Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
When I first set out on the journey to Undream’d Shores (see Post 30), I never dared imagine it would turn out so gloriously – or rather, open up the way for yet more adventures! The performances at the Hackney Empire succeeded beyond anything I could have dreamed possible, and by universal consent this was rated Grand Union’s best large-scale show ever. The cast of 80 – professional and amateur, young and old, representing every main musical culture and migrant community of East London – was absolutely magnificent. A selection of reviews and audience responses can be found on the Grand Union Orchestra website, and the full show Programme here.
I am going to devote the next few Posts to presenting and exploring some of the music from the show – relevant Posts have (UdS) added to the title; here is a short and simple example to begin with.
Throughout Undream’d Shores the GUO and GU Youth Orchestra are deployed as separate but equally important ensembles – sometimes complementing, sometimes playing against each other. Red Soil, from which this piece is drawn, takes the form of a dialogue (in English and Bengali) between a father who came to London from Bangladesh after the war in the 70s and his son who was born here. I will talk about the song more fully in a future Post; this extract forms the climax of the piece, and is itself a kind of dialogue between the two generations of musicians…
Red Soil is based on Lalon Ki Jat, a song by the well-known Bengali poet-singer Lalon Shah. It’s very popular, and there are as many different versions as there are singers.Here is the one I use for Red Soil, but the first and last lines – which themselves are basically the same, with identical lyrics (in effect a ‘chorus’) – are varied considerably during the course of the number:
It occurred to me that this could be used as the basis for a very interesting instrumental piece based on bhangra rhythms – especially as it’s based on Rag Bhairvi, a rag commonly used in bhangra numbers. Here also is the bhangra dhol drum pattern in its most basic form – for me, the opening ‘da-da dum’ with its characteristic upbeat really defines the rhythm:
I think of Rag Bhairvi as the most ‘extreme’ form of a European minor scale (sometimes called the Phrygian Mode): every possible degree (ie except the 4th and 5th) that can be flattened is flattened! All the material in this piece is based entirely on these seven notes, with no variation (one exception is noted below). There is no harmony as such, beyond the characteristic parallel triads a harmonium player might produce; what harmony there is derives from imitation or canon, and figures answering or colliding with each other. The bass guitar line is virtually unvaried throughout and as well as keeping the tonality firmly rooted reinforces the bhangra rhythm (which in this piece deliberately avoids a heavy ‘one’ at the beginning of each 2-bar phrase).
The overall structure is very simple and falls into three sections – three varied repetitions of the song above played by the Youth Orchestra musicians to which the GUO musicians add various counterpoints. To begin with, the melody and any imitative figures are played entirely in unison, punctuated by riffs in harmony:
Towards the end of the middle 3-bar section, the saxes anticipate the return of the opening phrase of the song with a kind of ‘pre-emptive canon’ at the 5th above (while the trombones add a riff):
In the second section the melody is played throughout in parallel triads, but at first the canonic imitiations are still in unison:
The middle 3 bars are also harmonised by GUYO, while the canonic answering phrase in the GUO saxes is in open octaves:
In the final section (now doubled in length), however, the GUO brass echo the GUYO figure (now in its very simplest form) in triads, while the saxes introduce a third canon in octaves, which ends in a simple characteristic tihai (see also Post 8).
Following a short bridge, in which a 4-note figure is piled up from lowest register to highest, GUYO begin the third repetition playing the melody in triads in the low register (again doubled in length), with the GUO brass and saxes supplying a triadic answering phrase but in the surprising key of F minor (still of course based on the Bhairvi scale). This figure however is displaced by a beat each time (ie it is actually a 7-beat rather than 8-beat phrase), so by its fourth repetition it coincides rhythmically with the GUYO melody
The central 3 bars are exactly as in Ex 6, but this time the GUO ‘canon’ is richly harmonised (using all 7 notes of the scale), with the melody 3 octaves apart in the soprano saxophone and tuba. The last few bars, with still more imitation, are all in unison again, and conclude with the tihai from Ex 7 now split across the whole range of the ensemble:
This is not the first time bhangra has inspired me to write a big band ensemble; Post 24 talks about another piece Bhangra Brass, and describes the role of the dhol drum in more detail. The dhol is played in both pieces by Ketan Kerai, who is also a gifted classical sarangi player – a Lancashire-born Indian musician who joined Grand Union through the Youth Orchestra.
For Undream’d Shores – which also celebrated the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Grand Union Orchestra (described more fully here) – I also revived and developed two pieces from our very first show and début album The Song of Many Tongues:
The relevance to Undream’d Shores of these and previous Posts, and those to come in the next few months, is designated by (UdS) added to the title.
The weekend at the Hackney Empire featured not only the première of Undream’d Shores: there was also an ‘instrument menagerie’, where young children could handle instruments from around the world and talk to their ‘keepers’; workshops in musical styles from around the world; and a family matinée featuring these instruments, musicians and musical styles in pieces drawn from Undream’d Shores.
We are intending to tour this ‘package’ over the next three years, and it will form the backbone of Grand Union’s work. More detailed information can be found here.
To launch this initiative, and to mark the conclusion of our two-year EU-funded programme, in April 2015 we are presenting The Isle is Full of Noises. This unusual event, combining debate with performances, presentations and exhibitions over a two-week period, will bring together artists in different disciplines and from different cultural backgrounds who share Grand Union’s artistic, social and political vision; and who engage with, draw artists from and/or are inspired by the culture of the immigrant and migrant-descended communities. Full details can be found here.