Music interview – Hannah Peel on Tubular Brass and returning to her roots

Hannah Peel with the Tubular Brass ensemble.
Hannah Peel with the Tubular Brass ensemble.
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Composer and electronic artist Hannah Peel returns to Barnsley for a reimagining of Tubular Bells. Duncan Seaman reports.

Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells occupies a special place in British music. With worldwide sales of more than 17 million, it spawned three sequels, a chilling appearance in William Friedkin’s classic horror film The Exorcist and a live orchestral performance at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Hannah Peel will also perform her new album Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia.

Hannah Peel will also perform her new album Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia.

This month it’s being reimagined as a concert piece for brass band, with a new arrangement by Sandy Smith, former member of the Black Dyke Mills Band and conductor of the Brighouse and Rastrick and Grimethorpe Colliery Bands, who has also taught at Huddersfield University and Leeds College of Music.

Joining his 28-piece Tubular Brass ensemble at their performance at Barnsley Civic Theatre will be Hannah Peel, an electronic artist and composer who was born in Northern Ireland but raised in Barnsley.

Peel remembers Oldfield’s progressive rock original – on which the then 19-year-old played all the instruments himself – from the soundtrack to The Exorcist. “It was one of those things that when you were at school you would always play the melody on the piano at break time,” she recalls. “To listen to it all the way through only happened I would say four or five years ago.”

Hearing the Smith’s arrangement for cornets, trombone, flugel horn and euphonium however brought a whole new dimension to it, she found. “Until you hear the Tubular Brass reimagining of it I just didn’t listen to it in that much detail and you understand then the experience,” she says. “I always get a better experience anyway when I watch things live because for me it’s always a better interpretation, but I found listening to the brass version made me appreciate the original version even more because of the extensive nature of it and how much of a genius piece it was.”

Tubular Brass. Picture: Toots Photography

Tubular Brass. Picture: Toots Photography

Peel might have grown up playing in brass bands around Barnsley, but for this concert she is confining herself to the keyboard; she will also open the night with a special performance of her new album Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia. “My trombone skills are not up to the standard of this band,” she laughs. “I did all my grades and went to university but I didn’t study trombone solely. This band is insanely virtuosic, they’re incomparable really. I play the synthesisers in the ambient guitars section.”

Peel became interested by the project a couple of years ago when on a day off from touring she took some fellow musicians to see the Whit Friday Marches at Saddleworth. “They were like, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘It’s a huge thing that happens once a year, everybody comes in their coaches and brass bands play in every single village and you can see them marching and they get adjudicated and you see them play a concert piece.’ Of course they had never been to that. They were blown away. I’d been there as a kid so I knew exactly what it was like, but they could not believe the standard of the bands.

“I posted online, to some Instagram electronic music meets brass [account], and two or three weeks later somebody got in touch and said, ‘We are doing a tour with Tubular Bells and we’re looking for someone to possibly write the music for synthesisers and brass band to open up the concert. Would you be interested?’ It was completely down my street and it was wonderful to be involved and said ‘yes’ instantly.”

Oldfield’s 49-minute long suite is a multifaceted piece of music yet Peel feels Sandy Smith has managed to capture its many moods and textures. “It comes into life in its own and you get a sense of the melody and rhythm but the way it’s been done it’s really freed with the different time signatures, it takes you on an emotional journey all the way through, it’s really good.”

Sandy Smith arranged Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells for brass ensemble.

Sandy Smith arranged Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells for brass ensemble.

Peel will use the full Tubular Brass ensemble in her own part of the concert. “On stage for the first half is everybody. I play an array of different synthesisers, some vintage, some more modern. They’re playing for 45 minutes then having a break then play for the second half, which is wonderful.”

Mary Casio is a “lead on” from Peel’s last album Awake But Always Dreaming, which earned her comparisons to electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire. “That was based on the mind and the degrading of the mind, with my grandmother living with dementia. Exploring that world of where the mind goes to that I imagined she was living in, the rabbit hole of the mind.

“Combined with that was me having this character in the studio. I put my glasses on and I’d get a Casio keyboard out and I’d dance round the room for a bit of lightheartedness when you’re mixing something that’s quite heavy just to do something fun. Ironically there are no Casios on the record. As this piece went on I never intended it to be like that but it just helped to have a story in mind, and the more I got into it, I thought ‘Now she could go here or here’.

“I suppose it is a homage to a lot of my role models, like Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire – those people who I wouldn’t be making certain types of music without their influence.”

The concept is also founded in Peel’s own childhood daydreams. “We moved from Ireland to Barnsley and it was a completely different world. Barnsley was still in the recession from the mining in the 90s. We only intended to move for a year but we couldn’t sell the house. I think my mum and dad had the house up for sale for about four years and we could not sell it, and we never ended up going back, so I suppose I spent a lot of time dreaming of life back home and my friends. That’s not to say I didn’t fall in love with the place completely but I think there’s an element of your mind always being separated from your body.”

Having recorded the album at The Civic, this concert will also bring Mary Casio full circle.

“Real World [Peter Gabriel’s recording studio] had offered to record it after seeing a concert and they wanted to bring everybody down to Bath but we could not have fitted and I could not have afforded to transport that many players down there so I got in touch with a friend that works at The Civic and said, ‘Is there any chance you might have some free downtime’. They said ‘yes’. It worked out really well. The Mayor of Barnsley came and did a little speech to say thank you for coming. It was wonderful, especially as I’d gone there as a child to see my first musicals. It’s a different type of theatre now but I’ve got a lot of strong memories of it from when I first moved over to Barnsley.”

Tubular Brass is at Barnsley Civic Theatre on October 21. Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia is out now.