Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
One of the reasons for the extraordinary success of Undream’d Shores at the Hackney Empire (see previous Post for a full account and links) was that all the performers were treated as a single, integrated professional ensemble; although there were nearly 80 on stage, all of them were of equal importance to the show, regardless of age or experience, which gave it a rare magic quality. This was particularly true of the singers, who offered me an astonishing range of individual voices to work with – whether as soloists, in ensembles or as a full-throated choir.
This is well illustrated in the recurring verses and choruses which form a thread throughout the show, linking or introducing the different episodes; the words of the verses change, but not the chorus. Here is the chorus as it appears at the opening of Undream’d Shores:
This is sung by three contrasting voices in counterpoint, and an interesting technical feature of the composition is that the voices often have only tangential relationship to the harmony (sketched in on acoustic, Portuguese and bass guitars); and the vocal lines themselves look quite dissonant on paper, as well as unrelated to the harmony! The effect, however, is quite haunting, and works particularly well with two or more voices, especially if they have markedly different characters: it highlights the contrasts in timbre between them, and heightens the dramatic narrative or tension.
While many of the songs I write, and have described in these Posts, follow the more conventional principle of using harmony to support rather than counterpoint the melodic line of a song, I am very fond of this ‘alienation’ technique, and use it frequently; it probably stems from my early work writing music for theatre, where the actors’ voices were one of the main musical resources available. Other examples in these Posts are Silence is Consent (where there is also a stark ‘contradiction’ between the harshness of the words and the dreamy musical texture), Depois o Bosque se fez Barco (particularly towards the end), and If Music Could… (which also works well with a choir). By the Waters of Babylon uses a similar technique, but here it is the trombones that provide the ‘alien’ harmonies against a single unison vocal line.
It is fascinating in all these examples how the individual voices both blend and clash with each other to give apparently simple musical textures such a rich variety of colours.
Here are all the verses and choruses (bear in mind these tracks are taken from the live performance!) as they occur in Undream’d Shores:
Verse and chorus 2:
Verse and chorus 3:
(The last example is actually the third of the verses: it is not followed by the chorus this time, but segues into By the Waters of Babylon.)
The singers (more or less in order of appearance!) are Adwoa Jackson (Jamaica), Tommy Ng (Malaysia), Liana Chaplin (Portugal), Victoria Couper (England/Brazil), Jacqueline Lwanzo (Congo), Richard Scott (England), Maja Rivic (Croatia), Akash Sultan (Bangladesh), Noga Ritter (Israel), Günes Cerit (Turkey) and Jonathan André (African British). The verses are sung here by Adwoa, Liana, Maja and Noga (who also of course sing in one of the other choruses), and each verse introduces a different episode of Undream’d Shores.
This came about because one of the first ideas I discussed with writer Sara Clifford (who wrote many of the lyrics for If Paradise) was to structure the work around mythical goddesses or spirits from different cultures across the five continents, identified with the sea, voyages or travel and so on. (We hoped this would give Undream’d Shores a more poetic, impressionistic or even mystical quality, avoiding just the literal expression of the experience of migration.) These included the West African Yoruba orissa Yémanyá (who in fact does make a significant appearance – see Post 34) and the Chinese/Southeast Asian deity Mazu.
It proved unnecessarily complicated, however, and in the end we settled for just one who could appear in different guises, the obscure Sumerian goddess of the ocean Amathaunta. So little is known about her that we could virtually invent our own mythology, an important feature of this – like all Grand Union projects! – that I shall come back to soon… You could imagine, then, that the four solo women singers are different manifestations of Amathaunta, who exerts a protective influence over the characters and events of Undream’d Shores, particularly where they involve the sea.
How all these elements fit together, and the full structure and dramatic narrative of Undream’d Shores, will be gradually revealed in the next few Posts…
Undream’d Shores also celebrated the 30th anniversary of the début of the Grand Union Orchestra (described in Post 36), which in turn grew out of our pioneering touring show Strange Migration (see Post 22). I described in the previous Post how and why I decided to revive material from those earlier projects; and the Strange Migration chorus is of course taken from the iconic show which first established Grand Union’s reputation and unque artistic ethos.
Equally importantly, I wanted to include as many musicians who took part in the original performances. Most of them, it’s heart-warming to record, have been regular members of the Grand Union Orchestra ever since!
2014 has been one of Grand Union’s most memorable years yet, so the turn of the year seems an appropriate time to record my love and gratitude to them for their work over the last 30 or more years, and especially their wonderful contribution to the success of Undream’d Shores:
Gerry Hunt (guitar, saxophones and all linstruments imaginable); Ros Davies (trombone, flute); Dave Adams (drums, trombone); Claude Deppa (trumpet, African drums); Chris Biscoe (alto and soprano saxophones); Andy Grappy (tuba); Carlos Fuentes (Latin-American percussion).
…and not forgetting of course those many other supreme musicians in the show who have been stalwarts of the Orchestra for a mere 20 or 25 years!
I’d like also to pay tribute too to those who were valued regular Grand Union musicians from the beginning who have sadly passed away – Keith Morris, Vladimir Vega and Butch Potter. Happily their contribution lives on too in many of the recordings featured throughout this blog (including I Live in the City and the tracks listed above).
But it’s also a time to look ahead, and Undream’d Shores saw many new artists performing with the company for the first time, and above all the coming of age of so many promising young musicians, that 2015 will surely be another year to savour!