Gaia Symphony, John Pickard and Buy As You View Band

The Brass Herald

August 2005

On Sunday 10th July the Cheltenham International Festival created a landmark in the history of the Brass band – the day when the Buy As You View Band conducted by Dr. Robert Childs from the Welsh valleys brought to one of the most prestigious music festivals in the world the longest and most ambitious symphonic work ever written for the medium. The composer is John Pickard (b.1963) and the work is his hour long Gaia Symphony – four elemental symphonic poems composed between 1991and 2004 for the National Youth Brass Band of Wales and Buy As You View Band.

John is a musicologist of some repute, recently appointed General Editor of the complete Elgar Edition. He is also one of a clutch of British composers in their thirties and forties writing at the top of their game at the moment. John has been much praised for the way he structures his music, his skills at being able to think architecturally over large musical spans. The effect of his music – as here in the Gaia Symphony – is powerful and bold. It is music that demands to be heard. Because he writes in what he has described “as an extended tonal idiom”, there is an immediacy of impact that often belies its harmonic and thematic complexities.
John Pickard is perhaps best known for his big orchestral works – which include four symphonies, a piano concerto and The Flight of Icarus – and his chamber music. The recent recording of three of his four string quartets has been widely acclaimed. He is a composer of strong ideals with a technique to match. Once his imagination is fired by a subject or a genre, one work is often followed closely by another, as ideas are explored, techniques developed – a musical journey. And it is in this spirit that he seems to have become gripped by the energy; power and the lyricism of the brass band.

The initial ideas for Wildfire – the first of the elements to be composed – were being formulated back in the hot summer of 1990. John happened to read in a North Wales newspaper about a forest fire that had begun in two separate places, the walls of flame moving inexorably towards each other. Wildfire takes its musical structure from the way the flames are fanned, in that it begins with a flicker of activity and builds to an all-consuming climax. It was eventually to become the Gaia Symphony’s scherzo.

Men of Stone, the finale, is a symphonic suite composed in 1995 and celebrates four Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England and Wales. There are human connections with the landscapes here, and seasonal ones too. Pickard’s musical ‘impressions’ are conceived with the four seasons and four times of day in mind:
Avebury (Autumn, Morning) – the earth
Castlerigg (Winter, Afternoon) – during a blizzard
Barclodiad-y-Gawres (Spring, Evening) – a seascape, sunset in spring
Stonehenge (Summer, Night/Dawn) – the Midsummer solstice

There is clearly an epic quality here, which soon opened out into a much broader musical canvass. While working on Men of Stone, Pickard realised that there were thematic connections between the two works which were more than just considerations of style. Also, as he wrote quite recently: ‘The imagery of Men of Stone
encompassed the four classical elements: earth, air, water and fire. Earth, however, was the dominating element and it occurred to me that, with the self-evident imagery of Wildfire, the remaining elements might also be included as part of a much bigger scheme.’

The opportunity to develop the broader canvas came in 2001 when John began a three year stint as Composer-in-Residence to the Buy as You View Band. The catastrophic power and ferocity of a tsunami wave became all too real on December 26th 2004. Pickard’s Tsunami, completed in 2002, is astonishingly vivid in its power and latent energy. We ‘hear’ the exceptionally low tide – the emptying out of energy – as a prelude to a terrifying explosion of activity and violent final inundation. Aurora, completed the following year, was conceived as the ‘slow’ movement of the Gaia Symphony. Although, like all elements, it has an independent life as a concert piece in its own right, Aurora, with its subtly shifting colours and its soloistic treatment of the band, provides a natural respite from the energy and power of so much of the rest of the music. As Pickard writes ‘the music tries to convey something of the calmness and beauty of the miraculous aurora borealis (the northern lights) in an extended slow movement that is very much the emotional heart of the symphony.’
So, how then does John Pickard unify four self-contained musical works, which, like Wagner’s Ring, may share a common theme, common imagery and much common musical material, but which were composed over a long period of time? In John’s case he freely acknowledges that his writing for the band medium has grown in subtlety and sophistication through the experience of writing these pieces. However, the music is remarkably consistent in style. There aren’t the unsettling juxtapositions of idiom that one hears in, say; Stravinsky’s ballet Agon, or Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.
Pickard, like Robert Simpson before him, has very strong views about what a symphony should be. So he thought long and hard before giving this essentially “portmanteau” work both an expressive (Gaia – the Greek goddess of the earth) and abstract title (Symphony) and contrived musical as well as expressive unifying material in the form of three “Windows”. Scored for percussion alone these also provide very necessary moments of physical respite for the players according to conductor Robert Childs. For Pickard, the musical architect, they have their own separate narrative. Picking up from the rhythm of the opening of Tsunami they move from a regular pulse (Window 1) via elaborate counterpoint of different pulses (Window 2) to a more flexible and irregular aspect (Window 3). The way they provide both musical and ‘narrative’ continuity is impressively handled.

The musical-expressive journey of the Gaia Symphony can be summed up as follows:
Tsunami (2002) sustained and at times ferocious first movement
Window 1 (Water – Fire)
Wildfire (1991) energetic scherzo
Window 2 (Fire – Air)
Aurora (2003) slow movement – ‘the emotional heart of the work’
Window 3 (Air Earth)
Men of Stone (1995) triumphant finale – a more discursive summary of the entire structure.

Soon after completing Aurora, John Pickard was commissioned by the Brass Band Heritage Trust to write the test piece for the 2005 National Championships. Eden promises to have the same elemental force as Gaia – if anything, more concentrated in its power and technical challenge.

Paul Hindmarsh