Arranging as Playing Cat’s Cradle

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The thing that makes cat’s cradle work is the balance of opposing forces. The threads can form a structure because they are held in tension by the separated hands. Bring your hands together and this tension is released, and the three-dimensional form collapses.

I find this a useful image for juggling the competing demands a song makes on the arranger. There’s a network of opposing forces in somewhat different dimensions, both technical and artistic, pulling on the arrangement as it develops. Depending on the song and the group who’s commissioned it, the demands will vary, but there will always be this sense of simultaneous, but conflicting imperatives.

For instance:

  • It needs to be true to the original, but suitable for a cappella performance.
  • It needs to be challenging so that the quartet has to raise its game, but it also needs to respect the limitations of the singers so that they can make a good job of it
  • It needs to have a jazzy feel to capture the essence of the song, but it also needs to conform to the style definition of contest barbershop.
  • It needs to be simple for the performers to learn the parts, but be interesting for the audience to listen to.

Sometimes the opposing poles are personified as particular constituencies with a vested interest in the arrangement: the composer’s moral right as author versus the performer’s right to an autonomous interpretative voice, or the physical limits on the performing ensemble’s output (range, volume, flexibility) versus audience expectations from previous knowledge of the song. Other times, they are more abstract: unity versus variety (or ‘stuff’ versus ‘no stuff’) is a perennial one I have written about before.

If you experience these tensions as a tug-of-war, arranging is really hard. You feel perpetually pulled in one direction, then the other, and the arrangement has no chance to find its own identity – it’s a perpetually moving target. But the cat’s cradle image allows you to acknowledge the competing claims, but instead of making the job harder, they become anchor points, helping define the space in which the arrangement takes shape.

And, actually, having two or three polarities in play makes it easier to find where the arrangement sits, especially if they’re working in somewhat different dimensions. It’s harder at first, of course – since you’re having to make global decisions about more factors – but once you’ve articulated what the key questions are for that chart, you have a much clearer sense of exactly where the arrangement needs to develop, making decisions about details much easier to make.

This image thus provides a means to regulate the relationship between our analytical, technical faculties and our holistic, intuitive faculties. The analytical brain articulates the requirements, and then sets them up as the framework within which the intuitive brain can get to work. It then needs to hold itself back out of the detail of process, keeping the tension on the framework so the developing work has somewhere safe to dangle.

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