Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

9: Duet with a great poet

In writing songs for Grand Union shows for singers from a wide range of musical cultures, I realised from the very beginning that – to preserve the distinctive quality of their singing style, which of course is what attracted me in the first place – I had to write in the language they generally sing in. So, over the years, I have learnt to write songs especially in Portuguese and Spanish, Bengali and Chinese – without necessarily being able to speak these languages! I’ve been lucky enough to find sympathetic lyricists in these languages – often writing also about subjects which are part of their own experience – who, with the singers, have also helped me shape appropriate, idiomatic melodic lines as well as the content of the songs.

However, in solving one problem you create another – how are audiences whose main language is usually English to understand these songs? One strategy I’ve developed is a kind of simultaneous translation – at its simplest, alternating the odd English phrase with Bengali text for example (as I did in The Mother, The River in On Liberation Street, written for Lucy Rahman); but more imaginatively and musically, by adding a second voice singing in English – aural subtitles, as it were!

I paired Depois o Bosque… with the instrumental number A Country Conscript (see Post 8 below) for What the River Sings, Grand Union’s contribution – in collaboration with the Water City Festival Orchestra – to the BBC’s 2012 Cultural Festival event Music Nation in March 2012. Both pieces actually come from The Rhythm of Tides (Por Mares do Imaginário) which toured in 1996-97, still one of our best CDs, whose lyrics and inspiration come from the work of Portuguese poet Manuel Alegre. (More about him and the show as a whole appear in the note below.)

In the version recorded here there are two singers – Victoria Couper (or Maria João Silveira on the original CD) singing in Portuguese and Richard Scott in English. The title might loosely be translated ‘when trees were turned into ships’, and that is the central image of the original poem – the deforesting of the land to build ships to explore and establish a world-wide empire, and the corresponding denuding of the country of its men to fight and control this empire. (Alegre was writing at the time of Portugal’s ruinous colonial wars in Africa in the sixties, which had similarly destructive results on the country.) However, the translations are never literal, but a separate poetic commentary on the original lyrics.

At first, the two singers sing independently. The woman begins like this, singing very freely:

Then the music moves into a slow beguine-like tempo, and the male voice enters with a melody that follows the same melodic contours and lyrics that express the same ideas:

The harmony for the woman’s song is predominantly minor (with an emphasis on Bb minor chords), the man’s predominantly major and augmented chords (centred on D major). The descending chord sequence of his part of the song (Ex 2) is mirrored in the second section of the Portuguese setting, but in a minor tonality:

At this point, the flugelhorn (the incomparable Shanti Paul Jayasinha) picks up the melody that originally bridged the Portuguese ‘intro’ to the English verse, and then goes on to play a solo across the descending chords of the English verse:

The woman now sings another version of her previous melody and words in example 3, but this time the two voices actually duet, with the English singer interlocking with the Portuguese in rough translation:

Finally, there is a coda, introduced by the flugelhorn theme – this time joined by the female singer, with words added – which ties everything together, including the movement of the tonality from D major to B flat minor (the notes of these triads in fact form the basis of the flugelhorn melody):

Manuel Alegre and The Rhythm of Tides

In the early 1990s, I first had the idea of creating a show about the rise and fall of empire, but thought it would be more dramatic, and more varied and colourful, if seen through the eyes of the Portuguese. Dating from the first voyages of famous ‘navigators’ like Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias, the Portuguese was the first European empire to be established, and the last to collapse – not until the early 1970s, in the last throes of the fascist dictatorship founded by António Salazar fifty years before. During the course of the project, I had the privilege of meeting many Portguese artists, intellectuals and politicians – among them the celebrated poet Manuel Alegre.

In the 10 or 15 years leading up to the 1974 Revolution, many dissidents and opponents of the régime – and especially critics of its catastrophic attempts to hold on to its colonies at all costs – were exiled abroad; like many others, Manuel Alegre lived in Paris for a long time. After the Revolution, they returned as heroes and helped build the new democracy in Portugal – often quite literally, since until recently many musicians, writers and artists served as ‘deputados’, members of the Portuguese parliament; and Manuel Alegre himself has twice been a presidential candidate – though sadly never elected.

Above all, Manuel Alegre is a great poet, and has also written a couple of powerful novels. His seminal work O Canto e as Armas takes its title, with deliberate irony, from the first line of Vergil’s Aeneid: ‘arma virumque cano’ – ‘I sing of arms and the man…’ (Aeneas) who was regarded as the founding father of the Roman Empire. Such ambiguity is key to Alegre’s writing, and in this case on the surface he appears to be extolling Portugal’s imperial ambitions – interpreted as such, and welcomed, by the fascist régime; while his admirers and supporters will see only the withering sarcasm directed at the yearning of Salazar and his cronies for a return to a golden age. (Look up boy-king Sebastian for further research…)

Artists critical of totalitarian régimes have always used code like this to communicate their critical views. Another of Alegre’s devices is to write what appear to be love-songs, couched as romantic ballads about the freedom of a sailor’s life at sea, but in reality paeans to political freedom, and (paradoxically under a fascist dictatorship) expressing genuine love of his country and concern for the welfare of its people. Meu Amor é Marinheiro, which I also set in the Rhythm of Tides, is a prime example.

Depois o Bosque se fez Barco, as you will have realised, is another manifestation of this ‘code’. Harking back to the early voyages of discovery and the maritime history which resonates so deeply with Portuguese people even today, he delivers a stinging rebuke to rulers who continued – from Africa to East Timor in the post-war period – to neglect domestic affairs and send so many young men to their deaths (or condemn them to a life of misery and alienation) in a pointless and indefensible cause.

With his permission, I set three of Manuel Alegre’s poems for The Rhythm of Tides (Por Mares do Imaginário in its Portuguese title). The full-length version of Depois o Bosque… can be found on the CD, featuring two great Portuguese singers Paulo de Carvalho (one of whose hits was used on the radio to launch the Revolution!) and Maria João Silveira; and the poetically complex As Colunas de Madrugada, about the Angolan war. Maria João, her voice drenched in the richness of her Angolan parentage, can also be heard on Meu Amor é Marinheiro.

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This entry was posted on February 26, 2012 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , , .
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