In 1973, three weeks before his 20th birthday, a young Mike Oldfield released his debut album, Tubular Bells. It became an instant classic and a pioneering album in terms of electronic music, becoming a massive best-seller, staying in the charts for a colossal 279 weeks.
At the time of release, composer/conductor/arranger/brass aficionado SANDY SMITH was a teenager and remembers it fondly. “There was a strange appeal to it – it was a very unusual album. I remember for a period of three to four months on weekends where it would all be teenagers in someone’s house until early in the morning. There’d often be a conversation about [Tubular Bells] and we’d put it on in the front room.”
Smith’s talent and experience in the world of brass goes without question. Over the years, he has toured across the globe as part of various bands, playing tenor horn in orchestras such as the Black Dyke Mills Band and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. As well as this, he was the music arranger for the Olympic Hymn and Pandemonium! sections of the London Olympic 2012 Opening Ceremony.
The initial idea for Smith’s latest project came whilst on tour with The Unthanks, when he and a friend began discussing Tubular Bells, to which his friend joked “Ha! TUBULAR BRASS!” Now, he is taking Tubular Brass on tour across the UK, having rearranged the classic piece for a 28-piece brass colliery band, with it being performed alongside HANNAH PEEL’s Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia.
Yet, it took a long time to come to fruition, largely because of the difficulties arranging the piece. Smith explains: “There isn’t actually much sheet music out there for it. There is sheet music for piano, but it’s pretty basic.” He took inspiration from David Bedford’s orchestral version for his arrangement, as well as Tubular Bells 2003, a fully rearranged version made by Oldfield himself. However, the process was painstaking, with the piece having to be transcribed “mostly by ear, by listening to it over and over again.”
His intention with Tubular Brass was always “to show how brass can sound to an audience who wouldn’t be exposed to it.” However, because Tubular Bells is such a well-loved piece – plus, prog rock is often a puritanical genre – there was always the possibility of Tubular Brass being sacrilegious to die hard Mike Oldfield fans. Smith felt the reception could have gone one of two ways. “I had an idea that some people would say `What the hell do you think you’re doing? This is nonsense! This is stupid! It’s doesn’t work!’ Or they could suddenly say ‘This sounds great! I didn’t know that it could sound like that.’ So, it seems that the second option has happened.”
The reception for the piece has in fact been so tremendous that Smith has received praise from the composer himself! “I’ve actually heard feedback from Oldfield,” he says. “People who have come to see us are on some closed Facebook group with him on it. He’s actually posted about it, so we have had feedback from the top as it were. He approves of it. It’s a bit surreal because he was a hero of mine when I was 14.” Although during the interview, Sandy is very polite and humble about his achievements, he struggles to hide his pride at this special encounter.
Regarding his own future, Smith is keeping his options open. Whilst there is the possibility of performing Tubular Brass internationally, he is also looking at whether to rearrange other classics. Aside from Oldfield, he grew up on a healthy diet of prog rock, citing the likes of Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Either way, his future seems to be very bright indeed.
Meanwhile, Sandy Smith’s Tubular Brass is being accompanied by Hannah Peel, performing Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia, a piece featuring a brass colliery band and analogue synthesisers. Peel is a singer and electronic composer, whose more contemporary music can be seen as one third of The Magnetic North, as well as her recent solo album, Awake But Always Dreaming. Yet, she is very much a Renaissance woman, having played violin, synthesisers, trombone, and hand-wound music boxes, operated with hand-punched card, over the course of her career.
Mary Casio and Tubular Brass seem to be a natural fit, especially since the brass arrangements for both pieces were done by Smith. He explains that synthesisers and brass instruments both have a haunting quality to them. “It is quite a good compliment because brass can sound quite full, but it can also sound quite delicate as well, so it really is a good compliment for her.” Smith speaks about Peel with a fondness and an admiration. At a recent performance, he says that due to “this huge brass sound, coming from both the synthesisers and the brass, the stage was actually shaking from the vibrations.”
While Smith speaks pragmatically about this interaction between the two pieces, Peel gives an almost ethereal response. “There is a magic that can’t be described fully when you hear the two worlds join. Maybe it’s the air resonating through the 29 players combined with the sub and powerful richness of the synthesisers. Whatever it is, it’s a celestial experience and so many people find that the sound can actually move them to tears.”
This otherworldly response seems appropriate, considering the subject of her piece, Mary Casio. The music tells the story of 86-year-old Mary Casio and her stargazing dream, taking her from her home in Barnsley to the constellation of Cassiopeia. The result explores the themes of space, time and mortality, all to a cathartic brass and electronic soundtrack.
For Peel, Mary Casio has become so much more than a character in her music; Mary Casio is someone very personal to her. “She became someone I believed in, someone who could do anything and still dream about unimaginable space travel despite her old age. She morphed into the older females in my family and offered hope that anything is still possible. She allowed me to escape the everyday yet reminded me to appreciate life right here and now. To put myself in the shoes of someone who was in their late 80s, who had never lived anywhere but their hometown, yet loved the stars and inventing strange electronic music – she became like my role models of Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire.”
Having moved from Ireland to Yorkshire as a child, brass music has always been a huge part of her life. “It’s like a form of folk music, yet for me it’s more real and deeply touching,” Peel explains. “The spirit and commitment, the sound and the history too that the brass can evoke. I can’t help being transported back to my childhood and seeing the closed mines surrounding the town which we played in.”
This Yorkshire upbringing has clearly had an impact on her. When she was eight, Peel began to play the cornet, with her later moving on to the trombone and leading to her playing brass throughout much of her career. It’s therefore no accident that Mary Casio (the character) has lived all her life in Barnsley, as well as the album (Mary Casio) being recorded at the Barnsley Civic Theatre, where Peel saw her first bands.
In addition to this, her roots are prominent on the album in another sense. The closing segment of the final track, The Planet Of Passed Souls, features a sample of a 1928 recording of her grandfather performing as a choirboy at Manchester Cathedral. Peel tells us more: “My granddad recorded this when he was 13 years old. I knew about it as a child but never had a copy and then one day found it on YouTube! Apparently, he was one of the first boy sopranos to ever record to wax, and was due to do more but his voice broke. It felt fitting to end this piece with him singing – like a voice from the past drifting through the wind and rain on this planet Mary has found. After writing it, I could go no further. It felt too emotional, but it also left me questioning if Mary had really gone there, or was she daydreaming, or maybe this was her journey into the realm of another life…?”
Well, whatever the answer may be, it shows that Peel has made something cathartic. Something personal. Something special.
Tubular Brass and Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia will be performed by Sandy Smith and Hannah Peel at the Philharmonic Hall on 23rd September. Tubular Brass is available now on Tubular Brass Recording. Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia will be released on 22nd September.