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David Wright on Arranging

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I’m aware I’ve used this title before, but it is just as appropriate 9 years on, for a similar kind of event: 10 or so of the UK’s most active arrangers gathered in a room together with David Wright to do some learning together. I think maybe four of us were the same as last time, and we revisited some of the same themes. But the majority of both the people in the room and the examples we examined were new, so both event and content had a nice balance of continuity and novelty.

David’s general approach to arranging is, not surprisingly, much as I have heard him present before. There’s the concern with structure, with a clear song-map giving the global context in which the detail is developed. There’s the care over symmetry and development in the detail, and a concomitant disapproval of coaches jiggering with details the arranger has placed with care: ‘Getting rid of a swipe is like sawing a leg off a table’.

Most of all, there’s the recommendation to have patience, and at every stage of the process. ‘Don’t settle,’ he says, ‘Great ideas don’t happen in one sitting’. ‘You should arrange for long enough that you get sick of it.’ It’s not just at the creative, conceptual end that he recommends time and care, it’s also in the final touch-up and edits. (This is the bit of the process I think of as ‘combing’ the arrangement; if you have ever worn your hair long you know the kind of patience you need, and you know how it feels when it’s right.) The presentation of the score matters to him: ‘Make it look nice – if you don’t, people won’t like the music enough’.

You’ll also notice that David is good with the bon mot. He is endearingly self-deprecating about his capacity to teach arranging, but his experience in communicating complex ideas to students in his professional life helps him communicate vividly on this subject too.

There were also themes I had not heard him develop in such detail before. The imperative to sing through all the lines to make sure they lie naturally on the voice was still there, but with added emphases. Never mind how good the quartet is, you still need to make it nice to sing – advanced technical skill in the singers does not give the arranger permission to exercise lesser technical skill. (That second bit was my paraphrase, David tends not to be quite that harsh!) He also walked through examples of how to arrange in breath-points, and played examples to illustrate how quartets had had to change arrangements to make them possible to sing where the arranger hadn’t done this.

I’d not heard him talk about characterisation so much before. This is in some ways about the coherence of the musical narrative: ‘The 11th hour is a bad time to introduce a new idea; the 11th hour is when you bring all your loose threads together’. It’s also about the people who are singing the music, especially with quartets: who is doing what, when? In particular, handing off a melody line between parts is something that needs to be done with purpose, not just as a way to manage a rangy melody, or you risk the continuity of expression. One can imagine that the way the Performance Category is developing is shaping his thoughts here.

He also talked about the role of harmony in creating emotional shape, or as he put it: ‘the chording paints the music’. Looking back at my notes, I don’t think he said very much more than this, except perhaps to analyse some examples of using non-vocabulary chords for melodic effects, but the idea dominated my perception of the day because it describes so clearly what he has been doing as an arranger in recent years. A lot of my deeper learning from the day exists in that happily non-verbal synaesthetic space in the depths of my brain that fuels my musicking. I came home a better musician in ways I probably won’t be able to talk about until I’ve done a good deal of arranging and singing and coaching with them first.

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