Review- The Snaring of the Sun
The Centaur, Cheltenham
Ok, so it’s less than three weeks until my band, Eccles Borough, takes to the contest stage in Cheltenham on 19th September, and, if I do say so myself, we are sounding really promising. As I have to study and practise the hell out of this piece (that’s a technical term) I thought I’d review it, as there has been a lot of mixed reviews circling about and I’d thought I’d add mine to the mix and just give you an idea of some of the more modern stuff we play in the brass band world- it’s not all marches and hymn tunes!
To put what I’m saying into context, click the player below to listen to a recording of the piece played by the Jedforest Brass Band at the 2015 National Finals (obviously edited in after we played the contest, I’m not a time traveller…or am I?), whilst you’re reading! (you can’t say I don’t spoil you)
My cornet got bigger…
The second section piece is called ‘The Snaring of the Sun’ by Stephen Roberts, and relates the story of Maui (who was a young Polynesian demi-god…apparently, see you don’t just learn about brass bands on here!) who captures the sun, to prevent it from passing across the sky too fast. Now, how the sun was snared, I’m not entirely sure (magical ropes and persuasion apparently were involved, though I prefer the image of using a net, a big ladder and a cloud for bait), but the piece at first didn’t really ‘snare’ me. There were parts of it I really liked, such as the ending (and not because I initially didn’t like the piece and the end means we were finished), but I felt there were so many random sections that were put in just to ‘test’ the band and to make it sound ‘modern’ and ‘inventive’. There was an article on 4barsrest about ‘prescription pad pieces’ (which is a subject I plan to voice my opinion on in the near future) which are pieces that are not particular listener friendly and are just written to sound difficult and ‘impressive’, rather than serve its primary purpose of evoking emotion and inspiring the audience and players. At first I, unfortunately and quite naively, felt TSOTS fell into this category. However, after reading the synopsis of the piece and playing it for around three weeks now, I’m happy to say I was wrong!
Let’s start at the very beginning.
“It starts with a sunrise that descends almost before it has begun and darkness falls, leaving the world a desolate place.”
The opening is mysterious, starting with an ominous bass theme, with different parts of the band slowly adding to the sound, building up gradually to this radiant, majestic theme, which successfully captures the scene that Roberts describes in his performance synopsis. As the sun sets unexpectedly, the sound of confusion can be heard with a haunting and almost bewildered sounding cornet solo, accompanied by a descending quaver theme from soprano cornet, back row cornets and glockenspiel, with a fearful sounding imitation of the the cornet solo from the solo horn and a beautiful counter melody from solo euphonium.
“Maui appears with a forthright theme, that jumps and twists, to describe his prowess as an athlete.”
A rhythmical motif is introduced and repeated throughout the first section, with cornets and flugel taking the theme tune of the athletic hero. Solos from the solo horn, flugel and soprano cornet are interspersed among this theme and do add some light and shade. Although this section may sound quite simple- apart from some of the semi-quaver runs the cornets have to warble through- preventing the driving accompaniment from causing the tricky cornet part to rush, and vice versa as the melody players become more familiar with this technical melody, could prove challenging. Anyone can play fast, but to make a fast technical section sound rhythmical and interesting to listen to, rather than a collection of notes can be difficult.
“He talks tenderly to his mother who cannot dry her tapa cloth (disaster!) and decides to capture the sun and set things right.”
My favourite element of the piece is the melodic writing. After playing and hearing so many test pieces where the main aim of the piece and the solos is to show off the technical prowess of the band/soloists, it’s refreshing to hear a piece where the musicality of the ensemble and soloists are challenged. The little counter-melodies and the sweet solo lines, provided by the solo cornet with soprano providing a duet later on and Flugel, are emotional and tender in parts and really represent the image of Maui calmly and lovingly alleviating his mother’s concerns about this quest and the current weather predicament.
“He sounds his battle cry or Hakka and invokes his magic powers as he treks off to the wilds in pursuit. Maui finds the sun sleeping in a crater far away and lassoes him with his magic ropes.”
After a short and simple (possibly too simple for the battle cry of a demi-god, in my humble opinion) solo cornet fanfare, the piece continues with variations of this fanfare theme, depicting the struggle between Maui and the sun (and with the sun being around the size of 1.3 million earths, you can imagine that this is more of a two demi-god task, so does take up quite a lot of the piece). There is some fantastic rhythmical writing in this section, with the time signature flitting from a lilting 7/8 time, to more direct 4/4 and 2/4 metres (which is a joy to count when you’re not playing…). The use of accents, dissonance and creative dynamics are used effectively to represent conflict.
“There is a furious battle, but the sun is snared and in an ensuing quiet passage, Maui persuades him to travel more slowly to give mankind heat and light.”
Another haunting section follows, representing Maui persuading the sun to stop being a lazy sod and do his job (though I’m sure it was expressed in more polite terms…as you do when talking to inanimate blazing balls of fire),
“The sun rises again and this time shines in a life-affirming manner. “
The piece returns to the opening theme, however presented in a major key (which is essentially a musical ‘happily ever after’). There are some glorious chords used in this section and fantastic counter-melodies from the horns to compliment the cornet melody. This is my favourite section of the piece, as it is a fantastic climax to what is a whirlwind of a musical journey.
This piece is essentially a piece of film music, with the film being in your mind, and you can clearly see each scene as if it was being projected in front of you. There are parts of the piece I do find a little repetitive, and there might be some arguable overusing of the louder dynamics, but overall the piece achieves it’s aim simply and effectively. There isn’t much obsessive and potentially pointless complexity, which can sometimes bore rather than captivate the audience and the players, instead there are beautiful melodies, interesting rhythms and chords so warm, you can feel the musical heat of the eponymous sun (and they said my A level in English Literature was useless!). It’s a piece I want to turn up to band to play every week- which is rare and a sentence I initially didn’t think I’d say. As a player I’m sure that this will remain a firm favourite of mine….especially if we win. Let’s hope the sun shines at Cheltenham and we snare that first place trophy, with this terrific piece.
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‘Prescription Pad Junkies’– 4barsrest