Soapbox: A Cappella Arranging and Narrative Shape

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soapbox My brain persists in thinking that many years ago I wrote about today’s primary point, but repeated searching fails to find any evidence of it. So maybe I only thought about blogging about it. It is certainly an opinion I have held since before I started this blog – there are arrangements I did back in 2006-7 where I can remember thinking about it. And my recent listening experience has me wanting my fellow arrangers to think about it too.

So the point is this: a cappella arrangements usually need to be shorter than versions of a song that include instrumental (and/or electronica) accompaniment. This is partly because when working with a limited timbral palette you haven’t got the resources to build such a large structure (in much the same way that orchestral pieces are often longer than chamber or solo pieces). With less opportunity to generate variety, longer structures can feel as if they are sagging under their own weight. This is particularly evident if you are also constrained texturally (as in contest-grade barbershop) but is true even if you have a free hand with your textural options.

It is also because of the mode of listening people bring to different genres. Listening to groove-based music pulls you into state of rhythmic entrainment. Depending on genre, you might see this in the nodding of heads through a series of jazz solos, or the banging of heads in a mosh pit. But it’s not about story, it’s about a shared state of being, so you can lengthen the instrumental break and repeat the chorus another three times when performing live and your fans will keep dancing.

A cappella – especially the close-harmony traditions that foreground homophonic rather than vocable-based textures – throw much more attention on the lyric, and invite a mode of listening that’s much more about connecting with the story. It’s an alert state, more akin to watching a movie than mentally dancing along with the music. Hence, if the music reproduces all the bits that would invite the pulled-along-with-the-flow state from the original (intros, links, interludes, repeats), it can feel like padding, diluting rather than enhancing the experience of narrative.

An instructive comparison would be to consider the tin pan alley era songs that form the backbone of both barbershop and jazz standard repertoire. An a cappella arrangement would quite likely offer a verse, a 32-bar chorus, and maybe a half-chorus repeat before wrapping up. A version with instrumental accompaniment might give the whole chorus once through before the voice even comes in with the lyric, and would almost certainly follow that with the first half of the chorus on the band before the voice came back for the half chorus repeat.

We don’t think of barbershop versions of American Songbook tunes as ‘cut down’ because the sheet music doesn’t include all the extra stuff that gets included in performance, but they are nonetheless significantly shorter than most commercial recordings. When arranging more recent songs whose primary sources are recordings, we want effectively to reverse engineer the shorter sheet music version they could have been developed from to make the version we’re actually working from.

In the mythical blog post that I thought I had written, I put this in terms of compression: pressing in the song so as to squeeze out the guff and leave the essential points; an act of abridgement.

More recently I’ve been thinking about it in comparison with fiction: taking a short-story approach rather than a long and rambling novel. The basic guideline given for authors of short stories is to start your narrative as late into the story as you can and have it still make sense – cut out preambles such as scene-setting and backstory and get straight into the action. Likewise, once you’ve reached the denouement, you finish as soon as you can, leaving the reader to fill in all the aftermath in their own imaginations rather than detailing it all for them.

I find this a useful model to think about the form of an arrangement: what is essential to the narrative, and what can I cut down or cut out to help foreground it? Magazines usually have word-limits for articles and stories; some performance and broadcast contexts have time limits for musical items. These boundaries are there for pragmatic reasons, but they bring artistic benefits. When we are working without these constraints, it does mean we don’t have the obligation to write efficiently.

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