The perfect test piece

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by MoominDave, Mar 2, 2015.

  1. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    What makes the perfect test piece?

    What test pieces have you loved playing, and why?
    What test pieces have you hated playing, and why?

    What things in a piece turn you off it? Are there pieces that you've taken for or against straight away, but then changed your mind on as rehearsals have progressed? Are there formats that you struggle to enjoy (e.g. variation form)? Are there writers whose individual styles turn you on or off? If so, what do or don't you like about what they write?
    Is it the 'on the surface' aspects of the piece (e.g. melodic attractiveness, striking harmonies) or the 'down deep' things (e.g. structures on all scales) that influence you most? Must a truly admired test piece have both in good order? Or do practical considerations sway you (e.g. is my part a challenge / totally boring to play)? Are there pieces that you once enjoyed and now hate? Or once hated and now enjoy?

    If someone were to write a contest piece for your band, what would you ask them to make sure was contained in it? What would you want them to write? What structure (e.g. movements - or straight through)? What harmonic and melodic style?
    How does the specification of the 'perfect test piece' change as the level of the competition changes? Or maybe the location of the contest?
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2015
  2. iancwilx

    iancwilx Well-Known Member

    Resurgam has it all.

    ~ Mr Wilx
  3. Ianroberts

    Ianroberts Well-Known Member

  4. Cantonian

    Cantonian Active Member

    Essence of Time
  5. Tom-King

    Tom-King Well-Known Member

    Except a sop part worth mentioning ;)
  6. DocFox

    DocFox Retired

    I understand a test piece should be a challenge - and at least some challenge to every section in the band. My complaint is the length. No one likes to listen to 16 bands play a 14 minute piece. Now, I have never heard a British test piece live, but I have heard the test pieces of NABBA live on several occasions. It seems the prevailing thought is that a test piece must be long to really test the band (I guess it would test endurance).

    I would like to hear test pieces that are shorter. I am sure the entire band could be "tested" in 7 to 10 minutes (I know, a few pieces have been shorter, but that does not seem to be the trend lately).

    The Championship Division of NABBA is playing the 2010 European Brass Band Championships Test Piece "Spiriti" in the finals next month . The Finale is nice (last 4+ minutes) but the first 7 or so minutes were dissonant IMO. I plan on going to NABBA. Hearing that piece a lot of times does not excite me.

    I answered M-Dave's question about what I would dislike. I think that my particular part's difficultly would be non-relevant. A good band is always working hard to blend and make sure their section and part fit beautifully into the whole. I would dislike long rests.

    We had a piece when I was playing that the band loved and we played it often at concerts. It somewhat featured the euphoniums. The trombones had some 70 measures of rest in the piece that was not longer than 5 minutes. That was boring to me to play or rehearse.

    The one thing about "Resurgam" is that it is still being played and recorded. That cannot be said about a lot of test pieces.
  7. Pauli Walnuts

    Pauli Walnuts Moderator Staff Member

    There are clearly 2 aspects to the perfect test piece - It needs to have all the elements in it that test the band. However, that doesn't mean that the players or listeners will like the resulting piece! Chromascope for example was pretty testing in a lot of areas but I may be the only person that actually likes listening to it!

    As a conductor, the works that I have enjoyed always have a section, often the slow movement, that makes your hair stand on end when it played extremely well. In Memorium from Royal Parks is a good example for me - and that movement alone makes up for the awful ending. (did the commission money run out at 12 mins?). Pretty much all of Phil Sparke's works have excellent slow movements and often, this is where what little licence you have as a conductor can be bought into play.

    As a player, I love works that paint a mental picture of what they are trying to portray and for me, Cloudcatcher Fells ticks all the boxes. The sort of piece that makes you think "wow, that is really clever writing".

    As my conducting career has mainly been outside of the top section, pieces such as Dimensions and Purcell Variations are the sort of thing that provide good tests around intonation, playing together and getting the basics right across the whole band - plus the players enjoy them.
    Another favourite to listen to and conduct is the Thomas Wilson Sinfonietta - doesn't have the great tune you will be whistling to on the way home and the trombones will need a good book for the parts of it! But I love the harmonic structure of this, the close sometimes dissonant harmonies and the overall challenge of pulling it off with a lower section band. Sadly not played often enough imho.

