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

8: Tihais and Big Band Riffs

This analysis is based on A Country Conscript, from The Rhythm of Tides (Por Mares do Imaginário) which I wrote in 1996, featuring Portuguese and Portuguese African artists. The show is based on events in the rise and fall of the Portuguese empire; this particular episode dramatises an incident during the war of independence inAngola. It begins with a dialogue between a conscripted soldier traumatised by the war, who tries to commit suicide, and the compassionate medical orderly who attends him. Their dialogue is then taken up by two jazz soloists – Claude Deppa on trumpet and Chris Biscoe on alto saxophone; the backing riffs for the trumpet solos are built on fragments of the soldier’s anguished song, while the melody and harmony of the alto saxophone part develop the more angular but fluid melody of the orderly.

This may seem a world away from Indian classical music, so let’s just step back a bit…

What is a tihai?

A very characteristic device in South Asian music, the tihai is a three-times repeated phrase used to punctuate or end solo improvisations and conclude pieces; it has to end on the first beat of a time-cycle, or the beginning of a bar in Western terms, and generally appears to contradict – or provide a cross-rhythm to – the basic pulse. Here are three very simple examples; in the variants, rests simply replace notes:

The important thing to note is that where you start determines where you finish up! These examples illustrate patterns constructed out of evenly-spaced notes in 4/4 time across a four-bar phrase; for a South Asian musician the possibilities are infinite. The tihai phrase can be any length (including the judiciously judged gap between repetitions) – mine are only 3, 4 or 5 notes long; and the tal or time-cycle they are played over can be any length too – not just the conventional 8- or 16-beats, but 7, 10, 12, even 10½!

As long as they come from the raga that forms the basis of the piece, the notes that make up the phrase may be freely chosen and the rhythm varied, but every phrase must be repeated identically. My examples suggest a melodic contour, and starting (and hence finishing) points within which the figure can be varied. Finally, bear in mind that all this is improvised! – though of course the musicians spend hours practising what kind of phrase might fit where and in what musical context.

A further variation is the triple tihai, generally used to conclude a performance, where the three-times repeated phrase is itself repeated three times in its entirety.

Using tihais as riffs

Working with musicians like Baluji and Yousuf (see earlier posts) I realised this ingenious device could be used to great effect, particularly in writing backing riffs behind jazz soloists; and in composition there is the huge advantage of being able to work everything out in advance! Here I show how all these features can be explored in an otherwise conventional big band score – the first piece in this series, incidentally, to be built on a standard straight-ahead jazz swing feel. So, back to A Country Conscript…

The piece is built on 32-bar sections (albeit doubled at the beginning and halved towards the end). The trumpet solos are in fast swing over a single chord (essentially a minor 11th) which changes for each section, with tihais used as backing riffs; they alternate with alto sax sections which begin in slow ballad time, then double on successive entries (until they match the trumpet tempo) and are always in D minor, over astringent chromatic harmony. (The textures behind the alto solos gradually thicken up – they are derived from the opening melody, but are not analysed any further here.) The timings that follow relate to the mp3 file of A Country Conscript.

00’ 00” – the first trumpet section in Eb minor, changing to F# minor (00’ 24”) and back to Eb minor (00’ 39”). The backing figures (derived from the soldier’s melodic material mentioned above) have three-times repetitions across the beat, but are not strictly tihais.

01’ 00” – the alto plays the full ballad melody (derived from the medic’s material) in quarter-time, with piano chords (in D minor, as in all recurrences of this material).

02’ 00” – back to fast 4/4 for the trumpet, now in A minor. The first of the strict tihais comes in here (02’ 02”). It fills four bars, finishing on the first beat of the next four bars and is itself played twice more, rising in pitch and filling out in harmony each time (sketched in the last two bars of the example):

Three things to note here which apply to all the trumpet solo sections:

  1. I have adapted the tihai formula by allowing repetitions to be harmonised and/or rise in pitch, while remaining rhythmically identical;
  2. the harmony is always diatonic within the root key of the section, ie minor scale with a raised 6th (‘Dorian mode’), based largely on open 4ths and 5ths;
  3. the rhythm of the tihai phrase is often diminished, and forms a triple tihai, as it launches the next alto section.

The end of this section (02’ 22”) illustrates both these features:

The alto comes back in in half-time (02’ 30”), then the trumpet returns, again in fast 4/4, now in F# minor (03’ 35”) against this riff:

Again this is played three times, rising each time (in unison), and then in diminution three times (with thickening harmony); then this diminished phrase is turned into a triple tihai, harmonised and rising (04’ 00”):

The alto now has two choruses in fast time, first with rhythm section only (04’ 05”), then with brass/sax backings (05’ 05”). The trumpet returns back in Eb minor – only 16 bars this time – and the section finishes with another variant of a triple tihai (05’ 42”):

The alto solo this time is backed by fragments of its own original ‘ballad’ melody (05’ 50”) before the trumpet solo returns for another 16 bars. Triplets dominate the backing figures from this point onwards, and the first of these is a complex (and hard to play!) triple tihai across 12 bars (06’ 25”). For clarity, I have omitted the harmony, which ‘thickens’ as before. Note how the extra crotchet rest between each set of three phrases gradually forces the last note of each tihai towards the first beat of the next section:

After another alto incursion (06’ 35”) based on the first 16 bars of the ‘ballad’ material, an 8-bar trumpet section finishes with this tihai (06’ 55”)…

…and the final tihai (07’ 10”), linking both trumpet and alto soloists harmonically and rhythmically, deliberately suggests West African drum patterns:

Why West African? Strictly speaking, A Country Conscript (and this analysis) finishes at 07’ 20”, but the drama needed some kind of resolution. What follows is The Song of Reconciliation, featuring Mozambican guitarist Mingo Rangel, kora-player Sadjo Djolô from Guiné-Bissau and his nephew Uïé on djembe, and all the wind and brass figures are derived from West African kora patterns and chants – but that is a story for another time…


‘A country conscript’ ambiguously refers to the fact the individual soldier was conscripted, but also that the country itself (ie Portugal) was forced to defend a colonial past (these were the last days of the dictatorship) to which it felt no commitment and for which it had no stomach.

The CD The Rhythm of Tides (Por Mares do Imaginário) was compiled from a BBC Radio 3 broadcast and recording from the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank in October 1996. It features all the Grand Union Orchestra’s core players – including Baluji Shrivastav (sitar, tabla) and Miao Xiao Yung (pipa, ruan) – together with seven Lisbon-based performers. It is available from the Grand Union shop; details and extracts appear on the Music Page of the GUO website.

I also arranged this score for standard big band, for a project with the Guildhall School of Music Big Band. This too is available from Grand Union, and like most of my music for the GUO is playable by more experienced student ensembles with an adventurous spirit.


3 comments on “8: Tihais and Big Band Riffs

  1. envahisseurdelespace
    February 13, 2012

    just a question : how did you insert the souncloud file in your post ?

  2. Satin Shop
    March 4, 2012

    I hope you would not mind if I posted a part of this site on my univeristy blog?

    • Grand Union Orchestra
      April 25, 2012

      no, I’d be delighted! the more students and other musicians see it the better…

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This entry was posted on January 29, 2012 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , , , .
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