Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
Zhu Xiao Meng is one of the most unusual members of the Grand Union Orchestra. Born and brought up in Shanghai, she was a child prodigy and member of the City’s Traditional Chinese Orchestra from an early age, but has lived in London now for over 20 years, a much sought-after soloist internationally.
Zhu plays the gu zheng – the classic Chinese harp – but I’ve realised during the 15 years or so we’ve worked together that what makes her exceptional among Chinese musicians is not just her virtuosity (many possess that), but her resourcefulness. She adapts easily to any musical context, happily retuning her instrument if necessary, but above she is a great improviser.
The range of the gu zheng is about 5 octaves, and its strings are generally tuned to one of the pentatonic scales so familiar in Chinese music:
Carefully-positioned bridges determine the basic tuning of the part of the string played with the right hand; by pressing on the other side of the bridge, the left hand can bend any of these notes upwards to an extraordinary degree – making the instrument theoretically chromatic – or simply give them their characteristic vibrato.
Picking Betel Palm is a folk-song from Hunan province (roughly halfway between Shanghai and Hong Kong), and like many Chinese melodies it is based on a pentatonic scale. Here is the opening phrase, four bars long with a two-bar instrumental fill:
Another vocal phrase, six bars long this time followed by a one-bar fill, leads to a kind of four-bar bridge phrase:
But look what happens at the beginning of the 8-bar phrase that concludes the tune – a ‘rogue note’ (*G#) appears! In truth, hexatonic scales are as common in Chinese music as pentatonic, as in much folk music around the world – the point being that (unlike full 7-note scales) 5- or 6- note scales can avoid the awkward interval of an augmented 4th or diminished 5th, which so troubled European music for many centuries.
(There is a charming legend that all Chinese melodies contain one rogue note, a deliberate flaw – like Achilles’s heel, perhaps – that only accentuates their beauty and perfection…)
Chinese melodies can be – and frequently are – harmonised just by using the notes of the scale; but the very fact that a note is ‘missing’ opens up a huge range of opportunities. In this case it’s not only the virtual absence of a G or G#, but especially the complete absence of a D or D# that suggests the way to go:
D and D# are therefore used extensively as roots (they never clash with any of the scale notes) while G natural (again a ‘safe’ note outside the scale) is used extensively to add richness to the harmony. C natural and F natural are used more judiciously, as they could clash with the melody, with F natural featuring as a crucial note the bass line. This is built almost entirely on variations of the notes in the first 6 bars (ex 4), until we get to the middle section…
Here I felt the harmony should change more quickly and become more chromatic. The new melody, which starts low and gradually rises, fits very well against a descending chromatic bass line, until the last 8 bars return to the harmonic and melodic feel of the beginning:
Up this point, any accompanying instruments (especially violin and cello) have been complementing the Chinese texture, but now comes a complete contrast – a tenor saxophone solo that follows and embellishes the changes I’ve used to harmonise the melody. Originally I imagined a rhapsodic, very bluesy style of playing, getting right away from the melody; but Louise Elliott manages all this very skilfully and ingeniously, while at the same time sticking more or less to the notes of the original pentatonic scale!
Her solo follows right through the whole structure to the end of the bridge, where the gu zheng comes back to réprise the last strain, resolving in a perfect cadence for the first and only time in the piece:
Zhu and other Chinese musicians appear regularly in Grand Union projects in different combinations, including Bengal Tiger, Shanghai Dragon alongside Bangladesh and Indian performers; but one of my favourite inspirations was to match Zhu’s gu zheng with Bravo Fimber’s steel pan in Spirit of Carnival, playing Caribbean calypso, soca and ska, including Don Drummond’s classic Confucius!
The original, 3-chorus version of Picking Betel Palm can be heard here:
or try The Song of Four Seasons