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.

Tony Haynes writes about his formative years and the origins of the Grand Union Orchestra

Tony Haynes was one of four co-founders of Grand Union in 1982, acts as artistic director and writes or arranges most of its music. Here he gives a brief outline of his musical career and describes why the Company is so important to him:

Early days

I invented my first piece of music on my grandma’s parlour piano around the age of six, and at that point knew I would be a composer.

My family wasn’t particularly musical – my mother played the piano, there were stories of a great uncle who was the organist of Toronto Cathedral and Uncle George and cousin David were clarinettists in an award-winning military band – but everyone loved music, and regularly sang in choirs that performed Messiah at Christmas and Stainer’s Crucifixion at Easter.

I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in a North Berkshire country town, where I had piano lessons with the stern Mrs Lambert, sang in the choir (and later played the organ) in the local church. From the age of 13 – as National Service was claiming the more experienced semi-pro musicians – I would play piano most Friday nights and Saturdays in Les and Ellie Birt’s Versatile Players or ‘Bopper’ Bailey’s band for dances and weddings across the Berkshire downs; and then I discovered jazz and blues, and joined a couple of brass bands to acquire a trombone as the New Orleans revival took off.

At school I took up the viola, taught by the inspirational Frances Kitching, who gave me opportunities I didn’t deserve, given my technical shortcomings and reluctance to practise; she nurtured me and gave me unstinting encouragement and criticism, until she died tragically young. I also directed our cadet force band (with the invented rank of lance-sergeant!) and organised various jazz groups. In music theory I was entirely self-taught, and passed O-level and A-level Music without formal teaching. I scraped into Oxford via a classics scholarship, but was offered a place on condition I study something else! I readily opted for Music.

I relished the highly academic discipline of the Oxford music degree in those days, loved writing fugues and five-part counterpoint, and took twelve-tone music as a special subject in Finals, with Egon Wellesz – a real composer, pupil of Schoenberg! – as my tutor. Two close friends and I ran the popular and well-off University Jazz Club in our final year; we lived in an enormous house in North Oxford where famous musicians (and often whole bands) up from London could be tempted with a bottle of whisky or two to jam into the night with us student musicians; by this stage modern jazz piano – I loved Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner – was my speciality. I emerged that summer with a respectable BA class 2:1.

Needing a complete change of direction, and fleeing an unhappy love-affair, I signed up with an agency in Paris that provided bands for American air-force bases in France, and for several months played under a succession of German band-leaders in Enlisted Men’s and Officers’ Clubs from Normandy to Verdun. I was playing in one of these when Kennedy was assassinated, the work collapsed, and I was home for Christmas. The following summer I spent with my trio, a charming Brazilian singer/guitarist called Bira and a student fado group from Lisbon opening one of the first night clubs in the Algarve; shortly after, I settled in London.

After three years of varied freelance work, teaching and part-time study I signed up for a brand new MA course at Nottingham University in the Analysis of Contemporary Music, set up by Arnold Whittall. Here I discovered Messiaen, but my dissertation was actually in indeterminacy and aleatoric music, in particular Lutoslawski and Penderecki. During my year at the University I played in a couple of productions at the Playhouse (the Musical Director Iwan Williams was one of my generation of Oxford musicians), and this led to perhaps the greatest stroke of luck in my entire career…

Luck and opportunity

It is generally said that you make your own luck, but taking every opportunity that’s offered – however apprehensive (or unqualified) you may feel – is essential to the development of any musician or creative artist. You never know where it may lead: there is the occasional blind alley, but there is scarcely any experience from which you don’t learn something valuable. Up to this point, I had passed up perhaps two or three significant opportunities – including one I still deeply regret – and it wasn’t going to happen again.

It was all change at Nottingham Playhouse at the end of that academic year – founder-director John Neville was handing over to Stuart Burge, and Iwan decided to move on. So I got his job for the beginning of the new season – the only salaried job I’ve had in an otherwise self-employed career – a job for which I was completely unqualified! However, with only limited experience of theatre, it turned out to be ideal: it provided me with a chance to use all my strongest compositional techniques, discover a talent for writing for voices, and develop ancillary skills (including management and negotiation as well as directing and performing).

The theatre at that time ran productions in repertoire, so that in any one week there would be two or three different shows. Most of these shows would contain live music, and all that music I would write or arrange; occasionally it would be recorded, and I could spend hours cutting up and playing around with tape. I had to work incredibly hard, hours were long, and deadlines were implacable.

For the next ten years, writing and directing my own music for theatre was my life (although most Mondays for five years I also taught harmony and degree students at Trinity College of Music). Reputations spread quickly then, and I was in great demand – for four years I contributed to all Alan Dossor’s legendary productions at the Liverpool Everyman, did several shows with Michael Bogdanov, worked in Newcastle, Leicester (Haymarket and Phoenix), Birmingham, the RSC (picking up a SWET award for the The Taming of the Shrew when it transferred to London), diversified into dance (Ludus in Lancaster) and perhaps most importantly joined the touring companies 7:84 and Belt & Braces Roadshow.

Many of these productions would be called ‘political theatre’, which shaped a lot of my subsequent thinking; besides writing music for plays by people like John Arden, John McGrath and Chris Bond, I wrote new music for many Brecht productions, and his ideas about theatre deeply influenced much of my own subsequent work. The network of collaborators, venues and promoters I built up during years of touring  also proved invaluable.

