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.

85: Dancing in the Flames

NB: to access tracks, clips and illustrations in full, click here

I visited Australia for the first time in 1990 and spent about six weeks there, exploring as much of the country and its culture as I could in that time. Inevitably I became deeply fascinated by Aboriginal culture, and particularly the idea of ‘songlines’, that trace humanity’s presence in the world in a way that transcends space, time and place. What, I wondered, if invisible lines like those still so central to the lives of Indigenous people today could be etched across the Pacific and ‘sung’ into music? What stories might they tell; what journeys might they relate; what ancestral spirits might they reveal?

We would begin perhaps at an Aboriginal sacred site, Mount Whaleback in the Hamersley Ranges of Western Australia. The region is known for its massive deposits of iron ore; when it’s mined, the ‘traditional owners’ feel almost as though physically stabbed by a weapon. We could then follow the iron to a Japanese car factory, where Mr Yamamoto is ‘Riding the Iron Tiger’, virtually chained to the production line. We might experience Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor after the collapse of the Portuguese Empire – The Night of the Lotus; and then cross the Pacific, witness the evacuation of the Marshall Islands to establish a Western military nuclear base there, and the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup in Chile… You get the idea.

So from this fantasy the Grand Union Orchestra’s Songlines was born in 1992 – it was in fact our 10th Anniversary show! Originally commissioned by the Aldeburgh Foundation, it toured extensively for about a year, and spawned an extraordinary progeny, as I’ll explain below.

Meanwhile, here is a the exhilarating dramatic number about life on the Pacific Rim (it effectively sums up the whole scenario!) that closed the firat half of the show:

I rediscovered this number – almost a paean to hedonism and materialism – as I was going through my large-scale pieces with a substantial choral element for publication and an upcoming show, If Music Could…, featuring voices. The brilliant lyrics are by my long-term collaborator David Bradford, and not for the first time I’m amazed how relevant they still are thirty years later – or perhaps, how uncannily they foresee later events. The piece creates a powerful image of the relentless pace and materialistic obsessions of the multinational, global society we live in today. It’s not only the words and the voices, though: musically there’s a suggestion of what would now be rap, and the trumpet solos are simply stunning in the way they enhance the narrative…

However – unusually for these Posts – I’m not going to describe the piece using musical illustrations. I may do that in a later article; for now I’m leaving the words to do the job, and themselves give a clear picture of the structure and content. Here are the complete lyrics, and here https://tinyurl.com/2s4a9mmc.

The scenario

The number begins with the choir singing unaccompanied fire at the Ocean’s edge, fire on the Rim, then – joined by a bass-dominated propulsive rhythm with punchy brass figures – so check your time-zone, check the day and check the hour. This is interrupted by a Bridge passage that recurs frequently in different guises, with brass riffs and voices drive through the fire, keep driving through the fire pitched against each other over an F# pedal. (The home key, or overall tonality, is A major.)

A calmer section depicts life in great commercial and tourist cities and if it’s Monday then you must be in Macao (and later Singapore), but leaving with a tinge of regret that somebody has closed the Paradise Hotel, until the relentless drive to move on returns with a reprise of the opening. Set against this now is what these days I would probably want performed as rap: and isn’t this the way you’d like to feel / hands on the wheel inside your car / you are the swimmer and the stream / you are the dreamer and the dream

A sharp recall to reality comes with a reprise of the Bridge section, an abrupt change of key to B flat minor, and a change of time to fast jazz swing. This unleashes a sequence of extraordinary trumpet solos, supported with riffs developed from the earlier chorus material, until the calmer section returns; this time and if it’s Thursday you must be in LA, you’re in the movie of LA… However, sadly once again you’ve missed the Paradise Hotel – so it’s back on the road again.

The Bridge music reappears, leads to another key-change (to F major), a jaunty West Coast groove and more ‘rap’: and isn’t this the place you’d rather be / out in the traffic sea, freewheeling / through the city streets at night… / alone inside your car / you are both instrument and score

Now the choir returns with a new vocal riff you’re dancing in the flames; a change back to the home key (A major) and a reprise of the opening chorus (but still surfing the West Coast groove) fire at the Ocean’s edge, fire on the Rim; then the bass-driven rhythm with brass stabs check your timezone, check the day and check the hour; a busy coda follows based on the Bridge (F# pedal) in which all these elements are poured into the melting pot; and finally oh how beautifully you’re dancing in the flames!

How far the songlines eventually reached

Songlines is an enduring treasure trove of material, with a wealth of great dramatic numbers. Some were exclusive to the show – featuring for example Kerry Mackenzie, a wonderful yirdaki (didgeridoo) player we brought over from South Australia – while others reappeared in later shows. If you’re curious about the fate of Mr Yamamoto, here he is Riding the Iron Tiger: The sea is also an abiding image throughout Songlines, chiefly as a healing force, for Mr Yamamoto and several other characters and groups: If You Should Fall…

The most remarkable of all however is the trajectory of this number itself: it became a show in its own right, Dancing in the Flames! It turned out to be an ideal peg on which to hang a participatory show, while providing a perfect theme song. With additional songs (in different languages) it could incorporate musicians, singers, choirs and ensembles from virtually any cultural background, tell stories of their lived experience, but in a generally joyous and upbeat spirit, whatever any underlying tragedy or misfortune.

Its first manifestation in this guise was at the Union Chapel in Islington in November 1995, with a variety of performers from North London, including many of Turkish, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, Bangladeshi, West African and Chinese heritage. The space was ideal, with candles and the stained glass windows stunningly lit from outside! It was revived for the Islington Festival the following year. Later productions included for the Setúbal International Music Festival in Portugal and (though it wasn’t a live performance) a presentation around the project I gave to the Academy of Performing Arts in Shanghai!

Dancing in the Flames in Australia

My favourite version however was a production in Melbourne in 2004. I had worked on and off in the city for about 6 years, building a local version of the Grand Union Orchestra. The city abounds in fine jazz musicians, but above all in artists from many different cultural backgrounds worldwide. I had originally been commissioned to create a 10-piece ‘multicultural’ band for the Montsalvat Jazz Festival and the Arts Centre in 1998; this kindled great interest, and led to an invitation to assemble a version of the Grand Union Orchestra for the International Jazz Festival. The project really took off, and expanded continually.

Dancing in the Flames was first produced in 2004 for Stonnington Council and performed two years running at Malvern Town Hall. Besides the professional musicians of the Australian edition of the Grand Union Orchestra (itself containing South African, Chilean, Greek, Sri Lankan and Vietnamese musicians as well as the jazz players) there was an Indonesian singer, mixed choir, Chinese children’s ensemble, South Indian artists, the Macedonian Turkish Orchestra and a community brass band! Sadly I have no video to hand; one day I’ll try and unearth at least some of the recordings.


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