Saxon Kings, sanitary queens, striking little match-girls: East London has it all

Abbey Mills pumping station, photographed by Andy Worthington

What does Saxon King Alfred have in common with Mo Farah? It turns out that the waterworks Alfred initiated 1200 years ago to trap the marauding Danes in Essex led in an almost unbroken line to the choice of the 2012 Olympics site, where Sir Mo marauded his way to two gold medals.

I learned this today on a test run of the Cholera Walk that London guide Sophie Campbell will be leading before the Song of Contagion show this Saturday. Mixed in with a fascinating social history of London, ranging from drains to striking match factory girls, you get to wander through the stunning wildflowers of the Olympic Park, and discover how King Alfred’s engineering works made the Victorian obsession with drains both necessary and possible, leading eventually to the beautiful Byzantine architecture of the Abbey Mills pumping station. (Really, in what other culture would machines designed to pump shit out of a city be named after the Queen’s four favourite children?) Sophie takes us on an exploration of culture, community and notions of development, showing how water and sewage have been central to shaping East London from the city’s beginning to its present post-Olympic reinvention.

Two people had to cancel yesterday, so if you’re quick, you might still be able to book a ticket for the walk. We’ll end up close to Wilton’s in time for the last performance of Song of Contagion for those who haven’t had a chance to see it yet. Tickets for that here.

“Infectious diseases shouldn’t be this much fun!”

Grand Union Orchestra playing Song of Contagion at Wilton's
“Infectious diseases shouldn’t be this much fun!”

That’s the verdict of one of the guests at the opening night of Song of Contagion. Having kept us wondering until the last minute, composer Tony Haynes unveiled a rocking good show last night (Tuesday June 13). I’m not musical enough to blow our own trumpet, so I’ll share some of the comments from the audience.

“Ridiculous amount of talent among musicians”
“You should tour Europe. It was awesome and inspiring”
“A tonic for our times. Brilliant, moving and very groovy”
“I really enjoyed the musical diversity, the different moods it brought us to and (cherry on the cake) the fantastic venue”
“What a great spirit we have in London. This is multiculturalism at its best”
“Made me feel enlivened, privileged, lucky and blind to injustice.”

There’s a lot more, but perhaps you should get along to the show between now and Saturday June 17th, and see for yourself!

Preview 7: The Power of Music

Get your Song of Contagion tickets from Wilton’s box office

I’m concluding this overview of the music in Song of Contagion with two excerpts from the final section of the show. They also encapsulate two extremes of the key musical features: first, the edge-of-your-seat excitement generated by the exchanges between jazz soloists…

…and secondly the solace and beauty of the spine-tingling textures created by the ensemble of glorious voices:

This week the hope, the aspirations and all the hard work invested in the show will become manifest! It has been a challenging and ultimately deeply rewarding journey, and I hope it receives a generous and open-hearted response.

Contagion on the airwaves: Samba, strings and the story of HIV

Click to listen to More or Less programme

Last weekend, the BBC World Service’s resident numbers nerd Tim Harford dedicated a whole episode of the wonderful “More or Less” programme to Song of Contagion. On air, I heard a few bars of the show’s music for the first time, and got a bit overexcited.

You can also listen to the programme, and to a few bars of the HIV song, here:

Going viral in The Lancet

Thanks to Wellcome Images.

Updated with pdf of essay.

It’s less than a fortnight until Song of Contagion hits the stage. The show we will meet for the first time on June 12th is perhaps less the product of a gestation than an upbringing, delivering an energetic but volatile teenager: unpredictable, yes, but (almost certainly) loveable too.

In this essay in The Lancet, I think back to the teenager’s conception, and muse on why we sometimes make such very bad decisions in global health. If the link doesn’t work for you, download the pdf version here.

For those who want a little of the music, too, there’s this podcast.

Preview 6: Almost there…

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As I write this latest preview, I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to final rehearsals this weekend, working with GUO’s sublime ensemble of singers from all over the world…

…and incomparable jazz soloists (Chris Biscoe and Tony Kofi, alto saxophoones)…

…as we make the final preparations for this extraordinary show. Don’t miss next week’s final instalment in this series of previews before Song of Contagion actually hits the stage – a dramatic and deeply moving coda!

Preview 5: Dance with Me!

