Brian Irvine's Beyond the March Set for Music City!
Composer Brian Irvine and jazz musician Sid Peacock enlist flute bands for Music City! concert in Derry~Londonderry
‘Do you know the film Gangs of New York?’
It’s jazz and folk musician Sid Peacock speaking, and he’s asking me about the Martin Scorsese movie featuring Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio, in which bands of Irish immigrants and native New Yorkers clash for dominance in the mean streets of the nineteenth century city.
‘At the very start of that you can hear this fife and drum moment,’ Peacock continues, ‘when they’re all marching out. And it just struck me – that’s like the stuff from the marching bands back home. It got my blood going a bit, actually.’
Peacock is one half of the creative team behind a unique project that comes to fruition on Friday, June 21 in Derry~Londonderry. Dubbed Beyond the March, it brings together four flute bands from the Derry area to create a new musical composition for the Music City! one-day festival, part of the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations.
The other half of the partnership is classical composer, Brian Irvine, Peacock’s former teacher at Bangor College. Irvine’s reaction to the visceral sensation of listening to a traditional Ulster flute band in full cry is similar to Peacock’s.
‘I just like the sound of the drums and the flutes, you know,’ Irvine comments. ‘And I thought, wouldn’t it be great to get past all the political references to flute bands, and just work with them as a group of musicians?’
Discussions with the Moving on Music organisation, co-ordinators of Beyond the March, led to Irvine and Peacock each establishing links with two flute bands from the Londonderry Bands Forum, and collaborating with them over a five-month period.
‘The piece itself,’ explains Irvine, ‘has come out of a whole series of sessions just kind of hanging out with the bands, getting to know them, and eventually starting to put some ideas together. It’s been a very collaborative kind of process.’
Peacock confirms that the basis of the project was to start with what the bands were already doing musically, not impose a whole new set of expectations on them from the outset.
‘I just went and listened to what they were doing, just hearing where they were at. One of the bands, Caw Flute Band, are just a beginners’ band. So it was a bit hard initially to find a starting point, to take it somewhere else. Towards the end, I said, “Let’s just do one of your tunes”.
‘I played some guitar chords over the top, we jammed through it, and I said, “Right, in the middle of this let’s do a few wee loops”. They got really creative, it didn’t take much. The guys had a lot of skills already. My other band, Burntollett Sons of Ulster, are more established, with some really good players. You’re just taking little bits of what they already do, and putting it in a different context.’
Peacock praises the adaptability of the flute band players he has been working with. ‘They were really open,’ he says, ‘they really stuck with it and kept coming back.’
‘It’s about building up a sense of confidence and curiosity,’ adds Irvine. ‘It’s been a really fantastic project. I’ve built up a very strong relationship with all these guys. You really start to understand how they function as a band, what their role in society is.’
The broader social context in which flute bands operate – the human stories behind them – is something Irvine believes is often obliterated by the assumption that bands are narrowly sectarian institutions, defined by implacable opposition to those at the other end of the cultural and political spectrum.
‘There are so many positive aspects about it, which are masked by the political stereotypes,’ Irvine argues. ‘I didn’t see any sense of sectarianism when I was there. The bigger aspect was about music, about playing tunes in a brotherhood of people, men coming together on a weekly basis, and feeling a sense of family, actually.’
Irvine also emphasises the sheer amount of hard graft and commitment needed to make flute bands work as musical entities. ‘They rehearse at least once, maybe twice a week, every week of the year. There’s a kind of discipline about learning an instrument, a lot of worth and value in what they’re doing.’
Peacock is firmly in agreement. ‘These guys turn out twice a week, they spend a lot of money on uniforms and equipment to march regularly throughout the summer. You don’t just do that to wind somebody else up, you know. There’s a real commitment to performance.’
The quality of leadership within the bands is, according to Irvine, a key element in driving musical standards upwards. ‘One of the bands I worked with, the East Bank Protestant Boys, has a leader called Tommy. He’s the one that really motivates the band, keeps it together, keeps everyone in line. He’s the real powerhouse behind it.’
So what kind of composition will the 70-plus players who gather at The Playhouse in Derry~Londonderry on Friday evening be performing?
‘It’s a new multi-movement piece,’ explains Irvine, ‘a culmination of work we’ve done with them. Most of the ideas have come from them. We also have a bass player, a drummer, and a free-improvising saxophonist playing with them.’
Stylistically the music is, says Irvine, difficult to pigeon-hole precisely. ‘I don’t think it’s possible to categorise it in any way!’ he laughs. ‘The idea is to explore music-making beyond the normal band marches. It uses march tunes and a bit of improvisation, but in some ways it’s like nothing you’ve heard before.’
When the music stops, however, both Irvine and Peacock are hopeful that Beyond the March will in some small way have contributed to changing perceptions about the marching bands, and put the players in closer contact with their own musical potential.
‘I think it’s been hugely beneficial for them,’ says Irvine. ‘It’s been quite demanding for them to play in different ways, and it’s probably the first time they’ve ever had to follow a conductor.
‘It’s been a whole new dimension for all of them, going from looking at me and thinking, “He’s clearly mad” to quite enjoying it, you know. You’ll not have heard anything like it, that’s for sure.’
Beyond the March takes place in the Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry on Friday, June 21, for two performances at 7.45pm – 8.30pm and 8.45pm – 9.30pm. View the full Music City! programme below.