Coales' Notes: Time gentleman, please: Voices unite: Gordon Coales organises an unlikely Christmas collaboration

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The Independent Culture
TUESDAY: Head down, I have decided, for the time being (putting aside all other problems) to devote myself to getting this one project through. It's looking very good on paper:

'NEW CHORAL WORK FOR CHRISTMAS - COMPOSER INSPIRED BY 'REGULARS' FROM LOCAL PUB. On 24 December 1993, as part of its Christmas Eve Midnight Service, St Dennis's Church, with Ars Longa, present the world premiere of GOAT CHORALES by Augustine Beeson.

'The music of Augustine Beeson is no stranger to the use of unusual sources. His massive piece for orchestra, Jamming - the hit of the 1988 Proms - was a two-hour variation on the old Albanian jamming signal, once such a familiar sound to listeners of Radio 3 medium wave. Now, with Goat Chorales, Beeson has done it again.

'The composer explains: 'The Goat in question is my local, in fact it's just over the road from my flat - and at turning-out time on Friday and Saturday nights, while lying in bed, it has often become impossible for me to ignore the voices rising from the street below. A form of song this certainly is, but strikingly free from conventional musical values and structures. So often, the melodic line seems to hover like a distant memory beneath the emphatically foregrounded texture and timbre of the voices; sometimes a solo voice will break away into quite a different direction; sometimes a succession of loud crashes establishes an intermittent counter-rhythm. And although these sounds proved intractable to any precise notation - Messiaen himself, I believe, would have put down his pen in despair - after many months, I realised I had absorbed them into my nervous system. As a composer, I felt impelled to respond.'

'Beeson evolved the piece - a setting of seven traditional carols - in close cooperation with regulars from The Goat. It is a loosely structured work, allowing for a wide margin of improvisation. We are convinced that Goat Chorales, is destined to join the long line of English Christmas choral favourites.

'St Dennis's is well-known for its longstanding commitment to new and live music. Ars Longa and Augustine Beeson are especially proud to have this opportunity of participating in its Christmas Eve Service.'

All we have to do now is square it with the rector.

THURSDAY: I met Beeson in the church cafe. I told him I thought it best to introduce the concept quite gradually - the great thing was to emphasise 'world premiere'. Then the rector joined us.

He was much taken with the title. 'The goat. Now the goat, I have often felt, is an animal perhaps unfairly excluded from the Christmas story, as it has come down to us - but whom we should also welcome to the manger.'

I stressed that St Dennis's would be host to the world premiere of the work - we were hoping to get the Radio 3 Music In Our Time people along; there might even be the chance of a recording. He said: 'How marvellous. And one could say, how appropriate. Because the birth of Christ was itself, as it were, a world premiere - the world premiere to end all world premieres.' It seemed the moment to take the plunge.

We carefully outlined the idea of the piece to him. He nodded deeply. Then he said to Beeson: 'Well, how marvellous, and also how appropriate, at this season of great festivity, and great revel, that your drinking companions from over the way will be, as it were, amongst us - in spirit.'

There was an exchange of glances. I said no, the idea actually was that they would be amongst us, as it were, in person - in the church. Beeson added: 'The men would be 40-strong, roughly.' The rector eyed us beadily. We grinned. Then he said: 'Ah. How . . . tremendous. So - and will they have had a drink?'

I said it was no good there being any misunderstanding about this. The men would be fresh from a night at the pub. It was intrinsic to the conception of this work for Christmas Eve that it should be performed by an amateur choir who were, not to put too fine a point on it, to a man, fighting drunk. He kept his face remarkably well.

Beeson came in: 'But I think Gordon has raised an important question here. Because after closing time, the men plan to process on foot through the streets between The Goat and St Dennis's. Now the distance I have calculated at one and three-quarter miles. And we can expect the night air to be cold. So there is this logistical point. It may be necessary for the men to have a 'top up', on their arrival in the church.'

I added that of course Ars Longa would undertake to supply as much drink as might be required here. The rector replied: 'Yes. Well I daresay we shall all need one.' But I think he likes it.