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

21: Ça ira, Ça ira

Grand Union was recently awarded a substantial grant by the European Union Culture Fund for a project with musicians in France and Portugal, which merits some celebration! Music with a Portuguese element has already featured in several posts, but never France; so here is a piece to set the record straight – and a highly appropriate one too… The Grand Union Orchestra’s third big touring show (and second CD) was Freedom Calls, with lyrics by Caribbean, South African and Chilean writers covering subjects ranging from the Slave Trade to the Spanish Civil War and Apartheid (1986). I wanted to write a powerful ‘overture’ to set the tone of the show with a relentless, progressive energy; the iconic song of the French Revolution 200 years earlier Ça Ira (roughly translated ‘It’ll be OK, it’ll be OK, people go around saying over and over; in spite of opposition, everything will turn out well’) seemed to have the potential to provide material for this: CI-1 However, I found I didn’t need the whole song (or the words) to get its spirit across – just the first four notes, in fact, and the rising phrase (x) at the beginning of bar 3! Given the show’s themes, it seemed appropriate that drums from different countries around the world should frame the piece, especially if they were played by people whose communities were in some way involved historically or culturally with freedom movements. In the opening section, therefore, they enter one by one with a flourish before settling down into a steady rhythm, introducing in turn a series of bass instruments hammering out the ‘ah ça ira’ notes and improvising around them:

  • congas (Sarah Laryea, Ghana) – cello (Paul Jayasinha)
  • bongos (Ken Johnson, Trinidad) – bass clarinet (Keith Morris)
  • timbales (Josefina Cupido, Spain) – baritone sax (Gerry Hunt)
  • timpani (Claude Deppa, South Africa) – piano LH (Tony Haynes)
  • drum kit (Dave Barry) – bass guitar (Dave Clarke, African-American)

The deep piano line also sketches out the rising chords (suggested by the scale figure x) that are about become a major feature of the piece: CI-2 A unison link based on the ‘ah ça ira’ notes leads into clear statement of each of these chords in turn (but with C in bass throughout), in the course of three appearances – introducing successively D, Eb and Gb major chords into the mix for the trombone soloist: CI-3 This solo is intended to represent an orator or leader arousing the crowd to action – magnificently embodied here by the incomparable Rick Taylor. The drama (and the harmonic ambiguity) is intensified by short cries or ‘fanfares’ from the rest of the wind and brass, based on the rising scale (x) from the song, but adjusted to outline the four different harmonies. The idea is that they are cumulative, based just on C and D to start with, then adding E flat after the second link, and finally G flat – giving the solo trombone the equivalent harmonic freedom. At this point also, the drums gradually drop out, while the backing instruments add a new element of colour. This is considerably enhanced on stage by the movement of musicians changing instruments (eg as cello, bass clarinet, baritone and timps become piccolo/E flat clarinet, trumpets, alto/tenor sax etc!), and as the leader of each pair signals which of the 2, 3 or 4 phrases they are to play next: CI-4 The drums now take over again, exchanging phrases in a relentless ebb and flow of rhythm, to which the wind and brass then add punchy figures combining the 4-note ‘ah ça ira’ melody and rhythm with the harmonised ‘fanfares’. Finally, a double-time version of the Link (Ex 3) on drums, played 3 times, ends with both groups punching the message home together: CI-5

In 1989, there was a happy conclusion to this tale: the Grand Union Orchestra was invited to perform Freedom Calls in the idyllic setting of the beach in Boulogne, with the sun going down behind us, as part of the French celebrations of the bicentenary of the Revolution.

Note on this recording

This recording has been edited from the original version, to be heard on the CD, which does in fact include the song, as well as a section introducing other instruments used later in the show (notably charango and steel pans). However, this analysis is based on the ‘generic’ (shortened) version now played in other contexts by the Grand Union Orchestra; it is notable that every player gets the same part (just two pages, transposed as necessary), so the instrumentation is flexible and the arrangement improvised – or ‘busked’ by the musicians on stage that night!

Grand Union’s project in collaboration with French and Portuguese companies is supported by the EUROPEAN CULTURAL FOUNDATION and the EUROPEAN UNION CULTURE FUND


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This entry was posted on March 30, 2013 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , , .
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