rely on memory.
A host of local musicians and singers will keep the piece moving until the final performance in Durham City on July 21. A film of Witness will be shown at the Gala Cinema, Durham, on July 20.
This just scratches the surface of a festival which grows in appeal, scope and ambition each year. The 14-piece Ant Orkezdra will perform with Trimdon Concert Band on July 22 as part of Streets of Brass and if you really do love a traditional brass band concert, you can catch the Brighouse and Rastrick Band at the Gala Theatre on July 7.
:: Find details on www.brassfestival.co.uk