Recording 'Spells' with the MCM Brass Ensemble

I consider it a great privilege to have participated in a full day recording session of one of my works with the brass ensemble of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Over the last five months, MCM brass lecturers Don Immel and Joel Brennan have worked tirelessly with the dedicated and enthusiastic students of the ensemble to bring my work (among many others, including very substantial commissions from Katy Abbott and Paul Terracini!) to life, as part of their preparations for an international tour (departing later this month). I can only applaud the way in which Joel and Don have contributed strongly to the cause of brass performance and composition in this country, not just through their encouragement and work with the talented students of the ever-growing brass department of the MCM, but also through their already numerous commissions of new works involving brass from many prominent and emerging Australian composers. 

It is often thought that recording sessions are largely stressful and laborious experiences, regardless of the medium. While I can't deny it must have been at times both mentally and physically fatiguing for the players, concentration and focus never wavered, nor was there any lilt in the intensity of the sound of the group. Joel (the conductor) and the players were assembled on stage amidst a veritable jungle of microphones, while producer David Collins resided in the studio alongside Don and Mads Sørensen, whose voices were frequently heard over the loudspeaker as they offered feedback and criticism. Such was the professionalism and efficiency of all involved, I was only intermittently required or compelled to comment. If there ever was any doubt over the definitiveness of a take, Don would be quick to remind the ensemble that it would exist on a CD with their names on it forever!

Several sections of the piece were recorded very quickly and efficiently. Adrian King (on trombone), and Melissa Shirley (horn) performed their solos with formidable composure in the inevitable tension of the studio atmosphere, requiring a very minimal number of takes. Trumpeters Christopher Grace, Joel Walmsley, Rachel Owen and Andrew Pemberton had to deal with getting a challenging repeating-loop pattern right (several-dozen times in a row in one take!) and soon succeeded impressively. The closing parts of the work took rather longer to get right. There must have been at least a dozen takes of the trombone chorale in the closing pages, but this was because of the very high standards the players had demanded of themselves, more than anything else! At dusk, the final chord sounded for the last time, and there was a feeling of relief and accomplishment all round as the long day finally ended.

Having now heard the piece so many times, I'm satisfied that it succeeds in matching my musical intentions as well as I could have managed. If the early stages of the piece are somewhat reliant on gesture, the work's musical material seems to become richer as it progresses. There is also a great deal of music compressed into 7 minutes, and I wonder whether the structural balance of a slightly longer work might have given the music more breathing space, particularly in the lyrical passages - but then perhaps this would have detracted from the intentionally mercurial nature of the piece! Incidentally, I was also surprised to find recently that I had inadvertently quoted a bar from Peter Racine Fricker's enchanting Viola Concerto! But I am pleased that the piece seems to encourage the players to bring out their musical and technical qualities in a bold fashion. The feedback I have received has been very encouraging, and I was thrilled to receive the Adolph Spivakovsky Award for it earlier this year. I am very grateful for the encouragement and enthusiastic advocacy of the MCM brass faculty and am glad to have contributed in a small way to the growing literature of Australian brass ensemble music.