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

40: Postcard to the Sea (UdS)

This month marks another significant event in the Grand Union Orchestra calendar – we return to Portugal to complete the final stage there of our two-year EU-funded project. The show is called Mil e Uma Marés (A Thousand and One Tides) and brings together most of our Portuguese and French partner musicians, much as Undream’d Shores did at the Hackney Empire Theatre in London in November 2014. It also features 40 remarkable local young musicians, Indian Kathak dancers and an extraordinary women’s singing and percussion group from the Cape Verde islands.

This whole project has been wonderful in allowing us to meet and work with a wider range of great musicians and singers. The artist featured in this month’s Post is a great example – Liana, currently making her name as the next fado sensation to emerge from Lisbon, but whose artistry stretches well beyond the confines of fado music. It has also given me the opportunity to write a lot of new material, and a particular pleasure has been writing songs for singers like Liana; Carta ao Mar is a typical example, which also proved to be one of the hits of the Empire show.

The words of Carta ao Mar (‘letter to the sea’) are by the poet António Gomes Leal, who lived about a hundred years ago. They are in the form of a sonnet – in this case two four-line verses followed by two of three lines – which is in effect a hymn to the awesome majesty of the sea. In setting them, I wanted to find a way of capturing the spirit of fado without resorting to pastiche or crude imitation.

The harmonic sequences of fado are relatively simple and conventional; the words are the important thing, and the melody which carries them. Harmony and melody stick very closely together – a complete contrast to the song-writing technique I described in the previous blog (Post 39), which relies on a tension, even dissonance, between the melody and the chords. In this case, I’ve gone even further: all the chords (with four small exceptions) are major triads! Here are the first six lines:


Variety is provided by the subtle changes of tonality, which hovers throughout between two keys. Basically the song is in F major, but this alternates with A major, as this example demonstrates, with an occasional excursion into D flat. The pivotal note is A, the triads that contain it (F, D and A), and the chords a major third above and below (ie F and D flat). The introduction on Portuguese guitar, based on the last two bars of the song (Ex 2c, Ex 4), sets up this ambiguity from the start.

The melody however does contain some minor-sounding inflections, a nod to the occasional ‘bluesy’ flavour of fado; and there are three chords that are not major triads – technically first inversions of minor 7th chords with a flattened fifth (often called half-diminished) – which occur between an implied dominant chord and its tonic resolution (including one leading into the final line of the song):


The structure of the piece is very simple – the melody unfolds in conventional four-bar phrases, 28 bars in all, and is then repeated. In between comes an improvised solo (the always eloquent and lyrical Kevin Robinson on flugelhorn adding ‘saudade’ to the mix) over the first 12 bars of the song (Ex 1); then the instrumentalist (Kevin here, Louise Elliott in the video clip below) takes up the melody from the beginning. At this point interlocking figures first on flutes, then clarinets, then both together create an increasingly intricate accompaniment, intended to represent the gentle rippling of waves. (The fourth ‘exception’ to the major triad chords is the diminished 5th arpeggio in Ex 3d.) These figures are quite simply based on a diminution (double-time version) of the arpeggios that form the first and last phrases of the song:


To the last of these the trumpet adds a rising line, which outlines the major third relationship (suggesting an augmented 5th chord) implied in the three basic chords described above (ie A – Db – F); this then forms a counterpoint to the falling arpeggios in the melodic phrase that closes the song:


This song was premiered in Setúbal in May 2014 as part of A Trova de Três Oceanos, commissioned for the annual International Music Festival there:

The Legacy of Setúbal

The contribution of António Dias, a master of the Portuguese guitar (heard but sadly not seen on the video clip!) is very important in helping create the atmosphere, and he weaves a wonderfully delicate and sensitive counterpoint around Liana’s voice and Kevin’s solo. His artistry too stretches beyond fado, as we became aware during Undream’d Shores: he can be heard, for example, adding to the dreamy textures of the Strange Migration choruses in Post 39.

Our relationship with the Setúbal Music Festival – our Portuguese partner in the EU-funded project – has been very enjoyable and highly productive. Over the last two years, we have made numerous trips to Setúbal to work with local musicians, and have created three memorable shows at the Fórum Municipal Luisa Todi, the main theatre there, all involving local performers, especially young musicians.

This is therefore also a good time to pay tribute to Ian Ritchie, the Festival Director, and his indefatigable assistant Narcisa Costa, and thank them warmly for their unstinting trust and support.

For the curious, here are two other videos of our work in Setúbal – the first, roughly edited excerpts from our first show there in May 2013; the second, a short documentary of a workshop with the young percussionists who took part.






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