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.
I’m writing this Post about half-way through the Grand Union Orchestra’s 40th anniversary year – the Company hit the road for the first time with a music-theatre show Jelly Roll Soul in May 1982. Since then it has gone from strength to strength (as even a casual glance at this Blog will testifiy!): endlessly developing, expanding, diversifying, recruiting new artists, creating new work, breaking new ground, working internationally, but always remaining true to the same artistic and social principles established in those early days.
The most memorable event in our celebrations so far has been the special show in May at the Hackney Empire Theatre, our London home for large-scale touring shows since the 1980s. It was a truly remarkable occasion: by common consent of immensely enthusiastic mixed audiences (and the Company itself), it was widely deemed our best show ever at the Empire! A full-length film of the show will be released in October; meanwhile here is a 15-minute video of excerpts from the live performance:
Some background to this Post
In the 1990s, when the Grand Union Orchestra had already gained a solid reputation for its highly dramatic and original cross-cultural touring shows, we were involved in an intense discussion with an Arts Council Assessment Panel about future funding for the Company. Afterwards I remarked (only half-jokingly!) that those who praised our work and those who were sceptical of it had one thing in common: they’d never actually seen it! Supporters and detractors alike, they either approved of what they imagined it to be, or didn’t.
In the 2020s it is even worse. It sometimes seems that funding applications – whether to the Arts Council, local authorities or Trusts and Foundations – are assessed entirely on boxes ticked and the whim of algorithms, without reference to the intrinsic quality and originality of the project proposed. With so many projects vying for attention, this may be inevitable, but it’s very unhealthy. However admirable the goals of a particular funding scheme, it require experienced artists to help achieve them; those best qualified therefore need to be identified, but there are few reliable or objective ways of doing so.
(I wrote a similar riff on this theme a year or so ago in Post 78.)
Grand Union’s work (and of course we are not alone) needs to be experienced live and first hand – and in the company of an audience or participants – to make a true impression. (So many GU events leave everyone buzzing, their faces wreathed in smiles…) However, it is virtually impossible these days to get funders, promoters and even journalists along to live events, and it is notoriously difficult to capture the experience in recorded form, still less through reviews, feedback or evaluation.
Notes on the video
This 15-minute video is probably as close as we are likely to get in conveying the immediacy, the adrenalin rush, danger and spontaneity of a live performance.
However, it does go some way to portraying 40 years of unique ‘lived experience’: musicians in their twenties performing alongside veterans; artists from most major musical traditions worldwide; tightly rehearsed ensembles alongside free improvisation; heart-stopping singing and virtuoso solos; addressing historical or contemporary issues like struggles for independence, the impact of the slave trade and living in a post-colonial world… not to mention joyous uplifting dance rhythms from Africa and the Caribbean!
The Empire show in May was created from repertoire I’ve composed during the whole of the Grand Union Orchestra’s 40-year history; it also featured many of the original performers! This short film has been created from excerpts from the show. However, it doesn’t follow its structure exactly; rather, it has been conceived as a piece in its own right, with its own coherent narrative arc.
Our journey begins by evoking the Yoruba orisha Eleggua, guardian of the crossroads and protector of travellers. ‘I Live in the City’ is one of my first songs for Grand Union; set to words by East End schoolchildren, it comes from ‘The Song of Many Tongues’, commissioned by the (former) Greater London Council.for its Year Against Racism (1984 – see Post 27). Next comes the traditional ‘Dance of the Yao People’, featuring gu zheng (Chinese harp) and dizi (bamboo flute), ending with the melody developed into a stunning free improvisation on soprano saxophone and drums with extempore backings.
The violin/tabla duet that follows is based on the classical North Indian raga Mishra Kafi, and leads into an impassioned song describing Bangladesh’s struggle for independence after the partition of India. Sung by a mother anxiously awaiting the return of her son from the war , it names those who died as martyrs to the cause, and the reasons for the war (from The Mother the River: complete 12-minute version here). The elegiac cello solo is a further interpretation of Mishra Kafi, but with jazz-inflected harmonies; it morphs into a slide trumpet solo over the classic rupak seven-beat time-cycle, but here reminiscent of a samba in 7/8 time! In ‘The Refugee’ another mother, fleeing unimaginable horrors, sings a kind of lullaby seeking safety for her children..
‘Can’t Chain Up Me Mind’ (lyric by Caribbean poet Valerie Bloom) pulls no punches in its portrait of African/Caribbean slavery, its defiance reinforced by a anarchic improvised brass ensemble. ‘Songs and Weapons’, set to a poem by the dissident Portuguese exiled poet Manuel Alegre, counts the cost of empire-building – he compares the deforestation of his country to build ships to the wasted lives of young conscripts fighting wars of colonial independence (See Post 9). ‘Are all gods harsh…’ probes the motives for aggression and violence unleashed by eg Putin in Ukraine and other dictators across the world; while the interplay of four jazz soloists in ‘Collateral Damage’ depicts the confusion and consequences for ordinary people (see also Post 16).
‘If Music Could…’ reasserts our humanity, while reminding us of the limits of our capacity to change the world: If music could bind up the wounded earth / downstrike the torturer’s arm / bring justice to the oppressed / raise loved ones from the grave / re-spell the broken names:, we would do that; if music could, we would. It is my oldest complex vocal ensemble (see Post 56 for a full account), featuring five independent voices (in 5 flats, 5 beats to the bar, 5 verses!). Finally, a characteristic West African 12/8 rhythm unleashes our African and South American drummers in a joyous version of the opening chants: ‘Eleggua Kó Eleggua Rá’ gives thanks and pays homage to the orisha for blessing our journey (see Post 63).
‘Creating lasting transformative change’
This is the holy grail of many public and private bodies funding the arts. But it is simply unrealistic: how is it to be remotely guaranteed in a funding agreement, monitored or evaluated? I am reminded of the response of Chou En Lai (Chaiman Mao’s first prime minister) when asked what he thought had been the impact of the French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell”!
This is why it is so important to recognise and assess artists’ and independent arts organisations’ actual achievements and track records – not what they claim to have done or be able to do, but what they have demonstrably accomplished. And that surely means going to see them at work!
It is surely uncontestable that the Grand Union, over the last 40 years, has contributed handsomely to that goal, and might reasonably be expected to continue to be an effective agent for transformational change? It is also evident from the fact that ideas and principles we pioneered from the beginning have now become staples of orthodox educational and artistic practice.
There are, equally uncontestably, difficult times ahead. Art and creative artists have a huge part to play in resistance, recovery and renewal. Our beleaguered and floundering cultural institutions need to wake up to that, and empower artists directly – hence my title. The spell of complacency, self-interest and ignorance needs to be broken, and quickly. (And I don’t excuse my own complacency, and reluctance to Post these many months…)
Still unconvinced? Then look again at the skill, imagination and conviction conveyed here:
Some links are given in the text to fuller versions of the songs from which the excerpts are taken, or Blog Posts in which I describe their musical techniques, content and provenance in greater detail. Others can be found on our published CDs, or through the following Blog links:
Great article Tony… as always Hope you are well..
Keith A Preston M 0418 839 264E firstname.lastname@example.org