Saturday 19 January 2013

Pink Singers - memories of the early years

The Pink Singers in 1986 taken at Burgh House, Hampstead
The Pink Singers in 1986
taken at Burgh House, Hampstead
I was involved with the gay community choir, the Pink Singers as musical director from 1983 to 1988, taking over the choir a few months after it was founded. I got involved almost by accident, as a temporary stop gap, and ended up helping to transform an ad hoc ensemble into a regular performing ensemble and the first gay group to join the National Federation of Music Societies (now Making Music). 30 years on, rather amazingly, the Pink Singers is still going and celebrate their anniversary with a concert at London's Cadogan Hall tonight (19 January 2013)

In 1983 I had been living in London for two years and was a member of the London Philharmonic Choir, which took up a great deal of my time with a minimum of two rehearsals per week. A close friend joined what was billed as London's answer to the New York City Gay Mens chorus, but I just didn't feel I had time or energy. The chorus came about because the gay activist, Brian Kennedy thought it was something London needed and it chimed in with his role in the London Lesbian and Gay Centre which was being planned for Cowcross Street in London (This is another saga, the centre was much anticipated but long delayed)..

Now Kennedy was neither a singer nor a musician, so cabaret artist Mark Bunyan was persuaded to head the choir; and the London Lesbian and Gay Centre didn't exist yet, so they met on Sunday afternoons in Bob Crossman's office in County Hall (Crossman was a member of the Greater London Council and though a non-singer, was a supporter of the choir). All this I heard second hand from my friend in the choir. They were planning to make their first appearance at Gay Pride in 1983.

When Mark Bunyan said that he wanted to hand over the reins to someone else more permanent, there seemed to be a gap, with no-one coming forward to take over. I had directed a community based Church choir whilst living in Scotland, so I offered myself as a stand-in. Rather to my surprise, my offer was accepted and on a rather busy weekend, I had my arm twisted to go along to County Hall.

Having a choir rehearsal in one of the grand rooms in County Hall, full of oak panelling and neo-baroque plasterwork, seemed to be rather an odd event, especially as there was a resident piano. I didn't really participate much in the last couple of rehearsals of the Summer term, but went along to observe and, of course, followed the float when the choir sang at Gay Pride (though my abiding memory is that they were not very audible).

At the last rehearsal of term a split occurred, because quite a few people were more interested in singing for political purposes as one-off events rather then meeting regularly to rehearse. It was agreed to make two groups, one would be an ad-hoc group which gathered for events (I don't think this ever really got off the ground). The second, and far smaller group, was the Pink Singers.

After the summer break, I inherited a much reduced group and numbers were further reduced because of booking problems with our room at County Hall, so that some Sundays there would be no rehearsal. This was not good publicity if we had been advertising for new members in the Gay press.

For the following  year or so we soldiered on at County Hall, rehearsing most Sundays in a variety of locations. Sometimes we had to waste time looking for the piano, which could have been moved anywhere in the building. At other times, the booking procedure would mess up and there would be no room. On one memorable occasion, just before we were due to have a public performance, we had no room and so did our rehearsal on the steps in front of County Hall. The security guards were perfectly amenable, once they had verified that we weren't some sort of protest.

Programme for Pink Singers Xmas Antidote, 1983
Pink Singers Xmas Antidote, 1983
Our first full length concert was at Christmas 1983, when we did our first Christmas Antidote, at University of London Union, I encouraged singers to do solos as well and this became one of our trade-marks. We did a other public performances, thanks to the good offices of the cabaret artist Eric Presland who arranged for us to support him on a couple of gigs. 

I was persuaded to give up accompanying the group and we found an accompanist, whilst I conducted; which I think did improve matters. Moving to the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in Cowcross Street gave us some stability, but the rather haphazard nature of the centre's administration meant that rehearsal space was sometimes as random as before, and I remember quite a few occasions when we ended up rehearsing outside in the garden.

Our annual programme developed into a structure, we had our annual Christmas Antidote concert and a further birthday concert in April, and some sort of appearance at Gay Pride. Added to this we made appearances at various Lesbian and Gay groups in and around London; these provided much needed funds. The venues for these varied, upstairs above a pub with a terrible out of tune piano, Harrow Leisure Centre and even a church in Leytonstone.

Our repertoire varied between political songs and cabaret numbers. The early members of the group included a number of people who felt that the group's raison d'etre was to do a lot of political songs, and there was sometimes a bit of a pull between these and the guys who wanted to be more fun. It was only in the later years, when the group had grown, that the more fun, show-tunes, element became dominant.

This meant that for the first five years we mixed songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter and Tom Lehrer, with rather more pointed music by Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler and Alan Bush. Sometimes it was gratifying to find that audience members had come along especially to hear us sing a rarity by Hanns Eisler. I ended up doing a lot of arrangements, because we just couldn't find the repertoire. Thanks to the good offices of a friend who ran the Percy Grainger Society, I was introduced to the composer Alan Bush and went out to visit him twice at his home in Radlett. A life-long communist, he had written extensively for workers choirs and we came away with a pile of his music which had gone out of print.

Numbers remained quite small, with quite a few Americans passing through which meant that we made all sorts of friends and contacts. Sometimes visitors from the USA would contact us to drop in to rehearsals to be friendly, but finding us rather smaller than the choirs back home.

In the very early years the choir existed mainly because I enjoyed doing it, and had fun writing arrangements for them. If I had lost interest, I think that it might well have folded. All this changed when we ended up with a clutch of resting actors in the group. They provided a fillip in terms of the standard of performance in the solos, as well as the group items. We generally sang from music, as attendance was simply too patchy to get everyone to learn off by heart, but I have to admit that that wasn't something that really interested me.

Pink Singers performing in 1986
Similarly we did experiment with doing choreography, but this was just as tricky with a group whose membership was rather floating. Though I do remember a rather memorable staging of Big Best Shoes which involved rather a large number of hats (bought from a charity shop in Orpington) and 'dresses' made of black plastic bags; the results were probably unintentionally hilarious.

There was no committee as such. The group from the earliest days had been very sociable, going off to the Tea Dances after the rehearsals and sometimes having a meal together in a basement vegetarian restaurant. This metamorphosed into a table at the Fallen Angel pub in Islington and the group who met here turned into an ad hoc committee and sounding board for ideas, a junta rather than a committee.

A recording session for a demo tape (Pink Singers :  Live : or almost a contradiction in terms recorded Juy 1986) proved the turning point when it came to being open entry, we decided that we would in future ask people to sing something as an audition; the background hum of those 'singers' who couldn't hold a   tune was just too disturbing on the recording. (These were affectionately known as the groaners) This proved almost self-selecting as those who could not sing generally did not dare to audition and we never had to turn anyone away.

We were approached by a group of other gay choirs from Europe with the suggestion that we might join them for their annual get together; the 1986 one was in Amsterdam. Most of the other groups did highly staged events, and were quite strongly auditioned. We were rather different. Quite how different became apparent when the director of one of the Amsterdam choirs visited London and came to visit me at my home to find out more about the Pink Singers. I wasn't aware of being auditioned, and though helpful we didn't go out of our way to promote the choir. The result was a letter saying that we weren't good enough, and couldn't join the others in Amsterdam. The other European groups were incensed and we immediately got an invitation to go to the event in Sweden in 1987. This we did, and the result was great fun and we did have some success. On the basis of this, we rather rashly offered to host the 1989 event in London.

From the earliest days the group was open to both women and men, but for the first few years we had mainly men. Occasionally a few women would join, but never enough to form a core and they would drop out again. Only in 1987 and 1988 did we get enough women form a quorum, so that the group no longer felt single sex.

Pink Singers at Burgh House in 1986
Pink Singers at Burgh House
in 1986
During 1986 we did a concert at Burgh House, Hampstead, in which the music was almost entirely serious and classical. In 1988 we celebrated our 5th birthday with a concert at Lauderdale House in Hampstead themed on the year 1936, when we performed Hanns Eisler's cantata Die Mutter alongside lighter music written that year. These two concerts were the high point of my years with the group.

The 1988 European gay choir event was in Berlin. The welcome we received was tremendous, but the venue  was rather large and did not really suit our style of performance, though we did well the choir members came away with a feeling that we had not shown ourselves to our best advantage. Particularly as the other groups contributed some very vividly staged shows, I remember one French group's show being called Le purpur chose de Cairo.

I had encouraged the ad hoc committee to turn itself into a proper one, and with a real committee we became a member of the National Federation of Music Societies with a proper constitution. For the first time ever, the group developed a personality which was independent of mine. A number of singers had traveled to the USA to attend gay choral festivals there, and came back with ideas for music and performance.

This was when the group's identity asserted itself, and I felt that my ideas did not chime in with theirs. I had also started writing music more and was heavily involved in writing my first musical. We parted company after five years, with our accompanist Michael Derrick taking over the choir. I felt that the group had developed a real personality of its own and there was little danger of it stopping. Amazingly I am still in contact with some of the early members and even sing with one or two of them.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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