Arranging the Silver Lining

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Yesterday saw the premiere of a version of my arrangement of ‘Look for the Silver Lining’ at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers’ annual Convention. It is a chart that comes with a story, not least of how it turns up in two versions simultaneously, and whilst LABBS members have heard some of that story at its premiere, others who might be interested in the song might not

Besides, in addition to all the background stuff about context and relationships, there’s the story of how the backstory shaped the chart itself.

The arrangement commission was funded by the Jen Mills Award, of whom the 2021 recipients were the quartet SoundHouse. The award commemorates Jen Mills, who was a source of great musical energy and insight in LABBS, as Music Judge, coach, and arranger until her untimely death in 2019, and it provides funding for a LABBS quartet each year to commission a new arrangement.

In addition to the general impact Jen had on the organisation, 2021’s recipients had a particular relationship with her: Jen has been the original bass of The Jazz Firm, the previous quartet of SoundHouse’s lead, Sally McLean. That quartet had already lost two members prematurely, with Uli Grigoleit passing away from breast cancer, like Jen, and Alison Jones having taken her own life. So Sally conceived a plan to invite Jenny, the other remaining singer from the quartet, to perform with SoundHouse when they performed the new arrangement for the first time at LABBS Convention.

But of course the quartet needed a song they could sing on other occasions, too, they couldn’t just take Jenny around with them to every gig for one song. Besides, a primary the purpose of the award is to generate exciting repertoire for the organisation as a whole, and other quartets likewise would need a song in four parts to be usable.

So, this is how we decided to go about things. The song they chose is a Jerome Kern tune that was played, in Chet Baker’s version, at Jen’s funeral. (Jen was also a jazz trumpeter.) It would work - and indeed has been performed – as either a ballad or an uptune, and moreover has the potential both for classic contest-grade barbershop harmony and wilder, jazzier guises.

The four-part version, we decided, would stick to pure barbershop, so that it could be sung in contest. It would start off in a ballad style, segue into a swing-feel uptune, then return to the original feel for the ending. Both Sally and I had been taken by the expressive world of Judy Garland’s performance, in which the message to ‘look for the silver lining’ comes over not as simple optimism, but as something that can be hard to do when you’re in a bad place, something that takes some moral courage to achieve. Thus the opening and closing balladised sections would go for this poignant, yearny feel, with an interlude of joy in the middle.

For the five-part version, we’d start off the same way, in four parts, and then part-way through the up-tempo passage, Jenny would come and join them on stage and get to add in all the dirty, jazzy notes that you can’t do in orthodox barbershop. This version would stay in tempo till the end, with an ‘up tag’ as Sal put it. I’ll talk a bit below about how I went about doing this.

You might ask: why go for such different narrative shapes for the same song, especially when more than half the song even the arrangement is the same? But both the purposes and trajectories of the two versions are quite distinct from each other.

The 4-part version needs to stand alone as a song in its own right, creating its own world and meanings for people who know nothing about the background to the arrangement. As such, it needs a sense of narrative completeness, and returning to the opening expressive world after the contrasting middle section provides this sense of closure.

The 5-part version isn’t self-contained in the same way; the world of the song set up in the first half is split open by the arrival of an extra singer part-way through. It’s a radical breaking of the 4th wall, casting the singers back into the role of their real selves, rather than the fictional persona that a song typically sets up. Musically, too, the world has changed: we have continuity of song, but discontinuity of style. Once you’ve gone off in a new direction, you can’t plausibly go back – it would seem odd to, the world has moved on.

This meant that the big challenge from the arranging point of view was version control. SoundHouse need to be able to perform both versions, and I didn’t want to have them perpetually trying to remember which was which. So I was rigorous about making sure that any material that repeated, did so exactly.

What resulted was 1 ½ choruses exactly as in the 4-part version, and then the arrival of Jenny heralding a key change and a section of completely new material, just for this version, incorporating a passage of bass melody. At the key change back to the original key to hand the melody back to the lead, it picks up at what is the second half of Chorus 2 in the 4-part version, with SoundHouse singing exactly what they do there, with Jenny having various interpolations to comment upon that texture.

The link to the tag in this version adds Jenny to the material for the link between first and second choruses in both versions before moving onto new material again for the tag.

In the first instance, I’ve only published the 4-part version, on the grounds that the 5-part version isn’t generally useful. But if you have a special occasion that could just do with a chart that adds and extra voice to your quartet half way through, give me a shout and I’ll make the 5-parter available too.

Absolutely fascinating to understand the thought process behind the arranging

I LOVED singing this this with Soundhouse - such close harmony - I was convinced there was no room for my part when I heard them sing it…. ….and then we had a go and it just fell together.

So grateful to Liz and to Soundhouse for this opportunity

It was a delight to arrange for you Jenny! When I'm arranging for people I know it's always the 'Hannah line' or 'Sal line' rather than bass or lead, but the Jenny line was particularly personal and special on this occasion.

I had lived that moment when you came on stage to join with SoundHouse so many times in my head while arranging, such a joy to see it in real life!

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