On Tuesday 18th November the BBC Concert Orchestra will be performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Trish Clowes, Norma Winstone and Guy Barker as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. It is also being broadcast live on BBC3. My contribution was to produce a narrative for Guy’s new composition. An outline of that will appear in the concert programme, but this a more comprehensive version of what went into the creation of his Soho Symphony.
Earlier this year, I received a phone call from Guy Barker, saying he had a hankering to write a new orchestral piece for the BBC Concert Orchestra (he is Associate Composer there). However, he was staring at a blank page and needed a framework. We have done this before, with dZf, a re-working of the Magic Flute, and last year That Obscure Hurt, a Henry James/Britten-inspired piece. I give Guy a narrative; he builds his music around it. This time all he had was ‘Soho’ as a theme.
Guy wanted to mention and somehow reference in the piece some of his formative and favourite places and people and we came up with a very long list, most of which involved alcohol (often at the much-lamented Black Gardenia, above) or music or frequently both. And so I wrote a short story that is (very, very loosely) inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, about a boy failing to meet a girl and spending 24 hours wandering around the streets of Soho, among its ghosts, its music and its memories. Of course, once subjected to the alchemy of Guy Barker, where base stories become musically precious, things changed. So here is a guide to the thematic waymarkers in the piece, which consists of seven (part six is divided into two) sections.
- BACON & BOHEMIA
I opened the story with our hero living in Fitrovia and being disturbed by the smell of breakfast:
“I am always woken early by the smell of bacon, climbing the stairs from the kitchen below, wafting under the door like a fog of temptation, tickling my nose. So I always awake with a craving for a bacon butty. But I don’t mind the premature start today. I have a date with a beautiful woman. 8am. Bar Italia.”
But it is well before the appointed hour and in this section Guy conjures up a stroll through the streets of Soho before sunrise. Bottles roll in the gutters, the garbage trucks patrol the alleys, many of the area’s characters are just waking up, others going to bed – some tired and happy, others reflecting on a night gone awry. The boy wanders down Wardour St, killing time, looking at film posters in the production houses, listening to the ‘dawn chorus’ chatter of stall-holders in Berwick St, until it is time for coffee on Frith St.
- MOZART & MOCHA
The music here takes on a frantic quality. On the way to Bar Italia for his rendezvous he confronts the tide of workers rushing into the area, marching to their desks and workstations and shop floors, a mass of humanity on the move, blocking and knocking him, until he turns the corner sees Bar Italia (and the music takes on a touch of Fellini-esque romance).
A dominant 7th chord announces his sanctuary in this slice of La Dolce Vita, with cheeky Italian barmen serving him ‘the best espresso in town’. And serving it again. And again. No girl yet. More coffee? Why not?
Nerves jangling from too much caffeine, he leaves the bar and looks up, noticing the blue plaque declaring that a young Mozart once lived on Frith St. Here, the orchestra gradually falls away to leave a string quartet, which plays 12 bars derived a short Mozart piano piece composed by Mozart when was four.
His limbs jerky from his espresso-overload, the boy struts up Frith, past Ronnie Scott’s, Garlic & Shots, the Dog & Duck, until he comes to Soho Square, and thinks of Fifis.
- FAITH & FIFIS
A ‘Fifi’ was the slang name for the working girls, often of French or Belgian extraction (or pretending to be), who inhabited Soho in the pre- and post-war years.
“I light a cigarette and lean against the railings outside Église Protestante Française de Londres, the last Huguenot church in London. Would the Fifis have worshipped here? Probably not, most of those girls who came over in the ‘30s, 40s and ‘50s would have been Catholic, I guess. I look across to St Patrick’s, where maybe the Fifis confessed their sins and along to the House of St Barnabas, once a charitable organization for émigrés run by nuns, then, post-WW2, a women’s hostel, where I am sure the odd Fifi would have fetched up.”
