A collaboration between Homo Promos and the London Gay Symphony Orchestra for World AIDS Day 1998.
A two hour piece for orchestra, choir, six soloists and narrator. Loosely based on the fourteen Stations of the Cross.
Homo Promos started a connection with the London Gay Symphony Orchestra (LGSO) in 1996, when we promoted the players in a concert for the Pride Arts Festival. We were keen that the orchestra should explore works by gay composers or of particular interest to lesbians and gay men.
Our first concert promotion featured a rewritten version of ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’. Our second, in 1998, had the famous piano duo Nettle and Markham as guest stars who played the Poulenc Double Piano Concerto and topped it off with an outrageously camp Theme and Variations on ‘I am What I Am’ ‐ Gloria Gaynor meets Padarewski.
The concert also showcased the ballet score ‘The Triumph of Neptune’ by the wildly eccentric and gay Lord Berners, and two pieces by composers in the orchestra, Robert Ely’s ‘Dance Suite from Boudicca’ and Patrick Nunn’s ‘Un Chant d’Amour ‐ Part One’. It was conducted by Robin Gordon‐Powell.
This was followed by a specially written piece for World AIDS Day, ‘Free: an anti‐Requiem’ at Spitalfields Market Opera on 29 November 1998. Three circumstances led to this. At the time the custom was for choirs and orchestras to perform Requiems of various kinds for WAD, and I objected to this both on the grounds that many lesbians and gay men were not Christian, and indeed regarded Christianity as savagely homophobic.
I also wanted in some way to mark the passing of Simon Kennett, who had played in many early Homo Promos productions, and who had died from AIDS about three months before the idea of an ‘anti‐Requiem’ came about. At the time, my head was full of images of his final days: Simon sitting on a commode sorting out his friends' lives on a mobile phone; the startling yellow of the jaundice against the purple of the Kaposi’s Sarcoma; the steady rasp of breath during the wait that never seemed to end.
It also happened that there was a Composer’s Group within the orchestra, who all wanted to write something for WAD. Originally, they were going to have a competition, but it seemed a shame to pit members of what was meant to be a supportive group, against each other. Composer Patrick Nunn put the dilemma to me so I suggested that I could write something which would fall into sections and each composer could write a section.
As there were seven composers, I had to come up with a piece which had seven sections. At first, I could only think of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but I suddenly realised that there were fourteen Stations of the Cross, and fourteen was divisible by seven. This gave me the hook on which to hang the concept of the show. It also gave the composers involved some scope as to which bits they would choose.
‘Free’ follows the last three days in the life of a gay man from the moment he enters hospital. (The hospital I had in mind was the Royal Free in Hampstead, where Simon died.) To him come his lover, his parents, and his friends. Since Simon was a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (Sister Jack-Off-All-Trade-and Master-of Nuns), a group of gay male nuns active in London at the time, the friends were nuns on roller skates who sang a glorious parody which went from Handel to Gospel via Monteverdi, courtesy of Warwick Thompson's music.
I was desperately concerned that this should not be a gloomy or negative piece despite the subject matter and framework. The point was that Simon’s death should bring reconciliation (between parents and lover), acceptance, some joyful moments, and peace. In short, it should be a ‘Good Death’, and Simon (the character Simon) should be an exemplar to others both in life and death. Without recourse to God.
So behind the piece there is the Zen‐like concept of becoming free by giving up the things of the world ‐ the material objects, even the ties of friendship and love ‐ to achieve the realisation that we are all finally alone, and in that realisation to find peace.
I also wrote in a stand‐alone number for a comedy Irish Nurse (Station 10 ‐ Jesus is Stripped of His Garments), the idea being that if we could, we would get a big‐name star to guest in something she could learn easily by herself and ‘drop in’ to the rest of the evening. I asked Dame Felicity Lott, but got a very dusty card in reply, saying “I can’t imagine any singer of my acquaintance wanting to sing the words you have written for her. I have tremendous sympathy for the people who are suffering from this terrible disease, but this is not the way to attract a wider audience ‐ quite the reverse.”
I had never thought of her as in any a way a prude, but evidently, she found the mixture of flirtatiousness and cheerful acceptance of bodily functions and gay male sexuality a bit too much to swallow. Incidentally, the Nurse was based on a real nurse.
Though we didn’t get a star singer for that number, we were fortunate to have Simon Callow as the narrator. Simon regularly finds time between his many film, TV, writing and Theatre commitments to both support gay causes and champion new and off‐beat music. Needless to say, he needed no direction, just to be given his marks and left to get on with it. A sweetie, not a luvvie.
Writing with seven different composers presented many challenges. They all worked in different ways; some had no problems setting words, others wanted to work on words and music together with me, and one really wasn’t comfortable with writing music for words at all. That is why Stuart Lane wrote Station 12 ‐ Jesus Dies, which was the only Section without words; I gave him some imagery of release ‐ the birds flying over the Heath ‐ but there are some places where words simply cannot go.
The logistics of the exercise were also hugely complicated. The individual scores had to be combined, and some composers didn’t have access to composing software. The parts had to be written and distributed so this was done by composer Robert Ely who also conducted and contributed an additional short Epilogue, making him the only composer with three sections. Unfortunately, his composition program at the time wasn’t compatible with Sibelius or any other software, so the score isn’t available in electronic form as far as I know.
The choir was another problem, being put together from a variety of other choirs, and rehearsals being plagued by non‐appearances and drop‐outs. In the event we had to supplement it by paying a few music students who ‘beefed up’ the choir by sight‐reading on the day.
But we got through it. The reaction from the 350‐strong audience was tremendous ‐ on the demo CD we made, the applause lasts a good seven minutes. Listening to it now, the playing and choral singing in places is frankly ropey and threatens at moments to come apart despite Robert Ely’s heroic efforts to keep everything together. Sometimes I think he held it together purely by will’power. So, I think the applause is for the fact that we managed to pull it off at all ‐ a two‐hour piece which utilised 100 players, 50 singers, and a large backstage crew.
It is the biggest single thing that Homo Promos has ever done. No, we haven’t released that CD! But I would love to see this piece have a professional performance and recording.
This piece may be available for other performances, subject to the permissions of the composers.
If you are interested in performing it, please contact email@example.com
Running time is 2 hours 5 minutes, plus interval.