To Recreate or Reimagine?

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When arranging a popular song for a cappella, like any other type of cover version, you have two basic options for how to approach it. You can aim to recreate the original in the new medium, or you can use the act of transfer to reimagine the music. In the first approach, the primary pleasure for your listeners is recognition: Oh yes, I know this, here are all my favourite bits in a new context! In the second, it is rediscovery: Oh, I’ve never heard it this way before – now I hear it in an entirely new light!

As an arranger, I am often complimented for my work of the first type. People value the sense of being true to something they know and love. But sometimes I’ll choose instead to completely recast a song, either because somebody asks me to (as in my arrangement of I Will Survive), or to solve some essential problem that the song presents.

Deck the Hall, , for instance, reimagines the traditional fa-la-las as post-Swingle d-v-ds as a means to avoid singing very many of the execrable Victorian lyrics. And the doom-laden harmonic and tonal scheme of The Sound of Silence (still exclusive to the White Rosettes at the time of writing, but coming available in the Spring) was devised to do the expressive work that Disturbed’s version does with orchestration and that astonishing octave shift.

A particular subset of the song-as-reimagined is a song that has been reharmonised in order to render it suitable for barbershop contest. And it turns out I am developing some opinions about how to go about this – and, more importantly, how not to.

The primary musical dimension that marks a song as reimagined rather than recreated is tempo and groove. To use a non-barbershop song to illustrate the idea, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s cover of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’, for example, uses the same harmonies as Gerry and the Pacemakers’ original, but slows it down, and bathes it in a sonic wash to generate a sense of wonder and nostalgia. (For those 80s kids who knew the cover first, the original comes as a bit of a disappointment.)

But, structurally, changing the chords is a more fundamental transformation of the song. If you want evidence for how central a chord sequence is to the identity of a song, look at the whole of jazz.

Put these two points together, and it leads to the conclusion that if you are going to make major changes to the harmonic structure in your arrangement, you also need to change the tempo/groove of the song. If you try and stay ‘true’ to the original in rhythmic feel and delivery, while clothing the melody in entirely new harmonies, it just annoys the audience.

It feels gimmicky, or dishonest - like you’re trying to pretend this was a barbershop song all along. If you’re not being true to the original harmonic structure, then triggering your listeners’ memories with strong references to the original groove is giving them very mixed messages. Are they supposed to be taking pleasure in recognition (which you’re spoiling with the new chords) or in rediscovery (which you’re spoiling by harking back the original)?

If on the other hand you signal with the shape of delivery that this is going to have a very different vibe from previous versions, your listeners can enjoy the song in its new guise, and hear your reharmonisation as imaginative reinterpretation rather than failed recreation.

Of course, there are still decisions to be made about what level of reharmonising changes the character of a song so fundamentally as to require it to operate as reimagined rather than recreated. You can often sneak in a few discreet secondary dominants to add a little harmonic caffeine to a song that’s nearly-but-not-quite-there without interfering unduly with the sense of the original. But there comes a point where you can’t pretend that the extra chords are just embellishments in a structure based on the original, and you have to figure out how the song can work stripped of its previous genre references and appropriated wholesale into its new context.

This is, of course, an entirely practical set of judgements to make, even though I’m casting the discussion in theoretical terms. At the time of writing I am working on a contest set (listen out for it next autumn) in which I have one example of each. In the up-tune, my challenge is to sneak in the extras in places that sound realistically like songs from the same artistic stable. Too few and it won’t sound like barbershop, too many and it will distract.

The ballad needs more significant re-working, and so the challenge is to write it in such a way that the singers won’t be tempted to sing it like the original, but will approach it as if it has always been a barbershop song. I’m thinking a lot about embellishments, and how they can trigger genre-specific instincts for phrasing and shaping.

And as is so often the case, just as I get to the end of what I thought was going to be an exercise in thinking through a particular practical challenge, my brain notices a huge cross-reference to something else – in this case, Kahneman’s System-1 thinking and how genres operate communicatively. I’ll just leave that there for you to mull upon for now, though we may revisit it another day.

I'm still provoked by Rasmus's arrangement of 'All You Need is Love'. The original (Beatles) has completely unfeasible, indefensible, harmonies in the title line. What can you do as an arranger except provide sensible harmonies? Or not do the song (which I'd be the first to say would be a pity). But ... it feels weird.

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