Anatomy Of An Arrangement Part 1: Taking The Call

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I was recently asked by a friend and colleague of over 10 years’ standing to arrange 3 Latin standards for his next instrumental solo CD. It occurred to me that it might prove interesting for you to follow along, not with the construction of the actual notes, but rather with the strategy for systematically and logically getting through the stages necessary for successfully “getting the job done.”

My first step in any such deal is taking the call, and asking the questions which help me to decide whether to accept the assignment and, once I do, how do I proceed in the right directions so that I don’t take any unnecessary detours that waste time and/or money. Here are the ones I asked, in order, and why they are important:

1) What are my deadlines? All the money or career perks in the world mean exactly zilch if I don’t have the time to do it, and do it well.

2) What is the budget? Union or no? Sounds greedy, but keep in mind that dollar signs aren’t the only way to assess a project. For instance, it may also pay off with: (a) relationships with a new artist/client and/or producer, (b) chances to break new stylistic/technical/artistic ground, (c) new and different demo material on someone else’s dime, (d) union benefit contributions (minimal paychecks may nevertheless tip the balance in qualifying for your health insurance, etc.,) and (e) a chance to affect your current momentum. Busy is almost always better than idle and, as with dating, it’s uncanny how differently you are perceived (and sought) when you are in a state of doing rather than waiting.

3) Do you have confidence in the project/producer/soloist/client? As Hume Cronyn said, never take a project you don’t believe in, unless you’re broke. My corollary to that is: Once you take a gig, take all of it, not just the part you think the actual budget is paying for. No one remembers how much you might be shorted, but everyone will remember when your client is. In my case, budget was adequate, haggling was unnecessary, and I decided to take the job, so on to the following:

4) Can I get all pertinent contact info for the artist, producer, or whoever is the ultimate creative authority on the project, and can I use it? This may seem obvious, but when I have questions, I want them answered, definitively and now. Fortunately, my friend wore all the hats on this project, and communication was no problem.

5) What is the intended target use for the project? Here, it was radio airplay. What format or station so I can sample their flavor and playlist? What level of musical sophistication? Better to gauge the target audience correctly before putting in the time and sweat and possibly being wrong.

6) Are there any specific elements desired by the client? In my case, certain instrumental colors and artists were to be featured in key places, so forewarned is forearmed.

7) Are there previous recordings by this artist that I can audition to see what worked in previous collaborations? This can save an incredible amount of chit-chat.

8) With complete candor, what are my limitations? Far from resenting them, Igor Stravinsky reveled in working within a limited palette, as carte blanche were not friendly words to him. Look at some of his quirky orchestrations and you will see what I mean. He much preferred to let his enormous creativity wrestle with externally imposed boundaries rather than to start from scratch. There is a lesson for all of us here. In my case, I was given a double-string quartet with added contrabass, a Latin rhythm section, marimba, and an optional flute soloist. Plenty to work with.

9) Who will be the players? Translate: What specialized stylistic/artistic/ethnic/technical factors would they be bringing to the party? Do they read notation and how well? (Initially, the rhythm dates were to be held in Central America, so I wanted both to give them all the detail I could, while making use of their cultural artistry.)

10) With reasonable accuracy, how long are my tracks to be? Sounds like a stupid question, but every producer/artist has a different construction scheme for his/her CD. Copyright/composer-profitability considerations sometimes limit the number of tracks, affecting how much media capacity is to be used, affecting track lengths, affecting arrangement forms, affecting … you get the idea. Here, three minutes per track, which had to be modified in one case, but more on that later.

Do you see how lining up your factual ducks early on will avoid train wrecks later? Think through all phases of your contribution, get your questions answered adequately, and then you can proceed without fear or uncertainty affecting your creativity.

Next week: Organizing your resources and getting started.

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