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

34: Alentejo and the Midi Revisited

Grand Union’s return to Setúbal and Alès in May and June, to continue its work on its EU-funded project, proved even more sensational than last year’s visits!

In the Setúbal Music Festival we were working with mainly the same 45 fantastic young musicians as in 2013, so were able to produce an even more ambitious, full-length show. Called Trova de Três Oceanos (Ballad of Three Oceans), it played to another full house in the Luisa Todi auditorium. This year we added a fabulous Portuguese guitar player, António Dias, to the London-Lisbon Grand Union team, and a particular highlight of the evening was Carta ao Mar (Postcard to the Sea), a brand new song I had written for the incomparable Liana, which will be the subject of a future Post (live video here).

In Alès, a 7-piece Grand Union Band was not only the main feature of the local Fête de la Musique celebrations, but also launched Estiv’Ales, the town’s summer entertainment programme. At the same time, we were able to put in some great work with the cast of Soie et Charbon, produced by Annie Corbier’s company Ellipse in collaboration with GUO. The culmination of the French strand of the EU collaboration, this will be performed at the very end of September: it’s a very moving and imaginative evocation of the Cévennes region past and present, famous mainly for silk weaving and coal mining – hence the title. This too will be the subject of a future Post.

For more information on Grand Union’s work in Portugal and France, Post 23 (Adventures in Portugal) and Post 24 (Bhangra in the Midi) provide useful context. Meanwhile, here is a new piece I produced for the recent show in Setúbal, rehearsed with the French musicians…

…and here it is later developed into a more substantial piece for Undream’d Shores, Grand Union’s big show at the Hackney Empire:

Jémanjá meets Vasco da Gama

The audio track illustrating this Post is a computer sound-card version of a Sibelius score file, rather than an existing Grand Union Orchestra recording. You therefore have to imagine the impact of the drums as you follow the score through! The piece was written at very short notice for the Setúbal show, and for a specfic purpose: I needed something to feature the seven (!) saxophones, and something with an African rhythm for the percussion players. It could not be too difficult, as rehearsal time was very limited; and it also had to fit with the theme of the show!

Answering all these demands, this piece was the result, and I think it makes a very instructive way of demonstrating some useful compositional ideas and techniques. Here it is in full:

The musical material is quite simple. It’s based on an ancient Yoruba chant honouring Jémanjá or Yémanyá – the orissa or spirit of water, the sea, fishermen – which originated in West Africa, but migrated also to northern Brazil:


In Trova de Três Oceanos it was first sung unaccompanied by Liana, with the African rhythm brought in underneath, adding the bass riff and full rhythm section little by little. The melody itself seems to suggest C major, although it’s actually a hexatonic (6-note) scale; but making D rather than C the tonal centre gives it a little more ‘bite’, and suggests the dorian mode (or Rag Kafi). The melody and the insistent bass-line have been fitted to the characteristic West African 12/8 bell pattern agbekor or ewe (see also Post 3), and any harmony is derived entirely from the notes of the scale (no chromatic additions or alterations!):


This is not an easy rhythm for Western musicians to read or to play, so to simplify things, all the melodic phrases are rhythmically identical throughout: once you’ve got the hang of one of them, you have them all. Equally, there are only 7 notes to learn, and all the melodic contours are similar. (It’s always good practice to give all parts, even the inner ones, a convincing melodic shape in their own right.)

There are five repetitions of the melody in full, with the orchestration gradually thickening. The first statement is for all the higher saxes in unison:


The bass line is also unvaried throughout (although the player is free to improvise also!), and follows the bell pattern and the phrasing of the melody; it’s doubled in the first and last sections by the baritone saxophone. The first two bars of the melody felt to me instinctively like pick-up bars, so there is a two bar break introducing each section; and with each entry, new percussion textures are added.

The second statement is again for saxes, this time in octaves, but splitting into four-part chords for the long notes:


Saxes now split into four parts for the whole theme. The melody itself is in octaves on the ‘outside’ of the voicings, and the inner parts are roughly a third apart (along lines of one of the conventional, rather mechanical, principles in writing for jazz big band sax or brass sections):


Trumpets (taking the melody) and higher woodwind (doubling the sax parts an octave above) are now added, creating six-part harmonies. The parts are generated as described above: while all notes in the scale ‘fit’, the skill lies in choosing the combinations to give the illusion of a harmonic progression (the main decision revolving mostly around whether to use C or B as part of the chord, or when to include F):


Finally other brass are added, while the woodwind move into a higher register and the bass line is again doubled by the baritone:


A punchy unison figure launches a section featuring the drums and percussion, which in turn is punctuated by riffs and chords. To a great extent these can be collectively improvised from the basic material by now familiar to all the players, but here are some examples (the first riff, if played 3 times, makes an excellent ending in the form of a triple tihai – see Post 8!):



I also introduced this piece to the musicians in Alès the following weekend – there are more brass there (trombones, euphoniums) and fewer wind, but the instrumentation is not critical – and it will feature in Soie et Charbon in September.

It will also feature in the Grand Union Summer School (see also Post 32), precisely because it demonstrates how an exciting and apparently complex piece can be created from simple materials. It illustrates at the same time principles of voicing, deriving harmony from a scale, using rhythmic patterns to create instrumental parts – and in this case all based on a traditional song! It also provides excellent sight-reading practice, ensemble discipline and a stimulating basis for improvisation.

Post 3, In Praise of Eleggua, illustrates another approach to putting the same principles into practice – celebrating, as it happens, another Yoruba orissa, Eleggua!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: