Anatomy Of An Arrangement Part 3: Plan Your Work, And Then…

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In our two previous discussions, we tackled taking the work call most effectively and progressed to organizing our compositional assets so that we could hit the ground running when it came time to innovate. This week we look at developing the road map for the whole shebang, still leaving most of the intimate details for later. I will still try to avoid too many specifics, as it’s the questioning and probing I’m hoping to reveal, not simply my answers.

In establishing the basic forms of the pieces, I took into account those elements already established during the recon session we discussed last week. As these arrangements were commissioned for eventual airplay on Latin FM, I was happily limited in scope and character; I wasn’t going for the “War And Peace” of magnum opera (plural of opus). Three minutes long each, with oboe as the featured timbre, with intros on two featuring acoustic guitar and, on the third, piano, and with the following requested elements: a appearance by flute, marimba in the Latin rhythm section, and possible improvisation by the oboe. Modulations acceptable.

With these elements established for each tune, I could lay the cornerstones of form: the basic order of the sections of the tune, the keys and possible modulations, and the tempi. On the first arrangement, the original tune was a real war-horse, with the original form a rather lengthy and repetitious 64 bars (with the form AA’BA’). Three minutes? Not likely, as even the comfortable, relaxed tempo of 103 (suitable for a pleasant radio product) ate up about two and a half minutes without even an intro or ending. A call to the client secured permission to beef up the length on that one. Here is where having the multiple parallel versions of the tune on my nearly empty score really came in handy as, like a well-planned spreadsheet, they allowed me to play various “what if” games with the form (i.e., “AABA-AABA,” “AABA-BA,” etc.) to find one that would fit the situation. To modulate? Definitely, with that much repetition. My eventual choice: Intro- A-A’-B-A’-A’-B-modulation-A’-ending.

The next building block was the key structure, and here is where every arranger must take stock of his/her own abilities as an orchestrator. The more experience and knowledge you command, the more you can work your way out of jams without having to fundamentally jury-rig the form to accommodate certain problems which may arise. Conversely, the less experienced and skillful you might be at the moment, the more you had better plan your key relationships to avoid such orchestrational traps. For instance, if your ensemble is a flute consort, then it might take the instincts of a Henry Mancini to voice them effectively in a particular key and beneath a certain melody. If, instead, you have strings to work with, their homogeneity and flexibility make the same problem a lot easier to solve.

This particular tune had a range (including a certain melodic variation I heard on one recording that would bolster the power of the oboe at the finale) of roughly an octave and a fifth. Knowing this player and the considerable strength of his higher range (some players get a little squeaky way up high) I practically had the key of the last A section dictated to me. Not wanting to do the same modulation (up a whole step) that has overstayed its welcome on too many recordings, and having practical range limits even here (but still wanting to add power and energy to the finale), my minor-third-up modulation also was practically forced on me. In a minor key, it gave this instrumental more drama at the end than is found in most vocal recordings. And, looking in the other direction, it also confirmed what needed to become the key of the first statement of the tune, as any interval larger than a minor third would have driven some of it down into the “honky” range of the oboe, not entirely suitable for a pleasant radio ballad. Going further toward the front of the arrangement, this decreed where I had to be at the end of the intro, which was eventually crafted along those lines.

Do you see how these building blocks are more like adjustable puzzle pieces? Or perhaps like dominos which, depending how they are “arranged” and triggered, yield something satisfying? If you are new to arranging, try looking upon it with some such applicable metaphor and you will catch a hint of its appeal as an artistic venture.

With these rather unalterable, fundamental keystones in place, it remains to craft an intriguing intro to draw in the listener, as well as to fill in all the smaller holes with needed detail and development.

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