Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.
April 25th – vinte e cinco de abril – is the day in 1974 that a military coup ended nearly 50 years of dictatorship in Portugal. This year is the 40th anniversary of that bloodless revolution and the overthrow of the régime of António Salazar and his successors. (I remember vividly being in Lisbon in the mid-sixties seeing one of them – Admiral Américo Tomás, referred to in the lyrics below – being driven in an open-top limousine in pomp up the Avenida da Liberdade.) As Grand Union returns to Portugal to continue the development of its European Union-funded project, this seemed a good moment to reflect on and commemorate the event – albeit with a rather sombre illustration.
The main trigger for the ‘carnation revolution’ – so-called, as the tanks entering Lisbon were garlanded with flowers by the populace – was the disenchantment of some younger and lower-ranking army officers with the seemingly endless, ruinous wars in which Portugal struggled to hold on to its empire in Africa and East Timor. The wars of independence being fought in the colonies were not only economically disastrous: compulsory conscription was four years by this time, and thus draining the country of its young men. (A wonderfully poetic image of this process is Depois o Bosque Se Fez Barco, Post 9.)
As Colunas de Madrugada tells just one tiny typical story from this period, which my long-time collaborator David Bradford adapted from a novel about the war in Angola by António Lobo Antunes (a former army medical officer) called ‘Os Cus de Judas’, published in English under the more polite title ‘South of Nowhere’. The narrative is brutal in its simplicity: a conscript soldier traumatised by the war tries to kill himself; a medical orderly is despatched to treat him.
However, I had also another reason for wanting to write this Post – to demonstrate an unorthodox but highly effective composition device. I was reminded of it when writing about The Flame of Love a couple of Posts back, and in a way it’s a variation of a similar technique…
Literary and musical form
I have interlinked my setting of the five verses of this story with verses from a poem by the great writer Manuel Alegre, the third of three settings of his poems which I wrote for the touring show and subsequent CD The Rhythm of Tides (Por Mares do Imaginário). The form of this poem is extraordinary but extremely simple; I know nothing like it in English so compact and economical.
What Alegre has done is take eight very short words or phrases, and re-order them in successive verses to give different shades of meaning to the relentless, exhausting and tedious prosecution of the war. I imagine these to be the thoughts of the dying conscript soldier. I have matched each with equally simple musical phrases, which are then of course reordered in the same way. Here they are (as they appear in the last verse, in fact, at their most basic), with very literal translations: The phrases are modal, of course, and are sung freely against a sitar/tanpura drone on an open fifth E flat – B flat, intended to suggest the creepy atmosphere of uncertainty and danger in the streets of Luanda and the surrounding jungle. The only variation is a changing bass note (from the same scale) that gives a slightly different harmonic ‘meaning’ to each verse – sometimes softening it, sometimes increasing the tension.
The medic’s narrative
This on the other hand is very regular and precise. An important feature is the steady bass-line, underpinning highly chromatic harmonies. The accompaniment is varied only by changing voicings for the brass and saxes (until the fifth verse, with its more astringent chords and distorted ‘Valkyrie’ fanfare!). The melody on the other hand, full of angular intervals but always drawing on the same scale or selection of notes, is constantly adapting to the phrasing and expression of the words. Here is the first verse, with the brass/wind harmonies condensed: The tonality is in effect a combination of D minor and B flat minor (with a touch of C sharp minor thrown in). If you add, say, a major 7th and flattened 5th, they have a lot of notes in common (see Ex 6); they even share a kind of common dominant in A augmented or F augmented! More on this is described below; the main point is that the tonality contrasts with what is basically the E flat minor of the soldier’s sections as the tragedy unfolds:
This alternation of sections continues, as the medic counts down the hours from six through four and two, until the Admiral’s night-cap explodes at the moment the soldier dies. The last verse is an elegy for the soldier: The final verse of the soldier himself is the plainest and most resigned. The tuba – which has played the different held bass notes up to this point – provides a bald descending bass-line:
By a strange coincidence, Paulo de Carvalho, the distinguished Portuguese singer featured here (and throughout The Rhythm of Tides), himself unknowingly played a significant part in the revolution. Back in the seventies he was a rising pop-star, and the signal to alert the rebel soldiers of the MFA (Armed Forces Movement) that the coup was about to begin was a broadcast of him singing E Depois do Adeus, Portugal’s entry that year in the Eurovision Song Contest!
Then, a few hours later on April 25th, a broadcast of Grândola by the banned folk singer Zeca Afonso announced that the revolution had started and strategic points across the whole country were under the army’s control.
Other musical notes
The medical orderly’s melodies are in effect built from this scale, and it is easy to see how the notes relate to the two tonalities of D minor and B flat minor: In the two numbers preceding this one, this material appears first as a kind of Indian raga in a duet between Baljuji Shrivastav and Chris Biscoe (based on a C sharp root), and then as the flugelhorn linking phrase in Depois o Bosque Se Fez Barco, Post 9 (another song with words by Manuel Alegre; the third, Meu Amor é Marinheiro, is the subject of Post 23, where there is also a note on Manuel Alegre himself): Then, following the music described above, all this material is developed in a dramatic big band-style instrumental called A Country Conscript, which is analysed in Post 8. The backings – ‘tihai riffs’ – behind Claude Deppa’s trumpet solo are derived from the conscript soldier’s material (Examples 1-4 in that article), while Chris Biscoe’s alto saxophone interjects an angular ballad-like theme created by joining the first of the medic’s melodies (Ex 2) to the last (Ex 4), using of course the same harmony, which he later improvises over: Finally, here is A Country Conscript complete (see Post 8 for analysis)
This score is available arranged for standard big band, and – like most of my music based on GUO repertoire – is playable by more experienced student ensembles with an adventurous spirit.