Blue Sky thinking with Mayflower A Cappella

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My last couple of coaching visits have been to help out on new, recently commissioned arrangements. Monday evening was a development on this theme, with an invitation to visit the Mayflower A Cappella Chorus in Plymouth to talk about my arrangement of Mr Blue Sky, which they are currently learning.

This was an interesting challenge as instead of dealing with a chart that was relatively fresh in memory, it involved revisiting music I had written 9 full years ago. What could I remember from my past self’s experience of working on this music? What did I see in it looking at it with fresh eyes?

As it happens, of all my arrangements from that era, this was probably the easiest to revisit, as it is one I have become reacquainted with since being appointed as MD of the chorus that originally commissioned it. Indeed, they asked me to direct it at my audition in October 2017, which I felt rather gave me a head start over any other candidates they were considering for the post, though it was one I was happy to accept.

It was in relearning it for that occasion that I discovered that in the men’s key you can literally sing any of the parts along to the original and they all fit. So apparently I was in my literal, recreate (rather than reimagine) mode when arranging this. You can explain the presence of a lot of the details by their presence in ELO’s recording.

Even at that stage of reacquaintance, though, I was bumping up against a question that arose repeatedly in preparing for the Mayflowers’ session: how many of the musical observations I was making were things I had been aware of while doing the arrangement, and how many were things I was only noticing on looking back with fresh eyes?

It was about a year before I did this arrangement that I was reflecting on the question: How much do we know what we’re doing? So it is interesting to observe that the answer remains as unclear in retrospect as it is in the middle of the process. There are some things that I shared on Monday that I can point to and explain why I made those choices: the baritone melody in the Bridge, for instance, or the bass melody in Verse 3, both of which are there for reasons more specific than the general principle of handing round the candy.

There are other details that I had forgotten about between finishing the arrangement and relearning it to direct, but that I had probably made conscious decisions about back in 2011: that bari twiddle in Chorus 2 & 3, the rhythm of the bassline in the Choruses, the handing off of triplets between lead and bass in the Intro. I don’t remember crafting those specific details, but I do remember the earlier experiences that lead to me to make those kinds of decisions.

But with one central musical dimension that shapes the overall piece, I could not remember for the life of my whether it was even part of my self-aware technical armoury at the time of writing. It was certainly part of my implicit knowledge – I can see it in my own arrangements going back to at least 2004, at which point I know I wasn’t using it deliberately, just following my practical experience of how music goes. And somewhere in the interim I started noticing it both in my music and other people’s, and it became a part of my coaching vocabulary as much as my arranging strategies. Whether this was before or after arranging Mr Blue Sky might be inferable by a close analysis of my blog posts over the years, but a quick and dirty scan-through hasn’t revealed the answer.

But it has revealed another reflection from a decade ago, when I was coaching one of my own charts in person (remember when we used to be able to do that? what fun!), where I made the observation that the approach to analysing music to aid performance isn’t fundamentally different for one’s own music than from other people’s. In all cases, you’re asking: why might that be? You may think of it as seeking intentions of the composer and/or arranger, but what you are actually discovering is the musical logic of the piece.

Some of that musical logic will have got in there from the self-aware creative problem solving involved in putting the music together. Some of it will have arisen from the creators’ immersion in the musical culture you share with them, the conventions and codes of expression shaping both how they craft the music and how you are able to understand it.

I haven’t gone into detail about all the different musical elements involved, by they way, because each one of them would take a blog post of its own. And besides, you might want me to come and talk about this chart with your chorus some time. The structured discovery process I’d be taking you through would be much less fun if I’d given all the answers away in advance.

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