From the Herald - Wednesday 27th March 2013
Robb composes himself for opera success
Perthshire-based composer Graham Robb has scored a notable transatlantic success with his Flora and the Prince opera about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape from the Duke of Northumberland’s troops following the battle of Culloden. Originally invited to write the piece as a short opera for a festival held at Carnegie Hall, New York last October, as reported in The Herald, Robb has been encouraged to expand the work into a full opera. An international cast including American soprano Laura Pedersen, South African mezzo Julie Martin-Cartin and Icelandic baritone Astmar Olafsson has signed up to perform the work and with interest having been expressed from receiving houses in Scotland, Europe, the U.S. and Central America, Robb is now seeking support to finance its development and production through crowd-funding and has set up a kickstarter web page to enable interested parties to get behind the project.
From the Herald - Wednesday 8 August 2012
If you want to get to Carnegie Hall – practise!...runs the old New York tourist-guide gag. Graham Robb, however, has found an alternative route.
As a professional musician of many years' standing, Robb has certainly put in the hours, and having written music throughout his career, he's no stranger to having fellow players read his dots on their music stands. But his gig in the Carnegie Hall complex in October will be his first in the guise of opera composer.
"It's an opera short that I've been asked to write – ten minutes of music – and the concert I'll be contributing to is actually taking place in the Carnegie's Zankel Hall, which is a 600-or-so capacity room that opened just a few years ago and has become one of the places to hear chamber music in New York," says Robb, a classically trained double bassist whose CV encompasses symphonic works, television shows including Thingummyjig, jazz-rock gigs on bass guitar, and teaching at school and college levels.
"But it's still the Carnegie Hall and it's a tremendous opportunity to put my work in a shop window, if you like, where the potential customers include the movers and shakers on the New York arts scene. I really can't wait, although there's still work to be done on the music itself and in finding funding sources to make the trip financially possible."
Birnam-based Robb's shot at the New York big time came through his website, which is hosted by an American music industry forum and invites participants to listen to and assess each other's music. Having logged on for some time to be met by good quality but rather all-purpose country rock, he was taken aback one day when in among the guitars and songs about cars and bars, an operatic soprano came soaring out of the ether.
He made contact with the owner of this voice and discovered that in addition to her vocal talent, Monica Hart runs a theatre company in New York, the Remarkable Theater Brigade. She also has major input into an opera company in Nevada and has contacts in Kansas. This, as well as the possibility of cable TV coverage for the Carnegie Hall concert, could lead to Robb's work touring beyond 57th Street.
"We corresponded back and forth for a while and then my wife and I decided to stop over in New York en route to Florida on holiday and I arranged to meet up with Monica," says Robb, who gave up his last teaching job, at Glenalmond College, to concentrate on composing. "I took along some music she hadn't heard, some settings of e e cummings poems that I'd done for an Edinburgh Fringe show last year, and half-way through the third song she asked if I'd like to write a short opera. The idea is that it'll be one of a series of six ten-minute pieces, all in different styles, that will form a showcase of new work."
Aside from the cummings project, Robb's composing experience up to now has been mainly in school shows – he co-wrote the cummings show with a former colleague from Glenalmond, Bob Robinson – and in jazz-rock.
He was bass guitarist with the trail-blazing Scottish jazz-rock band Head in the early 1970s and went on to form the larger-scale ensemble Windjammer and his own jazz-rock band, Highland Express.
"Before Head came along I hadn't twigged that music could actually be written by ordinary human beings," he says. "John Davies, the band's trumpeter and electric pianist, wrote some quite complex pieces for us and I decided to give it a go.
"We actually still play the first number I wrote, Liquid Biscuit [which refers to Guinness, if your correspondent's memory for 1970s jazz-rock trivia serves correctly] in Head2Head, the band that drummer Bill Kyle and I formed to reactivate Head a few years ago and which is still active."But the point was, I realised that if I wrote for Head, I could have my music performed and that's the whole raison d'etre of being a composer. You don't want music lying unplayed in a drawer or on a computer."