It was therefore time to put these ideas into practice on my own account – creating work not dependent on a script and actors, putting music at the centre, with other performance disciplines in an ancillary role – so David Bradford, John Cumming and Julie Eaglen and I formed our own company, and Grand Union was born with our first touring show Jelly Roll Soul.

Other journeys

Among the many factors that make Grand Union successful and give it its unique identity, one of the most significant is ‘authenticity’. This is difficult to define and express – like the parallel concept of ‘artistic truth’, which is equally important – but you know it when you experience it! Strange Migration is a clear example, and in effect determined the path that would follow.

Strange Migration was Grand Union’s third touring show, performed by eight multi-instrumentalists / singers. I had long wanted to produce a piece exploring aspects of migration and realised it would be dishonest (thank you, Bertolt!) unless some of the performers themselves had this experience. Among the performers I recruited were Sarah Laryea, a charismatic Ghanaian drummer and singer who might be described as an economic migrant; Vladimir Vega, a political exile who had mastered Andean folk instruments in a Chilean gaol; and Tunukwa, US-born Caribbean singer who had been a press photographer associated with Malcom X’s Civil Rights movement.

Strange Migration toured for over a year, during the course of which some of the original performers were replaced or deputised for from time to time by others, expanding what effectively became a repertory company of musicians. The opportunity then came, thanks to a commission from the GLC to produce a work to celebrate their Year Against Racism, to bring all these performers, and more, together; and so the Grand Union Orchestra was born, in September 1984, performing The Song of Many Tongues to a huge crowd in Covent Garden Market.

Caribbean, African and Latin-American instruments – mainly steel pans and percussion – were the principal non-European elements in the Orchestra at that stage, but next came opportunities to add South Asian musicians and singers – who quickly became a permanent fixture – and then Chinese, Arab, Turkish, Eastern European… Most of these musicians lived in London, but over the last 15 years or so as work has developed abroad – particularly in Lisbon, Dhaka and Melbourne – so the range of musicians involved in Grand Union projects has broadened even further.

The ‘stories’ of Sarah, Vladimir, Tunukwa and other migrants, exiles and refugees were written into Strange Migration and many subsequent Grand Union Orchestra shows through a quite subtle and complex collaborative process. It’s one reason why the work always packs such an emotional punch, but the range of purely musical expertise brought by all these musicians is equally important, including:

  • Chinese music from Zhu Xiao Meng, Cheng Yu, Ruijun Hu and Wei Li
  • Bengali songs from Akash Sultan and Lucy Rahman
  • Indian classical ragas from Baluji Shrivastav and Shahadat Hossein Khan
  • Indian tals and tabla patterns from Yousuf Ali Khan
  • Carnatic music from Shanti Paul Jayasinha and Shobha Sekhar
  • Anatolian songs and Turkish dance rhythms from Cemal Akkiraz and Günes Cerit
  • Gypsy music from Marek Czureya and Vanya Krawczyk
  • South African township music from Claude Deppa and Brian Abrahams
  • West African drumming from Sarah Laryea, Emmanuel Tagoe and Uïé Sissocó
  • Northwest African chant and kora/guitar styles from Sadjo Djolô
  • Soca, calypso, ska and reggae from Ken Johnson and Kyron Akal
  • Latin-American and Afro-Cuban rhythms from Xavier Osmir and Andres Lafone
  • South American folk music from Carlos Fuentes and Vladimir Vega

…plus of course a host of fantastic, internationally-known jazz players!


For me, the advantage of working with such a diverse and resourceful repertory company of musicians is that it enables me to expand vastly my compositional canvas – and to try and create music that properly represents the multicultural society that is Europe today. But first you have to establish a working musical relationship – not easy sometimes, given cultural differences and language barriers.

The only way to get under the skin of musicians you work with – especially if you want to write something original and effective for them to perform – is to learn as much as you can about the music they are familiar with, that they regularly perform, and how it works. This is one reason why Grand Union has an enormous repertoire of traditional material or ‘standards’ from different musical cultures around the world which it can perform more or less authentically – or transform creatively as the occasion demands! – and use to great effect in music workshops.

More important, however, is learning how the principles underlying the music operate, and how these techniques – or sometimes simply attitudes towards music-making – can inspire and generate new ideas, and using them to creative purpose. Everything I know about ‘world music’, therefore, comes from the musicians I have worked with – not from books, records or ethno-musicological study – and I’ve learnt it entirely for practical reasons.

In short, while the music for the Grand Union Orchestra or our large-scale participatory shows is my own, I couldn’t have written it without working with and learning from all the musicians (and more) listed above. For me, composition is not just the manipulation of notes, but the expression of a powerful artistic idea through the most appropriate and effective means available, driven by creative purpose – and it can’t work without the creative collaboration of the performers.

You can download Tony’s full CV here or in Word format

2 comments on “Tony Haynes writes about his formative years and the origins of the Grand Union Orchestra

  1. Pingback: 22: 30 Years of Strange Migration | ONLINE COMPOSITION MASTERCLASS

  2. Pingback: 39: Strange Migration (UdS) | ONLINE COMPOSITION MASTERCLASS

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