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

25: Second anniversary reflections

I started writing this monthly blog two years ago. As I begin the third year, therefore, it seemed a good time to take stock and review some of the material covered.

A guide to the blog so far

What I write about each month is influenced by what the Grand Union Orchestra is doing at the time. Each Post relates to current projects – events that have just occurred or are just coming up – and is based around an appropriate piece of music from the GUO repertoire.

The content is very mixed – it may include anecdotes from the Company’s history, brief descriptions of the personalities involved and how they have helped shape the work, notes on the historical or cultural background of the shows – but above all it is about the music itself.

When I started, I was determined to write something that wasn’t just a standard blog. I wanted it to have its own identity, to be useful and informative, both to explain my musical techniques to curious audiences and other artists, and also to provide stimulating ideas to young creative musicians – especially ideas and techniques they are unlikely to be able to learn elsewhere.

Looking back over two years, I realise it lacks the consistency of, say, an academic textbook or personal memoir, though it combines aspects of both; but I’m also struck by the recurrence, development or reinforcement of certain ideas or features running through the Posts – which of course is likely to continue throughout the next year.

The intention of this celebratory second anniversary Post is therefore quite simple: to provide a kind of cross-reference or index to some of these features in the 24 Posts so far.

I’ll begin with technical, musical matters…

Musical features

South Asian

Several Posts describe music written around Indian ragas:

2: Marva

4: Aheer Bhairav

6: Charukeshi

14: Kafi (and a version of a song by Lalon)

20: Gujri Todi

24: Bhairvi

All these I explore in my own individual way, deriving unusual harmony as well as melodic material from them.

I am also fascinated by tihais – repeated rhythmic phrases across the pulse – which are such a feature of Indian music. The technique is described in Post 6 and illustrated in an ‘Indian’ context in Posts 20 and 24. However, I also employ them frequently in other contexts, as for example jazz backing riffs, Post 8 and Post 16.


I take inspiration also from rhythmic patterns to create contrapuntal brass ensembles, especially from African 12/8 drum rhythms, and use such rhythms freely outside a purely ‘African’ context:

3: Eleggua Kó, Eleggua Rá

10: Cano (featuring also kora)

10: The Song of Reconciliation

14: Milon Hobe – version of a song by the Bengali poet/songwriter Lalon!

Bhangra Brass (24) does the same with bhangra rhythms.

Caribbean, South American and other rhythms are used in a similar way in Posts 11 (Can’t Chain Up Me Mind), 13 (Golden Highway) and 21 (Ça Ira).  Reggae bass lines also appear in unusual contexts – eg Post 19, the Anatolian song Yagmar Yagar and the Bengali song (on video) Jiki Miki.

Instruments and styles

Other Posts illustrating working with non-European styles and instruments include:

7: Yemen, featuring baglama (saz) and voice, exploring 5/8 and 5/4 rhythms

10: Cano, featuring kora and characteristic singing style from Guinea-Bissau

12: Picking Betel Palm, featuring gu zheng (Chinese harp), hexatonic scale with chromatic harmony

18: Mexe Mexe, marabenta style from Mozambique

19; Yagmar Yagar, with the ‘Turkish 2nd’ prominent!

Variations on the blues form are described in Post 4 (Perfumes of Paradise Blues) and Post 5 (11.11.11 Blues). Here also are examples of deploying jazz soloists in dramatic ways in a relatively conventional big band context:

8: A Country Conscript (alto saxophone and trumpet dialogue)

16: Collateral Damage (paired duets of trumpets and alto saxes)

and improvisation in general is vigorously encouraged by Grand Union in its work with young musicians – as described in Post 6 and Post 11.

Voices and dramatic effects

In Post 8 (A Country Conscript) and 16 (Collateral Damage) this instrumental drama is set in train by the lyric material from which it derives (Post 17); Post 22 (Dolce Catalunya) achieves an emotional intensity through similar means.

Individual singing styles are manifestly important to the expression of all my music for Grand Union, and in combination – whether in dialogue or more complex contrapuntal textures:

1: If Music Could – five independent melodic lines combine to form a rich ensemble

13: Golden Highway – two male voices in dialogue almost in the manner of Sondheim!

15: Nodir Srote Ektaratir – Bengali duet based on a Nasrul song

and sometimes with voices singing in different languages, a kind of ‘aural subtitles’ device:

9: Depois o Bosque se fez Barco (Portuguese, English)

20: Chaeridike Aj (Bengali, English)

22: Dolce Catalunya (Catalan, English)

The artists

The effectiveness of these techniques depends of course on great musicians, singers and writers. Brief biographies and an account of their contribution to the work of Grand Union include:

2: Baluji Shrivastav (India – sitar)

3: Sarah Laryea (Ghana – drums/singer)

9: Manuel Alegre (Portugal – writer)

10: Sadjo Djolô (Guinea-Bissau – kora/singer)

11: Valerie Bloom (St Lucia – writer)

12: Zhu Meng Xiao (China – gu zheng)

15: Lucy Rahman (Bangladesh – singer)

18: Mingo Rangel (Mozambique – guitar/singer)

19: Sabahat and Cemal Akkiraz (Turkey – singer, baglama)

22: Vladimir Vega (Chile – singer/multi-instrumentalist/writer)

The contribution of the jazz soloists in transforming material is equally vital, among them:

Shanti Paul Jayasinha, trumpet/flugerhorn (Posts 7, 9, 13, 18)

Claude Deppa, trumpet (Posts 8, 14, 16)

Kevin Robinson, trumpet (Posts 3, 16)

Chris Biscoe, soprano/alto sax (Posts 8, 16, 22)

Tony Kofi, alto/baritone sax (Posts 11, 16, 20)

Louise Elliott, tenor sax (Posts 12, 15, 19)

Rick Taylor, trombone (Post 21)

Gerry Hunt, guitar (Post 4)

Reference is frequently made to Grand Union Orchestra projects, from which most of the illustrative material is drawn, namely:

Strange Migration (Posts 3 & 22)

Freedom Calls (Post 11)

The Rhythm of Tides (Posts 8, 9, 10, 23)

Now Comes the Dragon’s Hour (Post 15)

If Paradise (Posts 4, 16, 17, 20)

History and back-stories

Bits of Grand Union’s colourful history are also scattered throughout the blog. These are some of the main episodes referred to:

7: work with Turkish artists in London

10: genesis of The Rhythm of Tides

11: early days of participatory shows, importance of ‘authenticity’

14: relationship with Bengali artists, trips to Dhaka

21: beginning of European partnerships

22: the origins of Strange Migration

23: history of Portuguese projects

Much of my work for Grand Union revolves around the experience of the performers themselves. Not unnaturally it often has a foot in history – exploring themes of migration, exile and the legacy of European colonialism – but particularly expressing contemporary events. Typical subjects include:

Upheaval in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia (Posts 4, 17, 20)

Portuguese maritime and colonial history (Posts 9, 23)

The Transatlantic slave trade (Posts 3, 11)

The Bangladesh war of independence (Post 20)

Trade along the Silk Road past and present, rise of multinational corporations (Post 13)

The human consequences of war (Posts 7, 8, 16, 20)


Finally a note that there are some video illustrations in the blog:

3: Eleggua Kó, Eleggua Rá

14: Milon Hobe

16: Collateral Damage

19: Jiki Miki

For reference: Shortlinks to Posts

1: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-4       Complexity from simplicity

2: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-E       A Rag is not a scale

3: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-27     In Praise of Eleggua

4: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-3Y     If Paradise

5: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-4I      11.11.11 – a sample Blues

6: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-5L     More on scales and improvisation

7: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-6l      The voice of Anatolia

8: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-6L     Tihais and big band riffs

9: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-7x     Duet with a great poet

10: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-8p   Inspired by the kora

11: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-9H  Can’t Chain Up Me Mind

12: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-ai    Shanghai Dragon

13: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-cn   The Golden Highway

14: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-df    Bengal to Bethnal Green

15: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-eE   Nasrul and the dancing girl

16: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-fu   Collateral Damage

17: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-gf    Liberation and Remembrance

18: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-hE   Christmas in Maputo!

19: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-ia    Trading Roots

20: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-ji     Language Wars

21: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-kI    Ça ira, Ça ira

22: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-l4    30 Years of Strange Migration

23: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-lO    Adventures in Portugal

24: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-mk  Bhangra in the Midi

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