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

32: Song of Four Seasons

In August, Grand Union is running its first ever Summer School, at Oundle School near Peterborough. This exciting new venture is principally for members of our own East London-based Youth Orchestra and young musicians in Essex and Cambridgeshire we’ve been working with recently, but it is open to anyone aged 12-21 who plays a non-European instrument and/or wishes to learn more about other musical traditions from around the world. (Full details can be found here, and to the left of this page.)

If you read these Posts regularly you will realise that the music of the Grand Union Orchestra can’t really be described as ‘world music’ as such. Certainly the 25 or 30 core musicians (who have worked together in many cases for over 25 years), and those we work with overseas, include artists with international reputations who are celebrated experts in their own field; but their role in the Orchestra – and my interest as a composer – is to create new, original music which draws on these various traditions, and on their individual skills and musical personalities.

All are also fine improvisers, and this too is a crucial element in all Grand Union’s work.

These same principles apply to all our work, whether professional or participatory, performances or workshops. It is particularly true of the Grand Union Youth Orchestra and similar ensembles we are establishing around the country, which aim to reflect the ideals and approach to music-making pioneered by the parent professional GUO.

The Summer School is a unique opportunity to consolidate and develop these ideas over a more extended period. More intensive sessions will explore, for example, Indian ragas, South African township music and Latin-American rhythms in greater depth; but above all it will be creative, allowing participants to develop music of their own, and improve their own improvisation skills.

Song of Four Seasons

I hope some of the tips and suggestions already offered in these Posts will help them. Here is another example from the Grand Union Orchestra repertoire, based on a Chinese folksong, but incorporating also a jazz rhythm section, chromatic harmony, backing figures and riffs and solo and collective improvisation. It also demonstrates the way much GUO and GUYO material is arranged spontaneously within a loose structure. An unusual element here, too, is how cello and violin are featured as improvising soloists!

I want to use it also to make some points about improvisation, which we shall be exploring in the Summer School – these comments are in italics.

The piece begins in traditional style with an unaccompanied gu zheng (Chinese harp):

Song of Four Seasons in fact has two contrasting melodies. They don’t have much in common – beyond a propensity for 6-bar phrases – but both are hexatonic, based on the 6-note scale that characterises so much Chinese music. The first melody (reprised at the end of the piece) is rather angular, in two beats to the bar; the strings join the gu zheng second time around, still in unison, playing very freely (inspired by, rather than imitating exactly, the technique of Chinese fiddles like the erhu):


The second melody, more flowing, is in 3 time; but for variety and more contrast the rhythmic feel is a typical jazz 3/4 – syncopated and often suggesting 6/8 rather than 3/4. Here is the 4-bar link that sets up the new section:


The melody itself, played here by flugelhorn and flute, floats serenely over this more restless accompaniment (note, like the first melody, it begins with two 6-bar phrases):


The first improvised section follows, with the cello soloing first, joined by violin and vibraphone…

Many musicians – even professionals, not just young musicians – find improvisation very daunting. It often helps to break it down, to concentrate on perhaps only one element. It is good, for instance, to concentrate on just the melody, without having to worry too much about harmonic sequences or rhythmic complexity. Scales like this one are ideal to start with: you have to stick closely to the notes, so your choices are limited. Moreover, the players here are all classical musicians, with little or no previous experience – or confidence! – in improvising

…and a simple backing figure played by the other instruments, also based on the six-note scale, drifts in from time to time to give them some support:


However, although the soloists are assiduously staying with the 6 notes of the scale, the harmony has already introduced other notes, notably the ‘missing’ 6th degree (in this case C natural or C sharp). In its raw 6-note form, there are no awkward intervals in the hexatonic scale, no augmented fourths or diminished fifths to create melodic and harmonic difficulties. As soon as you add a 7th note this ‘purity’ disappears – another reason why it is good to start improvising with simpler scales. In this case, the resultant full scale tends towards a natural minor scale common to folk music the world over – corresponding also to the dorian mode, and the Indian Rag Kafi.

A new ensemble figure exploiting these wider harmonic possibilities (note the ambiguity of the C sharps/naturals!) is used to close this section and introduce the next. Besides spicing up the harmony, it adds a rhythmic piquancy through its displaced accents; it also follows the contour of the melody, beginning with two 6-bar phrases:


A guitar solo follows which plays much more freely with the scale…

Of course, it’s up to the improviser whether to stick within the ‘rules’ or break them, introducing notes that are not present in the scale, setting up tensions and resolutions. It’s the same with harmony: based solely on triads drawn from a 6-note scale it will easily become boring. Creating chords emphasising 2nds and 4ths gives greater variety; playing around with the 6th even more; and changing the roots of the chords and introducing chromatic notes tends to accentuate the character of a simple scale rather than overwhelm it!

…backed this time with riffs and figures whose main interest is rhythmic rather than melodic or harmonic (although the lower line of Ex 6 comes from Ex 4 slowed down!):



In fact, their job is to emphasise the tonality and thus give the soloist greater freedom…

Freed from the necessity to be melodically inventive or follow sophisticated harmonies, you can concentrate solely on rhythmic variety. Here the punchy rhythmic figures and stabs directly challenge any tendency towards obvious, standard four-bar phrases; or (in Ex 7 – playing with the same 4-note figure, but in shorter notes) even appear to contradict the main pulse itself.

…until the spiky linking figure (Ex 5) returns to bring the guitar solo to an end.

The guitar joins in this figure, which is then played under the first reprise of the second melody (Ex 3). The basic rhythm section comp (Ex 2) returns, and then – in a surprising twist – keeps going when the first melody (Ex 1) comes back! This gives the curious effect of a traditional Chinese tune in 2 played against a jazz 3, but with the accents not coinciding where you would imagine:


 A rousing rendition of the opening melody by the whole ensemble in unison brings the piece to an end.


No two performances of this piece are ever the same – as with most of the GUO and GUYO repertoire – but the structure and certain features are replicated each time.

Here is a version (slightly edited) of Song of Four Seasons from Wilton’s Music Hall summer 2013, with a completely different group of Grand Union musicians. The gu zheng is replaced by Chinese flute; Chinese and European flutes duet in the first improvised section; after the guitar, the second main solo is on steel pan; while Gypsy accordian and Carnatic violin are part of the ensemble!


More on improvisation can be found in this article (see left also) and an earlier Post.

Practising melodic improvisation with Indian scales is equally rewarding, and indeed can be more challenging; this last example shows how valuable they can be in a quite unexpected context. There are many examples throughout this blog of how Indian ragas can be explored to great creative effect – and it’s a topic I shall return to.

An example of another way to work with Chinese traditional melodies can be found here – featuring the same gu zheng player Zhu Xiao Meng  in Picking Betel Palm




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