Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
Just coming to the end of a very welcome and much needed month’s break in Australia, I was looking for a piece to accompany greetings and set the tone for the year ahead. As it could almost describe travelling through the outback, although the climate here is very different (Austrlalia has been in the grip of an extreme heatwave), this song seemed to me quite appropriate – suitably ambiguous, yet affirmative, reflecting the spirit of the uncertain and anxious times we face at present. I think it’s one of my best songs – it’s included in the Grand Union Twelve Days of Christmas mixtape (the previous Post, 60) – and it features what are certainly some of my long-time collaborator David Bradford’s most subtle and beautiful lyrics:
A magical evocation of a camel-train crossing the barren wastes of Central Asia, they originally set the scene for our Grand Union show Now Comes the Dragon’s Hour; but they resonate far beyond that context, transcending their simple literal interpretation…
The poetic form is highly unusual (and thus a joy to set to music); otherwise the overall structure of the piece is very straightforward – three narrative verses complemented by an instrumental refrain for alto saxophone, culminating in an improvised solo on this material. The all-important, ever-pervasive bass figures (some wonderful playing by the late and still lamented Keith Morris) serve as an introduction and counterpoint throughout. Here is the first verse (the singer is Stephen Douse):
The ‘default’ version of the sensuous, seductive alto sax refrain, which is extended and developed as the piece proceeds, follows immediately, beautifully rendered by the incomparable Tony Kofi (pictured):
The harmonic language is slightly unconventional (and far from oriental!): the home key is B flat minor, but the chromatic chords (including a ‘false dominant’, the 7th/9th/13th chord on E, but with B in the bass) exert a continual pull away from this tonal centre before resolving back on it. These tensions become stronger as the piece develops, especially in the sections associated with the alto saxophone.
The second verse has fuller harmonic support from the brass and saxes, but otherwise takes exactly the same form as the first. This time, however, Chinese and Central Asian women’s voices (Wei Li and Lucy Rahman) are added – ‘high and alluring’! – before the alto joins in and continues with a much longer version of the refrain, with even richer harmonies:
In the third verse, the backing chords are still more forceful, and the final strain of the singer’s melody is this time stretched right out to accommodate the original saxophone refrain (Ex 2) played against it:
The tempo now doubles up, and the alto sax solos over a 32-bar A-A-B-A sequence derived from the verse-refrain structure – making great play with the E13/B:Bbm9 pairing of chords which is a prominent feature throughout the number, referred to above – finishing with a fully orchestrated version of Ex 3, and a slow fade echoing this figure across the still persistent bass.
“Stay close to those you know; cling to the ones who love you; and when the dream fades, hold you in their arms” – surely a worthwhile precept for 2018?
Postscript: Now Come the Dragon’s Hour was recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 3 from the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London 1999/2000. Other songs from it include Nodir Srote Ektaratir (Post 15) and The Flame of Love (Post 31). The complete CD is available from the Grand Union shop.