Anatomy Of An Arrangement Part 2: Getting Started By Getting Organized

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Last week we went through the process of fielding the arranging work call and using it to your advantage by asking the smart creative questions that will get you underway intelligently and efficiently. Ok, you’ve got the gig. Now what?

One of my first positions here in L.A. was as the copyist for Dee Barton, a name perhaps unfamiliar to you, but an absolutely fearless bear of a composer with film credits for earlier Clint Eastwood pics, jazz compositions for Stan Kenton, and as leader of the most testosterone-blessed big band I have ever heard. He told me that, when he sat down to write, if he was not particularly led by an idea, he would occupy his mind with the gruntwork of setting up his (pencil) score pages (clefs, barlines, credits, etc.) simply because it got him moving until an idea emerged. When arranging, I do something similar, although the existence of templates now makes the setup process go much faster, so I’m really talking about something else. As arrangers, we owe a certain hierarchy of loyalties when we set out to borrow someone else’s button and sew a shirt on it. The original tune and/or composer, any preceding artist(s), my client, the eventual listener, and my own creative identity all have a stake in what I will do. In this situation, my client was cool enough that he did some of my homework for me, unsolicited, by providing a couple of purchased lead-sheet arrangements and three non-corresponding audio files of each tune, so I had plenty of material from which to study. What I did was to input the most interesting (harmonically sophisticated) version into my template (melody and chords on a dedicated treble clef staff) and then add four additional blank staves below it. I then changed the key to match one of the other published editions, and added that version’s melody and chords parallel to and below the previous one. I then did a quick takedown of anything of interest in the changes, melody, form, or style from the three audio versions on the three remaining extra staves, changing the key of the score each time to match what I was currently inputting. Any form or style elements I put in verbally.

What I ended up with were five complete versions of the tune, running parallel for easy visual comparison, and all in the same key, but each with their own elemental variants that made them interesting … or not. (Obviously at this point only one of the staves was playback-enabled.) I took my cue from Desi Arnaz’s invention of the Moviola, the three-headed movie-playback monster, capable of viewing three rolls of film (from three different camera angles on the original “I Love Lucy” show), individually or in parallel, making it practical to access, view, and plan edits more quickly and on a much greater amount of film than before, which in turn led to his entire multi-cam revolution in successfully filming weekly shows in front of a live audience. Every bit the advance for television that multi-tracking was for audio recording. Smart guy, that Desi.
Why did I go to this extra bit of work when the human urge (and its potential for pressure-induced writer’s block) was to get creating? Simply to quickly assemble in an organized way the assets of what was already known before diving into what wasn’t, both as a source of useful ideas and to act as a springboard for invention. One can’t convincingly break new ground if one doesn’t have intimate knowledge (or at least a road map) of the old. Plus, a good arranger must do a certain dance with his listener, tantalizing him with familiar, comfortable hints of the old interspersed with all of the new.
Step two was to also take stock of and organize what I knew about the forces for which I’d be arranging. In this case, I had to take a close look at the featured instrument (oboe) and its limitations (where it sings and where it squeaks and honks), as well as the range, stylistic, and flexibility demands of the melody, and how all of these would dictate other aspects of the arrangement such as starting key, whether or not to modulate, which modulation would make the soloist stronger at the end, which key relationships made for a relaxed, homogeneous string section tone and performance, potentials for improvisation, and so on, and on, and on… . The list at times seemed endless, but to ignore it might have been fatal. Plus, the client had requests of his own (what to feature on the intros, possible added colors, styles, etc.) All of these had to be collated for easy reference and eventual verification.

At this point, and with a minimum of time and wasted creative effort, I had my assets established and accessible at a glance: the building blocks of the original tune, my complete analysis of the needs and limitations of my soloists and ensemble, and the thoughts and expectations of the client/artist. Time to establish the broad strokes and then start filling in the holes… .

Next week: Creating a new set of “building blocks.”

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