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

57: An Alliance of Music and Science

For the next three months, leading up to the première performances of Song of Contagion at Wilton’s Music Hall (June 13th to 17th), the form of this blog will change. To give some idea of what the show is all about, each Post is based around a series of very short clips (each about 40 seconds long) and will  introduce the performers and the music, while also providing some insight into the project as a whole, and how it is influencing my own composition process.

Wilton’s is on the legendary Cable Street, in the heart of London’s East End. The setting – both the atmospheric Victorian music hall and the location – are crucial to the show. So I have built the opening around some of the music I wrote for Grand Union’s commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the historic Battle of Cable Street in 2016. This is how singer Davina Wright introduces the evening:

The neighbourhood is also significant, because there were several serious outbreaks of cholera here in the early and mid-nineteenth century. It took a tenacious doctor, John Snow, to discover that the disease was water-borne; but it was not until a ‘Big Stink’ on the Thames closed Parliament that the Government was forced to act. The disease was eradicated by constructing the sewage system that we still have today. This story is the first to be told in the show, but interwoven with another less happy one…

Cholera was originally brought to England from India by returning colonial soldiers. However, neither the British Raj nor the subsequent Indian government could be persuaded to replicate what cured London, so the disease continues to rage uncontrolled in Kolkata. This is reflected in a parallel musical narrative that gives voice to the demands and struggles of Indian and Bengali people for fresh water, sounding like this:

Musically these two stories are also intimately linked. The harmony accompanying Davina’s song consists of just two chords – a minor seventh chord on D and an augmented chord on C; but strung out ‘horizontally’ they form a classic Indian raga, Rag Hemavati; and this is what I am using for the Indian/Bengali sections of the cholera episode.


This exemplifies an important underlying principle which ties Song of Contagion the show to Song of Contagion, the project as a whole – uniting some of the disciplines of science and music. The key word here is ‘parameters’. Elizabeth Pisani’s original idea was that the inequality in how we treat different diseases could be expressed by taking a statistical factor (how many people suffer, how much media coverage it gets, how much funding for treatment and so on) and attaching a musical element to it (eg melody, volume, speed, pitch, instrumentation).

In the case of cholera, the salient feature – the construction of drains – is infrastructure, which I have represented by harmony. As the London story unfolds and the sewers are built, the harmony (based on the chords in Ex 1) gradually becomes fuller and richer; whereas in the Kolkata story, there is no harmony at all! (This is also characteristic in Indian classical music, so when I do introduce it, it makes a dramatic point). Similarly, throughout the show the musical parameter of pulse is used to represent public opinion; its influence in the eradication of cholera is reflected here in quite stately tempos.

This in turn pinpoints another fundamental purpose of Song of Contagion: the diseases have been selected as much for what they indicate about the way we respond to diseases as for the importance of the diseases themselves. Thus, cholera illustrates how investment in infrastructure can pay dividends in terms of health, while the story of HIV/AIDS shows how persistent activism on the part of those affected can achieve equally remarkable results.

This story I have chosen to express by animating one of the original statistical graphs:

Following one of our early workshops, it struck me that I could get close to ‘auralising’ Elizabeth’s vision by getting say higher wind instruments to represent media coverage, lower saxophones public opinion and trombones government spending, while strings (not on this graph) are consistently busy activists and a baleful bass drum marks the death rate, cutting across the texture with increasingly accelerating beats, then mercifully receding as the trumpets announced effective treatment. All this is also played against time, with 16 bars of mid-tempo big band swing counting off a year every 20 seconds…

This piece has not yet been completed and recorded; however, here is an example in reverse, so to speak – and a good listening exercise to boot! As the score moves across the screen, it looks quite like a graph. There are three groups of three instruments (trumpets, saxes, trombones), playing identifiably different lines (there is a full analysis in Post 10). See if you can pick them out, and imagine they represent different statistical parameters operating against each other. (This is not conventional big band scoring, by the way, more like South African township music – which is pertinent, since a similar story of activism, bringing down the price of drugs and so on, was later played out in Africa too.)

Of course, my HIV/AIDS piece will not be joyous like this – it is very firm and uncompromising. However, it did occur to me to play against expectation, and follow the brassy assertive piece I’m writing with a kind of antidote – warning against complacency and inaction, but in an unexpectedly dreamy way. (Throughout my work in the theatre and for the Grand Union Orchestra, I’ve often written songs where the music seems at odds with the lyrics – a Brechtian principle?) So here is the deceptively soporific coda to the HIV/AIDS story:

This also illustrates the range of voices that I am able to call on, and here as a preview for what follows is Congolese singer Jacqueline Lwanzo performing in Grand Union’s last spectacular show Undream’d Shores:

Jacqueline will be the first embodiment of the mosquito aedes aegypti, dancing her way from Central Africa across the Caribbean to Brazil, spreading dengue fever and the Zika virus . Here are the three variants of the first lines of her song, transformed from a lilting African rhythm through Caribbean soca to Brazilian samba:

Not surprisingly, the key parameter here is rhythm (of which bass lines are a crucial feature), which I take to represent degrees of media attention (but notice also how the harmony – infrastructure! – becomes increasingly ‘sophisticated’ according to location…); and between these variations of the mosquito’s song, a journalist and an editor argue about how much coverage they should give to dengue and Zika (to a merengue rhythm!). But at this point…


Finally, it’s not only about voices, the instrumentalists have their say too. Here – in a completely different context! – are the three jazz soloists who will accompany the mosquito on her travels:

Song of Contagion is supported by the Wellcome Trust through an Arts Award.

For more details and background to the project and this collaboration, visit the

Song of Contagion website


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