Septura: Seven Breaths to Heaven, with “FIVE!”tm

Consider the string quartet; four matched timbres. Perhaps, this is only achievable in brass by matching two trumpets and two trombones in a quartet-but the extra duty on the trumpet players makes this setting a formidable challenge. And what of the mighty resonance of the tuba-(not to mention that it is an adopted child of the trombone section)? But the traditional quintet has some limitations as well. Just now and again, you might have felt a bit of a gap in the timbres: perhaps from horn to trumpet or horn to trombone. Here and there a ten piece could fill out the timbre, or perhaps the rarer still, a sextet. Until now… Until SE-VEN brass? Until SEPTURA! As though divinely inspired and appointed, the NAXOS recording artists plunge ahead to weave their unique timbrel combinations in a Kaleidoscope of sonic delight. “Five!” tm, is swelled with pride to present Septura. Enjoy……..

1.  Why not a Quintet? Are there advantages or disadvantages to going another route?
[MK]: The main driving force behind the septet configuration was the sound concept. The brass section of the orchestra (which is what the septet is) can create such a wonderful homogenous sound, almost organ-like, and that is something that we had never experienced with the existing brass chamber formations of quintet and ten-piece. The lone horn in those formations offers the potential of a different sound (because the instrument works differently, pointing backwards with the player’s hand in the bell), but it makes true homogeneity difficult. The advantage of having seven instruments is that we have 3 trumpets and 3 trombones, so we can create that truly blended sound, with the tuba providing a rich bass. And we think that we get plenty of variety in the sound, from different combinations of those instruments, and by using a lot of mutes, so there really is no downside compared to the quintet.

2.  The British Bass Sound!  How would you describe it?  How do you make it happen?  How is it different than the Berliners or the Chicagoans?  (Are there any Conns involved…)

[SC]: In Britain we are trained from a very young age to learn how to play together – in particular we place great importance on blending our sounds, so that ensembles and orchestral brass sections can almost sound like a single entity. A lot of this comes from our backgrounds in the brass band movement, but we also have a long tradition of choral singing in this country which might have an influence. Of course Berliners and Chicagoans make wonderful sounds – perhaps the use of different equipment (e.g. rotary or C trumpets) is what makes us different.

In Septura we particularly work on the link between the trumpets and trombones, trying to match our sounds as closely as possible, so the trumpets often try to sound broader in order to blend ‘downwards’, and the trombones can use a more lively articulation to match up with us.

3.  A democratic rehearsal, even with just four or five players is a challenge.  With Seven, you are definitely on the border.  Do you find that there needs to be a first among equals to have a productive rehearsal with 7?

If so, how is the leadership approached?

[MK]: We are lucky to have on board the finest brass musicians from London, and some of the best players in the world. So there is no doubt that everyone’s opinion is valued, and it is crucial to the success of the group that everyone takes ownership of musical issues and contributes fully to forming a coherent vision for every piece of music.

However, Simon and I do all of the arrangements for the group, and that involves absolutely immersing ourselves in the particular piece that we are arranging. Inevitably we end up knowing the piece very well, and having a strong sense of how we want it to be realised by Septura. We produce extremely detailed arrangements, taking great care over tempos, articulations, and different expressions and colours. And so a great deal of what might be considered the “interpretation” is already in the parts when we get to the first rehearsals.

That doesn’t mean we’re not open to other ideas – often things are debated and we end up changing our minds in practice. Also, we’re aiming for true chamber music, so nothing is set in stone – every concert is different, and if a particular player phrases something differently one night, or uses a little more rubato another then we all embrace it.

4.  How do you approach selecting the arrangements for the group?

Our primary aim is to make our arrangements sound like original works for brass – we want audiences to believe that these pieces could actually have been written for us. So when we’re searching for repertoire we have to discard anything that we can’t easily imagine as brass music – sometimes this means we have to reject pieces that we’ve become quite attached to, but it’s worth it in the end.

