Conductor and arranger Eddie Clayton

Conductor and arranger Eddie Clayton

Conductor, arranger and musical director Eddie Clayton is again taking on the mammoth task of acting as musical director for the SA Tattoo in Johannesburg in September. We caught up with him during preparations for the event.

You are the great-grandson of the British composer Horace Barton and come from a long line of musicians. Please tell us more about this.

EC: Yes, my great-grand father was a reasonably famous composer.  My mother still to this day receives a very small Royalties cheque once a year from his compositions.  What I always did find fascinating about him is the fact that his so-called “day job” - back in those days - was to play the honky-tonk piano in the cinemas for silent movies. 

You started your music education at the age of 4. Did you enjoy this or did you feel slightly pressurized by your musical “inheritance”?

EC: I honestly never felt any pressure.  Both my parents were musicians and I took to music like a fish to water.  I think what made it easier for me was the fact that I took part in ensemble groups from a very young age.  For me, making music together is the ultimate art form, both from a social aspect, as well as from a satisfaction aspect - and the feeling of creating something beautiful.  (It was also a great way to meet girls…)  I was also fortunate to be very involved in sport, which was my other great passion and again, for me, to maintain that balance was crucial. 

You started your professional career as principal trumpeter in the SA Army Senior Staff Band, then switched to French horn. Is it easy for brass musicians to switch from one brass instrument to another?

EC: Allow me to digress for a moment.  The piano has always been my main instrument. In primary school my then music teacher (the wonderful Mr Robert Walsh) taught me piano and clarinet.  I pursued this for about 3 years, after which there came a vacancy in the then, WITS Youth Orchestra under the direction of Prof Allan Solomon.  My father rushed out and bought me a trombone and got me a tutor that very same day!  I remained the principal trombone player in the WITS orchestra for 4 years.  It was at this time that the trumpet began sounding more appealing to me.  I made the switch and was extremely glad that I did, as the smaller mouthpiece seemed to suit my embouchure better.  This then took me through to my days in the military.  It was at this time that a post opened up for a French horn player, something that had always appealed to me, as the sound of a horn (when played correctly) is simply mesmerising.  The mouthpiece on the horn is very similar to that of the trumpet and so is the breath control, so the transition was fairly quick.  I still play the trumpet on a regular basis.

To finally answer your question, all the brass instruments work roughly on the same principal.  The greatest difference being the varying sizes of the mouthpieces.     

During your early career in the SA Army Senior Staff Band you became more interested in arranging, composing and conducting, which led to a whole new chapter in your career. Please tell us more about how this side of your career developed?

EC: I’ve always been fascinated by arranging and composing and at the time, there was a great need for young arrangers and/or conductor’s and I was identified very early in my career as a potential director of music.  I was then “fast tracked” and subsequently became one of the youngest ever Directors of Music. 

You had many opportunities to develop yourself as musician, arranger, composer, conductor during your time in the military service (1993-2006). Do you think your career would have developed differently had you not joined the service?

EC: Absolutely yes! The military is the main reason I am where I am today.  It was the perfect “canvass” for me to cut my teeth on.  One has a full band at one’s disposal, on which to “experiment” with arranging, and then immediately hear the piece with all its mistakes, etc.  I learned practically everything I know about arranging in the military.  Furthermore, there were wonderful mentors who guided me and allowed me the opportunities. 

You have been involved - as arranger, composer, conductor and musical director - in orchestral work, opera and musicals and the yearly SA Tattoo. Do you find people take you less seriously as a “classical” musician because you have worked in several genres?

EC: Not really -  in fact, the contrary.  I think people respect this fact.  There will always be your “purists” who stick to one genre and very often do it very well.  I think it boils down to one’s attitude towards your fellow musicians and in particular competency in all the various genres.  I learn and grow as a musician whether I’m conducting the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra or conducting the Massed Pipes and bands at the Tattoo.
As resident Musical Director for the annual South African Tattoo, why do you think this event is so popular?

EC: Historically tattoos around the world have that certain X Factor and a slightly mysterious and nostalgic feel to them.  Our Tattoo is no exception. The sheer scale and size of the event is I think what draws the crowds out in their thousands.  There is also the attraction of the unknown.  People never quite know what exactly to expect coming to the SA Tattoo.  Furthermore, we attract some spectacular international acts to our borders.  The precision Swiss Drum Corps, Top Secret, is a classic example of this.  They are back by popular demand for the second time to come and knock the socks off of our audiences.

What is your biggest challenge as MD of this event – apart from watching the weather forecast?

EC: Where do I start?  I would have to say it is choosing and deciding on the correct and appropriate music.  Something that will capture the audiences’ imagination and keep them glued to their seats.  I fortunately don’t make these decisions alone and have the backing and advice of the arguably the most phenomenal team of people.  Then the sheer volume of music that has to be arranged, distributed and rehearsed comes in a very close second to my challenges.       

Why do you think so few women play brass instruments?

EC: That’s a very good question! In one word possibly…stigma?  As it happens I actually know and work with a lot of female brass players.  I think that they are very often better than us men ., e.g. the Principal Horn for the JPO … a woman; the Principal Tuba player for the JFO … a woman.   

What is you next big project after the Tattoo?

EC:  I still have a very big year ahead.  Probably my two biggest projects for the year would be conducting and doing musical direction on Die Skepping Oratorium at the State Theatre and then I’m in Cape Town at Artscape for the month of October conducting and doing musical direction on Ons Vir Jou.

Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler
Published 12.08.2013

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