David Wright on Arranging

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Last weekend saw a dozen or so arrangers from the three barbershop organisations in the UK gathered together at a hotel in Manchester to spend two days studying with David Wright. Anyone involved in barbershop music will know his work well: he is one of the most successful and creative arrangers currently active, having worked with many of the world’s champion quartets of the last two decades.

If you don’t know his work, have a listen to these, just to set the picture:

Cruella de Vil, sung by Vocal Spectrum
Yes Sir, That's My Baby, sung by Ringmasters
I Have Dreamed, sung by the Ambassadors of Harmony

The invitation to come and work with experienced British arrangers arose from the Barbershop in Harmony collaborations that also produced the workshop for less experienced arrangers in Birmingham in April, and the seminar was structured around the study of a number of classic arrangements.

I came home with a notebook full of ideas, many of which I’ll need to think about at greater length before I’m ready to write about them, so this post is a collection of initial impressions – the things that rise to the top in the first instance.

  • There were several themes that resonated strongly with ideas Paul Davies explored back in April. These included both big-picture artistic positions (conceiving arranging as writing a script, envisioning the entire performance, not just the notes on the page; the importance of special moments both for the audience’s response to the arrangement, and as the creative starting-point) and throw-away remarks (David referred to the technical pleasures as a ‘crossword puzzle’, while Paul referred to ‘musical suduko’).
  • David placed a lot of his attention on construction/form, thinking about the balance of sections and tonal schemes as well as the methods for connecting them. Given the scale on which many of his arrangements work, it is hardly surprising that he should be thinking about this, but it was striking that it was the first musical element he turned to with each chart we looked at. From an educational perspective this makes sense – it occurs to me that when I was doing my PhD, the first thing I would do when starting to look at an opera was map out its shape in terms of tempo, key, metre and texture. But it also made me wonder if other arrangers would take a different route in as a matter of course.
  • He introduced the word ‘simplexity’: no matter how complex the arrangement may be in terms of how the parts combine (and David consistently tests the limits of how complex it is possible to get!), the individual lines need to be singable in themselves. This principle helps explain why you can hear a quartet that really doesn’t sound skilled enough to cope with a chart that was written to stretch a quartet gunning for gold, completely out-sing themselves on one of his arrangements.
  • The more distinctive and expressive the original song, the less you need to do fancy stuff with it. If you want to gussey a song up with lots of bells and whistles, you need to pick something that’s essentially simple to start with. This, of course, is exactly what classical composers do when they pick tunes for theme-and-variation treatment.
  • Patience is important. So often if someone had a question about a particular obstacle – either technical problem-solving, or developing creative ideas – the answer would start off, ‘well, that’s where you need to be patient’.
  • While the Music category is the only category who explicitly judge the arrangement in contest, the arranger’s task is not just about that category – it is also about Singing and Presentation. The arranger is a generalist. (Of course, given that all Music Judges are required to be able to arrange as part of qualifying to join the category, Music judges tend as a matter of course to think we cover everything, too, rather to the irritation of Singing and Presentation!)

This was a really interesting article. I'm keen on Barbershop arranging myself and it was great to read a few tips from the master. Thanks for posting!

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