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

45: Liberation Street revisited

Looking for footage to illustrate my tribute to Cengiz Saner last month, I chanced on the video of On Liberation Street, in which – as well as directing the show on stage – he appears as a kind of narrator. As it happens, in the meantime we have just run our second residential Summer School, which proved even more successful than our first venture last year; and it’s a nice coincidence that the next stop for Undream’d Shores is a production in Leeds. So, reflecting on how to commemorate over 30 years of work with young musicians and spectacular participatory shows, this seemed a timely typical example – the finale of the first half of On Liberation Street at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2005.

As well as a mixed choir, there was an extraordinary variety of performers (typical of Yorkshire today!) representing many different cultural backgrounds and levels of skill:

  • junior brass band
  • sitars, santoors and tabla
  • flute choir and folk fiddles
  • steel band
  • percussion ensemble
  • African drummers
  • community college swing band

Exactly why these forces were gathered together I explain below. Deployed in different combinations throughout the show, I Ain’t Goin’ Dere No More brings them all together in a joyous affirmation of freedom. The lyrics are by the Caribbean writer Valerie Bloom, opening with the words “ I used to be a soldier…”. It begins and ends with the choir, but in between the instrumental groups are unleashed, separately and then collectively, in what is in effect a series of variations on the chorus:

The form is quite conventional – each ‘variation’ 16 bars long, following roughly the same harmonic pattern. However, to accommodate different ensembles, some had to be in a particular key (the Indian instruments were tuned to D flat), and relatively easy to rehearse (the steel band learnt its parts by ear). So it required considerable ingenuity in trying to combine them! The main tonalities are broadly F, D flat and A – a major 3rd apart; and each variation (like the vocal chorus) tends to begin on the subdominant chord.

First up is the junior brass band:


A key change (to D flat) ushers in the Indian instruments:


This section is repeated with the addition of violins, then the steel pans take over with two consecutive variations. The second one is accompanied by a simple chordal sequence from the brass band, which recurs later in various guises; and the falling figure (b) in bars 2-4 also reappears on other instruments:


It’s now the turn of the swing band – trumpets and trombones in a freely flowing phrase, to which saxes are added a sixth below on its repeat. The first time around the brass band continues with the chordal sequence (Ex 4 b), then adds a more punchy version of the same figure; meanwhile the steel band adds its two themes (Ex 4 a & b) in turn:


The Grand Union Orchestra (you may notice 3 young Leeds musicians added on trumpet and saxes!) now takes over, with a free development of the material heard so far. From here, however, it gets more complicated: each variation itself contains a change of key! This – introducing a kind of ‘middle 8’ – generally switches between A and D flat, or vice versa:


The music settles into D flat for a couple of choruses (though still with 4 bars in A in the middle of each), which gives the Indian instruments a chance to return with their theme (doubled by violins second time). The swing band now has a new call-and-response figure to go with it (Ex 7), which the brass band complements with the descending phrase adapted from the steel pans (Ex 4 b); swing band saxes (cf Ex 5) are also added on the repeat:


There are now just three more choruses before the voices come back in.

First, the GUO plays its second theme (Ex 6 b), filled out by the swing band with a variation of the brass band chordal sequence heard earlier (Ex 4 b);

Then, the swing band reprises its original theme (Ex 5, brass + saxes), against the first steel band theme (Ex 4 a), now doubled by flutes, plus the brass band chords (Ex 4 b);

Finally, GUO and swing band saxes play a new version of their earlier themes (Ex 6 b and Ex 5), with steel pans and flutes playing their second theme (Ex 4 b upper) and brass band and swing band brass a grand transformation of the chordal sequence (Ex 4 b lower).


In 2005 Grand Union was commissioned by a consortium in Leeds to create a show commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The project was conceived and led by Artforms Leeds – the City’s de facto Music Service – which nominated several of its ensembles to take part (junior brass band, flute choir, folk band, percussion ensemble), with South Asian Arts UK a major partner (providing sitars, santoors, dilrubas, tabla and some singers). Others taking part were Silver Sparrows steel band, Garforth Community College swing band and Ralph Thoresby Community College choir; and some musicians (including the African drummers) were recruited from local schools.

There were essentially two challenges – how to unify over 100 such diverse performers into a coherent work, and how to make that work relevant and moving to people two generations after the war. As so often happens, solving one helped solve the other.

I decided to structure the show around three major conflicts that occurred, or came to a head, in the 1970s (the mid-point between the end of the war and now) – the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Chile; the war of independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan; and the end of the Portuguese empire in Africa. Although historically specific, each of these events has a universal resonance; and in each case the universal was dramatised through the experience of a single character (a Chilean political refugee, a Bengali mother who lost her son, a medical orderly attending battle-scarred soldiers). Here is Cengiz introducing these episodes:

Many of those on stage, or their families, would remember or had even lived through these events; indeed, some had come to England as result of them. Moreover, we had groups of performers from South America, South Asia and Africa as well as Europe, with a corresponding range of musical styles and instruments representing the cultures of these regions. Even in these brief extracts you can catch a glimpse of how effectively they helped heighten atmosphere, tension and drama.

This gave On Liberation Street an immediacy and authenticity that I and Grand Union seek in all our work. But even that would be as nothing without the musical and technical expertise we have uniquely developed over the years.

Later developments

After Leeds, On Liberation Street was later presented in Gateshead in 2007 (helping commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade), and then in London in 2009 (as part of the programme leading up to the Cultural Olympiad). Here are highlights from that London show, at Grand Union’s spiritual home, the glorious Hackney Empire:


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