These thoughts on religion are suggested by a brass chorale. But it moves on to something darker, for Soho in the thirties had its own version of Jack the Ripper or the Boston Strangler – a serial killer was at work, with victims in Archer, Lexington, Rupert, Old Compton and Wardour streets, all strangled with their own silk stockings. “Jack the Strangler” was never caught.
Musing on this, he sees the ghosts of the dead Fifis, grey, pale-faced corpses. As the instruction to the orchestra on the score has it: ‘Soho Square has become an open air charnel house’.
- RHYTHM, BLUES & BEYOND
What Guy calls a ‘psychedelic’ start signals a section where the boy is moving from Soho Square, considering drowning his sorrows at being stood up, and thinking of all the drinking and music clubs in Soho. But on his travels he comes across Jeffery Bernard, furious at just being barred from the Colony Room, who marches him to the Coach & Horses, where Norman, the rudest landlord in London, plies them with gin and insults. Further enraged by the drink, Jeff marches off (which you’ll hear clearly in the music) and ‘borrows’ a window cleaner’s ladder. He takes it to outside 41 Dean St and leans it against the first floor window. He scuttles up it. Bangs on the glass. When the window is open he addresses those (the Bacons and the Farsons) gathered within: ‘You are all a bunch of…’
And off Jeff goes, sliding down the ladder and marching off again, the young man in tow. Here, a bluesy 12/8 section suggests the other type of club in Soho, the music ones, especially the Flamingo, and Georgie Fame’s R&B all-nighters.
They pass by Kettner’s, where two men dressed in black are at work – Kenny Clayton is playing stride piano, Bill Mitchell singing. From there Jeff doubles back, heading for Jerry’s, the other famous Soho haunt of the alcoholically adventurous, and when he reaches it, there is a slowing of the music, signalling his now weary descent down the stairs into the warm, crepuscular embrace of the drinking den.
- GIG & GIRLS
Later, much later, there is a head that needs clearing, and our boy walks towards Archer St, which he finds populated by musical ghosts. As it is explained in the story:
“From the twenties through to the sixties, jazz musicians would crowd this street. Wall to wall it was. The snooty London Orchestral Association had it headquarters there. And they wouldn’t allow dance band musicians in. Too populist, you see. But outside, in this street here, it was like a musicians’ Labour Exchange. You wanted a gig or to get paid or to hear the gossip, you came down here.”
So you will hear this in a section reminiscent of the bright, optimistic hustle and bustle of a Pathé News reel, as the musicians crowd the streets, shooting the breeze and a line, until.. hold the phone, what’s this? Romance – or at least sex – has raised its pretty head in the score.
Archer St, you see, intersects with Windmill St, and musicians always used for the doorways that allowed them to see the famous Windmill Girls come and go. There were other women there, too. As Ronnie Scott put it years later: “These days you’d call them groupies. Back then we just thought of them as jolly good sports.”
Fired up by such thoughts, the lad, still the worse for wear, hightails it back to Dean St and Sunset Strip, one of the few remaining original strip club for which the area was once notorious. What you might call “Music To Disrobe By” is a feature in this section, with appropriate – or perhaps inappropriate – contributions from the orchestra.
- A GIRL, A GARDENIA & A GAGGIA
a. A PEARL ON DEAN
Sobriety brings self-loathing. He doesn’t want to see girls, naked or otherwise he wants to see A particular girl.
Leaving the club, he sprints up Dean St, towards the Black Gardenia where he first met her, and BOOM! There she is, standing outside in all her tattooed glory. They speak, sweetly.
And he discovers he has been an idiot. When she said she’d meet him ‘a week today’ for an early coffee, it was well after midnight – but he was thinking of the previous day, when he had started the evening. He had turned up at the Bar Italia 24 hours too early.
After a drink at the Gardenia, they go back to Frith St, where those cheeky barmen are still serving the best espresso in town.
b) ESPRESSO SUNRISE
And so, exactly 24 hours after he left his flat in Fitzrovia, they walk out of the Bar Italia together, into the promise of a Soho dawn. The day has come full circle, and so has the piece.