    The piece I have always wanted to contest on is Malcolm Arnold's Fantasy for Brass Band - one day maybe!
  8. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    Good thoughts so far, thanks, keep them coming.

    I suppose what I'm asking is what are the differences between a piece that catches the popular imagination to quickly become a 'classic' versus a piece that doesn't? What made Paganini Variations the massively overplayed monster it became, but has left Odin so underplayed? Both appeared at a similar time, both are excellent pieces of music (in fact, Odin much more so, I would argue), both sound impressive to the listener. But Paganini plugged straight into the banding psyche - why? What drove bands to want to play it so much more than other pieces of equal or greater musical merit?
  9. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    Or if we don't want to be higher-section exclusive, what makes Philip Sparke's Music for a Festival enduringly popular, but his A Celtic Suite not so much?
  10. tonyknowles

    tonyknowles New Member

    I think the crucial ingredient to make a "classic" test piece is an emotional connection, maybe religious or just something that connects with your inner being. Test pieces that are considered "classic" IMO are Resurgam, Journey Into Freedom, Paganini, The Year of the Dragon, Downland Suite, Royal Parks to name a few. They all have melancholic sections which when played really well bring a tear to your eye and when played badly make you weep.
    After a break of over 20 years, I have attended the last 2 national championships at the RAH. Both were great days of banding. I sat and listened in awe of the sheer technical ability on show. At the end of the 2013 contest where "Of Distant Memories" was the test piece I travelled home feeling truly uplifted by what I had heard. Travelling home after the 2014 contest where "The Legend of King Arthur" was the test piece I travelled home feeling that I had been to a sporting occasion where the best 2 teams had come First and second. But the crucial thing is that now I recognise "Of Distant Memories" on hearing the first 2 or 3 bars, but sadly it would take me much longer to recognise "The Legend of King Arthur".
  11. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    Good point. An iconic slow movement does seem to go a disproportionately long way towards making a piece well-loved - even, as Pauli notes above, rescuing Royal Parks, a piece with the one of the most disappointing final movements ever written.

    Perhaps I should ask another question: What makes a slow movement great?
  12. Anno Draconis

    Anno Draconis Well-Known Member

    For want of a better word, immediacy. Both Paganini and Music for a Festival have an immediate appeal on first play/listen. If I had the time, I'd be interested to analyse a few of the most popular works and see what they had in common, but if I had to guess without looking in detail at scores I would say melodic content that can be picked up on one or two listens(pieces like Paganini and Vienna Nights have an immediate advantage there, their main melodies being already thoroughly familiar to anyone with a vague interest in classical music), harmonic content that contains interest but remains comfortably familiar and a clear musical 'peak' or two. The 'peaks' are more important than you'd think, too - how many truly popular band pieces are there that don't have some climactic point of tension and resolution in them somewhere? Think of moments like the end of Resurgam, the big tutti in the slow movement of Year of the Dragon, the slow movement of Sparke's Triptych, the end of Essence of Time, the slow section and the finale of Paganini, the middle and ending of PLC's Dark Side, the end of Journey into Freedom, - the list could go on for ages. This may be why Resurgam remains the only really successful band piece to have a quiet ending - because we get our 'peak' just before.

    As part of my current research work I've looking at how the twin themes of heritage and redemption recur throughout a great many of the canonical brass band works from Labour and Love onwards and you'd be amazed how many works use one or other of these themes - the idea of some sort of dissonant or fast rhythmic struggle leading to redemption through a great big climactic fortissimo finale is one that comes back again and again throughout the repertoire, and that appeals to us on a visceral level that seems to transcend the musical quality of what's gone before. Eric Ball was particularly keen on the idea of redemption and it's a theme that recurs throughout his works.

    We also, generally speaking, don't like pieces that have a surprise ending of some sort, or that fail to give us that resolution or redemption. Possibly why Volcano has never really gripped the public imagination, despite being both great music and very descriptive. Odin,despite being a great piece of music, doesn't have the level of melodic or harmonic immediacy that of some lesser works, doesn't have any really big tension/release peaks and ends quite abruptly. Whereas a piece like Within Blue Empires, despite running out of musical steam fairly quickly, does have a level of immediacy in its melodic lines, does have tension/release points and there's no mistaking where the ending is.

    Shorthand version: We like 'em loud and tuneful, with a big finish.
  13. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    Excellent as ever, Andy; this is exactly the kind of stuff I'm getting at.

