The Arranger's Super-Ego

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I don't know quite why I started thinking in Freudian terms recently about arranging. I am sceptical in all kind of ways about Freud's theories - so many of them are so phallocentric, after all, which may feel normal for men, but just looks weird from a female perspective. But there are also ways in which he was quite humane and you can't accuse him of having not spent enough time thinking about this stuff.

Anyway, the experience that brought all this to mind was the stage of arranging I think of as 'combing' - getting all the lines lying smoothly so there aren't any tangles in the music to bump the listener, or knots in the lines to impede the singers. And I got to reflecting on how I know when an arrangement is finished.

Because there is a very clear difference in feeling between 'nearly done' and 'ready to go', and I experience it at a holistic, intuitive level rather than an analytical one. Not only that, but I experience the feeling at an ethical level. I would feel that I was falling short of my obligations to let a chart go when I knew it still needed work. And it’s this moral dimension that got me thinking in terms of the Freudian super-ego.

(Though of course, having that hunch that there is still a bit of unfinished business in there send me back into something of an analytical mode to identify what it is. Analysis is vital for identifying problems, though it will usually be intuition that identifies and verifies the solution.)

So, where did this sense come from? I didn't always have it.

When I started arranging I guess I stopped work when I had run out of ideas of how to make it better. I knew I was settling for adequacy through lack skill to make it excellent. I can remember very clearly one time thinking that a chart followed all the rules but lacked control over tessitura. When I grow up, I thought, I'll be better at making that work for the song. It was frustrating not being better at it, but it was absorbing doing it anyway.

Then I hit the journeyman phase and started producing arrangements that are actually okay. Some of them are still being sung, indeed. And when things start getting good enough to be sung, you start getting some decent feedback from the world. Other arrangers can sometimes be inveigled into commenting on your work (I had the most amazingly helpful email from Jay Giallombardo in about 2006 that I still feel the benefit from). More telling - and this is one of the things Jay talked about - is the feedback from singers. It was a great day the first time someone came up to me and said, 'Thank you for a wonderful baritone line'.

A key moment, therefore, were when I started Magenta, and had the responsibility for teaching a group of people of mixed experience levels to perform what I had arranged. If it was too hard, it was my responsibility to help them. They looked at me anxiously for guidance, and it was my job to make them feel confident again. I tell you, that really makes you question your decisions at the point of arranging. To an extent, you get a similar dynamic when coaching a group on your own arrangement, but it's not as intense, as the coach will leave at the end of the session and they'll be back to their own devices. With Magenta, the ball stays in my court.

I have mentioned before how I also rely on my partner Jonathan to give me a reality check before releasing arrangements. There is a passage in my arrangement of Happy Together that is better than it would have been because when I was nearly done, he glanced over and said, 'You could make that bit more interesting'. So I did, and have been checking with him ever since.

The Freudian super-ego, to get back to my title, though, isn't feedback from the world, but internalised instruction from the world. And, whilst I still tend to personalise it - I frequently imagine the faces of whoever I am arranging for singing what I write to gauge how they'll feel about it - I feel this sense of obligation as a more over-riding ethical force than just responsibility to that particular group of singers.

It's partly that I'm aware of a range of constituencies who feel an interest in my arrangements, because they are affected by them. The singers themselves most directly as it will have the biggest impact on their lived experience through the learning and rehearsal process. But also audiences - as the people that the singers need to touch. And those audiences are multiple: the intra-community audiences of the barbershop or choral worlds (including that specialist audience-type, the contest judge), the community audiences of friends, family, and local organisations that ensembles connect with on a week-to-week basis, the wider audiences of people who come across this music from the outside and find themselves either fascinated or put off.

And it occurs to me that a key element in the internalisation process wasn't just facing my responsibilities to the consumers of my charts, but the time I spent giving feedback on others'. For several years I taught an elective on arranging and performing vocal close harmony at the Conservatoire, and at the same time I was also frequently responding to requests for comment from other arrangers.* And I learned so much through doing so. There is no better way to learn how to stand outside your own work and reflect critically upon it than to give feedback on the work of others.

(Penny-drop moment: this is another reason why literature-review is an essential component in the PhD process. The awareness that you have to answer to the external examiner trains you out of making rash statements you can't justify, but it's finding the holes in other people's arguments that gives you the skills to construct your own.)

But writing this post has made me realise why I was always a bit sad that the arrangers' mutual mentoring scheme I ran for several years didn't get more traction. People were very happy to sign up, but then they didn't come through and actually give the feedback they'd signed up to give. And that meant that they were pretty much completely missing the point. Just like duetting is about the growth of those who listen rather than those who are singing, it was the act of analysing someone else's work that offered the real gains for development in that scheme.

(For the record, I let it lapse this year...decided I would continue if anyone asked about it, but if nobody did I wouldn't push it. Nobody asked. I remain open to restarting in the future if people want to do it.)

I suppose the next question is: if the arranger's super-ego is the internalised awareness of obligation, what is the arranger's id that it has to restrain? Looking at the length of this post, I suspect that will have to wait for another day...


*You'll note I now offer feedback as a service I charge for rather than free - this is just because the volume of requests got a bit silly. Happy to do it, but I can't afford to give away all my time on a volunteer basis (which describes a lot of my life actually - same is true of coaching and arranging!).

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