A discussion with members of Septura: bass trombone player Dan West and Artistic Directors Simon Cox (founder, trumpet) and Matthew Knight (trombone).
Septura started to come to life around 2012, and the members of the ensemble are drawn from some of the leading British brass players. Trumpets include Philip Cobb, Simon Cox, Huw Morgan and Alan Thomas with Matthew Gee, Matthew Knight, Peter Moore and Dan West on trombone and Pete Smith and Sasha Koushk-Jalali on tuba.
Simon Cox: I always intended to do brass ensemble music but for various reasons, I had not always enjoyed playing in quintets and dectets. I gradually had an idea of a septet and decided to do a PhD at the Royal Academy of Music to look into the whole thing – what kind of repertoire to play, how to approach it and how to develop this focus on serious music.
Jane Salmon: I can see many connections between your work and that of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble who famously put brass chamber music on the map. Are you hoping to encourage players to follow your lead too?
Simon Cox: What we do is a bit different to PJBE but the position that they had and the way they inspired all these other groups to form is somewhere we aim to be. We certainly want to become established as a significant chamber music medium.
Do you see a future for brass equivalent to string chamber music? Could this make up an established part of work for a brass player?
SC: I would love to think so, but I’m not sure whether we’d see it in our lifetimes. It would need a big shift in the industry in favour of programming brass music. I believe strongly that sort of thing is possible and I think the brass septet and the sound it creates is a really special thing.
Dan West: It’s down to public perception isn’t it? It’s when people decide that they will consider brass chamber music in the same breath as a string group.
I would really like to see a future like that for brass players and I think it would transform the way we approach brass playing. Has working so closely with an ensemble influenced your own playing?
SC: Absolutely. When we are doing a lot of Septet playing I feel really differently when I play with an orchestra. I feel so much more confident to just trust my ears. There is often a disconnect with what is being shown by a conductor and what is actually happening. Dealing with those kind of situations becomes so much easier when you just trust yourself to play with the leader, the first oboe, or whoever it might be.
How has this influenced your orchestral playing?
SC: In the course of an orchestral career, especially if you’re freelancing, you can go a long time on the periphery of what is happening. One of the things the group does is that it gets you used to hearing your own playing and you become confident, so when you do have those occasional moments in an orchestra when you have an important role, you are much more comfortable with it. You are used to the feeling.
Matthew Knight: It’s fantastic developing all those kinds of things, though the style of playing is slightly different. We don’t generally play at orchestral dynamics and we don’t play brick shaped notes.
What’s it like to have chamber music as part of what you do?
DW: I find it really rewarding. My current show, West End’s Phantom of the Opera, keeps me on top of my game in a different way. I get the tune here and there but lots of time to catch up on my reading. This is much more involved; it’s a nice opportunity to stay focused and even deal with nerves that haven’t popped up in my playing since I left the Academy, since recitals and things like that. It’s different from any other type of playing.
MK: When we have a few months where we don’t do anything, coming back to it feels pretty hard at first but, because we’ve been quite busy in the last few months, we have built up a bit of stamina. It seems to get easier and easier. It’s nothing like playing in the orchestra – there isn’t really a way to prepare for it. You have just got to do it.
Septura is recording a series of 10 discs for Naxos Records, so far all featuring arrangements by Simon Cox and Matthew Knight. The first four discs have received critical acclaim and the music is now available to buy from Resonata Music.
How do you choose your music for each release?
MK: We pick a theme for the CD, a period or genre. We whittle it down to a few composers and then we listen to a lot of music. Loads of it we really like but decide it’s not going to work. It gets whittled down until we have a few pieces that we think will work and will sound, hopefully, like original brass works when they are done.
Do you workshop your parts? What is it like to rehearse new music?
MK: Something that makes it a lot easier is that we write with the players in mind and can write to their strengths. Normally when we do repertoire it is in preparation for a recording so we tend to have a rehearsal quite early and then have a break for about a month. This gives us time to redo little bits in the parts and time to practice. When we are recording, we are fine-tuning all the way up until we finish.
SC: The aim is to make sure that when it comes time to perform the music that it works really well. I think the problem in brass chamber concerts, even with really good players, is there is such a danger of stamina becoming a problem. You’ve got to constantly manage it and through this process of going over everything with players and adjusting it, we are able to get through our concerts intact. We’ve all experienced brass quintet recitals when people aren’t quite delivering what they’d like to by the end.
DW: Each time I’ve seen one of the programmes that these two created I have always thought – can we do this? Can I personally do this? It’s a really rewarding feeling at the end when we actually have accomplished it.
Could you tell me a little about your approach for writing for this combination of instruments?
MK: We try to create a lot of the colours from the original music. For example, we use mutes but because the changes are so quick, even if they were just on the chair it would be awkward. To remedy this, we have some special things that Matthew Gee’s Dad made for us. They hold the mutes upside down so you just grab them and throw them in. That is something that came out of necessity; we could not do some of the repertoire we do without it.
