Subject: RE: Guardian article today from The Unthanks|
Date: 10 Sep 11 - 09:20 PM
Here's the text of the article, so it doesn't get lost with the passage of time.
The Unthanks get tender with brass
A new baby boy and a new project with brass bands have given the Unthanks' Adrian McNally two great reasons to be thankful Adrian McNally
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 8 September 2011 22.25 BST
I can't think about the brass project without thinking about George, who came into our world a couple of weeks late, just one month before the premiere of the Unthanks' collaboration with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, the British champion brass band. That's two very steep learning curves to negotiate at once: never had a baby before; never written for brass before. In fact, I don't even read or write music.
The Unthanks are getting quite used to saying "Yes, please" to things we don't know how to do, and then worrying about the "how" later. How usually involves me sitting at the piano, with Niopha Keegan, our fiddle player, patiently transcribing my whims, line by line, bar by bar. Learning is a good time to create, I find. It's much easier to avoid cliches when you don't know what you're doing.
George is named after Rachel's dad. Our baby boy certainly has the lungs of his shanty-singing, proud granddaddy. I'm sitting with him now, and Rachel; a sleeping beauty on either side, mother and baby resting on a quiet afternoon. In the first week, I visited Rachel and George at Hexham maternity unit by day, then went home alone and wrote for brass by night. Four weeks later, we had four short rehearsals with the world's oldest public subscription band and found ourselves on stage inside Durham cathedral. Frightfully underprepared though we were, when I looked to the left of my piano to see a 30-piece orchestra, to the right to see 1,200 people packed into the finest bit of Norman architecture standing, and in the middle to see my wife undertaking our biggest musical adventure to date just four weeks after giving birth, fears were replaced by a realisation that this would probably be one of the best moments of my life.
It is a life that started in a small South Yorkshire pit village called South Hiendley, two doors from my childhood friend and bandmate Chris Price, and about two miles from Grimethorpe, home of the most famous colliery band in the world. Brass-band music was part of the fabric, and something I absorbed as a child, which is probably why I find it so emotive as an adult. I couldn't think of an opportunity in music I would be more excited and honored by than this. The brass collective of instruments is surely the loudest of any instrument family, but for me it is in the restraint of this power, when brass is played tenderly, that beauty and honesty is found: a formidable giant is far more impressive when he is gentle! Add to my excitement a 20-year obsession with Miles Davis, especially Sketches of Spain.
Folk song and brass-band music may be different musical disciplines, but often speak for – and are spoken by – the same people. Different types of music, but with similar heartbeats, similar content. Plus, folk music at its best is always about content, not style. For us, folk music is an oral history, not a genre of music; a human exercise in sharing and empathy, without recourse to vernacular stylings. The form of folk song has always followed its function, shaped less by notions of authenticity and more by the practical options available to audience and performer and the musical influences of the time. Limiting musical colours to those we think of as "folkie" is like a storyteller using the same voice to tell all his stories. Why not brass?
Of the many social issues Rachel and Becky Unthank have grown up singing about, the working man is certainly one, particularly the miner. With the brass-band tradition steeped in pit history, we decided to make mining a focus of the repertoire for this project. We finally got to look at Trimdon Grange Explosion, a song by the Tyneside pitman poet Tommy Armstrong, written about a mining tragedy in 1882 in which 74 people died, among them boys as young as 11. The song speaks of Mrs Burnett, who lost all three of her sons. Another woman found herself attending the funeral of her betrothed on the day she was to have married him. One man, a father of two young children, was working his last shift before emigrating to the US. Armstrong wrote many poems about Durham life, in which strikes and fatal accidents were so common he became relied and called upon, almost like a preacher might be, to express his community's experiences.
Some people might say the mining industry in our country is dead and gone, so what's the point of singing mining songs any more. For me, performing folk songs to an audience is about a pile of people getting to share an emotion together at one moment, happy or sad, rather as they might in a church or a community pub. I don't believe our capacity for empathy is limited to things we can relate to from firsthand experience. If that were the case, we wouldn't have been captivated by the Chilean mining disaster. A story is capable of touching us, of teaching us, whether it is from another century, another continent or another industry: all we need to do is tell the story well so people will want to listen.
Our collaboration with the massed ranks of "Briggus" also included new compositions, commissioned by Durham Brass festival and the Barbican in London. I wrote a four-movement work called The Father's Suite to celebrate the birth of our son, composed partly from a piece I wrote as a boy and another one I remember from my childhood that my dad wrote. Sandwiched in the middle is a piece of spoken word set to music – an archive recording of Tyneside miner Jack Elliott, a member of the north-east's first family of folk, who set up Birtley Folk Club in 1962, which is still run by Jack's daughter Doreen. Jack speaks about raising children and their role in society, which couldn't be any more resonant right now. "If they hurt society, they hurt themselves, for the simple reason they're a member of society," he says.
Possibly the most remarkable discovery in this project was finding that brass bands are still amateur. There appears to be next to no funding for the art form. Consequently, the men and women of Brighouse and Rastrick – world-class musicians – all have full-time jobs. After practising with the band twice a week and performing three times at the weekend, they have little life to speak of at all, and most have family lives to juggle. The likes of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band had more freedom to perform when the pit was open and they were all miners. Back then, they'd be excused from their shifts to play whenever the band was engaged to perform, whereas now they're fitting in shows at the weekends and during the summer holidays. More should be done to protect, promote and celebrate this tradition, surely?
Twelve weeks later, we have more brass shows to relish, and a son who is all smiles and has slept right through for three weeks now. Profoundly intense surges of emotion are a daily occurrence: the instinct to protect, the power of love for one's own son or daughter. There is happiness, excitement, euphoric joy; but there is also deep, dawning realisation that no, it isn't possible without feeling it firsthand, to know and understand what it is to be a mother or father, which disproves my point about being able to empathise without having experienced. In most cases, we can imagine how we would feel in the same position. But not this. This is incredible. It is the point, for me at least.
The Unthanks play with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band at the Lowry, Manchester (0843 208 6000), on 13 September, then tour. Details: the-unthanks.com/tour-dates