    The question that plays in my mind is: "If one were to sit down with the intention of writing the Ultimate Brass Band Testpiece (TM), how would one best do it?". I don't mean ultimate as in most extreme in some way, rather as in the subject of this thread.
  14. euphoria

    euphoria Member

    This is an excellent thread that I have given some thoughts in the last couple of days. I have found that I don't have a single set of criteria that constitutes a great test piece. It depends on my role in the contest as either conductor, player or member of the audience.

    I have conducted (lower section) bands a few times over the years at the nationals in Denmark. We have the european model in all sections with set piece and own choice, so I have had to chose our own piece. My main priority has been that they have to enjoy playing the piece, since they are going to spend a lot of hours rehearsing it. It should be challenging to all the players - not just the corner seats. If we could also use the piece at regular concerts also that would be a big bonus. I have therfore chosen pieces like Partita (Gregson) and Endeavour (Sparke). We didn't do too well on the last occassion due to nerves (it was the bands first competition in over 20 years), but the players loved the piece and they improved their playing enormously in the month leading up to the contest.

    As a player I think the above criteria are pretty much the same. Make sure everyone has something to play. Many years ago I was playing 2. euph. at a contest where Variations on a shining river (Rubbra) was the set piece. I have never been so bored in my life as sitting there with absolutely nothing to play - like everyone else in the band except 3 or 4 soloists. I know that the piece was written in the days, where the difference in capability within the bands was much greater than today - at least in the top section.

    As a member of the audience I like the set piece to be interesting enough to make me want to hear every interpretation of it. If I am going to hear the piece 10 or more times, I don't have to "get it" the first or second time. I can enjoy getting more into it for each performance I hear. Pieces like Myth Forrest (Nordhagen) and the notorious Muckkle Flugga (Boyle) are prime examples of pieces that, if I had only heard them once, I would not have paid much attention to them, but both just got better and better through the contests (the last 2 European Championships). As a matter of fact the same thing applied for Spiriti (Doss) when it was used a few years back. Instant appeal is not a great priority for me at set test piece contests.
    In own choice contests - or the own choice part of the European Championships, the bands that commission new pieces from the likes of Sparke, Wilby, Graham and others probably have to take into consideration, that adjuditicators are humans (who would have guessed), and like the rest of us are more likely to get attracted to pieces (and perhaps therefore giving the performance a better grading) that are instantly appealing, like Black Dykes commission of The Triumph of Time (Graham) which was so effective in so many ways.

    Perhaps Philip could tell us if he approaches a commission to write a set test piece the same way as he would an own choice commission.

    Last edited: Mar 5, 2015
  15. Anno Draconis

    Anno Draconis Well-Known Member

    I'm tempted to argue that it's impossible, given the compromises required. In some ways, Contest Music fits the bill for me, because not only is it an outstanding piece of compositional technique (which I find I need in a test-piece; I like to marvel at the cleverness, although I appreciate that some people find this overly geeky and academic!) with memorable melodic lines, some beautifully unusual ways of using more or less conventional harmony, a big peak in the final movement and a clear and definite end flagged many bars ahead of time, so the audience know when to clap. [tongue slightly in cheek for that last one, but only slightly].

    However, in the normal run of things, the composer is limited by a number of factors:

    1) The standard of the players - even the very best bands can't play the level of complexity demanded by contemporary orchestral scores. Frankly, quite a few professional orchestras struggle. So the technical envelope of the band, especially in an amateur context, comes into play and places constraints on what can be written. Further down the sections, that becomes one of the biggest factors.

    2) The fact that it has to be limited in duration. The very longest test-piece I've ever heard (which was that utterly insane Moren piece Beyond the Horizon) was a bit over 20 minutes. Most top section pieces top out at 16-17 minutes, while in the lower sections they're 11-12 minutes on average. That seems to be a kind of notional upper limit placed by the need to get through a number of bands in a day and the stamina and concentration window of the band. So a composer has to say everything they need to say musically in that timespan. For those composers who are naturally economical with material, like Heaton, that's fine, but many chafe at that discipline.

