Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
On October 4th 1936, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (known as the Blackshirts) attempted to march through the streets of East London, threatening the local, long-established Jewish population. In spite of massive police support, they were forced to abandon their march in Whitechapel and Stepney in the face of powerful popular protest. This landmark event in British history was known forever after as the ‘Battle of Cable Street”.
But history doesn’t stand still. Fascism and racist demonstrations continue to foment in the East End, stirred up by the National Front, the BNP and most recently the English Defence League; their favourite target these days is ‘Islamists’, the very substantial and ethnically diverse Muslim communities living in the area (the London Mosque is also nearby). So far, these too have always been repelled by popular revulsion and effective public protest and counter-demonstrations; but in the present social and economic climate, and the malevolent forces unleashed in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, we should not be complacent.
I have often spoken of the ‘authenticity’ of Grand Union’s music – performed by singers and musicians who have directly experienced the kind of events they portray or lived the stories they tell. Many venues and localities have a similar ‘authenticity’, and London’s East End – where Grand Union and many of its musicians are based – certainly possesses this. The Grand Union Orchestra played an open-air concert behind St George’s Town Hall commemorating the 70th anniversary, and the Youth Orchestra at Wilton’s Music Hall for the 75th (both on Cable Street itself), which were additionally moving and memorable for this reason.
So we wanted to do something special for the 80th anniversary, and devised a week-long programme Remembering Cable Street, with open workshops culminating in two contrasting concerts. (Full details can be found here, participation here and the concert flyers here.) With its extraordinarily mixed demographic and its record of protest and stand against injustice, East London is exactly the right place to perform music and songs that express such themes – and none is more apt than Silence is Consent.
Silence is Consent
Here is the first verse, sung unaccompanied:
The ‘composition tip’ here is not about musical detail, but an unusual approach to song-writing.
This is one of those songs where the expression of the music is quite deliberately at odds with the meaning of the lyrics. It’s a technique that I favour often – a version of Brecht’s ‘alienation effect’, and therefore not surprisingly characteristic of a lot of Kurt Weill’s songs. Rather than respond directly to the stridency and shoutiness of the words, I thought it would be more effective to make the song deceptively romantic, a kind of lullaby; that way, what the words are actually saying comes out more starkly against the soft textures, and throws their ‘message’ into greater relief.
To compound the effect, the introduction (the first minute or so) is very spacy and almost lush, led by panpipes (played, poignantly, by Chilean exile Vladimir Vega – see also Post 26 and Post 11) over bells, vibraphone and lyrical bass guitar (the great Keith Morris) based on an A minor (Dorian mode) scale and the simple Am-D chord changes which open the song. Then the voice comes in, with trombone obbligato; here is the complete second verse and chorus:
The harmony is unusual but simple, providing a basis for the contrapuntal textures The chorus is distinguished by the intertwining women’s voices, sustained chords in brass and wind, and especially the unusual addition of steel pans to the mix. A solo flute (which you can just hear playing a simple swaying figure against the voice in both verses) plays a short link into the third and final verse (sung by Vladimir), a little sparer and more direct with the addition of a tolling bell:
Silence is Consent forms the emotional climax of Grand Union’s two shows – Cable Street Remembered and After Cable Street – commemorating the 80th anniversary of the notorious Battle. What significance does it hold for us today? This is a subject I return to in Post 54…
These audio excerpts are taken from the Grand Union Orchestra CD Freedom Calls.