5.  What is your favorite movie music?

[MK]: For brass players composers like Hans Zimmer are favourites – he tends to use a lot of low brass in particular. In terms of incredibly well-crafted writing for brass John Williams is totally unique. But personally the composer who always seemed to create the most beautiful brass sound was John Barry – the theme from Out of Africa is something I always enjoy playing.

In Septura we don’t play any film music, but we do play its precursors – the Sinfonia of Handel’s Rinaldo, which vividly depicts Goffredo’s army tumbling into a volcano, is the film music of it’s day; and Debussy’s programmatic Préludes conjure such strong images, such as the sunken cathedral of Ys rising up from the sea.

6.  How did you conceive of the group, and how long did it take until your vision was realized?

[SC]: I had the idea to form Septura in early 2011, when I was working in Finland as a member of the Helsinki Philharmonic. Although I was enjoying orchestral playing, it started to feel like I was spending a lot of my time counting rests and watching my colleagues have all the fun! So I decided chamber music was the answer, and moved back to the UK to start the group.

I decided to develop our artistic approach through a PhD at the Royal Academy of Music, and the group launched in 2014 with its first recording and concerts. Since then we’ve undertaken performances all over the world, and recorded a further 7 CDs. Almost 9 years after the initial idea I would say the vision still isn’t 100% realised (in particular we would love to work with some of the most prominent living composers to develop original repertoire for brass septet), but we’re well on the way.

7.  Which brass, and other chamber musicians, have influenced you the most and why?

[MK] We all grew up listening to the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, and in the UK they were the group that really put brass chamber music on the map. One of the things that was really remarkable about them was that as well as playing some fantastic arrangements they commissioned a huge amount of music, some of it from really great composers like Lutoslawski. Commissioning is something that we still aim to do much more of. The influence of Philip Jones is really felt very far and wide – on our recent tour to Japan we met many people who were fans of PJBE, and hold British brass playing in high esteem as a result. So really that group has laid the foundations for everything that we do.

Outside of brass groups we are influenced by a huge range of chamber musicians. It depends what repertoire we are arranging or performing at the time, but, for example, the Gallicantus recording of Lassus’s Lagrime di San Pietro had an enormous influence on the style in which we tried to play that piece.

8.  Which types of trumpets do you use for different situations?  (piccolo in A or Bb, G cornet, Eb trumpet, C, etc..)   How do you handle the violin parts?

[SC] Our standard trumpet line up is 2 B-flat trumpets and 1 E-flat. This allows us to achieve a good blend of sound with the trombones, but also gives us the range needed to tackle some of the trickier music we play (e.g. violin parts). Occasionally we’ll use piccolo trumpet (usually in B-flat), flugelhorn or cornet to find a different colour.

9.  What is your concept of matching lines so well, whether from choir to choir or a seamless hand off of a line?

It’s very simple, we just try to listen to each other!

We often have lines that in the original piece would have been in a single instrument, and in arrangement we have to split up between two or more, and we try to make it sound like one by copying the sound and phrasing of the previous player.

It doesn’t always work out, but when it does it’s incredibly satisfying.

As with lots of brass playing, there is a huge amount of satisfaction in trying to make something quite simple sound really good.

c. 2019 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved.

Images courtesy of NAXOS

Interested in more GREAT Chamber music interviews? Try these!

Canadian Brass 2014, Windsync 2014, Boston Brass 2015, Mnozil Brass 2015, Spanish Brass 2014, Dallas Brass 2014, Seraph 2014, Atlantic Brass Quintet 2015, Mirari Brass 2015, Axiom Brass 2015, Scott Hartmann of the Empire Brass 2015, Jeffrey Curnow of the Empire Brass 2015, Ron Barron and Ken Amis of the Empire Brass, Meridian Arts Ensemble 2015, Berlin Philharmonic Woodwind Quintet 2015, American Brass Quintet 2015 Triton Brass 2016, 

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