Remembering 'Simoraine'

Every Father's Day I think about funeral music, a theme that's played through my mind ever since October 1997, when I heard the pieces that my musician father, Clive Barraclough, had selected for his final 'appearance'.

That bright and brittle day a water main burst in the centre of Huddersfield and the funeral cars were diverted through the vertiginous village of Scapegoat Hill. Unplanned, we drove past dad's first home, first school, and the practice rooms of his first brass band. Dad joined Scapegoat Hill Brass Band as a small but precocious nine-year-old, already good enough to play baritone horn with the grownups.

Most of Dad’s family were musical. My grandma worked as a mender in the slowly failing textiles industry but also gave piano lessons in an effort to “see both sides of the coin”, as thrifty living was known. In his teens, Dad joined the Coldstream Guards, got to see a fair chunk of the world, and played at various state ceremonies including The Changing of the Guard.

My childhood home was full of records. My sister Lorraine and I worked our way through Dad’s eclectic collection, devising our own ‘sitting room ballets’ to Holst’s Mars or Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring. Our choreography was fairly rough: these performances didn’t make me want to become a dancer or conductor; they made me want to become a Hollywood stunt man.

For various lamentable reasons, I hadn’t seen Dad very often over the previous 15 years and his sudden death was a jarring chord in the background music of our lives. I wasn’t sure I should even be at the funeral. I felt I hadn’t tried hard enough to patch things up, despite our recent letters.

As he lay there in the chapel, my sister kissed him on the cheek and I fought my emotional paralysis to touch his hands, crossed upon his rather dapper waistcoat. At that moment I would have loved him to fire some sarcastic quip at me but later on in the service, his musical choices spoke eloquently enough.

The first piece to seep out of the chapel’s modest speakers was the slow, honeyed intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. My uncle tells me this is a family favourite, although I know it best from Raging Bull and the poignant super-8 flashbacks that conjure Jake La Motta’s brief golden years.

If his first choice moved me, the second piece struck me like a blow from La Motta. Two and a half minutes of rousing, restless brass band music, weaving in a couple of muted melodic passages and sprinting towards a triumphant ending.

I had almost forgotten this great march. Simoraine was named after me and my sister Lorraine and is the most successful of my Dad’s compositions. Where Cavalleria Rusticana is good for a montage of memories for somebody I never knew, Simoraine provides the score to a series of short films about children, parents and music that are always playing somewhere in my mind’s multiplex.

In one, I creep towards the closed door of Dad’s composing room. I can just about hear the scratching of metal nib on paper lined with orderly staves, the lines hand-rolled with a special tool dipped in black India ink. The ink jar seems to swallow light, the liquid within sticky as coagulating blood. To knock this jar over would be a capital crime. I want the door to open.

The awfulness of bedtime approaches. The hinge of the bureau creaks and the wooden desk lid snaps shut. Sometimes he emerges with a smile of progress, sometimes an angry and exhausted frown. Composing is like that. Writing music by hand used to be called “dry nacking”, a term that rings of the knacker’s yard. There’s no need for it these days, it’s all done with software.

One evening the dog goes barmy when a journalist and photographer arrive from The Huddersfield Examiner. They’re here to take Dad’s photo and talk to him about this new march, which has already won first prize in four local competitions. Dad wears a tight-fitting beige sweater. He’s still young and lean, about 30, a sparkle of ambition in his eye, a keen edge to the planes of his face.

The photographer insists on a rather clichéd pose, at his writing desk, gazing into the middle distance, quill touching his lip. This picture is framed and graces the mantelpiece in our home and his future homes.

What prompted him to take up composing, they ask? He says he “just wanted to give it a go” and “hopes to do it professionally”. This piece does make him a little money. It’s embraced by bands around the world and is recorded by one of the giants of the county, The Black Dyke Mills Band.

The first time I encounter Lockwood Band, where Dad was principal euphonium, I find the bandsmen splendid in their livery; piped and braided and smart as tightly skinned snare drums. They open musty, velvet-lined cases and slot their instruments together with the precision of cinema hit men: sliding out pistons, oiling valves with spit, slipping them back into their chambers and loosening up the keys with lightning fast fingers. They could do all this blindfold and be ready for the conductor’s baton taps in 30 seconds flat.

The double bass players are especially awesome: Atlases, the foundations of each musical edifice. The muscular curves of the mighty bass horns curl like constrictors, limbs and tubes intertwine and mouthpieces meld with lips. In full flight, they seem inseparable, an alloy of copper, zinc and flesh. The instruments might be keeping the players alive, providing them with oxygen in return for music.

Soon enough, Dad wants me to play too, and an ancient B-flat cornet is procured from some member of the ranks. It’s so old that its leather case is as limp as chicken skin but I like the beautiful engravings on the bell. At the other end, the mouthpiece is pinched and bitter and strangles my attempted notes at birth.

I join Lockwood Junior Band and sometimes I play second or even first cornet, but I’m happiest plodding along with the third cornet parts. I’m uneasy in the band, can’t keep time with the jokes and the antics of the other boys. I envy the way they seem to breeze through the sheet music.

But watching Dad in his element was a joy. Although afflicted by nerves, he was a tremendous soloist, composer and arranger. He formed a small ensemble called The Brass Monkeys and arranged pop songs and standards, filling many a club and gathering a loyal fan base. He continued to compose but the newspaper clippings and royalty cheques thinned out over time.

Simoraine is still played around the world by school, amateur and professional bands. A friend says he “likes the way it moves from Star Wars to the Hovis theme tune in the space of a few bars”. Another thinks it has the prototype “loud-quiet-loud” structure of a Pixies song.

There are several videos of Simoraine on Youtube and in one, filmed at the annual Whit Friday Contest, the camcorder pans around to the audience as the march draws to its climax. Dad would have been delighted to see the smiles on their faces and hear the wave of applause that meets the final note.

Funny how you never shake off these early inspirations, early fears, early challenges: this week I'm taking a trumpet exam. Jazz. Perhaps my first music exam ever (I think I managed to dodge them through school). Today I'll think of dad as I tackle my improvised solos for 'Moonglow' and 'It's Me O Lord', but I'll have 'Simoraine' in mind as well.

To hear 'Simoraine', click below.

[A version of this piece was first broadcast, with music, on BBC Radio 3's The Verb on October 24th 2008]