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

22: 30 Years of Strange Migration

This Post celebrates a highly significant anniversary for Grand Union.

Strange Migration was premiered in Glasgow in May 1983, commissioned for the first edition of Mayfest, a brand new festival which was to have a huge influence, particularly in Scotland. It wasn’t Grand Union’s first touring show – Jelly Roll Soul established the Company’s reputation for original music-theatre work in 1982, followed by a quirky piece called The Lost Chord – but it was the show that set the tone for everything that followed, creating the Company’s direction and artistic identity.

Strange Migration was about exile and migration, and several of it performers were themselves migrants or refugees with dramatic stories to tell of their experience – among them Vladimir Vega, imprisoned after the coup in which President Allende was deposed in 1973, and eventually released under an amnesty which brought many Chilean political refugees to Britain. Vladimir is not only a very fine singer, but a master of traditional Andean folk instruments (panpipes, kena and charango) which he learnt during his years in prison under the Pinochet regime. He became a key member of the Grand Union ‘family’, and several Grand Union shows included pieces based on his personal experience. (He can also be heard in If Music Could, Post 1.)

This song from Strange Migration, however, has a more universal resonance – expressing the heartbreak and anguish of all those separated from their homeland, which they may not see again. It is based on a poem by a sixteenth-century monk from Catalonia – itself a region with a culture and language which hovers between French and Spanish without belonging to either, an ambiguity I have tried to express in the music. (When the Grand Union Orchestra made its début with The Song of Many Tongues the following year, I extended the song and arranged it for the bigger ensemble; this is the version heard here.)

It begins with a gentle rocking rhythm on bass and guitar – the bass never deviating – which continues throughout the first section, and can’t quite decide whether it’s in a minor or major key:


A pair of women’s voices takes the tonality more towards the major key, and the rhythm has a little syncopated lift to it in the second bar of each phrase:


When the male voice continues (in Catalan), the melody is echoed by a female voice singing an English translation – a musical and dramatic effect I often use, and have described in other contexts before (see Post 9 & Post 20):


Finally, Vladimir’s and the two women’s voices come together in a quite astringent ensemble – “sweet Catalonia, homeland of my heart – to be far from you is to die of longing”:


This changes the tonality quite emphatically from D minor to F minor, and brings us to the heart of the whole piece – structurally just an instrumental bridge or transition section, but in fact working out and intensifying (in just 16 bars!) all the material we have heard so far:



To begin with, the brass and saxes exchange phrases originally played by bass and guitar (the bass line and rhythm is again remorseless and unvarying through these 16 bars). The tenor sax adds a new figure (bar 3) later taken up by trombone 1 (bar 9), but the most important countermelody is that stated by the flugelhorn (bracketed phrase a, bar 3) echoed by the tenor saxophone (bar 4), which is derived from the original vocal melodies. The flugel then gradually extends it, developing it into a rising, arching lament, culminating in a powerful restatement of the last vocal ensemble by all the brass and drums. Released at last from its rhythmic restraints, the bass strides away in mid-tempo swing, and an alto saxophone solo from the incomparable Chris Biscoe (featured also in Post 8).

This is in fact new material – a chromatic chord sequence of 8 bars + 8 bars repeated, and a further 8 bars squashing the sequence by halving the length of each chord (read on to Ex 7, and you can see/hear how the chord sequence of the last 8 bars is a rhythmically diminished version of the previous 16) – but with backing riffs derived from the guitar/bass song accompaniment:

DC-6Played first in medium tempo, the solo then doubles up into fast swing, breaks back into the original tempo, leading to a full-throated ensemble with a heavy half time 2/2 feel:


and finally, slowing down, a sonorous, almost funeral march, version of the opening guitar/bass figures in the brass.

Two back-stories

After the Glasgow première, Strange Migration made three three-month tours, with slight changes of personnel, which led ultimately to the establishment of the Grand Union Orchestra in September 1984. The three principal singers, however – Vladimir Vega, Sarah Laryea and Tunukwa – remained constant throughout, and their experience and identity were woven inextricably into the fabric of the show. More about the place of Strange Migration in the Grand Union canon can be found in the brief history opposite; and more about these singers, and their importance to me and the Company, in my own biography.

This biography reveals another pertinent back-story. In the mid 1970s I worked with John McGrath and his theatre company 7:84, and through this met Ferelith Lean and David McLennan. They were key members of Scottish 7:84 who then broke out on their own, forming Wildcat, which toured for many years its own brand of powerful political theatre with music; they went on to found a new radical festival Mayfest in Glasgow in 1983. Meanwhile, in 1982 our first show Jelly Roll Soul had toured the Highlands (as well as most of the UK) finishing up with a very successful 3-week run in the Edinburgh Festival. There I met up again with Feri and David, who readily saw Strange Migration as an ideally fitting show for their new festival – ten years after the coup in Chile, which set Vladimir Vega on his long, arduous and painful journey.


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This entry was posted on April 29, 2013 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , .
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