Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
I began this monthly blog nearly five years ago. My intention was to give news of current Grand Union activities and ideas, combined with anecdotal background on the Company, my collaborators and the extraordinary musicians I work with. I also thought such a blog would be more worthwhile and distinctive if it described in detail the music I write, and how and why; and I hoped it might even be useful and instructive, if it explained sometimes unusual techniques to other musicians and composers.
To start the second half century, therefore, let’s remember where it all began. I wrote the very first Post, about a vocal ensemble piece If Music Could…, to demonstrate how a rich musical texture could be produced from the simplest melodic elements; moreover, that it can be achieved with singers who come from non-European musical traditions, and/or do not read music. (It therefore applies equally to actors – I learnt the technique from long years of working in the theatre).
This piece, If You Should Fall, follows exactly the same principles as those described in that first Post in 2011.
It comes from Undream’d Shores – but not from the original Hackney Empire production that has featured so much in these Posts. In November 2015 I was commissioned by the University of Leeds Music School to produce a version that could be performed by their students – including a 60-strong classical orchestra and 40-strong choir – together with Indian musicians from SAA-uk (a frequent collaborator with GUO on Leeds projects) and 10 of our own soloists. It was a remarkable experience, and incredibly successful: it took the music and essential spirit of the show in a new direction, without compromising its integrity and authenticity, but adding a new depth and weight.
Collaboration with European classical musicians and singers is not new to GUO, of course – The Golden Highway (Post 13) with the BBC Concert Orchestra is another example – and it’s a topic I’ll return to in future Posts, with more illustrations.
If You Should Fall is in effect the epilogue to Red Soil, which I wrote about in the previous Post 50; it’s also a meditation on all the experiences expressed by leading ‘characters’ throughout Undream’d Shores. In form it resembles a chaconne or passacaglia – in this case a slow repearing 4-bar chord sequence; there are 8 vocal parts, and each has its own melodic phrase. To begin with, each of the phrases is sung separately, and then they are joined together, overlapping to form a rich counterpoint:
The tension between these melodic figures, and their often tangential relationship to the unusually chromatic harmony, gives the piece its poignancy. This tension is now dispersed by the four singers who have played significant solo roles in earlier episodes (eg Mr Never-Smile, Riding the Iron Tiger, By the Waters of Babylon, Red Soil and Shanghai Crabs). In the simplest of unison melodies, they express the central spirit of Undream’d Shores:
Until now, the orchestra has been relatively silent – just a few quiet sustained string chords supporting the vocal counterpoint. Now – as the choir and solo singers repeat the material heard so far – the orchestra adds its own voice. The strings now double the choral parts, the wind contribute rising figures, but most important of all is a new melody rising in canon from the bass, beginning on tuba, followed by trombones and trumpets. (This is actually a quotation from GUO’s Portuguese show The Rhythm of Tides, set to the words ‘great sea and great weather call me’, another example of our work with the BBC CO):
This builds to a grand climax and a sustained chord that leads to the finale of the show, Salsa Eleggua, which I shall return to in a future post. Here is the full score of this final section, which follows directly from Ex 2: