G20 Protest March London 2009
The NASUWT Riverside Band marching in 2009 © Alamy

With their creamy musical tone and smartly uniformed players, British brass bands are a living link with the mid-19th century. It’s hard not to think of such amateur ensembles – like the one featured in the 1996 Ewan McGregor film Brassed Off – as irredeemably old-fashioned.

In their infancy, though, brass bands were early adopters of instruments designed by Adolphe Sax (the inventor of the saxophone, whose birth marks its bicentenary this year), and became something of a craze. Their popularity grew in lockstep with industrialisation, and it was when factory and pit owners co-opted or founded bands that the “movement” really took off. Bosses hoped that “banding” would be an improving activity for their employees’ leisure time; workers turned it into a badge of class solidarity. Today, however, like the trade unions whose history is so entwined with theirs, brass bands face a battle to recruit new members and remain “relevant”.

Next month sees the launch of a project called Sea of Brass that should help that cause. Twelve songs have been rescored by Brighton-based indie outfit British Sea Power for full brass-band accompaniment. In fact, their arranger, Peter Wraight, best known for the jazzy electronica of the Matthew Herbert Big Band, describes it as a “complete top-down redesign” of BSP’s material. He is not transposing parts – “It would be pointless”, Wraight says, “trying to replicate the big sustain line of an electric guitar” – but creating novel textures inspired by “clues” in the tracks, with “washes of rapid sounds” that will be “challenging but exciting to play”.

The NASUWT Riverside Band – named after its teaching union sponsor, and tracing its origins to 1877 – will be the first to get to grips with Sea of Brass when it is launched at the Durham International Festival this month. A tour involving other brass bands follows in the autumn.

It all came about when BSP frontman Scott Wilkinson was approached to put on a show in a former chocolate factory in Derby, a Midlands city with claims to being a birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. That set Wilkinson’s mind racing. He remembered watching a documentary, years before, about brass bands and “being blown away by their musicality and how tight they were”. Impressed by the range of their forces, he decided to use them in a way that would dispel the gritty northern clichés.

British Sea Power perform live during a concert at the Postbahnhof on June 27, 2013 in Berlin, Germany
British Sea Power in Berlin last year © Getty

Usually, a British brass band is a 25-piece line-up of cornets, trombones, euphoniums, baritone horns, tubas and flugelhorns, with additional percussion. (Note: no saxophones or trumpets.) Like the early jazz bands, they favour the mellower timbre of the cornet, which blends well with the other instruments. “They can go from sounding very intimate to very grand, from triumphant and emotional to very small again,” says Wilkinson. “That can be very cheesy or very beautiful.”

Initially, Derby’s Derwent Brass were to have been BSP’s partner band, but the idea developed legs – a testament to the vitality of brass-band music. There’s a world of competitive banding out there, with five national divisions and international rankings, too – brass bands are active in Scandinavia, the Benelux countries and North America. As musical subcultures go, goths and emos have nothing on the website 4BarsRest.com.

“The cliché about traditional forms of culture is, ‘Oh everything’s dying out’,” says Turner Prize-winning visual artist Jeremy Deller, who is also honorary vice-president of Fairey Brass Band, having commissioned them to perform his 1997 work Acid Brass. “But actually they’re not, because the internet has helped a lot of folk practices to share what they do.”

Acid Brass, recently performed again at London’s Meltdown festival, has electronic rave music arranged for brass band. “Like a lot of British traditions,” Deller says, “I felt brass bands weren’t as appreciated as they could have been. They aren’t natural bedfellows with acid house on the surface. But do a bit of digging and you realise they have things in common – both are forms of folk music; both are geographically specific; both have an amateur aspect to them; and, as music, one is industrial and one is digital, so they are of their times.”

Moreover, 19th-century brass bands played dance music – polkas and waltzes – plus transcriptions of Italian opera, and diverse religious and regional numbers. The versatility of their three-valved instruments was central to their appeal (trumpets of that era were generally valveless): the brass could span the chromatic scale and operate like a mini-orchestra.

Nor should the efforts of the entrepreneurial Distin family should go unremarked, says Jeff Miller, who plays in the period-instrument Prince Regent’s Band. Musicians who acted as agents for Sax before manufacturing their own range of instruments, the Distins also published sheet music that was widely used.

“They marketed their brass as a family of instruments that were homogenous and relatively easy to play,” says Miller. “Players swapped between the instruments, which were mass-produced and durable.”

The NASUWT Riverside Band exemplifies the development of the movement. Beginning as the Pelton Fell Methodist Band, the Riverside was embraced by the local colliery until 1966 and subsequently supported first by Newcastle Brown Ale, then Durham County Cricket Club. According to Tony Thompson, the band’s manager, the rigours of competition keep playing standards high and drive the need for new and exacting repertoire. Contemporary composers are writing for brass bands, as Elgar and Holst did in the early 20th century. The Riverside have performed Will Todd’s “Gala and Gloria” in Durham Cathedral and Johan Johannsson’s “The Miners’ Hymns”, marking the 30th anniversary of the 1984 British miners’ strike, at the Barbican in London. Yet for all the qualities of their players, snobbery about brass bands persists outside banding’s traditional milieu.

The emphasis on competition, says Thompson, is rather “insular”. Bands need to think more laterally if they are to thrive: “I honestly believe, as time goes on, that we’ll have fewer brass bands for all sorts of reasons.” Funding is one of the main issues. Riverside is fortunate to be sponsored by a union; many other bands, however, depend on lottery grants and have instruments that need replacing.

“We need to attract a wider audience,” he adds. “And it’s not about competitions – however much the bands love them – it’s about the public engaging with what a brass band can do.” Which makes the Sea of Brass project less novelty, more lifeline.

Sea of Brass, Durham International Festival, July 17, brassfestival.co.uk; faireyband.com, princeregentsband.com

Photographs: Alamy; Getty

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