Paul Davies on the Arrangement Process

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Yesterday saw just over 30 barbershop arrangers gathered together in Birmingham to exchange ideas and learn from each other. The day was designed for those who were beyond the beginner stage, but not yet entirely confident or established – and thus to provide a community for people who may be working with some sense of isolation. There were delegates from all three British barbershop organisations, plus one from Holland Harmony, and we were joined by about half of my Conservatoire class who are studying close-harmony arranging this semester.

Our keynote presentation came from Paul Davies, the UK’s most successful barbershop arranger. Paul took the chorus he founded, Cambridge Chord Company, to several gold medals in British and European contests, and picked up the Pavarotti Choir of the World trophy at Llangollen with a medley of parodies that mocked the Welsh (he’s brave as well as talented). CCC have also been more successful in International barbershop contests than any other British chorus by some considerable margin. They’ve done all this on Paul’s arrangements, so he is clearly someone worth inviting along to share his insights.

Paul’s talk was an entertaining and enlightening mixture of inspirational ideas, practical advice and anecdotal embellishments. He talked a little about comedy, and many delegates were relieved to hear that, while Paul was the primary arranger, Cambridge’s comedic medleys were the work of a team, not a single creator. He also suggested that comedy should be all-or-nothing, quoting Andy Funnell (of Sound Crew & Pitch Invasion fame) as saying that there was no point introducing comedy at all unless it was ‘piss-your-pants funny’. (So we learned some useful technical terms, too.)

The main thrust of Paul’s presentation, though, was that arranging is not just about organising dots on the page into chords, but about realising a vision. He talked about conceiving a chart as a continuous arc, thinking about its overall shape and its impact on an audience even before the choice of songs. The example he gave for this was of wanting to create an effect like the start of the film Titanic with the transition from the underwater world of the wreck into the flashback to 1912. This idea eventually became the juxtaposition of ‘Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?’ and ‘Basin Street Blues’ – and it gained an extra and specific poignancy in being premiered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (I remember that contest performance – and I found the retransition back to the first song particularly moving. A medley really works, in my book, when the second song changes the meaning of the first.)
Cambridge Chord CompanyCambridge Chord Company
He also talked about finding the hook of an arrangement – and this played out in two contexts. On one hand, there was the creative process, the identifying of a germ of an idea from which the whole can develop. This is about creativity, and needs persistence and the willingness to generate lots and lots of ideas and ruthlessly abandon any that aren’t working, it seems. Then, when you’re not looking, the perfect idea will suddenly arrive – in the pub after rehearsal, in conversation with a friend.

The other context for a chart’s hook was the search for those special moments that make an arrangement memorable and carry the whole to new heights. The ‘killer line’ in the Montreal version of CCC’s ‘Mother-in-Law Medley’ was this:

Are you scoring
With Ed Waesche?
Ma was saying
Just today she
Really likes you
Handsome stranger
She'll be Tonto
If you'll be her Lone Arranger

Of course, if you don’t know Ed, this is completely meaningless. And it’s not really very comprehensible out of the context of the whole narrative of the medley. But it was perfectly judged for that particular audience and brought the house down. The Denver version had to be re-written as by that time Ed had passed away, and Paul wonders whether their fractionally lower scores in 2007 were due to having lost this killer line.

Paul talked a bit about the processes of arranging – how you engage different senses and different ways of thinking when you turn to the computer or the keyboard or the guitar or theoretical musings or when you sing. He also had a real focus on the singers themselves: ‘make each part a little tune in its own right,’ he said, as opposed to ‘a load of hopscotch’. (Hmm, where else have we heard that kind of advice?)

He finished by talking about the way that, by envisaging the final result in performance as part of the arrangement process, the arranger can build in performance instructions into the very musical structures. How he put it is this:

Within the sheet music of a great arrangement you will find the entire performance ready to be brought to life.

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