    3) The fact that it has to be a TEST. The composer has to get through a variety of playing styles, dynamics and techniques in the above time limit. Maybe easier in a 17 minute European Championship commission, but what if you're writing for the 3rd section? A 12 minute test piece comprised entirely of slow legato playing wouldn't win many admirers, but it's quite difficult to say something musically profound in slow music of only 3-4 minutes duration - which is what most test-pieces at that level contain and are constrained to. At crotchet=60 that's only 60 bars of 4/4, for example. If you're trying to develop an idea that lasts for 9 bars, you're going to run out of time quite quickly, quite possibly before you've fully developed your idea. This last one is why the Theme/Variations form is so popular, in my view, and why the three movement suite also plays such a big part in test-piece repertoire. This is also why I like Contest Music so much - the slow movement says everything it needs to with remarkable brevity, but it doesn't feel like it's too short.

    Clearly quite a few composers have tackled these compromises, lived with them and produced remarkable works. If I was producing a personal list, Variations on an Enigma and Of Men and Mountains would be right up there at the top of it. Both are works that test the whole band, have a huge amount of compositional technique and musical integrity (to feed my inner geek) and still make you want to stand on your chair and yell at the end. Well, I do, anyway. But they're both top section pieces and quite long; the really hard trick is producing something of that quality for the lower sections in an 11 minute piece. Vizcaya manages it, for me, as does Triptych, although you will certainly find seats in the band that aren't kept as busy as they would like in both pieces. So, as I say, it's an almost impossible task - composing a test-piece (particularly for the lower sections) is an endless set of compromises between what you'd like, what you can have, and what fits the brief of being essentially a musical examination.

    Interestingly I've recently heard a couple of composers describe writing an opera in very similar terms - a series of compromises between what the composer's vision is, what's practical on stage and what the commissioning opera company can afford - so this isn't just a banding issue. Thinking about it, the problem might be that we don't train composers to be flexible in their writing in the way that composers up to the late 19th century were trained. If Bach had to write a cantata for a ropey choir, three rubbish soloists and no orchestra to be performed a week on Sunday, he didn't (as far as we know) spend much time reflecting on the paucity of his forces and the unfairness of life - he just wrote his music in a way that fitted the forces available. Still Bach, still awesome, but singable by the shonky Sunday choir and soloists. Composers now are trained (at least in universities) to 'write what you want' rather than given a solid technique and trained to 'write what suits the commission'. But I'm drifting off-topic...
  16. markh

    markh Member

    It also depends who the ultimate end user is. If it is the perfect test piece for the adjudicator to rank the bands, then it needs the usual exposed bits, chord clusters, high pp entries, octave/unison passages, a morendo, mixed metre difficult rhythm/ensenble challenges. If it is for the players, it needs for the interest to be shared (i.e. not all on the soloists) and the piece to be challenging but multi-layered and enjoyable to work on. If it is for the listener, it should not be too long, should not have any uncomfortable bits (it's horribly embarrassing listening to someone have a mare!) and I think most listeners like diatonality - although everyone loves a 43, 65 or 78 suspension in the slow section!

    For me though (as a nervous occasional soloist), the ulitmate test piece has exciting rhythms, close harmonies (that eventually resolve) and (selfishly) all the difficult bits on cornet, all the quiet bits on percussion and all the glory bits on euph (in a key like Ab or A which doesn't have an abundance of intonation challenges) ;-)
  17. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    So another conclusion:

    - The perfect test piece has to do several separate jobs - i) Rank bands appropriately; ii) Please listeners; iii) Please players.

    Each imposes its own set of requirements, some of which overlap, some of which don't.
  18. markh

    markh Member

    Expressed better than I did, but yes
  19. simonium

    simonium Member

    Personally, as of today I would suggest@

    To listen to - Revelation, Dove Descending, Prague, Of Men And Mountains, Contest Music, Diversions On A Bass Theme, Concerto Grosso (Bourgeois), Resurgam
    To play - Essence Of Time, Connotations, Land Of The Long White Cloud, Maoriana, Resurgam, Rhapsody In Brass, Variations On Laudate Dominum

    As you can tell, my tastes far outstrip my ability and frankly the type of music I really enjoy listening to I will never be in the position to play.

    Tomorrow's list might well be different.
  20. Aidan

    Aidan Active Member

    Going by this I would opt for Goldberg 2012 by Svein Henrik Giske, a monster of a piece full of technique and music. I don't think it will ever receive a 'perfect' performance, neither on the stage or in the studio.
    I'm also a Spiriti fan, but then again I would be after having played it a fair few times!!

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