The Cortège

An Introduction by Mike Westbrook

Mike Westbrook Orchestra
photo by Kate Westbrook in the Adam Ballroom,
The Lion Hotel, Shrewsbury 1982

The theme of The Cortège is a procession, a funeral procession. Towards the end of the piece, the Orchestra plays the old New Orleans hymn, “Free As A Bird” - one of the tunes that would traditionally be played by a marching band at a funeral, on the way to the cemetery. The pattern of the New Orleans jazz funeral, with its slow procession to the graveyard, the funeral service, and then the exuberant parade back to the town, became a central image for The Cortège. It was a major step forward when I was able to get hold of an old `78` record of Louis Armstrong’s “New Orleans Function  The simple pattern of the funeral, with its three inter-connecting stages, acquired a great significance for me as a powerful metaphor for the cycle Life / Death / Life.

I decided that The Cortège itself would be the first part of a trilogy, a sequence of three separate yet inter-related works. Musically, the figure 3, and multiples of 3, became the basis of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic shapes and patterns, and I came to see the structure of The Cortège as based on units of 3. There are two opposing processes involved in composing, as far as I’m concerned. One starts from nothing, from an empty sheet of manuscript paper, from silence, and builds into something that did not exist before. The other is a process of discovering, bit by bit, something that is already there, has always been there, if only one can find out how to get at it. In fact, creativity and discovery go together. Certainly with The Cortège, I seemed to discover many relationships between things that I had not known about before — things that were waiting there for me to stumble on. It’s like being an archaeologist and finding fragments of clay pottery, gradually establishing the relationship between them, and Finding that they all belong to one vessel, a unity.

Only towards the end of The Cortège do we come specifically to images of the funeral. The composition is like a dream journey past Fairground sideshows in which aspects of our experience are mirrored in music and poetry. My wife, Kate Westbrook, was involved in The Cortège from the very outset and the period during which we began working on the composition (1978-9) was a period of travelling for the Brass Band. We played in most European countries and our travels included three weeks in Israel. So I was thinking about the composition while on the road, working on a piano whenever there was one available, and rising the guitar when I couldn`t get to a piano to work out ideas. The experience we had (Kate, Phil and I, and the other members of the Band) while travelling around, became part of the journey - the procession of The Cortège. In fact this travelling has continued since the premiere of The Cortège in July 1979, and the composition has changed to absorb new ideas and experiences.

In the summer of 1978 we spent two weeks in the Italian hill town of Santarcangelo, where we took part in an International Theatre Festival. Performances of all kinds, by groups from all over the world (including Kathakali dancers from India) took place in the streets and piazzas of the old town, and enormous crowds flocked in to see them. With the Brass Band we have always played a lot of street music, yet the feeling of closeness between musicians and audience, of being involved together in a great celebration of energy through music, was never more potently expressed than in the streets of Santarcangelo. It took me back, in imagination, to the roots of jazz in the streets of New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th Century, when many different cultures merged together and gave birth to a new music. The Santarcangelo experience was a major influence on The Cortège.

Mike Westbrook Orchestra

Though the overall structure and purpose of the work, even its title, were established at an early stage, it was some time before the music took on a definite form. Some of the principal reference points were visual images - impressions of places and paintings, and especially the etchings of Goya. Kate is a painter, and I studied painting. Both our roots lie in art as well as in music.

Goya is an artist of particular importance to Kate, as is the poet Lorca. It was at her suggestion that I went to Lorca for texts to be sung in The Cortège.

I found, in the ‘Canción de Jinete” (about a man moving towards his death) the complete expression in poetry of the central theme of The Cortège. This poem and ‘Canción del Naranjo Seco’ are contemporary poems that have the universal power and authority of folk song.

“Córdoba”, as I called the song based on Lorca’s ‘Canción de Jinete’, was the first part of The Cortège to be written. At that stage there was no sequence. The decision came later to place that song at the point it now occupies in the composition.

My musical response to "Córdoba” was, in the end, very simple: basically two notes, a minor third. The phrases of the vocal melody are all based around this interval. The repetition of the two-bar phrase throughout the song gives a mournful quality and echoes the rider’s slow, steady progress towards Córdoba. The three note melody, Db - E - Db, is backed by three simple major chord shapes, Db - E - Gb, again continuously repeated. It is the bass line that carries the harmony along; it forms a six-bar cycle, a sequence of nine bass notes.

Each of the three major chord shapes is played in turn against three different bass notes, and the character of the major chord is changed by the bass note used. Chords and bass line make up a six-bar sequence, which is repeated throughout the piece, in a cycle.
Chords Image

The sung verses are six bars long. Because there is an eight bar instrumental interlude between each vocal verse, each verse of the song starts at a different point in the chord sequence. This gives a different character to each verse, a feeling that the singer has moved on, though the melody remains the same.

The nine notes of the bass line proved to be the key to the whole work. This pattern, interpreted and developed in many different ways (sometimes diagrammatically) led to the discovery of most of the chord structures and melodic lines in the composition and grew into a whole harmonic language.

The instinctive choice of Lorca’s ‘Canción de Jinete’ as a starting point, not only unlocked the musical possibilities of The Cortège, it also opened the door to the use of European poetry in the composition. The choosing of the poems was itself a long process, and one on which Kate and I worked together, often with the help of friends in other countries. Texts were incorporated into the composition as we went along, and the selection is not intended to be definitive. In fact the process of assimilating poetry from other countries has extended beyond The Cortège itself. Restricting ourselves so far to European sources is the result of our concern that we use only material from countries and cultures that we have experienced directly - the Afro-American jazz tradition always excepted.

"Córdoba" was the starting point of The Cortège in four ways:

  • The use of a European poem, in its original language.
  • A harmonic character produced by the use of simple major chords over different roots.
  • The use of the number three, and multiples of three, in the structure, e.g. three major chord shapes, a nine-note bass line, a six-bar structure.
  • A pattern of notes, the bass line of “Córdoba", i.e.:
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