The Times, May 16, 2008
- Ginny Dougary

Ginny Dougary on the pleasures of writing dirty songs for the Brighton City Singers

Artists, even those who are not fortunate enough to be represented by a gallery, can show their work in art fairs, restaurants and shops. Writers get to see their words in books and magazines. But what of poor composers, many of whom never have the chance to experience their pieces coming to life?

For the past five years, the director of the Brighton City Singers (of which I am a founding member) has commissioned new choral works to be performed at the Brighton Fringe Festival. The results are often challenging, to put it diplomatically, and not all the members embrace the concept quite as enthusiastically as their choir mistress. Our usual repertoire is eclectic – Mozart to Abba, swing, musicals, gospel, Kaiser Chiefs.

As I write, we are in the throes of last-minute – it is always last-minute – organisation for this year’s concert. The theme is Food of Love and the pieces are the most appealing yet. The director has been more ruthless, rejecting anything that does not focus around love, food and sensual combinations of the two. The decorating committee is having fun transforming a rather sterile space into a scene of bacchanalian debauchery: men in togas reciting Shakespeare! Flimsily clad damsels offering grapes and Turkish delight on platters! Oyster shells, champagne bottles and dancers swirling in a half-crazed trance.

The choral pieces range from the lubricious – Pizza in Bed, with its references to gobbling spicy pepperoni, has divided some members of the choir – to the more intriguingly rhapsodic, a sort of electronic South Seas piece, set to a couple of Byron sonnets, with an overlay of African chanting.

There is a mad, madly operatic number about greedy Valkyries and a humorous tale of a food inspector whose job leads to a spectacular dental downfall. And – alas – I am writing this article instead of completing our song, which is a sexy number in the vein of the Bessie Smith “I need a sausage for my roll” genre.

The old blues numbers were shockingly filthy – men were keen to get their bananas into fruit baskets, women longed to get some sugar in their bowls, and both sexes yearned to churn butter and cream. My thought was to have the men champing at the bit – “Baste me in your oven ’til my juices start to flow” and needing their meat to be tenderised and marinated but, for God’s sake, get on with it. While the women would be quite happy for some slow cooking until they’re good and ready for the heat to be turned up for a final explosive blast, so to speak.

My elder son is a composer, as is my partner – but I only started writing the words to songs and choral pieces myself around three years ago. My first stab – a fledgeling musical based on the life and loves of David Blunkett and the Spectator shennanigans – was not dissimilar to my day job as a journalist. Writing an extended profile for The Times involves research. You look for what interests you about the character, clues and hints, as part of a narrative handle. For the musical, the idea was to create a version of actual people in which certain traits were amplified. The composer then used my notes and “read” about the individuals to create a musical character.

The process of editor and writer was reenacted but with an additional layer of me having to find words that would precisely fit the inflexible rhythym of the line. The difficulty arose when a phrase that might sound witty or eloquent when spoken simply would not work when sung. This sometimes led to a creative tug-of-war, with the writer and the composer debating the merits of the words over the music. In my experience (sigh) the music nearly always wins.

The next attempt was a commission by Terence Conran and Bluestorm, the managing committee of Embassy Court – a Modernist building on the Brighton sea front which had been restored to its former glory after years of neglect. What a high when we performed the piece with a 100-odd singers, accompanied by a brass band and a dozen Djembe Divas, as night fell and thousands of people gathered on the Hove lawns, before the fireworks cascaded down from the roof and balconies.

The new piece, juices and all, is still a work in progress and we are running out of time. But if we don’t manage to complete for the Brighton Festival, we will perform the piece for the first time at the Royal Festival Hall as the South London Choir and the Brighton City Singers – hurrah! – have been picked to launch the new season of free choral concerts on June 8. Food and love – well, it is such a winning combination, don’t you think?

Food of Love by the Brighton City Singers and South London Choir is on May 24 2008 at City College Brighton, Pelham Street (01273 709709), 7.30pm. www.brightonfestival.org

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