Gaia Symphony

CD Review

This is an immense achievement for brass banding, and an even more immense achievement for a brass band.

John Pickard is an authentic and original new compositional voice for our medium, and one who should be welcomed with open arms. His insightful material is hewn from an intuitive core of tonal clarity yet complex musical DNA. It results in works written on a broad canvas, full of colour, shades and timbres, of extended flowing lines and fractured rhythmic idioms which fuse into an intoxicating brew of ever interesting writing.
His compositional inspirations are varied, his outlook modern, yet based on an almost classical Englishness (he is the General Editor of the Elgar Complete Edition) many of his compositions have a European feel, perhaps due to the influences of his time spent in the Netherlands between 1984 and 1985 when he studied with Louis Andriessen. His output has been very well received (including four symphonies) in many circles with his quartets in particular gaining international recognition.

He is no stranger to brass, as he has already written a superb Trombone Concerto in 1997, but it has been through his association as Composer in Residence with the Buy As You View Band (championed by Robert Childs in bringing his material to our consciousness) that began the development of a number of linked works that finally came together as the ‘Gaia Symphony’.

The work itself is not strictly a symphony – the composer himself is personally wary of the term, but it is made up of the constituent symphonic elements and architecture that the term is not misplaced. In addition, the structure allows for the four individual movements to be performed in isolation without losing their purpose, and so, as Pickard himself describes, ‘Gaia’ is perhaps a ‘portmanteau’ or blended work that links itself to form a powerful musical picture, yet doesn’t lose its strength when broken into its integral parts. Whether or not it is comparable to the Hammer horror films of the 60s or 70s as the composer wittily describes them though, is perhaps left to the imagination.

‘Gaia’ itself is the academic theory based on the earth being a living, self-regulating organism in which the elements of nature ultimately control the destiny of all living things upon its surface. Thus, man’s maligned influence will finally be consumed (much like the dinosaurs) as the earth renews itself through its own or extraneous power, and we will become nothing more than a footnote in the millennia history of the planet. Sounds a bit depressing in itself, but it is a viewpoint that is becoming much more respected in light of the scope of recent natural disasters.

Each of the four natural elements in the work: Water, Fire, Air, Earth, is linked by three short percussion interludes (or Windows as Pickard more accurately describes them), to form a work of over an hour in length. It is an immense achievement indeed.
The descriptive power of the writing is stunning, from the brooding menace of the oncoming ‘Tsunami’ which opens the symphony with an almost gruesome power, to the elegiac closing of ‘Men of Stone’ that ends the work. In between we have periods of extended beauty in the subtle textures of the ‘Aurora’ or the crackling destructiveness of ‘Wildfire’ that builds to a ferocious climax. Together it provides the listener with real dichotomies – all of which are laid out in such clearly understandable and intelligent forms that you really can imagine the power of nature in all its awesome beauty

The percussion windows are also gems of intelligent writing – the composer has a real understanding of percussion, so that each instrument (and there is a whole menagerie of exotic species used) has a clarity of purpose in its use. Small drums, varied cymbals, a full spectrum of beaters, are all used to create a looking glass into the next elemental picture – they lead the listener towards the next part of the work, rather than just giving them a break to catch a breath.

The playing from the BAYV Band is outstanding – the ensemble work is breathtaking at times, whilst the individual contributions are of the highest class. The percussion team are quite stunning, adding colour and timbre throughout and producing some exceptional work in the windows themselves – each of the six players deserve the highest praise. Dr. Robert Childs’ direction (as heard at the Cheltenham Festival) allows for the detail of the music to flow out like lava from the pores of a volcano, yet also enables the band to change musical tack with a splendid immediacy.

Our one disappointment with the recording however is that the final ‘Men of Stone’ track is taken from a previous recording (from March 2001) and although this does not spoil the overall musical experience, you feel a little let down that the opportunity was not fully taken to produce a definitively singular performance of the work. Why this was so, we do not know, but surely there was no real need to do this, as the current band perform the work with such brilliance and understanding.

It means that the final track does have a slightly different ambience to it to the rest of the recording and the balance of the band is not as precise as on the other tracks. Everything else though is excellent (even the tricky sleeve note design, which will certainly improve your origami skills no end) and this CD deserves to be placed amongst the most significant recordings for brass for many years.

Iwan Fox