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The story of dengue fever and the Zika virus – and how the first has eluded public attention for decades, while the latter hit the headlines over the Rio Olympics – is narrated by a mischievous mosquito who dances her way across Africa and the West Indies to Brazil, following the spread of the diseases. Here she is in the Caribbean:

As you can see, when it comes to dance rhythms, Grand Union has many wonderful drummers from around the world to call on. They all feature in the show, and here they are in full cry on the typical African rhythm that sets the mosquito on her way:

Preview 4: The Silent Wound

Get your Song of Contagion tickets from Wilton’s box office

The most harrowing episode in the show describes the experience of different people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or ‘shell-shock’. They include a refugee mother and child, a conscript soldier in Africa, and here combatants in the Pakistan/Bangladesh war:

Their experiences are first described in song, woven together, and then – as is often my practice in my music for Grand Union – dramatised instrumentally, with jazz soloists embodying the characters:

Youth versus beauty: the science of violins

BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science ran an interesting story this week about the audio-science of violins. Many people take it as given that a squillion-pound Stradivarius that has weathered the centuries has a richer sound than a newer instrument. That was put to the test in a “blind listening” — even the musicians playing the instruments were blindfolded.

And the winner was…

Well, listen and judge for yourself (mp3).

White noise from the coloured river

Brian House, via Verge

We’re not alone in using “sonification” to nudge people into thinking about the things that make our world go round (sometimes less smoothly than we’d like). US artist Brian House is translating pollution data from water quality sensors in the Animus River in Colorado into music. The data is run through amps linked to sheets of four different metals, all of them metals that have exceeded safety levels in the river. The artist describes it like this:

“Changes in the clarity of the water, invisible indicators of the dissolved metals within it, and the dynamics of its daily and seasonal flows all become sound in the gallery, producing timbral “color” from the river’s continually changing composition.”

It’s a really interesting concept, but a quick listen (below) reinforced for me something that composer Tony Haynes noted at the very outset of the Song of Contagion collaboration: music driven exclusively by data are more conceptually than emotionally compelling. The more I hear of pure sonifications, the happier I am to have a real, live, passionately inspired composer at the helm of our show.

HT The Verge, via Mark Zip.

Preview 3: Music and Graphs

Get your Song of Contagion tickets from Wilton’s box office

One of the compositional challenges I faced in this project was how to translate statistical data into music. I describe in the scenario how I wanted to tell the story of HIV/AIDS by converting a graph into a musical score. Here is a fascinating example in reverse: as the score moves across the screen, it looks a bit like a graph! There are three groups of three instruments (trumpets, saxes, trombones), playing identifiably different lines, which you can see and hear quite clearly:

I also wanted to find a way of expressing in music a more abstract idea that characterised our early workshops – debate or discussion. Here is an example: a soprano saxophone (Chris Biscoe) converses with trumpet (Claude Deppa) and alto saxophone (Tony Kofi); perhaps you can also hear vox pop (tuba) rumbling underneath?

If you’d like more detail, explore here!

The company we keep: the BBC proms follow Grand Union to Wilton’s

Interior of Wliton's Music Hall

Some fans of the BBC’s proms were befuddled last year, when David Pickard, the festival’s new director, exploded out of the Royal Albert Hall and “put music in the right setting for that music”, including in a multi-storey car park in Peckham. This year, they’ll be going to Wilton’s Music Hall. As he told BBC Front Row’s Kirsty Lang last night, the Proms will be going to “the amazing Wilton’s Music Hall” with Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. “It will be very special, I think, to see that piece in that setting,” he said. Listen to the interview:

We’re ahead of you, David. Grand Union chose Wilton’s as the venue for Song of Contagion precisely because it resonates so completely with much of our material. It’s close to the site of the 1866 cholera outbreak, described in our opening song, and celebrated in a walk before the show on Saturday June 17th. It’s close to the great sugar warehouses of Tate & Lyle and the other colonial giants that began to dribble ill-health into our diets in earnest in the late 18th century. “A little of what you fancy does you good” — a classic Victorian music hall song that surely once graced the stage at Wilton’s, will feature in our song about corporate lobbying and coronary heart disease.

Wilton’s Music Hall is indeed amazing; rattle it just a bit and you’ll shake out much that is core to the history of Britain and it’s colonies. We’ll certainly be rattling it in June (book here to join us.) But we’ll leave some ghosts for Prom goers to discover, too.