We also try lots of different instruments – we’ve done pieces where I play the valve trombone, sometimes the euphonium and Matt plays the alto in a few things too. When we did a piece by Lassus we used smaller trombones – we all go down a size.
Simon has quite a hard job as he plays the second Bb trumpet part, which quite often crosses over with the trombones. He’s got some pretty low parts sometimes and they’ve got to blend in with what we do. It’s always tricky to link the two sections.
Have you experimented with various tubas too?
MK: We have occasionally used an F tuba. We’d like to experiment a bit with a cimbasso for when we want to have a more trombone-like sound throughout. We haven’t yet but when the time is right it is sure to come out.
Do you commission new works?
SC: For future concert series we’re planning to do a lot more of that. Really, that would be the most important aspect of the group’s work. It is original repertoire that really establishes a medium.
It’s clever to have arranged such well-known works. Take the Shostakovich String Quartet no. 8; people know the music and to offer an opportunity to hear the piece on brass instruments, especially with such detail included, is a fantastic way to show that brass players can do it too.
SC: We are creating our own repertoire, our own counter-factual history but in a way, if you have to boil it down to one aim, it is just to demonstrate that we can do this stuff. Some of our transcriptions might not be for everyone; some people might think some might work better than others and so on, but I don’t think anyone can deny that we can play that kind of music, so why not write for us?
I can imagine you’ve listened to much more music than you may have done otherwise. How has this influenced you?
MK: Each disc that we have done is so focused, we have really been able to immerse ourselves in a style and really think about that before moving on to something else. We’re starting now to do arrangements that aren’t just for the recordings because we need more repertoire. Even so, we try and carry over the same approach.
I like your focus on really considered programming. It’s another lesson that brass groups should learn.
MK: Rather than just throwing stuff together, we always try and have a concept or a theme underlying it. That’s a big part of what the series is about.
As part of their role as Ensemble in Residence at the Royal Academy of Music, Septura direct a course for the students.
Could you tell me a little about your course at the Academy, what is involved?
MK: We don’t try and push the septet in our course but the idea is to get the students to go through the same process we have been though. We want them to engage critically with it and actually think about what formation they want to use and what repertoire they want to play, rather than just doing a quintet because that’s what everyone does. We talk about the pros and cons of different formations. We talk about choosing repertoire and specific things about arranging for brass – what might or might not work, and how to get around certain things.
During my time at Guildhall, I would almost say I learned the most from my Chamber ensembles. It feeds right back into orchestral playing and there is no better way to learn how to play with different people.
MK: We always say to the students when people come into the orchestra – students or young players – the ones that basically do well are the ones that have developed good radar and actually listen and slot in. Chamber music is the best way to develop this – you have to do it so much.
SC: In Britain we have a lot more chamber music offering for brass students than in many other countries but it is still not a huge part of the curriculum. Obviously a lot of the work opportunity is in orchestras and that’s what everyone is focused on.
Is the repertoire accessible? How have your students got on with your arrangements?
DW: It’s the kind of music that pretty much anyone can have a go at really. Technically, nothing is probably past a certain grade point but musically, to make it work and to match together, it’s much harder than it looks on the page.
What have the challenges been in putting this together?
SC: We have to figure out how to move things forward; there is no set pathway for us. With a string quartet there are all kinds of schemes and trusts and such things available for you to apply to. They have a different problem in that they have to try to make themselves stand out from the pack; we’re obviously inherently unique – we’re the only septet around.
British brass playing seems to have gained a fantastic reputation worldwide. Has this helped you to build an international presence?
MK: PJBE did such a lot of good work for all of us; they somehow managed to gain a reputation for the brass playing in the whole country, not necessarily just their group. We can all do well on the back of that.
SC: It feels like brass groups succeed a bit like pop groups – you succeed because of your own following. Canadian Brass, Mnozil Brass are very, very successful and great at what they do, but they’ve got their own fan base – they go around playing to them. String quartets are less personality-based and fans will go and watch any established quartet that is in the area. I don’t think we have the same thing for brass music. That’s the thing we have to keep working at. We’re building our own following, which is great and that will hopefully allow us to do more concerts, but if we can get them into the music itself, that would be a broader benefit.
What advice would you offer to someone wanting to get their own project rolling?
SC: It would be good for people to know about the realities of the professional world. It’s not enough to just gather together a group of good players and decide you’re a group and expect things to happen. You really have to think carefully about what kind of music you want to play and how you want to go about presenting yourselves.
DW: There isn’t one way of doing things; there are opportunities to be had out there. With this group, what Simon and Matt have done has proved that there are opportunities out there to create work for yourself and your colleagues.
What does the future hold for Septura?
SC: We would like to keep our concert series, Kleptomania, going. We feel that’s a really important focal point for our work. We are hoping to keep expanding things internationally as we seem to have a decent following online of people all over the world. There are promising projects in the pipeline. We would love to play in some of the larger music festivals and venues too.
Thank you for talking to The Trombonist. It’s reassuring to see that the clear vision behind your ensemble is helping you to succeed, and I hope you will inspire musicians across the world to think about what would work for them.
Interview first published in Winter 2017 edition of The Trombonist.