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.

59: Activism Unleashed

In many ways, this piece lies at the heart of Song of Contagion, and captures its essence, for several different reasons – although it’s not really typical of the show as a whole; it’s also probably the most unusual piece I’ve ever written…

Elizabeth Pisani is a world-renowned epidemiologist. When we met early in 2015 (for the curious, the whole story is told here), she explained how it was possible to characterise different diseases through statistics that measured, for example, how widely they were spread, the demographic they affected or geographical area they covered, the amount of publicity they received, and whether or not treatment was available and well funded.

What if each of these factors could be attached to appropriate musical elements – like melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, volume? Through variations in these ‘parameters’, she imagined, you could get a series of pieces where AIDS, dengue, Zika, cholera and so on would sound very different from each other. Then you might arouse public awareness of inequality, touching people directly in a way that – as she put it – PowerPoint presentations cannot. So we set out to give it a try.

The very first workshop took place in the HQ of the theatre company Graeae in Shoreditch. First Elizabeth illustrated these ideas very eloquently with the aid of graphs; then it was my turn to demonstrate how these might be reflected or expressed in music. Obviously the material needed to be simple yet memorable; but it would also have to be free of any cultural associations. (You couldn’t use Indian ragas, African rhythms or Victorian hymns, for example.) Then I noticed that the Company’s name was displayed in large letters on the windows facing the street – G R A E A E; assuming R referred to Re as in  doh-re-mi, I also had the note D, giving me G-D-A-E.

This is protean musical material, or a blank canvas on which anything can be projected – a series of perfect fourths or fifths, no sense of tonality, major or minor (and interestingly the open strings of the violin!). So I devised a whole series of short pieces to illustrate Elizabeth’s thesis in action, giving varying emphasis to different musical elements, adding harmony, rhythm, bass figures and so on, but with the original GRAEAE theme always identifiable.

Several months later, after several workshops pulling the scientific and musical material into shape, I was grappling with one particular episode, wondering how to create an effective piece to express it, when I remembered this, and the graph Elizabeth had used as part of her presentation:


It struck me that I could interpret her ideas quite literally by basing the piece on this, and assign not musical elements as such, but individual instruments, to the lines on the graph. And once again I needed simple but memorable material for them to play, so the musical ideas from the Graeae launch day came in very handy!

Violins and cello represent the activists who tirelessly lobbied, staged ‘die-ins’ and agitated to publicise the disease and demand research to create effective treatment. The red line on the graph charts media attention, played by soprano and alto saxophones; they gradually stir up public support (mauve – the more sluggish tenor and baritone saxophones); then the government reluctantly begins to fund research – trombones, green; and eventually the trumpets announce effective drugs have been developed.

The structure of the piece is very simple: it’s in 16-bar sections, each section represents a year, so at 196 crotchets per minute a year-long section lasts about 20 seconds. It begins in 1982, when rising deaths from AIDS/HIV in the USA began to cause alarm, and finishes in 2000, when the death toll (which peaked in 1995) had fallen dramatically (blue line).

The general shape of the piece is clearly conveyed by the graph. It’s in straight medium tempo swing, with relatively little syncopation. There is no key, although the ruling tonality is C. The walking bass-line is unvarying throughout, even though the harmony changes above it, particularly in the second half:


This bass line – straight out of the Graeae workshop! – also gives the strings their raw material, articulated first by the cello in double length notes (minims), then joined by the violins in crotchets, and then played double-time in quavers. All their music consists of variations on this basic scale, always in unison or octaves, and independent of the other instruments. It’s intended to sound improvised, and gradually becomes more vigorous and rhythmically agitated, building to a climax about halfway through (1991), eg:


Each instrumental group enters sparingly to begin with, with a limited number of figures which gradually grow with extra phrases or notes added. There is very little variation in volume; the increasing intensity comes from adding new instrumental lines and extending them, with ever-denser counterpoint thickening the texture. Portraying media attention, the upper saxes (soprano and altos) start with a very simple questioning semitone figure which is first repeated more urgently, and then gradually lengthened:


The last figure overlaps with the first string phrase in Ex 2, and between them strings and saxes provoke the first response from the general public, the tenors and baritone saxophone (play from about 1’ 30” of the track). This is another very simple yet easily recognisable phrase, in effect a riff which again is repeated at different rhythmic distances.and varied by limited transposition:


The first entry is followed by the strings’ second phrase in Ex 2; a kind of dialogue ensues between the saxes (media and public), and this string phrase is repeated with the first trombone entry. Representing an initially reluctant government to invest in research, their contribution consists first of some very gruff chords – harmony appearing for the first time in the piece (harmony indicates infrastructure throughout Song of Contagion) – which also add a chromatic contrast to the prevailing modal tonality:


At this point (1991 – 3’ 05”) all the various elements heard so far come together in a kind of summing up of progress so far:


The strings fall silent for a while, having done their job of galvanising media attention, public support and at last government funding. The other instruments take up the cudgels; continuing to stir up action, the saxes take over the string material and develop it. Beginning simply, their phrases become longer, complementing and copying each other, while the trombones (research spending) become increasingly sonorous


Now, while all this is being repeated and developed, with the trombones increasingly prominent, the trumpets tentatively suggest effective drugs are being developed. Gradually gaining in confidence, in two years they are able to hold their own against the trombones, with a contrasting harmony of their own (parallel minor chords against the ruling tonality)


By 1998 (5’ 32” on the track) the research teams and the drug companies are working closely together, strongly approved by public opinion. The trombones transform the original scale, now richly harmonised, into a kind of celebratory but bluesy chorale, with the baritone sax now providing a strong bass-line against the still patiently walking bass guitar:


…and the last 8 bars:



This piece doesn’t in fact end there – after a transition from the strings and a poignant trombone solo, it continues with a reflection on the continuing need for activism. The musical figures for the saxophones are actually quoted from this, reverse-engineered – or rather ‘reverse-composed’ as it were – from the vocal ensemble that follows. The relationship is easily seen from these principal phrases:


Full information on Song of Contagion and all the music from the show can be found here. Here is the complete version of Activism, with captions and subtitles:

Red – New York Times HIV coverage, US stories (hundreds)
Green – Government spending on HIV in the US (US$ millions)
Blue – AIDS deaths in the US (thousands)
Mauve – People saying HIV is biggest health problem (per thousand)

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2017 by in Composition, lyric theatre, Music, World Jazz and tagged , , , , .
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