Arranging

Blue Sky thinking with Mayflower A Cappella

MayflowersJun20a

My last couple of coaching visits have been to help out on new, recently commissioned arrangements. Monday evening was a development on this theme, with an invitation to visit the Mayflower A Cappella Chorus in Plymouth to talk about my arrangement of Mr Blue Sky, which they are currently learning.

This was an interesting challenge as instead of dealing with a chart that was relatively fresh in memory, it involved revisiting music I had written 9 full years ago. What could I remember from my past self’s experience of working on this music? What did I see in it looking at it with fresh eyes?

Facsinating Melody

fr18jun20

They say that if you lose one of your senses, your others increase in acuity to compensate: you become better at hearing if you lose your sight, for instance. It has seemed to me that as remote rehearsing strips out our capacity to operate harmonically, our awareness and appreciation of melody has blossomed to fill the aesthetic gap.

To be fair, I was always a sucker for a good tune, and had I been able to go and work with Fascinating Rhythm in person on Thursday, we probably would have spent a lot of our time thinking about melody anyway, given the character of the music we were dealing with . But I was particularly glad that the song they had asked me to arrange for them last autumn* that we explored together is so profoundly melodic, as it gives them the opportunity to reach much of what the heart of the music is about, even while they are stuck in their Zoom rooms.

Principles for Creative Work, aka Things Not to Worry About

This post started out as a framework to guide a group with whom I’m starting a new creative adventure. (Yes, you will hear about it in due course, but we actually have to produce some stuff first.) Sharing it for all my other friends and colleagues who might find it useful.

  • You will have more ideas than you can use. This means you will have to throw a lot of them away. Don’t worry about this apparent ‘waste’. Discarded ideas don’t go into landfill, they become the compost that makes your creative soil more fertile.
  • You will start more projects than you finish, especially in the earlier stages of your creative adventure. This doesn’t mean you lack staying power, it is a normal part of the process. See above re composting.

Three-Part Textures and Complete Chords

I have been working with a couple of composers and arrangers recently who have been working in textures with three vocal lines, accompanied by a piano (in one case with several other instruments too, but with the piano at the heart of the band). A question that has cropped up with all of them is to what extent you need the vocal parts to present a complete harmonic texture if the piano is there to fill in the chords for you.

Of course, you can’t actually get complete chords in a three-voice texture unless you only use triads, but you can still make the differences between something that sounds like it is giving you enough harmonic information and something that sounds empty. All this is in the context of the harmonic conventions of western tonality as used in 20th-century popular song traditions; other conventions are available of course, but this was the world to which these particular musicians had made their stylistic commitments.

The generalisations we came up with about how this texture works best are as follows:

Persistence versus Productivity: the Artist’s Dilemma

Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando follows its eponymous hero(ine) through several centuries of English history, from late medieval times to the ‘now’ in which Woolf was writing. When I first read it in my mid-teens, the thing that stayed with me, even more than the colourful panoply of history, was the relationship Orlando had with his/her art.

S/he aspired to be a poet, and was working on an epic work called ‘The Oak Tree’. (Goes off to check I’ve remembered that correctly…yes I did.) For much of the book, it is never quite satisfactory, and s/he keeps reworking it. Which, given the apparent immortality of the author, means that every time literary tastes change, the poem has to be re-written in the forms and styles of the day.

My 16-year-old self took this as a cautionary tale. If you wait until you have got something absolutely ‘right’, you may never get there, as what you consider to be ‘right’ might have changed in the interim. Obviously, for normal mortals like us, the problem isn’t the transition from Renaissance to Restoration styles, but that sense of shifting goal posts is still an issue.

Zooming back to Fascinating Rhythm

Same people, different orderSame people, different order

Normally, you wouldn’t visit a chorus 90 miles away for any hour at a time in consecutive weeks. When the travel involved is just going upstairs to your office rather than an hour and half each way down the M5, this becomes a more sensible proposition. Hence I found myself hanging out with my friends at Fascinating Rhythm for the second Thursday on the trot.

Having spent my last visit in presentation mode, explaining a number of musical concepts and their salience to the expressive world of the new arrangement they are working on, it was time to start exploring how this played out in practical terms. Hence we spent most of the time in duetting-coaching mode: each of the section leaders sang their part with the mic on for the others to duet with, I worked with them to develop their performance, then everyone had another go to apply that work themselves.

Zooming in to Fascinating Rhythm

Screengrab or it didn't happen...Screengrab or it didn't happen...

Thursday evening brought the opportunity to spend an hour with my friends at Fascinating Rhythm. Just before lockdown they had just got the most recent arrangement I had done for them to the point where they basically knew it and could start refining it. They have persisted with that project remotely, and though we can’t yet hear the results of that work, they are at least spending their time deepening their insight into the song.

My visit was part of that project. This visit took the form of a seminar/presentation about certain aspects of the music, punctuated with a breakout task to get the chorus active in the process, and my next visit will involve working with the section leaders to explore how these ideas apply when actually sing the music.

One of the points I found myself most eager to share was a point about the relationship between motif and characterisation. Both because it was helping to make sense of a distinctive feature of this chart, and also because it was fun to share the story behind how it came to be. I often say that it’s in tackling the technical challenges of an arrangement that you find yourself developing the most creative artistic ideas, and this is a classic case in point.

8-Parter Project: Reflections on Process

All of a sudden I find myself over halfway through the time I set aside for my project to explore arranging in eight parts. In some ways it feels like I have hardly started – it’s not fair that the time should have passed so quickly! – but then I also notice that I have completed 4 arrangements from scratch, reworked an older one, and have a small collection of sketches and part-done trials, at least one of which I intend to return to and finish. So things seem to have been moving.

In the last month of course I have been in a state of almost continual distraction as life has reconfigured itself around a global pandemic. When we stopped going out to do things with other people, we imagined that would give us all extra time to get on with our other projects. But it turns out that having to rethink all your automated habits takes a huge amount of cognitive capacity, never mind the work involved in taking rehearsals online. And the anxiety.

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