The Arranger's Id

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In my recent post on the arranger's super-ego, I had a nice self-indulgent time trying to work out where that intuitive sense comes from that tells you whether or not an arrangement is good enough to release. At the end of that post, I was just happening across the logical next question - what are the urges of the arranger's Id that the super-ego needs to keep in check?

The thing about the Id in Freudian theory (which I have already said I am dubious about, but if we're using his terms, we should probably pay at least some attention to his definitions) is that it is a source of creativity as well as chaos. It's not just a matter of rampant appetite and sexual voracity held back by the thin veneer of civilisation. Human culture has long seen the forces of creation as in many ways akin to those of destruction, and both in some ways at odds with principles of order. The Id's pleasure-seeking energies are primary motivators for everything we do.

In this sense, you could say that without the Id we wouldn't want to arrange, and we wouldn't want to make our arrangements interesting, fun, creative. I have heard it said that the only reason people arrange is to fill a gap they experience in the music already available: either a song they want to sing that nobody has tackled yet or the available arrangements not doing what they want them to. If you just follow the rules as an exercise without any particular personal investment in the result, you get something that sounds okay but fails to excite.

(As an aside - having spent a decade teaching pastiche composition to undergraduate music students, I discovered that year on year I got better at communicating the rules of how the various styles worked, but that the general profile of good and poor music that resulted stayed pretty constant. Just in the later years, the poor end was better-formed unmusical dross. Which is progress of a sort, I suppose.)

But the Id is impatient. It wants all the fun now. So you get the following traps to fall into:

  • New toy! New toy! Lots and lots of fun ideas all squished into the same arrangement. The arranger is excited by them all and can't bear to leave any of them out. This can make life tricky for the singers, and confusing for the listeners. The super-ego needs to remind us that while we may take days or weeks to work on a chart, for a listener it's over in minutes. There's only so much they can digest at once
  • That'll do. Next! It's easy to think you're done when it sounds good on the playback from your notation software. But your notation software really doesn't care about how disjunct the lines are, or where it's going to breathe. The super-ego needs to remind us that this will be sung by real human beings, and we need to take the time to sing through each part to make sure it's going to be a technically possible and musically meaningful experience for all of them
  • Too hard. I give up. Actually, this isn't a bad thing in itself. We all have our bottom drawers full of partly-arranged songs that never quite made it. But if this is happening too much, then we are either (a) giving up too soon, in which case the super-ego needs to counsel persistence so as to overcome the obstacles the song presents, or (b) habitually picking songs that are too challenging, in which case the super-ego needs to counsel patience to work on simpler material while we develop our skills.

Thinking about creativity in these terms explains why writers on the arts have always struggled with the question of how to make someone more creative. We know a lot about the process, about what facilitates and what inhibits creative work. But how to make it happen in the first place? Good question.

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