Making Arrangements

It was good to read Colin Holter’s post this week on collaborating with a singer/songwriter as an arranger for an upcoming album, because it’s so rare that I get to hear about arranging from another composer’s viewpoint. The fact that he seems to be enjoying the endeavor was a plus—arranging, from my experience, seems to be given a bit of a cold shoulder by many composers as something to do to make some extra coin or in one’s spare time between composing gigs. The act of arranging pre-existing musical material is, in my humble opinion, a valuable and yet rarely examined tool in a composer’s toolbox, as well as a useful portal through which musicians with little composing experience can enter the wonderful world of creative musical writing.

The term itself is more closely associated with its roots in jazz and popular styles. Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Stan Kenton, Gunther Schuller, Thad Jones, Bill Holman, and the very recently departed Bob Brookmeyer are just a handful of the arrangers who raised the vocation from a craft to an art. There are, of course, plenty of examples of “arrangements” in the concert music genre, but they are usually thought of as “settings” of songs, such as those by Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Gustav Holst, Malcom Arnold, and others. It is not that far a divide, for example, between Vaughan-Williams’s Fantasias and the arrangements that Gil Evans wrote in his collaborations with Miles Davis.

The very concept of “arranging” can cover a wide gamut of possibilities, from an extremely simple, no-frills setting to a monstrously complex re-imagining of the original material. Much of this depends on the original material in question; if the music being arranged is a folk song or lead sheet tune, then it is much easier to explore various abstract directions than if the project consists of arranging a modern popular song, where the original instrumentation/formal structure/solos/etc. inherent in the original recording are often thought of as sacrosanct. Below are examples of both extremes—the original 1932 recording of Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me” (itself in an arrangement by Paul Whiteman) and Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of the same tune with the awesome Ingrid Jensen as soloist, compared with Aphex Twin’s “4” and Alarm Will Sound’s performance of an arrangement of “4” by Jessica Johnson and Payton MacDonald.

Explicit in arrangements like these is that we can still hear and recognize the music being arranged and, for the most part, there isn’t much newly composed material being added by the writer. This expectation of hewing closely to the original music is one of the aspects of arranging that makes it easier for new writers to feel comfortable as they gain their chops while being more challenging to experienced composers whose instincts are to develop the material and push the envelope away from recognition.

For me personally, I see arranging as one of the more enjoyable musical games one can play as a creative artist. I started out as an arranger (a story I told this past summer), and whenever I get a chance to take on an arranging project for fun or profit, it always seems like the pressure I feel when I’m composing goes away and I can just dig into the various musical nooks and crannies and hopefully bring to the listener a new angle on the tune that they would not have considered. Arranging at its highest level can be just as fulfilling as composing and if you haven’t tried it, you should definitely have a taste. (Just be sure to get permission first!)

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One thought on “Making Arrangements

  1. Ratzo B Harris

    Great essay, Rob! The line between composition and orchestration is blurred into oblivion by the 20th Century American craft of arranging. Brookmeyer is a great example of someone who did this. I attended some of his BMI workshops and was impressed to the point of resignation! Your article made me want to pick up the pen again. Thanks.

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