Harris’s List Project

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

An introduction:

shoeWelcome to the dedicated page for the Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, or Dr. Bosch’s Carnival of the Animals. I am Oscar Colomina i Bosch, the composer who created the concept for the project, has written the music for it and is part of a team of collaborators working towards making its first production happen. The Harris’s List is an artistic project on the writing of a song cycle for guitar and female voice based on texts from the 18th century publication Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies –a guidebook to prostitutes, recently edited by Hallie Rubenhold.  The original list was an immediate overnight success –selling over 5000 copies per year- and became England’s most controversial bestseller.

The project, which has been developed in collaboration with guitarist Jens Franke and visual artist Željana Schönauer, can be staged as a chamber opera or performed as a guitar and voice recital –its format juxtaposing the newly written Harris’s List songs with Mozart lieder and contemporary artwork.

In addition to the above, I am working on developing a further group of songs setting contemporary texts: editing the notorious Berlusconi/D’Addario tapes and excerpts from the diaries of a low-class female pimp in Barcelona. It is hoped that these new songs provide an alternative and contemporary narrative voice, creating a rich, powerful dialogue between all the elements and making the project fully intercontextual.

Harris’s List explores a topic that is both problematic and controversial.  It aims to interrogate a variety of issues relating to prostitution and its wider social context such as the nature and other forms of prostitution, gender inequality, women’s evolving perception of themselves and the role of abuser and victim.  By offering multiple perspectives it is interdisciplinary, cross-gender and illustrates two hundred years of artistic and social history.

The project was awarded a Barbican/GSMD CreativeLab Residency at the Pit Theatre, Barbican, which was offered to workshop and develop the project further. The videos presented below were recorded live at the Pit Theatre in December 2011, as part of the residency programme.


The List’s concept and its aesthetic background:

celeste-3Hallie Rubenhold’s Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies was given to me as a present in 2008 by Jens Franke, with the suggestion of writing some instrumental postcards for him (in the French Baroque tradition of Couperin, Rameau, and others).

At the time, I was finishing my doctoral studies, exploring the way various composers and authors dealt with Post-Modernity, particularly studying the work of Ligeti, Dutilleux, and the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, Eco, Baudrillard and Sébastien Charles. I understood Borges’ famous remark ‘perhaps Universal History is the History of the diverse intonation of a few metaphors’ as a vindication of the same continuity defended by the Russian Formalists when they wrote that ‘new forms come about not to express new contents but in order to replace old forms’.

ocb2Influenced by these ideas, I proceeded to incorporate into my compositional process the translation and actualising of gestures and structures, and to develop a certain variation on the use of collective memory in my works by way of generating a simultaneity of traditions: by having two –or more- pieces or styles interspersed, one allows them to boldly contrast with each other, as living proof of the contemporaneity of traditions that Post-Modernity embodies. This bold conjunction operates the double function of offering both contrast and likeness to the listeners, enhancing the whole artistic experience for everyone involved and opening as many bridges as possible between the work(s) and its audience.

So it is hardly surprising that when I started to develop ideas for Harris’s List in 2010, its core concept became in time something much more complex than a group of instrumental portraits, and of which the Harris’s List texts are only one strand of a multilayered, intercontextual narrative.

In my ‘Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, or Dr. Bosch’s Carnival of the Animals’ (whose name references both to Saint-Saëns carnival, but also the latin quote Homo homini lupus) I include Mozart songs because they were written at the same historical time of Harris, but also because by aligning those two text sources together -which deal with the subject of relationships, love, desire- the meaning of the Mozart lieder is also altered.

anna-3-heartThis technique opens the possibilities of the work and creates a context of multi-layered signification, where ambiguity defines an open work. By using the texts of antecedent authors like objects trouvés that can be situated in a very systematic discourse in order to demonstrate various interpretations and resist closure, we suddenly give a particular social group an expressive voice that has never been acknowledged, nor even today. Prostitutes, too, can be the central characters of Mozart’s music, feel the sensations expressed by those songs as genuinely and purely as anyone.

Another layer, of course, is the cohabitation of the 18th century and my 21st century compositional styles; suddenly, those portraits of women from the 18th century when carefully edited and set to music in a contemporary style seem uncannily real, close to us, contemporary to us. Thus, it is not only the Mozart songs which alter their meaning, but also the Harris’s List texts are transformed by their proximity to the Mozarts and by their contemporary setting.

I am working at the moment on the last strand of this intercontextual tapestry: the addition of present day texts, set to music in contemporary style. I am editing and collating from two sources: the D’Addario/Berlusconi tapes and the diary of a low-class female pimp in Barcelona, to be interspersed with the Mozarts and the already written Harris’s songs. The nature of the protagonists of these contemporary texts and the mention of names such as Putin or Bush in them, is an open question into the ultimate nature of prostitution today.

It is my belief that if the coexistence of various authors, sources and historical times is treated intelligently, beyond it being a mere collage, the powerful dialogue that takes place between all the elements goes in all directions and times, in surprising reciprocity, and acts as a powerful amplifier to the emotional content of the work and its sense of actuality.


The Artwork and Stage Design:

Artist Željana Schönauer has been a collaborator in this project since March, 2011, and she has contributed in number of fronts: by producing a set of beautiful, expressive prints -one for each character- to be projected during the performances, and with personal character analysis of all women portrayed. She has also overseen stage design, making sure the relationship between dress, stage and artwork was unified.


The performers…

I feel fortunate to count with a team of highly-skilled and dedicated, enthusiastic performers, who have contributed to this endeavour with great flair, generosity and talent:

Celeste Cronje, soprano
Anna Huntley, mezzo-soprano

Tom Ellis, guitar
Jens Franke, guitar


….and their performances - Video Material:

See below a few of the videos which were shot live during the residency at the Pit Theatre, Barbican, in December 2011; these include a selection of solos, new songs, and Mozart’s Das Lied der Trennung. For more videos of the Harris’s List pieces, or indeed other related videos, visit my youtube channel here.

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Many Formats, One List:

Inspired by Stravinsky’s light and cost-efficient response to the hardships of the First World War with his Soldier’s Tale, Harris’s List was also conceived as a light, cost-efficient, and modular response to the present economic depression, its many components adapting to multiple presentations of the project.

The project and its modular components can be performed in the following formats:

-As three instrumental portraits based on Harris’s List texts for solo guitar (5’)
-As a guitar and female voice song cycle containing the instrumental portraits and the Harris’s List songs (15’)
-As a guitar and female voice song cycle containing the Berlusconi/Barcelona’s songs (in development, 10’)
-As a guitar and female voice son cycle containing the Harris’s List portraits and songs, plus the Berlusconi/Barcelona songs (25’).
-As the complete song cycle, including the portraits, the Harris’s List songs, the Berlusconi/Barcelona songs, and the curated Mozart lieder around it (50’).
-As an opera scene, by staging the whole project as a chamber opera (50’) in a similar way as shown in the videos and production photographs above.


The List’s photographer:

All the wonderful production photographs in this page were taken during the Pit Theatre Residency at the Barbican in December, 2011, by Luis Ortiz, and are reproduced here with his kind permission.

If you want to enjoy all of the terrific photos of the project I couldn’t fit in this page, you can visit Luis Ortiz’s Flickr page here.


You can get in touch with Oscar to find out more about the project by following this link to his main website:

Contact Oscar