He and Robinson have another musical, written around the Burke and Hare story, still awaiting its official debut.
Meanwhile Robb and his librettist on the New York assignment, Jim Stewart, from the creative writing department at Dundee University, are honing and polishing words and music for two, possibly three voices, piano, and string quartet, a line-up that has sent Robb back to his days with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for inspiration – or as he candidly puts it, pinching textures from Ravel, Brahms and Britten.
With a five-day run with Head2Head at the Edinburgh Fringe imminent, Robb is also looking over and refreshing the H2H band book with charts for saxophonists Stewart Forbes and Sam Coombes, trumpeter Cameron Jay, American guitarist Tom Davis, drummer Kyle and himself.
"They're two entirely different styles of writing and there's absolutely no link between them, apart from the fact that I enjoy both," he says. "I really like the challenge of writing within the European classical tradition and have been taking it one step at a time because I want to make the opera as good as it can be. There's no guarantee that this'll lead to anything but there is the possibility of one or more of these shorts – they're kind of like movie trailers – being taken up and the composers being asked to go away and come back with the full work. Whatever happens, though, it's still a gig in Carnegie Hall and I'm feeling pretty chuffed about that."
Graham Robb plays with Head2Head at the Jazz Bar, Edinburgh from August 13-17.
Here is the BROADWAY BABY review of our 2012 Edinburgh Fringe show at the Jazz Bar, Chambers Street, Edinburgh:
"Head2Head is a jazz-rock group with a fantastic sound and a range of styles, from classic to contemporary."
"The band has a penchant for upbeat bouncy melodies that make the audience want to get up and dance..."
"The brass players really excel at their craft and produce a strong sound with lots of gumption. Their fingers move so quickly over the keys that the years of training and performances that have gone before are obvious."
"Head2Head provides lovely music that really knocks your socks off."
and here is the SCOTSMAN review of our 2012 Edinburgh Fringe show at the Jazz Bar, Chambers Street, Edinburgh...
Review: Head2Head, The Jazz Bar (Venue 57) By JIM GILCHRIST
It isn’t every night you hear extracts from opera or ballet resounding from the crammed stage of the Jazz Bar.
Mind you, high-trilling divas or expiring swans were notable by their absence; instead the music was delivered by a punchy brass’n’reed front line, driven by drums, guitar and the electric bass guitar of the music’s composer, Graham Robb, revelling in the latest periodic incarnation of his powerful jazz-rock ensemble, Head2Head.
Not An Opera – an ironically titled sequence from a short opera due to be premiered later this year in New York’s Carnegie Hall – turned out to be a full-toned, stately business opened by the eloquent belling of Jay’s trumpet. No Relation did indeed look back, its 1970s funk feel complete with wah-wah guitar stuttering through the riff and Coombes’s alto sax piping shrilly, while powerful statements from Forbes and Jay emerged during Robb’s rumbustious commentary on Italian politics, Bunga Bunga! (Berlusconi wouldn’t have sung along to that one).
...and here's a review of HEAD2HEAD from the Glasgow Herald, as it was still called then, on 24th August, 2000
JAZZ fans have been poorly served this Fringetide. But there's one oasis of swing operating nightly until 3.00am in the Chambers Street vault where, on Tuesdays, memories are being stirred and new adventures pursued.
Bass guitarist Graham Robb and drummer Bill Kyle were the engine room of award-winning 1970s Scots jazz/rock band Head, and they're back with a new team, new tunes, and renewed vigour. The music, mostly Robb's, is written with typical flair, it's emphatic pulse and tough melodicism custom-built for blowing.
The newcomers oblige with style: guitarist Malcolm MacFarlane full of incisive ideas and trumpeter Colin Steele marrying commitment with savvy. Joining Steele in a penetrating frontline is Paul Towndrow, an alto saxophonist of impossible youth, bluesy bustle, great confidence, and huge ambition, a real find for the Scottish jazz scene whom any self-respecting talent spotter should investigate without delay.