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John PICKARD (b. 1963)
Gaia Symphony (1991-2003)
([Part One Ė Tsunami [13:33]; Window 1 Ė Water-Fire [3:05]; Part Two Ė Wildfire [12:22]; Window 2 Ė Fire-Air [3:45]; Part Three Ė Aurora [11:25]; Window 3 Air-Earth [2:15]; Part Four Ė Men of Stone [15:52])
Buy As You View Band/Robert Childs

rec. St. Julianís School, Newport and Cwmbran Council Chambers, March 2001 and February 2005 DDD
DOYEN DOY CD188 [62:22]

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One of several remarkable facts about John Pickardís epic Gaia Symphony is that it very nearly failed to come into being. Pickard had in fact conceived the idea of a large-scale work of related pieces following the composition of the two earliest parts of the symphony, Wildfire and Men of Stone. These two initially stand-alone pieces were written for the National Youth Brass Band of Wales as long ago as 1991 and 1995 respectively. Yet following their first performances a lack of subsequent airings led the composer to the conclusion that there was insufficient interest in his music for brass band and that it would not be worth expanding them into something more substantial.

Consequently it was not until 2001 that the idea came back to Pickard following a telephone call from Robert Childs expressing an interest in completion of the project. Pickard was quickly appointed as the bandís Composer-in-Residence and work re-started. Shortly after this they recorded the first two parts of the Symphony with Wildfire being released on a Doyen CD in 2002 (review). Pickard completed the opening movement of the Symphony, Tsunami, in 2002 with the final movement, Aurora, following a year later.

Immediately following the composition of Wildfire and Men of Stone Pickard had identified certain thematic relationships between them although, as he explains in his informative insert notes, he was later faced with the dilemma of how he was to link the four pieces in a manner that would lend the complete work the degree of collective cohesion he wished to achieve. Initial thoughts of electronics depicting the "natural" elements of rain and wind were soon abandoned in favour of three interludes scored for percussion only. It was an idea that served the double purpose of relieving the listenerís ear from the sonority of the brass instruments; a kind of palette cleanser, as well as relieving the playerís embouchures given the extreme physical stamina needed to perform the work as an entity.

The fact that the stamina required for a complete live performance can be summoned was borne out by The Buy As You View Band at the 2005 Cheltenham Festival when they gave a complete performance to considerable critical acclaim.

If the band were in the kind of form at the Cheltenham Festival that they show here it must indeed have been some event, for their playing is of a magnificent standard. Technically assured as well as hugely involving and exciting, the band also demonstrates a range of colour and textural subtlety that is a credit both to the players and to Pickardís scoring which shows an impressive understanding of the generally underestimated tonal variety of the brass band.

Tsunami was written in 2001/02 but the music has an all too real sense of the present in the wake of the disaster on Boxing Day 2005. Eye witnesses of the Indonesian tsunami talked of the tide being sucked away from the shore in the minutes before the wave hit, a sign of what was to come for those that had been unfortunate enough to have witnessed previous tsunamis. Thus Pickard imbues the music with a sense of foreboding whilst allowing its energy to gradually drain away through the first third of the piece until a central section of uneasy calm featuring solos from several instruments. In the wake of this build-up the final climax is of shattering power and an eerie flash-back to the horrors of the television pictures witnessed by us all so recently.

The first "window" Water-Fire (played with admirable panache and virtuosity by the bandís percussion section) moves attacca into another depiction of the power of nature, albeit this time possibly as a result of manís carelessness. The music had in fact already been started when the composer read a newspaper report of a forest fire in North Wales in which two fires started separately before converging on each other. Although not a precise depiction of the fire the music emerges from the crackling and flickering of its opening to progress through a series of powerful climaxes before burning itself out into an extraordinary clattering of wooden percussion. At several points during Wildfire it struck me that Pickard is possibly familiar with the brass band music of John McCabe with several passages reminiscent of Cloudcatcher Fells amongst others. It has to be said however that Pickard never allows the music to descend into the derivative.

Aurora comes in stark relief after the devastation of the opening two pieces. As the title implies, the music is a depiction of the Aurora Borealis, concentrating on extensive solo work for most of the band with instrumental lines entwining themselves around each other in music of shimmering, transparent beauty. The ensuing percussion window, Air-Earth, is equally delicate, quietly allowing the music to melt into the hushed picture of Avebury stone circle that opens Men of Stone.

Men of Stone is really a suite in its own right, the four clear sections each picturing an ancient site captured at specific times of day. Hence Avebury is seen during the Autumn, early in the morning (more echoes of McCabe here, clearly so in the cornets at 2:00), Castlerigg stone circle in Cumbria is pictured during a snow storm on a winterís afternoon, Barclodiad-y-Gawres, a prehistoric burial site on Anglesey on a spring evening and the glory of Stonehenge during a summer night as dawn emerges through the stones. Barclodiad-y-Gawres is particularly beautiful before the radiance of dawn at Stonehenge transforms the closing bars into a paean of triumph and spectacle.

Throughout the Symphony it is impossible to fault the commitment and vitality that both band and director bring to this music. John Pickard must be a happy man indeed that his at one time seemingly impossible task has resulted in a work that has broken new boundaries in the brass band repertoire. The recording too is both lifelike and appropriately spectacular in its dynamic range.

These days it is a rare thing that a brass band work and recording come along that break completely new territory. In John Pickardís Gaia Symphony, coupled with the playing of the Buy As You View Band, we have just such a milestone.

Christopher Thomas


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