A project initiated by

Grand Union Orchestra

"We have musicians from pretty much every major musical culture, and our shows represent their experiences: of shellshock, of the Angola and Bangladeshi wars of independence, of war in Eastern Europe.”

A multicultural orchestra with its roots in the political theatre scene of the 1970s, Grand Union creates large-scale music-based performances that reflect the backgrounds of its performers and often invite participation from amateur musicians and community groups, whether local to its home in east London or in the places to which it tours. Composer Tony Haynes was one of its four co-founders in 1982, and remains its artistic director, working alongside more than 30 musicians and two part-time administrative and producing staff. Its annual turnover fluctuates but is generally around £200,000; receiving no regular subsidy, it is instead funded through project-based grants and commissions.

Mission: cross-cultural music-making that reflects and celebrates UK society

Although it’s a relatively recent catchphrase, the “creative case for diversity” has been at the heart of Grand Union Orchestra for more than three decades. Its artistic director, Tony Haynes, has held firm to the belief that “the route to greater cultural diversity is that the content of the art itself should be culturally diverse” since its first major production, Strange Migration, which premiered in 1983. Its eight performers were all from migrant backgrounds – one was an economic migrant from Ghana, another arrived as part of the Chilean amnesty, having been imprisoned for 10 years as an anti-Pinochet agitator – and this established for Haynes a principle of “authenticity. We have musicians from pretty much every major musical culture, and our shows represent their experiences: of shellshock, of the Angola and Bangladeshi wars of independence, of war in Eastern Europe.” Haynes works not from “a worthy or moral objective: it’s worth doing because it’s artistically inspiring. You get all this new music, new attitudes towards performance, new lives to explore out of it.”

Haynes’s background is in “touring theatre with social and political concerns”. Grand Union Orchestra reflects this, working with a sense of “responsibility and commitment to the extraordinary range of class and economic advantage that we have in our society”, and thinking about where that intersects with ethnicity. Its home is in Tower Hamlets, east London, “one of the most culturally diverse boroughs in the country”, with people from Turkish, Bengali, Somali and Roma backgrounds, among others: working locally, Grand Union Orchestra seeks to “engage with local communities in a practical way”, whether by offering workshop opportunities, inviting participation in its large-scale projects, or through its youth orchestra and world choir, Grand Union Voices. Its 2014 show Undream’d Shores, for instance, was performed at Hackney Empire and included “100 people on stage from all the minority communities in East London”, again telling a story of the experience of migration.

The same principles of inclusion apply when the company tours the UK, and the divisions in British society exposed by the EU referendum have made Haynes even more committed to the question of “what artists can do to reflect and respond to Britain’s changing demographic”.

The world in one country

Although conceived and composed by Haynes, Grand Union Orchestra’s work has changed and developed in response to its growing membership: “As new musicians come, you start devising new pieces of art: the shows themselves are shaped around that.” Many of its musicians – including British jazz trumpeter Byron Wallen, Chinese soprano Wei Li, and Ghanaian saxophonist Toni Kofi – have prolific solo and band careers in their own right, and inspire the details of the work.

The politics in each performance will be global as well as local: for instance, a piece inspired by the Silk Road also reflected “what that means in relation to the present, in terms of global corporations”, while Song of Contagion, premiered in 2017, studied disease around the world, from dengue in Africa to Zika in Brazil: a scope made more authentic, says Haynes, because “your resources can be marshalled to express that”. Even when asked to commemorate events, Haynes’s impulse is to connect the past to the present: and so the 2016 work After Cable Street, performed at Rich Mix, close to the site of the 1936 battle between anti-fascists and anti-Semitic supporters of Hitler, also addressed the far-right rhetoric that emerged through the EU referendum.

Cross-cultural connectivity

The workshops that Grand Union Orchestra offers as adjunct to its performances also benefit from the diversity of its membership, creating the possibility of “local connections”, whether to the Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi, or Caribbean diaspora. “It helps get people to the shows – but those communities might also have a centre where we can do a workshop, for a specific cultural group, or getting young people from a range of different backgrounds together”.

The workshops also reflect Haynes’s frustration with the lack of “authenticity in music education. Why aren’t musicians from India, or West Africa, or the Caribbean, involved much more in mainstream education? Why is it mostly classical music? We don’t set out to run music education projects, but what we have to offer – the fact that we work with so many first-generation migrant musicians – clearly has a social advantage, whether for second-generation young musicians or amateur community performers.”

Why aren’t musicians from India, or West Africa, or the Caribbean, involved much more in mainstream education? Why is it mostly classical music?

A youth orchestra with a difference

The same set of questions about music education led, in 2007, to the creation of the Grand Union Youth Orchestra. Primarily based in east London, although with offshoots in Cambridge, Croydon and Essex, it aims to be “comparable to the professional orchestra – we call it second generation. Informally we can take some of the more able, resourceful young musicians we meet through that, start giving them training, and then feed them into the parent orchestra.” Already a few musicians in their early 20s have followed that path; Haynes has also been able to call on the young musicians to supplement the main orchestra when some of the core musicians are unavailable – resulting in a band that not only “represents the demographic of Britain today but has three generations of players in it”.

Challenges

Inevitably Haynes mentions the lack of core funding as a challenge – although he also argues that under the Arts Council England National Portfolio system many companies “might be better off without the core funding because it’s not enough to do the work on”. For him, the problem is “not so much the money as the sheer energy that it requires to galvanise opportunities and tour around the country. If you can’t pay people to do these things, you don’t get as much done – and of course your energies are divided by spending time trying to find money.”

the problem is “not so much the money as the sheer energy that it requires to galvanise opportunities and tour around the country. If you can’t pay people to do these things, you don’t get as much done – and of course your energies are divided by spending time trying to find money.”

That task is made more difficult by what Haynes describes as “a continual quest for novelty in the arts. If you’ve been around for about five years, you’re old hat.” Although Grand Union Orchestra has been “continually diversifying and doing community projects”, frequently he finds that it doesn’t fit the “impact criteria” of funders, or what he sees as their preference for classical music over non-European musical cultures. The music scene in general, he argues, “suffers from a lack of curiosity: there’s too much that is retro or repeating old forms. Opera is a case in point. But there are huge possibilities in music theatre”, possibilities he is finding it harder and harder to explore in the current funding climate.

What next?

Although Haynes insists that independence has been essential for the kind of creative work he has wanted to pursue, he is now in his 70s and “beginning to count the cost – because it’s quite exhausting”. Although a conversation about succession has begun with Grand Union Orchestra’s board, it is also hampered by the lack of a guaranteed salary for a prospective new artistic director. Not that Haynes has any particular idea of retiring: “I’m not just looking at 2018, I’m looking at 2019, 2020 – I don’t think there’s any choice really. This is a company with extraordinary resources and I have an obligation to keep it going, for the sake of all those who have contributed, and continue to do so.”

And he still has new ideas for work: for instance, to create a performance commemorating the end of the First World War that reflects “not what happened in 1918, but what is happening now that is comparable. How far have we come in treating shell-shock and post-traumatic disorder? We have waves of refugees from Syria: what are we doing about the mental health of civilian victims or ‘collateral damage’? Those are the kind of issues that I would like to be addressing.”

Leave a comment