Preview 2: The Ruined Towers

The final section of Song of Contagion is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – ‘shell-shock’. It begins with a brief evocation of a devastated city in a war-torn region, anywhere from Eastern Europe to Central Asia in the last 60 years:

PTSD affects civilians and combatants alike. One of our stories is based on the experience of a refugee and her daughter, and will be sung by Maja Rivić, seen here performing a song from Undream’d Shores:

Stalking King Cholera: a walk that revisits London’s sordid past

It’s almost exactly 150 years since the last great cholera outbreak in East London. The city was saved by Sir Jospeh Bazalgette’s astonishing sewage system, much of which is still in operation today. That system over-rode the perfidious behaviour of corporations — the eight water companies that supplied often unfiltered water to Londoners. Though cholera hasn’t returned, the perfidious behaviour of corporations flows on. Just last week, Thames Water was fined £20.3 million for dumping raw sewage into the Thames.

If you’re interested in the history of East London, of epidemiology, of great works of sanitation or if you just want to discover some of the ghoulish hidden treasures of the East End, join guide Sophie Campbell as she takes us through the slums through which London’s last cholera epidemic raged, the cemeteries it filled, and the pumping stations that put an end to it.

The walk will end up close to Wilton’s Music Hall, in time for the evening performance of Song of Contagion on Saturday June 17th. If you fancy coming to that after the walk, book here.

Book your place on the walk now. Sophie can only take 25 guests, but we may be able to add other dates. If it’s sold out, you’re interested in the walk but can’t make the date, or if you have any trouble booking through eventbrite, please email us on

Preview 1: The Street Remembers…

Wilton’s Music Hall is in Cable Street, in the heart of London’s East End, the setting for the show and home of many of its performers. Cholera, the first of our subject-diseases, was rampant here in the early to mid-nineteenth century. This is how singer Davina Wright introduces the evening:

Interwoven with the story of London – where the construction of sewers eradicated the disease – is a parallel narrative set in Kolkata, where cholera is still rampant, and Indian voices clamour for fresh water:

Blood, sweat and music: truly visceral

Tony often describes his music as “visceral” — and it’s certainly hard to sit through a Grand Union Orchestra performance without feeling it in the gut. But we may have been outdone on the visceral front by Russian artist Dmitry Morozov, who has literally turned his blood into a musical instrument. In the video above, you can watch him storing up 4.5 litres of his own blood; he then turns it into a battery that drives the composition Before I Die. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Quite apart from all the hypodermics, Morozov gets broodingly philosophical about life, decay and death. Very interesting, but an entirely different brand of “visceral” to the Grand Union’s signature style, which you can find more of here.

Read more about Morozov’s bio-musical artwork here.

An aside for those who tried to book tickets to Song of Contagion when we first posted dates, but didn’t find them: they’re now on sale at Wilton’s: book your tickets here.

The Show takes shape…

“Turn the corner into Cable Street – a sharp breeze from the river catches you, sometimes the scent of the sea…the street remembers”

So begins Song of Contagion, in the atmospheric setting of a classic Victorian music hall, taking you to the very heart of East London, where cholera raged 150 years ago. The cause unknown, wild theories abound, but eventually the problem is solved: fresh water and an effective sewage system are the answer.  Meanwhile Indian voices and instruments describe an equally virulent epidemic gripping Kolkata, in West Bengal; but no such steps are taken there, and thousands continue to die from the disease.

If only all diseases were so simply eradicated. Take the story of HIV/AIDS, told here in a piece I developed from one of the original music workshops described here, using this graph:

GUO musicians animate the lines on this graph, projected behind them. Strings buzz away over drums and bass – the activism of mainly gay men; saxophones portray growing public awareness and media attention, and trombones the initially reluctant government funding for treatment, while a menacing bass drum marks the ever-increasing death rate. Then the trumpets announce a treatment has been found – an expensive one, but the drum beats fade.

Meanwhile, millions of families living with the disease in Africa can’t all be treated until medication is cheaper. Against an African rhythm now, the strings, saxophones and trombones again get to work and the trumpets mellow as the price falls. In some parts of the world, the disease is now being treated, thanks to public awareness and action, but there is still much to be done; as the choir warns us, “easy to turn our backs now – but silence is consent”.

Often only when the media take up the cause is a disease taken seriously; but they are capricious, and need a story – preferably a sensational one…

A mosquito begins to dance over a lilting rhythm from central Africa, where dengue fever is endemic and has been killing tens of thousands for years. However “it’s not going to play if it’s too far away – get lost, I’ve got papers to sell!” is a newspaper editor’s cynical response. Next, with soca and steel pans, she spreads the disease to the Caribbean, but “if the rum is still flowing and tourists keep going, where’s the drama?” the editor says.

Trying a different tack, she sambas off to Brazil, where “…Zika may spoil the Olympics: there’s babies being born with small heads” – “now you’re talking!” the editor said. The mosquito dances off to an exuberant big-band number featuring drums and percussion from all over Africa, the Caribbean and Latin-America.

