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.

75: Improvisation

Improvisation – the ability to think on your feet, live by your wits, adapt quickly to changing circumstances – is one of life’s essential skills. Along with empathy, it is among the most important attributes we need, particularly in these uncertain and challenging times. And it’s not only a personal skill: whole groups and organisations need to be flexible in order to survive, develop and flourish.

Institutions find this difficult, and often stifle initiative. People with creative imagination in all professions – education, health, music and the arts, culture in general – can have little influence on systems dominated by managerialism and capricious political policies. Anything new or different – not necessarily even radical or progressive – is invariably rejected in favour of strengthening the status quo, or ‘returning to normality’.

For now, let’s just say ‘institutions are institutionally institutionist’, and that is the huge problem of our times. It’s a theme I’ll return to in the coming months; meanwhile, let’s see if music has any insights to offer…

Improvisation in music

In my view, and many of my peers, improvisation is a required skill for any musician, regardless of style, genre, instrument or ambition; yet it’s highly under-regarded, neglected, ignored. Could this be because it’s not strictly needed by professional musicians as a whole? or because it has to be learnt and practised, but can’t be taught?

In past centuries, musicians and singers across Europe would extemporise and take delight in it; even today a church organist is expected to improvise while waiting for the bride to arrive at a wedding, or the coffin to depart at a funeral; and it’s difficult to teach – let alone run workshops – without sometimes having to make things up as you go along! The classical music of the Indian subcontinent is built around the improvisational virtuosity of the artist(s); and all over the world social and religious ceremonies rely on shared song, dance and rhythm. But the only musical form in which improvisation – both individual and collective – is the defining element is what we call jazz.

It is often misunderstood what exactly ‘jazz’ is; it is certainly difficult, if not impossible, to  define. It’s emphatically not a genre or musical style, but a radical approach or attitude towards how music can be made. A particular piece, whether ‘composed’ or collectively devised, may have some kind of structure, but the artistic identity of each musician (their soul?) is paramount. They may feature in individual solos (often of great complexity and virtuosity), but they also have to collaborate with all the other performers.

This in itself requires sensitive and selfless improvisational technique, but when musicians or musics of different traditions are brought together (African, Caribbean, Indian, European and so on), it is raised to an even higher level of subtlety – musical empathy. The performers contribute their own individual ‘stories’ (this has something in common with Bertolt Brecht’s theatre practice) to create a shared narrative; this is the ‘collective’ at work, which can be replicated or reflected organisationally, but that is a story for another day. In the meantime, as Shakespeare said, ‘mark the music’…

Back to the beginning

Exactly 36 years ago as I write this, I spent the August Bank Holiday weekend tucked away in a thatched cottage in rural Suffolk, completing the scoring for a new large-scale work, The Song of Many Tongues – transposing and writing all the parts out by hand! This was to be premiered the following weekend, and had been commissioned by the Greater London Council to commemorate its Year Against Racism (1984).

The previous week, our 8-strong Strange Migration company had been performing at the Liverpool Garden Festival. We were staying in the run down, once majestic, Adelphi Hotel, and the manager generously allowed us to work on the music and songs for the show in the faded grandeur of the Ballroom. Budgets, even in those days, were very tight, so we had only one day to rehearse with whole 16-piece orchestra in our Clerkenwell basement studio. You can readily appreciate, therefore, the practical and cost-effective value of improvisation skills!

In the event, the performance – on the steps of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden Market, on a gloriously sunny early September Sunday afternoon, and produced by Alternative Arts and its visionary creative director Maggie Pinhorn – was a huge success, playing to a large, mixed and enthusiastic audience. It marked the début of the Grand Union Orchestra, which toured the show nationally the following year, and recorded it (live in the studio) in summer 1985. Originally released as a cassette tape, it was reissued on CD to commemorate the GUO’s 30th anniversary. Full details can be found here.

The piece featured here formed the climax of the show. It reflects not only the theme of this Post and the period it was conceived and created, but uncannily also recent events – the murder of George Floyd and its still reverberating aftermath. Through many different, authentic ‘voices’ it tells a story of moral courage which opposes prejudice, bigotry and injustice – themes of many a Grand Union project since.

The music and performers

It begins with a song based on a poem by the German Marxist writer Wolf Bierman, telling of a one-man crusade by a white postman, William L. Moore, against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. It is sung here by the late Vladimir Vega, a Chilean political exile who himself experienced ill treatment at the hands of General Pinochet. His panpipes and quena, traditional South American instruments, make their own poignant (improvised) commentary on the story as it unfolds towards an inevitably tragic end. The melody, words and rhythm of the refrain – ‘and he died there on his own – but he won’t be alone…’ – recur in varied form throughout the rest of the piece.

The melody of the song and its chorus is now transformed into a serene hymn-like lament (I’m quite proud of the sonorous 8-part brass writing!). Then, through an extraordinary display of collective improvisation, the mood is gradually broken down into an angry, strident protest, which the African drums take up:

Following the relentless build-up of African drumming, Ghanaian singer/drummer Sarah Laryea throws African call and response chants into the mix. Cued brass and saxophone riffs are added, and launch a transition into up-tempo swing for a solo by South African trumpeter Claude Deppa. The music changes again into a joyous hi-life rhythm with steel pans prominent (Trinidadian Ken Johnson), and joined by trombonist Rick Taylor. The abrupt intervention of Courtney Pine on tenor saxophone shatters the momentum, until eventually the rhythm picks up again. The brass and sax riffs return, then voices are added (African-American Gail Anne Dorsey and Black British Alison Limerick) intoning the simple refrain ‘and he won’t be alone’, moving the music on to a final exultant conclusion.

The entire piece lasts just over 20 minutes. It does take time to build up, and nowadays I would have edited it quite ruthlessly to about two-thirds of this length, cutting some of the repetitions. However, it is very much of its period, and is best left to stand as a memento of those times. You can hear it here as an unbroken sequence

Song of Many Tongues CD Cover


 Popular history has it that jazz emerged in New Orleans a century or so ago. The city was an extraordinary demographic melting pot, where the culture of past colonial rulers (Spanish, French, English) merged with that of emancipated slaves and their descendants, who largely came originally from Africa. This certainly accounts for the spirit of this unique musical phenomenon: it is the music of the liberated, and the most liberated of musics; it cannot be pinned down, but has to be constantly reinvented.

The implications – whether artistic or institutional – for a society being rapidly reshaped by the Covid-19 pandemic are profound: the ability to think on your feet or live by your wits has never been more useful. Improvisation alone however is not enough: it’s not just a question of adapting, but of how to adapt positively. Creative artists and independent artist-led companies have the freedom, imagination and flexibility to show the way, if given the opportunity.

Finally, the brief quotation above comes from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:

“The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, 
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; 
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.”


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