Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
Here’s an unusual composition technique I’ve used various ways from time to time – although probably never as comprehensively as in the song described here.
The song comes from an episode in Now Comes the Dragon’s Hour which tells the story of a young couple from Bangladesh separated when the husband comes to London to find work – and therefore very much in the spirit of Undream’d Shores (see also Post 30). The lyric is by Rukhsana Ahmad: What is striking is the repetition of certain words or images – ‘flame’, ‘love’, ‘sandalwood’ etc. To reflect these in the musical setting, I assigned a particular note or phrase to each of these in the vocal melody, associated with a unique harmony and coloured by a different instrumental combination. In turn, these features determined the character and structure of the composition. The whole episode is based on the Indian Rag Aheer Bhairav, in which the 2nd and 7th degrees of the scale are flattened, and the 3rd and 6th generally sharp, but occasionally flattened. (The Perfumes of Paradise Blues, from If Paradise. Post 4, is also based on this Raga.) In this section the basic tonality is E (rather than B), and I’ve also introduced a ‘rogue’ note, F natural, a couple of times in the bass: The melody, and all the harmony, is strictly derived from this Raga, but varying the bass and the combination of notes gives a great variety of chords. Each of the principal words in the lyric (and words expressing an analogous idea or emotion) therefore has a different harmony associated with it; and each harmony has an individual instrumental texture (from 2 flutes, flugelhorn and trombone as well as the guitars and keyboard), coloured further by effects from a palette of quiet percussion and the Chinese ruan. Here are the ten key words or images with their corresponding musical ‘characters’: You will see that each is illustrated in its own way. (I’m not sure why, but ‘ashes’ has acquired the famous opening chord of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde!) In the score below, each of these ten characteristics is identified and referred back to Example 2. An additional feature to note is the way the guitar and bass guitar ‘comment’ between the melodic phrases, and toy with the ambiguity of the of the natural and sharpened 3rd and 6th in the Rag over a figure with a changing root (E-B, F#-B, F-B); and the way the trombone echoes the vocal melodies in the second half of the song. Here is the recording again with the complete score (click on the image to enlarge it):
Now Comes the Dragon’s Hour is the Grand Union Orchestra’s fourth CD, edited from a live broadcast by BBC Radio 3 recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 1999. The principal singer is Lucy Rahman (see also Post 15 and Post 20), with Wei Li and Brenda Rattray. The male singer towards the end is Akash Sultan, réprising his melody (also derived from Rag Aheer Bhairav) from the duet with Lucy Rahman with which this episode begins.
Undream’d Shores (at the Hackney Empire Theatre, November 1st to 3rd) will abound in other stories like this – an impression through music of how London seems through the eyes of present-day and second generation migrants, and performed by them.