Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.
Exactly three months ago, I was writing a message of hope and good cheer for 2020 (Post 71), just before setting off for Australia and South Asia. Who could have imagined that three months later the world would be where it is now?
In Australia, the acrid smell of smoke from the bush fires was everywhere, however faint; the day I left, Melbourne was named the most polluted city in the world – happily I was evidently heading for the purer air of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh! Kuala Lumpur airport at the end of January was the first time I encountered people wearing face masks, and I arrived home to find Britain in the grip of devastating flooding. Could things get any worse? And of course they did…
There are few advantages, and little solace, in the Covid-19 lockdown, bringing with it enforced isolation and remote working, but at least we have some time to reflect and make plans for the future. Artists – as long as they are able to manage financially – are particularly fortunate in the respect.
As I was plumbing the archives and mining Grand Union’s back catalogue for music to put online and create content for social media, I unearthed an extraordinary sequence of very short video clips; and their back-story (below) turned out to have an almost prophetic resonance!
Serendipitously there are 20 in all, from the last 20 years of Grand Union Orchestra shows – although the total duration is actually less than 15 minutes! They feature most of our key musicians and singers, and present a concise but comprehensive overview of my work for the Orchestra and the musical personality of its performers.
The New Year Post featured a much longer, audio MixTape of 12 full-length numbers from the whole GUO canon, which lasts about an hour; but again it illustrates a unique range of original composition and performance:
A few years before, I was writing a new show, Song of Contagion, in collaboraton with Elizabeth Pisani. Elizabeth is a brilliant maverick epidemiologist (no doubt in her element at the moment!); her concern was how our response to diseases – what we regard as important, choose to fund or treat and so on – is conditioned by where they occur, social attitudes, public opinion or the media attention they attract. She had assembled reams of data, largely expressed in graphs, and suggested the statistical parameters could be translated into musical ones, thus enabling us to ‘hear’ a profile of different diseases. How this might work is described more fully in Post 49 and on the Grand Union website at Song of Contagion
There was inevitably some scepticism, especially among health professionals and academics, about whether this could be done. I argued that it had to be done imaginatively rather than literally, that it would need to engage audiences emotionally rather than intellectually, if it were to work artistically. After consensus had been reached by Elizabeth and her colleagues about which diseases should be addressed, I began to publish a series of short blogs showing how I, as a creative artist, might respond to these challenges. These short illustrations were intended to dispel their doubts.
I’m not sure they were all convinced, however, although audiences at Wilton’s Music Hall (a wonderfully appropriate location) found the show deeply moving. You can judge for yourself by listening to the music and watching the performance here.
Again, serendipity has played a clever hand: Song of Contagion has an extraordinary and timely relevance to the worldwide contagious disease we are currently facing, and how we are dealing with it. Here is a remarkable example of how prophetic it was, which I wrote about in detail in Post 59: