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

48: Shanghai Crabs

I am writing this in Shanghai, towards the end of fascinating travels that have taken me through Malaysia, Melbourne, South Australia and Singapore. Over several weeks I’ve encountered an extraordinary range of people with vastly different experiences of forced or voluntary displacement – migrants, exiles, refugees – than we see even in London. This is the way the world is going now, so I believe more than ever in the importance of culture – particularly the power of art and above all music – in bringing people together, and combating the fear, hysteria and animosity that is becoming increasingly rampant around migration.

This of course is the territory Undream’d Shores covers, and this Post is based around another number from the show – but for once quite light-hearted!

I’ve visited Shanghai twice before, in the company of Li Yan, who  has long been a valued collaborator, writing lyrics in both Chinese and English for the big Grand Union shows(see note below). This time my guide and companion was Grand Union’s Shanghai-born gu zheng virtuoso Zhu Xiao Meng (see also Post 12: Shanghai Dragon).

Li Yan has quite a surreal, eccentric imagination. When I approached him about writing a new piece for Undream’d Shores, he came up with the story of the Shanghai Crabs. I was entranced – although it was quite another matter working out how to bring it off…

The story – which is more or less true – is easily told. For a long time in Shanghai there has flourished a species of crab which has become a highly-prized delicacy, naturally commanding a high price to match. However, the local Huangpu River has become so polluted that the crabs have been gradually dying out. In desperation, they have become ‘stowaways’ on the ships that dock in Shanghai and thus landed in various other parts of the world. They have found an agreeable environment in many different places, but nowhere so commodious as the reach of the River Thames between Limehouse and Tower Bridge (also Grand Union East London territory!). However, in London’s Chinatown they are not regarded as a delicacy – indeed they are rather despised – and there have been efforts to ‘repatriate’ them to Shanghai restaurants; either that, or they have to find other ways to adapt and survive.

The story of the Shanghai Crabs is therefore a kind of parable, but unusual in that it can be interpreted in several different ways – indeed, it can carry many different meanings at the same time! In other words, it makes several different points about the experience of being a migrant, changing one habitat or life-style for another, but leaves listeners to draw their own conclusions…

When Li Yan’s first draft arrived, it was more like a long poem – many-faceted and in several parts – than a lyric (as indeed all his pieces tend to be!). It required considerable editing and reshaping, and it’s still perhaps a work-in-progress. Musically therefore the piece is quite raw, more or less improvised from some simple but strong musical ideas, However, it’s a very quirky, humorous piece, and its innocence and spontaneity is infectiously communicated by Grand Union’s unique and wonderful world choir.

The number begins with a gu zheng (Chinese harp) solo, played by Shanghai-born virtuoso Zhu Xiao Meng. This quotes briefly the melody of an old Indonesian song about migrant fishermen, before setting up the rising fourth figure that dominates the whole piece. It’s actually based on a pentatonic scale, rooted on E – a tonality that also runs through the whole song until resolved at the end. Here is the scale, the figures it generates (intended of course to illustrate crabs crawling!), and the principal bass-line:


This is then taken up by the voices (The Crawling Song). Their parts are semi-improvised from a single sheet, sometime overlapping, interleaving Chinese words with their literal English translation (paya means ‘crawl’, ren wo ‘everyone’):


The bass line is hugely important to the whole piece, and serves to unify the song and articulate the structure. It begins with a version of the main figures, but syncopated, with a kind of lop-sided loping rhythm (Ex 3a). It can also imply harmonies (3b); but most importantly, without changing speed, it transforms the phrase across the even quaver pulse of the first section into the 3/8 metre of the central section (based on Ex 4), and then back again, thus maintaining the forward impetus (3c to 3d):


This establishes the central section, which we called The Song of Four Seasonings, since it’s set to a traditional folk melody, Song of Four Seasons! (An instrumental version of this song was featured in Post 32.) It is based on a hexatonic (6-note) scale, also characteristic of Chinese music, derived by adding one new note (G) to the original pentatonic scale:


The narrative is in English, and falls into two main sections. In the first, the crabs boast of their celebrity and list the ingredients which make them so popular and delicious; then – after a short link explaining their need to travel – they describe their joy at arriving in London, short-lived because of the culinary competition; and finally how they set about adapting to their new home:


The first of these sections is still dominated by the Chinese instruments, with no discernible harmony, and features a dizi (Chinese flute) solo by Ruijun Hu. After the transition (again underpinned by the rising fourth figure in the bass, Ex 3e) the whole texture becomes more obviously Western, with the melody now set against a kind of jazz waltz, and substantial (fourth-based) harmonies. Another solo, this time on European flute (Louise Elliott) leads to a duet between the two flautists, backed by simple big band-type riffs. These are also derived from the basic scale, with the introduction of a seventh note, C, which I have liberally used either sharp or natural:


The brass stabs and ‘fanfares’ wind the energy down, and a chorus transitiion (on pedal E) leads back to a return of the original bass-line and 4/4 feel (The Settling Song). First to be heard against this first is a new song, in Chinese:


(Let us crawl up Tower Bridge. Don’t look down. Don’t be afraid.Let us crawl the Grand Union Canal. Don’t look up. Don’t be afraid. Everyone, crawl! Everyone, crawl! Let us feel free, let us all feel free! Crawl everywhere!)

Meanwhile, a new version of the Crawling Song has been trying to get out, and is finally unleashed as a counterpoint to the Chinese song, with quite explicit harmonies in A major, until the bass line subsides into a simple 4-note version of the original figure and the music takes on a kind of township feel:


Echoes of the original crawling rising-fourth theme return, the Shanghai crabs settle down in their new home, and (we hope) live happily ever after…

Here is an audio version: Edit

(Note: a brief biography of Li Yan will follow)





One comment on “48: Shanghai Crabs

  1. Dr. Sidrah Muntaha
    March 29, 2016

    A most interesting article which just illustrates how much there is to learn about world music and arts. Thank you.

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This entry was posted on January 30, 2016 by in Composition, Music, World Jazz and tagged , , , , , , .
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