ONLINE COMPOSITION MASTERCLASS

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

43: Mr Never-Smile (UdS)

Mythical or imaginary figures appear frequently in Grand Union shows. They are archetypes, serving to encapsulate a particular character or mood, or frame the story. Three appear in Undream’d Shores: the narrative is structured around interventions of Amathaunta (based on an obscure Sumerian goddess!), as described in Post 39; not for the first time the Yoruba orissa Yémanjá (spirit of rivers and oceans, venerated by sailors and fishermen) puts in an appearance (see Post 34); and there is also Eleggua.

In the Yoruba mythology that ‘migrated’ from West Africa over the centuries with the slave trade (and is still very much alive in Brazil and particularly Cuba), Eleggua is the guardian of the cross-roads and presides over journeys. Here is a version of one of his traditional chants, as it appears towards the beginning of Undream’d Shores (‘ago ile ago’ means something like ‘may I enter’ and ‘moyuba’ ‘I pay homage’):

Eleggua is also known as the Trickster, and can change shape. So when he reappears to open the second half of Undream’d Shores, he does so in the guise of Mr Never-Smile, the universal immigration officer – guardian of borders of a very different kind. (Mr Never-Smile, or Joe Never-Smile, has himself appeared in various guises in Grand Union shows over the years – see the footnote below.) The song itself – with lyrics by Sara Clifford, performed by Jonathan André – is entirely based on elements from this chant, which uses a simple 6-note scale (F/G/Bb/C/D/Eb). It begins with a chorus, which reappears several times, and is also transformed into some vocal riffs:

MNS-1Even the reggae-inspired bass-line is derived from the melody of the chant itself. There are in fact just two basic four-bar backing figures that run through most of the song, each with a slightly different, distinctive feel. (The orchestration is deliberately simple, with brass and saxes in block chords emphasising the different phrasing, with a rather lugubrious baritone sax prominent throughout). The first one clearly is diatonic, using only the notes of the basic scale; the second has more chromatic harmonies, and accompanies most of the verses – whose melodic phrases (and indeed bass-line) are nonetheless still hexatonic, following the contours of the original chant:

MNS-2The technique of using chromatic harmony to contrast with or ‘contradict’ simple pentatonic or hexatonic melodies is one I use quite often, when working for example with Chinese, Indian or folk musics (see Post 12 and Post 15). Another way to achieve variety is to alter the whole pitch of the scale or raga from which the melody is drawn; in this song, for example, there is a tonal shift along these lines halfway through the first verse:

MNS-3This short passage is then transposed back into the original key in a variation, with new words…

MNS-4

…leading into a section in complete contrast harmonically and melodically – for obvious dramatic reasons, expressed in the lyrics! – before the opening section (Ex 2) comes back:

MNS-5

At this point, I have to reveal that, for some reason I can’t explain, I became obsessed with a version of one of the chromatic chords – A flat minor with a major seventh, and a variant of this with D flat in the bass (= Db9 #11 !) – which became a pivot between the various sections, sometimes over a different bass note, and introduces a further note of ambiguity in the Coda (Ex 7):

MNS-6The middle section starts as a trumpet solo (played by Claude Deppa) over the opening four-bar chords+bass figure (Ex 1), which then becomes a dialogue with the chorus, who interject questions again based on the Eleggua chant:

MNS-7

The opening chorus and verse sections are then repeated, finishing up with a coda in which Mr Never-Smile, his arrogance knowing no bounds, identifies himself with Eleggua; and the two conflicting tonal centres (C minor and Ab minor/Db) are thrust up close against each other as the song dies away:

MNS-8

A big band-style instrumental piece based on a longer version the same chant, and featuring African 12/8 drum rhythms, is the subject of Post 3. It can be seen here on video , or heard here in a shorter version:

For musical and dramatic context, here is a link to edited highlights of Undream’d Shores (also available as a full-length DVD from Grand Union!). 

Footnote

I came across Old Joe Never-Smile originally in Jelly Roll Morton’s wonderfully colourful evocation of early 20th century New Orleans, chronicled by Alan Lomax. Leading the cortège in funeral processions, he would “wipe the horses’ eyes with onion juice to make them cry”. He first appeared, therefore, in Grand Union’s first touring show Jelly Roll Soul.

However, we were so intrigued by this character that he became a constant presence in later shows David Bradford and I wrote for Grand Union – though we used him more often to symbolise the killjoy or eternal jobsworth, or sometimes more sinister and malign figures than the kindly hearse-driver…

In Strange Migration, for example, he reappeared as “Joe Never-Smile, the faithful god of boundaries – look how the green moss grows and tries to hide him… he won’t forgive, and he will not forget”, and later in Doctor Carnival, Now Comes the Dragon’s Hour and If Paradise.

So when Sara Clifford was looking for a way to express a direct and bald statement about the barriers to migration – and the red tape, officiousness and bureaucracy that even the most casual and innocent of travellers faces – I suggested another reincarnation of Mr Never-Smile might be a good way to embody this. I doubt we’ve seen the last of him yet…

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