Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
The story of this song illustrates two further striking features of the Grand Union Orchestra’s work – first, the way it often uncannily anticipates contemporary events (in this case the uncontrolled power of multi-national companies), and secondly the way that a song from one show can provide the subject-matter for a later one (Strange Migration, Dancing in the Flames, If Music Could… and Doctor Carnival are other examples.
Written in 1998, the original version of The Golden Highway closed the first half of Grand Union’s touring show Now Comes the Dragon’s Hour, a musical dramatisation of a journey along the Silk Road past and present; but when it came to producing the CD, it didn’t really fit, as I decided to structure the narrative in a different way.
Too good to waste, though, I used it (substantially rewritten) to form the climax of the work I had been commissioned to write by BBC Radio 3 in 2011 for a collaboration between Grand Union and the BBC Concert Orchestra – The Golden Road, The Unforgiving Sea. It was in turn further adapted and became the basis for a show in its own right (2012) – and this is the version analysed here.
The Golden Highway
Context is all, so the song opens with the ancient and pure sounds of the gu zheng (Chinese harp – see also Post 12) to set the scene, followed by a plaintive melody sung by a female voice, Victoria Couper, based on the same pentatonic scale:
This is harshly interrupted by a dissonant descending scale which recurs in different forms throughout the number. (It was actually inspired by, and relates to, my fascination with Indian rags, as described in earlier Posts.) Considerably extended on later appearances (and using almost all the notes of the chromatic scale), the first version is quite short:
This figure also establishes one of the main tonalities, D minor, together with a characteristic harmonic mood, and one of the principal rhythmic feels – a Latin-American beat with a strong bass line; the implied clave pattern is 2-3 and later the timbale pattern of the Afro-Cuban mozambique is added:
The song as a whole is a dialogue between two contrasting characters – the boss of an international corporation set on developing and dominating the Asian markets, and a critic who points out the effect on local peoples, their lives and culture. The first singer, Richard Scott, begins with this minor-key material, but after another intervention of the descending scale
he launches into an exuberant song in D major, based on a kind of Motown ‘road music’ feel:
These two groups of material are developed in the later part of the song, with the first voice based on the major key/Motown music and the second (critical) voice taking up the minor key/Latin material. Looking back at Ex 5, you can see how the theme of the ‘entrepreneur’ comes from the pentatonic scale of the opening section (later on – see Ex 12 – it actually appears in the same key as the tonality moves up to G). The music of his opponent on the other hand is very chromatic (notice in Ex 6a how the same scale notes can be harmonised with wildly different chords). So, to sum up the story so far, here is the essence of the two contrasting groups of material:
Now comes a trumpet solo by Shanti Paul Jayasinha based on the Latin rhythm, following roughly the chordal structure of the first vocal section, concluding with a still longer version of the descending scale:
and the dramatic interruption of a brass ‘chorale’. (This isn’t actually Bach at all, but a short song by Schumann ‘Anfangs wollt ich fast verzagen’ – ‘at first I almost wanted to give up’. It came in to my mind for entirely musical reasons, I don’t know how or why, but it’s a very appropriate quote!) It recurs at three points during the song, the harmony changed slightly to fit the circumstances, beginning with Ex 8a:
The second singer, Stephen Douse, makes his entry with completely new material, in a new key (C sharp minor), jazz-funk feel, a bass line that becomes important later, and (for the first time) rhythm guitar. There are three five-bar phrases, beginning:
Another version of the ‘chorale’ (Ex 8b) links to the rest of the number, which quite simply alternates the two voices and their respective melodic/harmonic/rhythmic material. Richard begins with his ecstatic, cynical vision of turning the old Silk Road into a golden highway, before Stephen replies (Ex 10). His verses begin by taking the opening four bars of Richard’s original line (Ex 3, pitched a 5th higher), adding the rising phrase from his first entry (Ex 9, bracketed bar 4) and finishing with his version of the descending dissonant scale (Exx 2/4/7):
Crucial to this song are the inventive and pungent lyrics of ace wordsmith Colin Sell, head of East Fifteen Drama School and a familiar presence on Radio 4; throughout, my aim was to create music to serve them as faithfully and clearly as possible. We have already encountered all the musical material for the next few sections, so the easiest way to follow the structure as the exchanges continue from this point is through the words:
Accompanying all this, the Orchestra changes from Motown to Latin and back again, with the horns punctuating and supporting the voices, contributing riffs drawn from the melodic material, eg:
Figure (a) is the bass line Ex 9, (b) Stephen’s opening phrase, (c) a mocking version of Richard’s phrases (eg Ex 12) and (d) a double time version of the same. These recur many times, and the sections are also linked with rising figures based on the major pentatonic scale (Ex 1) and descending ones on the dissonant ‘Indian’ scale (Ex 2). Then the voices start coming together, necessitating a combination of rhythmic feel and major/minor harmony:
with a plangent version of the opening soprano melody added by Victoria to lead to the climax:
culminating in a final entry of the big ‘chorale’ and a short elegiac coda.
This Post also begins the second year of monthly instalments of this composition blog, and it’s good to be able to commemorate this milestone with this song, coinciding with the first performance of the show at the Hackney Empire Theatre.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank those who have offered advice, encouragement and suggestions about this blog over the year, and the many more who have dipped into it or follow it on a regular basis.