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.

76: Staying Ahead of the Game

This is essentially a sequel to my previous Post (75), on the virtues of improvisation.

During the months since the original Lockdown, the Grand Union has fared reasonably well . We were beneficiaries of the first Arts Council Emergency Funding scheme, aimed at smaller companies and freelance artists. This has not so far been repeated, and we weren’t eligible for the latest scheme, which has distributed eye-watering sums to (some quite dubious!) larger organisations. We subsequently received an ACE Project Grant which has partly funded our current programme (described below). But it’s not just the money…

Handling the pandemic

What has helped us not just survive but continue to produce high quality work of integrity is the fact that most of our musicians and singers are freelance self-employed, but with a huge common repertoire and experience of working together. The same goes for the rest of the Company – all highly expert professionals at the top of their respective games, working one or two days a week – and a part-time administrator. I too remain self-employed, a creative artist by profession, which I’ll say more about in the next Post.

The Grand Union is therefore that old-fashioned thing, an independent artist-led company; equally unfashionably it is more or less organised as a collective. We have no core funding, but are dependent on project funding, commissions and earned income. It is also useful that we are all – not just the musicians! – seasoned improvisers by temperament, which makes it that much easier to adapt creatively to changing circumstances.

We took the decision early on that we were not going simply to repurpose or repackage existing projects, rushing into online and digital media; instead, we would create a brand new programme that worked within whatever Covid-19 constraints were currently in force. The first fruits of this policy – remaining true to the Grand Union’s artistic and social principles – can be seen in our autumn programme outlined below.

Reforming institutions

The pandemic is also revealing dramatically that – as many believe has long been apparent – the current system for funding the arts is unsustainable. It favours institutions over artists, but – however their staff may style themselves ‘arts practitioners’, ‘creative producers’ or ‘cultural leaders’ – they are nonetheless dependent in the end on creative artists and their unfettered imagination to fill their theatres and concert halls, particularly with work that is new and ‘relevant’ (a current Arts Council funding criterion).

Could it be that we’ll see the managerialism in the arts which has grown over the last 20 or 30 years rolled back? Will more support – and thereby power and influence – be given to artist-led companies? Will we see genuine partnerships formed, where complementary expertise is shared between creative artists, their companies (who often have remarkable technical and marketing flair), venues, promoters, the media (particularly TV) and journalists who truly appreciate what art is and how it works?

A different road to recovery?

Artists of my generation who learnt their trade in the late 1970s and 1980s – often as members of artist-led companies, and even cooperatives at that – will remember those times when the Arts Council, many Trusts and Foundations, the GLC and other metropolitan authorities encouraged such independent enterprise. Albeit of an older generation, we also form powerful bonds with young people and emerging artists (the Grand Union’s work with young musicians is a clear example).

Combined, older artists with their experience and wisdom, together with the younger generation with its energy and command of modern technology, could be a formidable force for recovery. This is surely where the Government and the Arts Council should be investing a large amount of their money. It would pay dividends not just because it is cost-effective, but because it would bring about a long overdue transformation of our artistic culture.

It might not be popular, of course, because it could upset the status quo, challenge vested interests and threaten ‘arts professionals’ whose hegemony has dominated our ‘sector’ or ‘industry’, as they put it, for a long time. However, I am no Luddite: I fully appreciate the value and importance of our national institutions, and respect the competence and commitment of those who run or work for them; all I ask – especially at this crucial time – is a rebalancing that puts more of the weight back on artists themselves.

The Grand Union autumn programme

This programme puts many of the principles I’ve outlined above into practice, and I believe justifies the claims and suggestions for reform that I’ve made. Wherever possible, we have tried to devise new projects in forms that are viable in our Covid-dominated society at present.

1) We have created what is in effect a brand new show – From Cable Street To Bethnal Green – in an ingenious take on the ‘promenade performance’. linking video extracts from the GUO repertoire (which has a global reach) with East End venues and locations (often where they were filmed), it narrates local stories and events, with people from our diverse local communities among the performers. Following an interactive map takes the ‘audience’ to QR codes which link in turn to a series of pieces on YouTube, with background information.

(not to scale!)

2) For Black History Month, we devised a series of Friday night events at St John on Bethnal Green, reflecting the musical cultures of the neighbourhood and its musicians: this postcard explains the idea. Because of worries about rising Covid-19 infections in Tower Hamlets, it is playing only to an invited audience. However, all events are being streamed live from 7.00 to 8.00 on Fridays; here is the first one, with the distinguished Bengali singer Alaur Rahman.

3) Meanwhile, we haven’t forgotten our young people: first, we resumed the monthly Sunday morning masterclasses for the Grand Union Youth Orchestra at Rich Mix. With social distancing and other Covid safety measures in place, we can only work with about 16 students. However, the sessions are filmed, and will be promoted for use by schools and ensembles countrywide. The workshop techniques we use are described in this flyer:

4) For obvious reasons, we had to postpone our Residential Summer School this year, so we devised a 3-day course instead for the autumn half-term to comply with current pandemic regulations. It combines elements of projects (2) and (3) above: there will be a maximum of 20 students at Rich Mix, sessions will be led by GUO core musicians, and workshops will be live-streamed for those at home to join in.

5) We have created a new Library Channel on YouTube for artistic and educational use. It brings together the most vivid and musically original pieces from the Grand Union Orchestra repertoire over the last two decades, often including school or local community performers, and dramatising historical, social and political events across the world. It is subdivided into themed playlists; the best way in, and to access these, is via this link, The Isle is Full of Noises.

The Events Page and the Youth Orchestra Page on the GUO website carry further details and regular updates of current work and objectives.

Looking ahead to 2021

We are likely to be developing techniques and producing programmes along these lines for some time to come. It is not a matter of adapting past methods, but of creating new work in a different and viable form with integrity, and true to the Grand Union artistic and social ethos. We are lucky to have several projects in the pipeline, including a commission from Hackney to assemble a community orchestra for Hoxton/Shoreditch, and a new show exploring the music of the African diaspora supported by the Cockayne Foundation.

We are also working with the Bangladesh Government and the High Commission in London on an international celebration of the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence, and the centenary of the birth of its founding father (2021). Here is a dramatic and moving account of the struggle, from the point of view of a mother (sung by Lucy Rahman) whose sons are caught up in the war:


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