A rumination on the relationships between sound, geography, musical heritage and cultural belonging in Sheffield and South Yorkshire
That’s what I read on my program as I stood in the cavernous space of S1 Art Studio last Thursday. At one end of the room was a makeshift stage with a smattering of music stands on it. Before the stage was a table, which propped up an array of alien and slightly ominous electronic equipment. I had been invited to the evening’s event, A Long Walk to Grimethorpe, by local arts platform, Hand Of Sheffield. The description of the event on their flyers was a little clearer – ‘a performance for brass band, sound recordings and film’ – but still lent an air of mystery to the night.
The crowd filtered in and the lights dimmed. Louise Snape, founder of Hand Of Sheffield, described the evening’s program in a little more detail. The second half of the program would feature a musical composition written by her brother, aspiring electronic musician, Joe Snape. But first we would be treated to a documentary exploring Snape’s composition and its wider context.
The documentary was projected onto the white expanse of wall behind the stage. In the film, Snape told us of his lifelong affinity for brass music, and how he intended to search for creative stimulus in the 20 mile journey from Sheffield to Grimethorpe – the Mecca of brass music. But in a twist, he planned to complete the journey whilst wearing a tuba stuffed with microphones. If he pointed the bell of the tuba at whatever was making noise, the microphones inside would pick up and record the sound.
Interspersed with scenes of Snape awkwardly lugging his tuba over wooden stiles, or crouching low, aiming the bell of his tuba at a bubbling stream, were interviews with long-time brass band members. The interviews were invaluable: the scions of brass laid out the history of brass bands in Yorkshire, commented on the current state of brass music, and – in one particular gem – informed us of the brief burst of popularity brass music received after the film Brassed Off was released.
Director Ismar Badzic deserves credit for the way the documentary was shot: light hearted, comedic and without a whiff of pretentiousness. It was the right approach, reflecting the modest origins of brass music, and successfully countered the highly conceptual nature of Snape’s composition. In his interviews, Snape never strayed into complicated in vague terms – he was reassuringly straight-talking.
I spoke to Snape on the phone the next day. I asked him which was his favourite sound that he recorded.
His answer was the noise of an aeroplane flying overhead. In the opening stages of the composition – which began after a boozy interval – a whine crescendoed into a tumultuous roar, combined with thunderous chords from the University of Sheffield Brass Band, who were up on stage. The sound really stood out to me as well; if I hadn’t have been told afterwards, I never would have guessed that it was the noise of an aeroplane – albeit electronically manipulated.
Another memorable section of the composition was when the brass band played regular staccato notes over the sound of drizzling rain. Snape discovered that one of the side effects from rigging his tuba with microphones was that they recorded the rhythm of his walk. The ‘thump’ of the brass managed to capture the repetitive nature of the hike, and evoked the long stretches of field which Snape summed up for me as ‘monotonous’.
But the composition wasn’t monotonous. Anything but. At times, it produced a meditative, rocking quality – as with the staccato notes. At other times, the soaring ambient tones reminded me of the enormity of the terrain around Yorkshire.
The indefatigable Louise Snape deserves merit for her contribution towards the event. Hand Of Sheffield managed to pull off a seamless and entertaining evening. I walked home that night, mulling over the relationship between brass music and the rugged Yorkshire landscape.
Written by Nick Willoughby