Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
Earlier this month, Grand Union commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street (which I wrote about in my previous post 53: Silence is Consent) with two quite different but equally moving events. These took place in Bethnal Green, neighbouring Stepney and Whitechapel in East London, where many those who took part in both the Battle and in our performances lived or still live. The first, in Sir John Soane’s magnificent church, was Remembering Cable Street, and brought together people from the whole community – Bengali, Somali, Chinese, Roma, African and Caribbean these days, of course, besides Jewish. The second, After Cable Street at Rich Mix, featured the full Grand Union Orchestra, Youth Orchestra and singers from our World Choir. It was an astonishing evening, which many thought one of the best GUO shows to date. This may be why…
These performances were planned months ago. However, a few weeks after the EU referendum, it became apparent that remembering the original ‘Battle’ was taking on a new significance: the consequent increase in hate crime and racial or religious hostility placed recalling the events of 1936 in a different perspective. There was clearly a need – an obligation, indeed – to respond, produce something new and bring the story up to date, expressing what is happening in the UK right now. At the beginning of August, therefore, I gave my regular collaborator Sara Clifford a brief and asked her to come up with some lyrics. She produced some great stuff, which I was working on by the end of the month; by the middle of September I had sketched out the vocal parts; and I finished the orchestration and parts just in time for rehearsals the weekend before the show.
This is an extract from that new material – probably the most timely and spontaneous piece ever written for GUO. Filmed live at the first performance, it’s necessarily raw but has an undeniable immediacy and authenticity, for all the reasons outlined above.
The Beast is Back
The form of the piece is quite conventional: an introduction setting the scene, then first verse and chorus, followed by a second verse, telling the story then and now; two solo sections, based on the chorus and verse material respectively, carrying the narrative forward purely instrumentally; and finally a réprise of the chorus. The musical material is also quite simple, but tightly organised and unusually ‘organic’ – for what on the surface is a kind of jazz funk number! This also surprised me, as the piece was written so quickly that there was little time for reflection or revision; it’s only now I can analyse it and see in retrospect how it all fits together…
The very first idea that occurred to me was the guitar phrase (a) in Ex 1, and this turned out to be the central element for the whole piece – a gentle arpeggio figure, followed by an augmented chord. This gives the impression of being in A minor, though in fact the tonality of the whole piece is actually D minor (the harmony is therefore Dm9 or Dm11 if you like), creating a general feeling of tension and ambiguity. A second figure (b) is generated simply by flattening the first note and changing the bass. (The resultant chords also contain the notes of the original augmented chord, C + E + G#/Ab, which I think is how this second pair of chords emerged!) In the verses, a further pair of chords (c) is added (Am11 and G+), and this second augmented chord (x), the ‘heat’ chord, is crucial to the chorus material (see Ex 5 below):
The vocal line of the introductory song is derived from the guitar figure, and the use of intervals of a third (major or minor) is also characteristic of the melodies for the verses. Here is the first verse, with just the bass line and chords – the guitar figure (Exx 1a and 1b) continues throughout. It also demonstrates another feature used throughout – the ‘diminishing’ of the chord sequences (in the last few bars). Furthermore, the phrase (a) in the very last bar recurs frequently, first associated with the words ‘they shall not pass, they did not pass’, and then as a theme in its own right. It too derives from the very first guitar figure (the last 4 notes of Ex 1a and 1b):
The saxophones now take up the opening guitar figure as a backing for the first verse, in time and setting a pulse that continue throughout the rest ot the piece (crotchet=96); the chord sequence is similarly derived from the intro section, the melody is again constructed mainly from thirds. The harmony begins with the original 4-bar phrases; then at (a) with the first 2 bars of the sequence transposed up a fifth its note-values are halved, and this new 4-bar sequence is repeated; then (b) these two new sequences are combined with the chords again lasting a whole bar each; finally (Ex 4) this sequence is repeated with note values halved. Here are the first 24 bars of the first verse (the saxophone figures have been omitted, but follow the same contour throughout):
Here are the last 4 bars in full, showing how all these features come together, with ‘they shall not pass’ taken up by the brass, and the transition into the chorus section. The feel changes dramatically, thanks to a propulsive bass riff, and the ‘heat’ chord (G+/A) makes an insistent appearance:
The chorus is in effect a series of vocal riffs, which are also taken up and imitated by the brass and saxes. Here is the entire vocal line; the bass riff continues virtually unchanged throughout, changing only occasionally to underline the G+/A chord (marked x):
This chord x associated with ‘heat’, ‘fire’ and ‘fear’, is the only harmonic change that occurs in the chorus. It only appears when those words are sung; similarly, D# is the only chromatic note sung by the chorus, whose lines are otherwise diatonic. Here are the last few bars of the chorus, with the brass parts added. Note how the figure in the second bar has its note values doubled in the next two bars, and emphasises the ‘heat’ chord; and the ‘turnaround’ figure of the saxes in the last bar imitates the vocal phrase ‘sniffing the wasteland of austerity’ (Ex 5a):
When the chorus is repeated, the ‘heat’ chord is snarled out by the trumpets as an increasingly insistent syncopated pick-up into the vocal lines. Verse 2 follows: it has the same chord sequence and virtually the same melody as verse 1, but the accompanment is lusher, more richly harmonised and embellished:
We now return to the chorus feel for a baritone saxophone solo (Tony Kofi, gruff and assertive) underpinned by the bass riff (the incomparable Andres Lafone) and vocal riffs drawn from the earlier material, echoing the refrain ‘oh yes, the Beast is back’. After a transition based on the figures (b) and (c) from the chorus (Ex 4) – ‘nosing and panting into the cracks, into the mire…it loves the scent of fear’ – the music returns to the texture and chromatic harmonies of the verses for an alto saxophone solo (Chris Biscoe, suave and insinuating). This is the sequence, over which the last time around the brass play their backings from Ex 7:
The transition back to the chorus this time is constructed canonically from the ‘they shall not pass’ theme (cf Exx 2a & 4a):
Then the chorus comes back in again with vocal riffs, which the brass and saxes complement with call and response (from Ex 6) as a kind of tihai (see Post 8!):
…and a réprise of the chorus, finishing with Ex 6, brings the piece to an end.
One of the first plays I worked on in the theatre, and the first time I encountered Bertolt Brecht’s work at first hand, was The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, at Nottingham Playhouse in 1968. This irresistible satire on the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler ends with a couplet that has stayed in my mind ever since:
“For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard
The bitch that bore him is in heat again”