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Tony Banks in interview with Christopher Thomas, March 2004

Seven: A Suite for Orchestra

For nearly thirty years Tony Banks was the keyboard player, principal songwriter and pivotal force in Genesis, the rock band he co-founded whilst at Charterhouse School with Peter Gabriel and Mike Rutherford. From the mid seventies onwards the band, now a three piece comprising Banks, Rutherford and Phil Collins, who joined in 1975 following Peter Gabrielís departure, enjoyed a hugely successful period of commercial success as one of the worldís biggest album selling rock bands.

The band gained a reputation for "progressive" rock, pushing the boundaries of their art to new levels of complexity and sophistication. Always the quiet man of the group, Banks would often be hidden behind his keyboards and synthesisers preferring to shun the limelight in favour of his more extrovert colleagues. Musically however his influence was critical to the band. As his interests diversified he released a number of solo albums as well as providing the music for several major films.

Seven: A Suite for Orchestra represents not only Banksí first major musical project since Genesis went their separate ways in the late 1990ís but also his first complete work for symphony orchestra. The interview that follows was conducted shortly before the launch of the disc, which is available on the Naxos label.
CD reviews Chris Thomas

CT How have you been occupying yourself musically since Genesis went their separate ways?

TB To be honest this project has taken some time although I have also tried to get some work in films and television but couldnít find anyone who would let me loose. I have done a fair few demos though. I have also been working on some Genesis stuff along with Nick Davis and we have done a DVD of the Wembley concert. Iíve also been looking at the archive albums, re-mastering and putting them into 5.1 surround and although Mike Rutherfordís involved as well I probably have the slightly greater degree of involvement in that.

CT Have you always harboured an ambition to write an orchestral piece?

TB I have certainly felt over the last few years that I would like to do something like this before I hang my boots up. You never quite know whether you have done your last thing or not and it just felt like a natural thing to do. Many years ago I did a film score for The Wicked Lady and I have always loved classical music and the sound of an orchestra. In The Wicked Lady I was very much one stage removed because the arranger was so important to it but it was very much my music and I thought the main theme sounded good so I always wanted to return to it.


CT Was Seven written specifically with live performance or this recording in mind?

TB Given the medium that I have been involved in I always tend to think of records before live performance. Talking to various people in the classical world this is very different to how they would see it. Many people would try out a piece live perhaps on a smaller scale before they ever got to this kind of stage. Yet I am lucky enough to be able to afford to do it so itís a kind of indulgence really. Having started it though I wanted to take it all the way through. The piece that really got me going was Black Down, the second piece. I had written it on a string synthesiser and I decided that the only way that it was going to sound right and good was to use real strings. Once I had started that idea I decided to see how much I could do but there was a lot of learning for me.


CT Are there any particular musical preoccupations that remain with you from your days in rock music and which have played a part in the composition of Seven?

TB I was perhaps associated with the more complicated pieces in Genesis and there are certain kinds of chords that I like to use. Sometimes you have to reign yourself in a bit with a chord pattern rather than something that can go on forever. But the introduction to something like Watcher of the Skies in the old days was a stream of consciousness chord sequence and in orchestral music I feel I can do that much more. I love room to breath and thatís one aspect I really liked about doing this. I can just let my mind go where it would and paint a picture and story with the music without having to worry about repetition and hooks and such like.


CT Thinking of a Genesis song such as Home by the Sea where the music comes full circle to end with the material with which it began, to what degree would you say that the thematic structure of the pieces in Seven has come from the early days of Genesis and the major pieces of that period?

TB Thatís most obvious in the final piece, The Spirit of Gravity, where I have the same theme in the beginning, middle and end. I quite like the idea of giving it a reference point because each theme that occurs in between really doesnít get repeated. Several of the other pieces donít do that however such as Black Down where there is one theme that is sort of repeated twice. In fact I had that theme and I felt I really wanted to use it more than once. When I wrote the piece originally it only came at the end so I brought it in at the front so that when you hear it a second time it makes that much greater an impression.


CT Would you cite any particular influences as having been important to you in writing Seven?

TB I suppose you are always influenced by what you have been listening to recently and in recent years I have listened to Vaughan Williams, in particular his Fifth Symphony and Iíve listened to quite a lot of Sibelius too. I really love his Fourth Symphony and also the Seventh Symphony. They are quite strong influences as well as his tone poems. The tone poems do more of what some of these pieces do in that they take you through things without any real structure to them.

CT I felt that in some of the more expansive melodies John Barry could have been an influence. Would you agree?

TB I have been accused of sounding a bit like John Barry in that he was known for liking to repeat the same motif lots of times because it was easy to score. Also on my previous solo album Strictly Inc. there was a piece called An Island in the Darkness which Jack Hughes, one of the guys I was working with described as John Barry meets Pink Floyd because of the repeated rhythmic pattern running all the way through it.

CT Was it always your intention that Seven should comprise a suite or could the individual pieces stand-alone?

TB I certainly see them standing alone which was one of the reasons for calling the piece Seven. In other words seven individual pieces. If there is something that runs through them it is more to do with time and orchestrations but there is no thematic connection between them at all. I would be very happy to see someone take a piece out of context and place it in a concert somewhere else. In fact it is what I would like to see most of all because thatís the way you get to hear something that you may not otherwise become familiar with.


CT Although you used an orchestrator did you conceive the piece in terms of orchestral sound and did you therefore give the arranger precise instructions as to what you wanted to hear?

TB Itís a difficult thing to totally isolate this. I did quite extensive demos but nevertheless I told Simon who did the orchestrations to feel free to do things. The only thing we did do was to keep absolutely strictly to every melodic line, the structure of the pieces and all the harmonics. But what I did say to him was that I wanted him to make it convincingly orchestral. I knew that if I had done it just on my own, which I could have done, that it would have sounded a bit restrained. I did give him a fairly clear idea of what I wanted but sometimes he would make his own decisions about things and we would then talk about it. For example the piece Earthlight begins with a bassoon melody which I had originally written for cor anglais but Simon said it went to low. There were also things that Simon added that would never have occurred to me in a million years such as the semi quaver viola parts in Earthlight. I would simply not have thought of it. I guess itís the fact that although I have listened to a lot of classical music I have never really analysed it in the way that I would if it was a rock song. I hear a rock song and analyse it instantly but there are certain combinations of sounds in classical music where I am still not one hundred percent sure what they are.

CT How do you think some of your Genesis material would work for orchestra?

TB There was an LSO version of some of our stuff done but the problem is if you do it too straight you end up with an orchestra playing pop music with the wrong rhythms. You would have to rewrite it I think and take the piece apart and put it back together again. But there are pieces that could work and in the early days there were parts of songs that I could imagine an orchestra in. I would have done them differently but they would have worked. Itís an interesting thing because there is a version of some of my music done on two grand pianos. Some of it sounds really good but they have been too faithful to all of the little pushes and things where the first beat of the bar is advanced to the eighth beat of the bar before. Itís something you do in rock music all the time but if an orchestra does it it sounds like the Boston Pops and you think oh no, please donít do that. So it just doesnít work unless you unravel it. I would be slightly keener to do it with some of the solo pieces because they are less well known and people would feel differently about them.


CT Having written several film scores how did you handle the freedom of writing in Seven as opposed to the strict discipline of film music?

TB The freedom was there in that I just let the music go slightly more where it wanted to. I have done that with Genesis things in the past and I enjoy not allowing things to repeat so that you just use a bit once. Occasionally there may be quite a good bit and I would think actually I could have made a song out of that. I like songs that go from section to section rather than repeating and with this I was able to do that even more.


CT The pieces all have descriptive titles. Was it the music that came first or the titles?

TB No, the titles came right at the end. I was really struggling for titles. In fact I have never struggled so much for titles in my life. I didnít want to saddle the pieces with anything too profound and tried to avoid them carrying too much baggage. The only one that does carry some baggage is The Spirit of Gravity, which is a quote from Nietzsche, but the others are all fairly naturalistic. When the titles did finally come though I was pretty happy with them.

CT What of future projects? Any further music along similar lines planned?

TB I would certainly like to do something else but to a degree it will depend on whether anything sidesteps on from this and how well it goes.

CT Is a live concert performance of the piece a possibility?

TB There are all sorts of possibilities but the problem is that it becomes very expensive and with the rehearsal time needed you would have to use a different kind of orchestra. In many ways it would be lovely to do the whole piece but you are then definitely preaching to the converted whereas if you can get one or two pieces done alongside other music there is a chance that it will reach people who would otherwise never have dreamed of listening to it.




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