Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

56: If Music Could…

Looking for some music to set a positive tone for 2017 to go with New Year greetings, I remembered this from the Grand Union Orchesta repertoire – wistful maybe, but affirmative nonetheless. Artists sadly have limited power to influence the world and change it for the better, but we can at least declare an intention to try. So I thought this was a piece we should revive, and perhaps include in our next show (Song of Contagion at Wilton’s Musical Hall in June), for which it strikes an appropriately elegiac note.

The words, by my long-term collaborator David Bradford, are extremely simple:
                If music could bind up the wounded earth, we would do that…
                If music could strike down the torturer’s arm,  we would do that…
                If music could bring justice to the oppressed, we would do that…
                If music could raise lovers from the grave, we would do that…
                If music could re-spell the broken names, we would do that…
                                                      If music could, we would.

It also reminded me of the general mood among the actors, writers and directors I met again at the event in remembrance of Alan Dossor at the Liverpool Everyman a couple of months earlier (see previous Post) – that in these dark times it would be no bad thing to return to and reaffirm the spirit that guided us there in the early 1970s…

At that time I was writing and directing music for regional theatres across most of the UK, when they were really flourishing, but there was often little money to hire musicians. Much of the music therefore had to be a capella and often performed by the actors alone, with minimal instrumental support. The technique I developed proved equally useful in writing for the Grand Union Orchestra, where constraints were similar – a range of singers from different (mainly oral) traditions. In any case I like the effect, so there are a lot of other pieces like this (If You Should Fall, from Undream’d Shores, is the most recent example).

This live recording of If Music Could… features five very different voices – Sarah Laryea (Ghana), Vladimir Vega (Chile), Josefina Cupido (Spain), Dave Clarke (USA) and Joan McKay (Scotland).

If you are creating a choral piece – a chorus for a musical, say – it’s sensible to write all the harmony lines in a logical way, so that they are easy to sing (and learn, in the case of a theatre piece). This is even more important if you’re writing for actors or performers who can’t read music and learn by ear; and in any case it’s also good classical practice. In other words, each harmony line needs to be a melody in its own right.

It’s a small step from this to writing individual melodies first, for each voice or actor to sing, and then combining them so that they make a powerful, sonorous harmony. This also gives you two musical effects for the price of one – a series of attractive solos, and a strong chorus! – which is not unlike what happens in rounds and canons, where the simplest musical material accumulates to impressive effect. If Music Could… is an excellent example of this.

[Click image for full-size view]

So how is it done? And how is it made easy?

One of the simplest techniques is to start with a chord progression – it is likely (as here) to be 8 or 4 bars long – but of course a drone or an open (suspended 4th or 11th) chord, or indeed an irregular sequence, is equally usable as a basis. The advantage of setting different melodies to the same chord sequence is that (a) they have different points of tension in relation to the harmony, and (b) they are almost bound to fit together harmonically.

(If the sequence is irregular, like the 5-bar ground bass Purcell uses for Dido’s lament ‘When I am laid in Earth’, but the melody remains in 4-bar phrases, the harmonic tension and resolution is even more spine-tingling.)

The progression needs to have some harmonic interest, but not be too eccentric; If Music Could… is a kind of jazz ballad that flows naturally across the whole 8 bars and only cadences (completes itself) when it returns to the beginning.

However – for musical reasons and to make the melodies simpler to learn – bars 5 and 6 in each voice are the same as, or only marginally varying from, bars 1 and 2, albeit against completely different harmony, which gives them a different emotional feel. All the voices complete their first phrase together on the first beat of bars 2 and 6 respectively. Their second phrase ‘we would do that’, however, is differently placed in each voice in such a way that the emphasis falls deliberately on a different word (‘would’, ‘that’ etc) in each part.

In the final line, ‘if music could we would’, all the voices move more or less together; and in each case the melodic line is simply a half-speed version of their opening melody. Furthermore, for added security and to get every line started confidently, all the voices start on an A flat on the word ‘if’; A flat is again the pickup note into the melodic repetition at bar 5; and A flat unites all the voices once more as they lead into their final line in bar 8.

Thus what sounds like a fairly complex texture is quite simply constructed, and designed to be relatively easy to sing and learn.

A similar technique is used for the instrumental parts to begin with. Each of the voices has a single instrument obbligato accompanying it. When the voices are combined, the obbligatos are combined also; finally the obbligato instruments play the original vocal parts, to launch an improvised saxophone solo (Louise Eliott). The backing brass for the second solo chorus then becomes the backing for the reprise of the vocal chorus. The coda is free, but obviously based on the melodic figures and harmonic ‘feel’ of the main song; and I love the contrast between the high women’s voices and the low brass.

Finally, If Music Could… comes originally from a show called A Book of Numbers (don’t even ask!), and this was number five, hence: 5 lines of verse, 5 verses, 5 voices, 5 obbligato instruments, 5 counter-melodies, 5 flats, 5 beats to the bar…

Because it can be rehearsed so easily, If Music Could… is suitable for – and very effective when sung by – amateur choirs. Copies of the music (including the more complex coda) and relevant permissions can be obtained from the Grand Union Orchestra direct (see website www.grandunion.org.uk for contact details). Enquire also about other choral pieces I have written for choirs.

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