• Barry Guy
  • Songs from Tomorrow (1975)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the BBC

  • 111(bcl)1/1110/perc/pf/str(
  • 28 min

Programme Note

Songs from Tomorrow was commissioned by the BBC for the London Sinfonietta and first performed at the British Music Week in Munich on 25 November 1975.

The idea for the piece cam from the poem BITZ! by Paul Rutherford, the trombonist/composer, in which he writes of a true situation: on Charing Cross station late one evening a woman in a destitute state, dressed in a shabby raincoat and dilapidated hat and carrying bags in each hand full of useless articles, began shouting BITZ! She would walk about shouting, then stop motionless. She would approach bystanders to talk, but unanimously they chose to ignore her approaches.

eyes called
and nothing answered -
not even
the resident drunks.
eyes and mind (somewhere)
in the dark hall
and nothing answered -
not even time.
(fainter this time - we think)
and (thank god)
our indifference
is sufficient
to send
our sister away

The stage is set in the first section (piano solo) to portray the Charing Cross incident. The conductor (in tails) represents success, establishment, a figure-head; the pianist, dressed shabbily, represents the old woman. The conductor also represents the people who chose to ignore her as she pleaded for conversation.

The conductor and pianist vie for the grand piano, the conductor presuming it as his natural right, while the pianist (the old lady) becomes fascinated by its grandeur and also its possibilities as a means of communication. 'She' arrives ahead of the conductor, who cannot admit that her reasons for wishing to play the instrument are an expression of her feelings, divorced from pride, class and snobbishness. He prefers hastily to take the alternative, the diminutive toy piano. Irony reigns as the old lady expresses her natural self (melancholy tune, broken by violent outbursts), while the conductor, faced with a second-best situation, tries to emulate her activities with the object of beating her into submission. Eventually his own subconscious neuroses come to the surface, and he himself breaks down.

The conductor also has a duel rôle: standing on his rostrum he is a preacher, trying to gain an audience for his parable. But he always fails, and he even forgets his own story; his few listeners remind him of the old lady's words, to which he replies: 'who?'

In this opening section the marching bands (offstage and onstage) also have two rôles: first, that of the people who chose to ignore the old lady, characterised by the march, the decadent waltz sequence and the unity of the band; and second, an evangelical rôle - they play a rousing tune to help captivate the conductor's (preacher's) audience. Far too late he realises that the implications are evil, and after an attempt at taking control of the bands he finds himself faced with a hostile environment that ignores him. His grand hopes of success are quashed. he finally gives up the struggle and returns to the toy piano defeated, retiring into obscurity to remember his own teachings.

The second section (cello solo) looks back in time, and is a comment on the broken love-affair that started the old lady on the path to destitution:

i cannot
talk to you
i am
your song.

if you've
my whereabouts
sing your song
and i will remember.

In the third section the clarinet solo characterises the comment on society in the poem:

at my birth
i was dropped
into the middle of a room
and i exploded

parts of me shattered onto
the piano
the bookshelf
and the paintings on the walls
and i absorbed
their accidents
society then demolished
the room
and in the destruction
i was restored -

The poem is interpreted in two ways: as a comment on society, and as an expression of the other, the old lady's optimism in her hopes for love, her 'birth' being love and its subsequent break-up (the explosion). But from the ashes she looks to starting again ('i was restored - whole'). At first view, it can be seen as a personal expression towards society; but by the end society has manipulated her into a faceless member - a demolished personality.

The final poem ('Blues') is a commentary on the attitudes towards the less fortunate, and on the maxim that everybody has to 'make it' or fall.

smoke stack
salmon plated
key note
plausible positive
vestive conspiracy
mildly replacing
up-joked common-place
whimsy musical
here we go again
uptight aright
you win your life
back again
only this time
make it work out sound
and noble
so's we can maybe all applaud
something nowhere different
as we emote
in nonsense alien tongues
we've all made use of
or nodding acquaintance
obedient malice
making moviemaker
mythmaker quaker oats
salmon plated
smoke stack

This final section integrates the three soloists, who simultaneously try to remember their past materials. Here the story begins again, as the viola feels the need for attainment: he approaches the soloists wanting to join in with their activities. He tries, but is unable to relate to their music; analgous to the broken love-affair, he begins the slow decline and joins the conductor at the toy piano. As the others march off the stage together, the two duet into obscurity.

Although dealing with an essentially distressing subject, the piece is not without humour. In this respect, the composer has attempted to portray a facet of the poet himself. He has also taken into account various requests made by the musicians of the London Sinfonietta, which during the composing of the work added a very personal and enjoyable dimension.
© Barry Guy