Arranging – Constants and Choices

Preparing the “Scarborough Fair” arrangement for SoundCloud during the past week triggered some reflections about how I approach another composer’s music, and how the final work has a mixture of musical signatures, the givens and the options.  This week’s post looks at the various approaches and decisions I make before and during an arrangement.

The majority of the arrangements I have written have been commissions, requests for music to be performed by a specific group, ensemble or instrumentalist and music for ensembles I have been a member of.  My first experiences of writing music were all arrangements and often for unusual combinations of performers, my first band (at the age of twelve) had the line-up of trumpet, trombone, cello, clarinet, drum, guitar and at some performances an accordion.  The experience of writing for these combinations gave me an insight into what instrumental possibilities and timbres are available, the ranges and attributes of the sounds and the ease or difficulty of the instrumental performance.  I often discussed with the performers the practicalities of the instrumental writing and the knowledge and experience gathered from these conversations has informed how I orchestrate.  When I am scoring, I try to imagine myself as the performer and if I find some parts uninspiring or too technically challenging, then it is time to rework that section.

Before writing a note of any arrangement, I first consider what instruments will be performing the music, what sounds do I want from the combination during the music (bright, mellow, harmonic, melodic, harsh, dull, rhythmic, without a sense of pulse…) and what are the most appropriate keys to get these results.  These thoughts are combined with thinking about the best ranges for the instrument(s) and assessing the abilities of the performer(s), if there are specific people in mind.  Often there are compromises to be made to achieve the best match.  At the same time as considering the factors above, I also play with ideas for the melody and imagine how it would sound with my superimposed concepts. 

In my approach to arranging the intervals of the melody are the givens.  They are the fixed elements that have been heard before, are often well known, and this is the element that the audience can instantly relate to.  If I am arranging a song (for instrumentalists or vocalists) I will find the lyrics as well as the melody to examine how repeated material in subsequent sections varies from the opening and then include these variations in the arrangement.  The “Scarborough Fair” arrangement takes the Simon and Garfunkel version as a guide to the melody (this was a popular version when the arrangement was completed) but the melody has many forms and variations from performances over the centuries and any of these could have been the basis for the work.

I stated that the melody is the given but sometimes I have had to rely on the audience knowing the melody.  My arrangement for ten percussionists of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas uses wood blocks and other un-pitched percussion instruments to introduce the main melody.  The sounds follow the shape of the melody but not the exact pitch, this contrasting section was needed during the arrangement as many other parts relied on keyboard percussion instruments and this was one way to change the timbre.

This changing of timbre and texture regularly during the arrangement, at approximately 12 to 16 second intervals, is an important part of the process.  These changes can help maintain audience curiosity in the music as well as giving the performers more interesting parts to interpret.  If any of the sections in the music repeat during the arrangement, I will make sure the sound is different for each repetition.  This was very challenging in an arrangement of Ravel’s “Bolero” I completed for six percussionists, the methods used were to interchange parts between instruments and carefully use dynamics throughout.  During the “Scarborough Fair” arrangement I use different harmonic treatments for each repeat of the melody, the change in harmony can inspire interesting new accompaniment and counter melody ideas.

The introduction and/or link passages in the arrangements I produce come from three areas.  The first is using some part of the melody (the “Scarborough Fair” arrangement uses the fifth leap from towards the end of the theme) as the basis for composing these passages.  Inspiration can come from other works by the composer(s) as both introductions and accompaniment ideas during the arrangement.  My most recent medley arrangement has five main themes but uses over twenty ideas from different songs by the same composers as accompaniments, introductions and countermelodies.  The third method I use is to create a hook that can be used throughout the arrangement that is flexible enough to be transformed for harmonic or rhythmic development.

The choices for the arranger are many but some constants can help speed the arranging process.  My methods may seem formulaic but over the years they have served me well with enough scope for personal expression and creativity without obscuring the original work.  At times I had ten works to be completed per week and these processes helped me to complete the music to the deadlines and with some interesting results.  Reflecting on the processes I use, most of the arrangement is complete before I put pen to paper or engage with software.  The thought and planning before realising the music is the most important time with only minor alterations and revisions taking place as the music is produced for the performers.  All creative artists need the time and environment to think, make sure you have some every day.

 Hope you all have a creative Christmas.


About derangeddrums

Composer, percussionist, musical director, teacher and educator. My music has been written for audiences in palaces and in the street. Music is my vocation and my passion and I hope you enjoy it too.
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