Now the sound of a heart beat fills the Hall, and its graphic wave fills the screen, a portent of CHD – Coronary Heart Disease. Against this pulse, performers press sweets on the audience, muttering fragments of old music hall songs – “when my sugar walks down the street…”, “I’ll be your sweetheart…”, “a little of what you fancy does you good…”. A ghost of Wilton’s past – an old music hall comedian – appears, hymning a lifestyle promoted by the junk food industry. The heartbeat on the screen begins to stutter, the band becomes ragged and the pulse erratic – “a little … of what you fancy … does you … in”.

Three dramatic stories now follow, vividly brought to life in a series of flashbacks. This is the experience of people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A survivor of the Bangladesh/Pakistan war recalls being hunted down in the mountains “jolche shorbanash / everything is burning”, while a villager fears for the future of her family; in Angola, a Portuguese conscript soldier wearied of the relentless jungle warfare “as colunas partiam a madrugada / the platoons set off every morning” attempts suicide and is attended by a medical orderly; a refugee from the war in Syria tries to console her child, haunted by the loss of her father and husband.

Their stories are interwoven, and then taken up by four jazz soloists – two trumpets and two saxophones – with the other musicians providing an eloquent instrumental commentary. Overlapping and colliding with increasing frequency, the musical images build to a powerful climax, in which all the singers also give voice: “Horror of war, beyond what words can tell, or a picture-graph…”

The nightmares dissolve into a poignant epilogue – “If music could bind up the silent wound, we would do that; if music could, we would…”  Each of the singers ponders on the grudging support society offers survivors of conflict, especially innocent victims, and the limited power of artists to intervene. The audience leaves the Hall and steps back out to Cable Street; they are asked to reflect on what they’ve heard, the need for action, the power of unity and activism, and the positive effects of intervention.

(Phrases in italics are excerpts from some of the lyrics in the show.)

A more detailed version of this scenario, and information about the performers, can be found here on the Grand Union Orchestra website.

Tony Haynes, March 2017

Sending bad drugs up in musical flames

The three tubed Fire Organ dancing to a single Concert C. All photo credit: Ryan Johnson

What do third-rate ecstasy, flames and superbugs have in common? An organ. This became apparent a a party given by the genius crew at Guerilla Science at which I encountered the Fire Organ, created by maverick engineers Burohappold. Acoustics  consultant Natalia Szcepanczyk and others on the engineering team will doubtless correct me, but essentially, the fire organ reproduces the shape of sound in flame. The minute I saw it, I thought of something else entirely: drugs. More precisely, bad street drugs. In fact it looked a lot like this:

Ecstasy spectrogram

It’s an image regular readers of Contagion may recognise: MDMA put through a mass spectrometer, showing all the particles in the Ecstasy pill (including a lot of shit that shouldn’t be in any pill that a human is likely to swallow). The reason I’ve got it hanging around is that I was looking for mass spec images or real and fake antimalarial drugs. The real ones save lives. The fake ones don’t. Worse, because they often expose bugs to small doses of medicine, they prompt resistant bugs to build up their strength and spread. In other words, they help breed superbugs.

Since mass spec images also look a lot like the output of electronic composition and editing programmes, I turned the Bad Drug graphs over to our music tech partners at CM Sounds, to see if they could reverse-engineer the sound of it.  When I saw the fire organ (and as one beer led to another) it seemed too perfect not to close the circle by then trying to play that music back into the fire organ, to recreate the graph in flames. If it works, you’ll be able to see AND hear the difference between good smack and bad, and between medicines that will cure you and those that might kill you. It would bring David McCandless-type beautiful information together with some of the sound nerdiness collected by the folks at the Programming Historian. Wouldn’t that be trippy?

Song of Contagion performances:

wiltons music hall front door james perry
Tuesday June 13th to Saturday June 17th

Wilton’s Music Hall, Whitechapel, London E1 8JB

Tickets £10 – £17.50 (concessions available)

Box Office: 020 7702 2789

Tuesday 13th June to Saturday 17th June at 7:30 in the evening
Saturday 17th June 2:30pm family show
Evening performances run 2 hours 20 minutes including interval;
Saturday Matinee runs 60 minutes without interval
Full Price £10 to £17.50;
Concessions £7.50 to £15;
Family matinee prices: £12.50 adults, £7.50 children.
Family offer £30 for 4 tickets (must include 1 adult and 1 child)

More details: