Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes

5: 11.11.11 – a sample Blues

Some ideas in response to the challenge to create an 11-bar blues theme for the Grand Union Orchestra’s show 11.11.11 at the Hackney Empire Theatre on November 11th 2011.

I’ve always been fascinated by the 12-bar blues form, and how far you can go changing elements within it while still preserving its essential character. If you are immersed in the spirit of the blues, some of its features are likely to crop up – often unconsciously – in any of your compositions, and this is certainly the case with a lot of my music for the Grand Union Orchestra (see previous posts below!).

In this case we had the opportunity to create a show which was an unrepeatable one-off: November 11th 2011 is Armistice Day, and it also happened to be the first night of the London Jazz Festival. How these ideas are related is described on our website in information about the show, performed by the Grand Union Orchestra and many different guest musicians and groups, mostly from East London. To give these performers opportunities to participate creatively – since improvisation is a key theme! – we came up with the idea of devising a collectively-composed piece for the event.

The basic idea – to explore as many aspects as possible of the number 11.

The challenge – to write an 11-bar blues theme to be combined with 10 others into a coherent piece, following these criteria:

  • it must be 11 (rather than 12) bars long;
  • it must be in 11/8 time;
  • the tempo should be no slower than 111 quavers per minute;
  • you should supply a chord sequence if possible;
  • you may use 11th chords, but this is not essential;
  • you may add a bass line if you wish;
  • you may write in any key;
  • any other exploration of the number 11 is welcome.

What follows is just an example of what can be done: they are simply my ideas – which can be completely ignored! – and many other approaches are possible.

Click here to listen to the extract.

Here are eleven ideas about the blues, referring to the piece above, which may be helpful:

1: Dropping a whole bar to produce an 11-bar sequence is not unusual – if you listen to the early 20th century country blues singers like Big Bill Broonzy you will hear any number of irregular variations of this sort; the strict 12-bar blues was formulated later.

2: I love the 12/8 blues above all, with its infectious triplet metre, so the obvious parallel is to think in 11/8. In this piece, the dropped quaver at the end of each bar is likely to be almost imperceptible to many listeners: they may be aware of a slight ‘limp’ in the music, but the practice of tying over the 12th quaver to the first beat of the next bar is a syncopation that is so common in blues, gospel and big band writing that that is what they will imagine is happening!

3: A strong conventional feature is the AAB form – a phrase in the first four bars which is repeated (with a small variations) in the second four, and a third phrase that extends and rounds it off. (In sung blues, the lyrics articulate this form even more clearly.)

4: There is sometimes an answering or linking phrase in the 3rd and 4th (and hence 7th and 8th) bars, so I have sketched one in here; this too may be modified when repeated.

5: Underlying this form is the harmonic convention of moving to the subdominant (chord IV) in bars 5 and 6 (and sometimes also in bar 2). Other chords can substitute for chord IV however – here I have used the chord on the flattened 3rd (a note that itself is a feature of what is sometimes called the ‘blues scale’) – without losing the blues ‘identity’. Furthermore, the subdominant chord IV may be more complex – generally a 7th or 9th – so here I’ve used 9th and 13th chords quite freely.

6: For the ‘clinching’ phrase (bars 9/10) the harmony naturally tends towards the dominant (chord V), but often followed (echoing bars 2 and 5/6) by chord IV. These closing bars are sometimes prepared for in bar 7 by a harmony outside the ‘primary’ sequence, often VI7 progressing to II7/V7, or a chromatic descent of minor 7ths to chord ii7/V7 (see note below for clarification); again, I have preserved the principle here, but with different actual chords.

7: The movement and voicing of these chords (middle line), which would be effective on strings or saxes for example, is designed to further underline this form.

8: The so-called ‘blues scale’ is simply a convenient academic rationalisation of some of the melodic elements that characterise the traditional sung blues – a flattened 7th, natural and flattened 5th and alternate natural and flattened 3rd – which also fit against all the simple basic chords (I, IV, V, even VI and II) of the conventional 12-bar sequence.

9: Changing these harmonies, however, leads to other melodic possibilities without weakening the sense of it still being a blues. So here I’ve used the flattened 2nd, for example; but the shape of the phrases is completely orthodox – albeit perhaps big band rather than vocal phrasing.

10: Finally, it’s often very useful to write a bass line, which serves to delineate the harmonic movement and the rhythm or feel of the piece – although in performance I would expect the bass-player to interpret this line quite freely. Here it’s very simple – either outlining the contour of the chords of the tonic, or firmly emphasising the roots of the chords which deviate chromatically from the tonic key.

11: As an example of a different approach altogether, this version uses similar melodic phrases, but harmonised entirely with 11th chords:

Note: a reminder of how to interpret those generic chord symbols (in C):

Now the challenge is up to you! Click here for full details.


…and here’s what the 11 successful composers came up with:


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This entry was posted on October 9, 2011 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , , .
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