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Thursday, 22 November, 2001, 12:57 GMT
Brassed Off
Crushing experience: Flattened instruments at the V&A.
Artist Cornelia Parker's sculpture made from the crushed remains of 54 brass band instruments may delight some. But to others, it is an insult to a precious part of British culture. BBC News Online's Chris Horrie writes.

The sculpture is known as Breathless, and to some it signifies the decline in the British Empire. Many in the brass band fraternity, though, have different feelings.

"It hurts me to see or think about instruments being crushed," says Robert Mulholland, editor of Brass Band World magazine.


"I am sure many bandsmen would feel the same way. Musicians have a special feeling for their instruments and it painful to see them not being taken care of properly, let alone crushed."

Even David Smith, leader of the brass band hired by the Victoria and Albert to play at the galleries' opening ceremony, has some qualms.

These instruments would have ended up being broken up. I should have thought this is a better fate for them.

Artist Cornelia Parker
"We had a big discussion about it in the band. But we've been told the instruments were beyond repair, so I'm happy about it.

"We are trying to be progressive and face up to the modern world, and if this is what this sculpture is trying to say, then we definitely agree with that. Without money we would go out of business. The government is not putting enough money in."

The Victoria and Albert Museum

But Norman Harvey of the Churchill Society - a group which promotes music education - says he has a letter from museum chairwoman Paula Ridley, saying that the sculpture is designed to "pay tribute to the disappearing tradition of brass bands in Britain".

It is an act of vandalism and an absolute scandal.

Norman Harvey
Mr Harvey says: "The V&A trustees commissioned the work on the explicit understanding that brass bands were history. But nothing could be further from the truth. The brass band movement is growing and is healthier now has it has been for many years."

Brass bands are on the up
"It is an astounding situation that one cultural group - the metropolitan elite who control places like the V&A - simply knows nothing at all about another cultural group."


Mr Harvey adds that the decision to crush the 54 instruments was "an act of vandalism" and an "absolute scandal".

"50,000 has been spent by the V&A destroying 54 musical instruments that are urgently needed by the parents of children who wish to take up music," he says. He now wants the V&A to contribute at least that much money to educational charities providing instruments for schools.

Blowing up a storm
"It is the only thing that will stop them from carrying out more vandalism in the future," he says.


On BBC radio, the artist, Ms Parker herself said that many musicians had been aware that the instruments were being destroyed and approved to the act. But her spokesperson was not prepared to reveal the names of the pro-crushing musicians and refused to comment further.

Far from being "breathless", the brass band movement is now healthier than it has been at any time since the Second World War, according to Brass Band World's Robert Mulholland.

The artist's previous work includes exploded shed debris
"As a celebration of the revival of the band movement around the world the sculpture might be fine. But I've heard her say that she is making a point about the decline of the brass band as being in line with the decline of the British Empire," he says.

Hovis image

"There's some sense in that, because there were about 40,000 bands at the start of the 20th Century - basically every town and village had one before there was much other entertainment.

"The movement declined in the middle of the last century, but in the last 25 years it has really started growing again."

Mr Mulholland says that the number of people taking part in brass band competitions is steadily growing and whole new competitions are spring up - including a new European wide brass band competition.

Many towns now have bands involving more than 100 players at the beginner, intermediate and competitive level.

"There is also a huge increase caused by educational factors. There are brass band degree courses now, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago."

Acid Brass

The image of the brass band as dying part of Victorian Britain, he says, is now completely out of date.

Noisy Parker: the art of blowing up and crushing
A lot of new music by contemporary composers is being composed for brass - everything from classical to "Acid Brass" dance music.

Brass instruments are by far the easiest for all but the youngest children to learn, are relatively cheap, are easy to repair and maintain and require more teamwork than learning the guitar or the piano, he says.

"Brass bands have always been egalitarian and family-orientated," he says.


The biggest change, he says, is the international growth of the brass band movement - brought about by the tradition of organising competitions rather than simple performances.

"It is a completely unique sound that has created a lot of interest first in the United States - where it caught on with brass players in show bands in places like Las Vegas - and the low countries, Scandinavia and Japan.

"Brass Band World sells all around the world. We have subscribers in Indonesia and the Congo. The interest is phenomenal."

The movement, Mr Mulholland says, was one of the great gifts of Victorian Britain to the world along with cricket and football.

But, he adds, when it come to brass competitions "England is the Brazil of the band movement worldwide and we have a great future. It is a shame that more people don't seem to realise that."

See also:

20 Nov 01 | Arts
Prince opens 31m galleries
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