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.

77: Artists Show the Way


This Post explores in more detail themes from the two previous Posts – (75) the value of improvisation, and (76) the limitations of cultural institutions.

It is generally accepted that the pandemic has exposed serious shortcomings in the way our society is organised – not least in the arts – and that some kind of recovery, or radical change, will be necessary. How is it to be achieved?


Institutions and discrimination

To begin with, I remarked (Post 75) that ‘institutions are institutionally institutionist’; let me explain this gnomic utterance…

It is often said, for example, that some organisations or systems are ‘institutionally racist’.  But it may be that the institution itself is the problem, not the attitude to race or ethnicity that it fosters; that it needs radical change in itself – ie how it is constituted – to work more effectively, if it is to embrace equality and diversity in any meaningful way.

This may not apply to the Metropolitan Police, for example, because it can and should recruit a range of people who more truly reflect the diverse demographic of London today, and work according to its established operational principles. It does of course need also to address the ‘culture of racism’ in the force, but that is also recognition that prejudice and bigotry can only be expressed by people, not inanimate organisations, and it is the individual’s views that must be challenged. This can happen within the existing ‘system’.

In the arts, however, it is completely different. Imagine for a moment the most extreme, dramatic scenario, that all the roles in the Royal Opera House – top management, finance and marketing, technical and stage direction, singers and the orchestra – are filled by people from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. This would be no problem in terms of expertise, because a workforce well equipped to cover these tasks can be readily drawn from those communities. It would however not alter the fact that the repertoire performed has been created largely by dead white males! (often foreign, and with unacceptable views to boot – but let’s not go there now…)

A similar situation exists with our classical orchestras. For decades they have been encouraged to become more diverse, and indeed public funders like the Arts Council have made it a condition of continuing grant aid to them. However, it still required an enterprising Black professional double bass player to set up a new and independent orchestra, Chineke!, to provide opportunities for musicians who – regardless of race or colour – quite demonstrably have the ability to fill chairs and desks in all the existing orchestras. (And by the way, it took ‘blind auditions’ to get women properly accepted into the orchestral rank and file, but maybe we shouldn’t go there either.)


The declining influence of artists

I should say unequivocally at this point that I am no Luddite, disparaging these institutions, nor do I wish to diminish their cultural importance: I love and admire some operas, can improvise sonata form and write 4-part fugue as well as the next scholar. Rigorous development of technique through any means is essential for any creative artist, and in any case it’s important to celebrate our European (and traditional English) heritage with performances of the highest quality.

At the same time, I am deeply drawn to West African rhythms and Indian ragas, which I have learnt entirely from working with musicians brought up in these and other traditions, which also help define British identity today. Their musical principles enrich my own art, and the myriad highly individual performers and creative artists working in Britain today have much to offer and deserve equal opportunities – but on their own terms. Mainstream institutions are simply not designed to accommodate their ideas and ambitions.

What has been going on during my 50 years (and counting!) as a professional creative musician is the slow erosion of the recognition given to creative artists, understanding exactly what they do and why – and hence diminishing their importance in the ‘cultural ecology’. (Such phrases are themselves often a bit of a give-away: ‘arts professionals’ refer to our ‘sector’ or ‘industry’, and have invented a whole vocabulary of what used delightfully to be called ‘weasel words’ – ‘cultural leader’, ‘arts practitioner’, ‘creative producer’ and so on – to usurp in effect the place of artists themselves.)

Once again, a categorical disclaimer: I am not disputing the significance of the work everyone does, artists or not, in the production and distribution of (especially) the performing arts; they themselves are demeaned by being dumped in the ill-defined category of ‘the creative industries’, which have nothing to do with art. Nor am I suggesting there is any kind of hierarchy, of one role being more important or prestigious than another. If we are to understand and reform the ‘cultural scene’, however, it is essential to define them accurately, rather than lazily blur distinctions, and be clear how they all fit together and complement each other. And central to this is properly understanding the role of the creative artist.


Alternative management models

Artists of my generation honed our art during the 1970s and 1980s when the Arts Council positively encouraged artists to form their own companies, and built a touring network that covered the entire UK. This was the heyday of the independent artist-led company, often a collective. Many of us also had to learn administrative and entrepreneurial skills to support our artistic practice – in short, the workers (the artists themselves) learnt to control the means of production and distribution! A cornucopia of original and imaginative work was created, and not surprisingly many writers, musicians, actors, dancers, directors, choreographers and designers who helped shape and run our big cultural institutions came out of this period.

The 1990s saw the beginning of three decades of increasing managerialism in the arts, which were then well-funded and flourishing creatively. They therefore became an attractive career option, courses in arts administration and cultural leadership multiplied, bodies like the Arts Council wrestled with evaluation and assessing quality, bureaucracy increased and Boards of Trustees were empowered to battle with these (quite otiose!) demands. The result was the exclusion of the voice of practising artists, and of creative artists in particular.

Why is this so important now? Big institutions are ill-equipped to cope with the social and cultural depredations (and deprivations) of the pandemic. Opera houses and orchestras, concert halls, theatres, arts centres and established touring companies, even smaller venues and clubs, are all struggling to survive – ironically crippled by the very business models they have had to develop to secure funding from various sources; they have heavy payrolls and fixed overheads, and lack the flexibility and imagination to deliver their core work in a different way.

Suddenly the (no longer so old-fashioned!) independent artist-led companies can show the way. Having very low fixed overheads, a mostly freelance but loyal and dedicated workforce, including artists with long experience of working together and a vocational commitment to collaboration – and a huge body of shared workshop techniques and performance repertoire which they ‘own’ – they can adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Moreover, they are well-placed to produce new work designed to comply with the constraints imposed by Coronavirus, and above all provide a platform for Black, Asian and minority ethnic artists to create work in a form or structure that suits their vision…


I shall return to the relationship between art and creativity in my next Post – examining more fully what a creative artist is and does, and how understanding this may offer a path to resolving the perennial conundrum of equality and diversity. I shall also argue that an alliance between the older and young generations of artists is the key to cultural renaissance.

In the meantime, here is a 20-minute reminder of what an independent artist-led Company can achieve, well beyond the scope of a mainstream cultural institution:

This Post was originally published just before Christmas, traditionally the season for quizzes, puzzles and competitions, so it began with a festive musical challenge and some prizes. Why not try your hand, before scrolling down to the answer?

First, listen to this short piece, identify the musician, instrument and the name of the piece, send your solution with your name and address to mail@grandunion.org.uk, and we’ll be delighted to send you a Grand Union Orchestra CD or DVD!

“I was born into extreme poverty at the turn of the last century, my father abandoned the family when I was young; I became a teenage tearaway and  was arrested twice for juvenile delinquency. I spent a couple of stretches in the local Waif’s Home, was given an instrument, learnt to play it and found salvation in the Home’s brass band. Who am I?”


The real question, though, is how – from such a background, and without formal instruction – did this musician (at the age of 26) come up with such a fluent improvisation, with complete command of harmonic structure, precise rhythmic phrasing, and impeccable accuracy of attack, with each note weighted, timed and tuned to perfection? Totally unsupported, the musical equivalent of walking a vertiginous tight-rope!

Short it may be, but in my view this is one of the greatest and most unexpected musical achievements of the Twentieth Century. A sublime expression of artistic truth – embodying the classic unity of style and idea, of form and content – on the smallest possible scale. It’s the work of a true creative artist, which I intend to define in the next Post, examine how much we value their work and suggest how we can ensure it flourishes. 


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