Arranging from someone else’s arrangement

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‘The Things We Do for Love’, due to enter my catalogue next week, is the first of a smattering of arrangements I’ve been asked to do where the people who commissioned it were inspired by another a cappella group’s rendition of the song. In this case, it was the Vocal Six’s arrangement. Another example due to become available in the coming months is Sense of Sound’s performance of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’ on the TV series Last Choir Standing.

On first sight, I found this a slightly intimidating task. When you’re transforming a well-known original to an a cappella ensemble, there are all sorts of ways you can worry about not living up to the original, but you know that at the heart of the game is the dual sense of recognisability and distance. The pleasures derive from both connecting with the original version and hearing it in a new guise.

But when someone has already leapt across that gap, what is the second arranger to do?

Should we endeavour simply to write down the other group’s performance as closely as possible, making as few changes as possible to transfer it to the voices we have available? (Bearing in mind that, for instance, a professional male sextet is a rather different vocal resource from an amateur female quartet – there are both obvious logistical and more subtle artistic ways in which a direct translation won’t work.) But being literal about it isn’t very satisfying either for the first arranger (isn’t that just ripping off his/her work?) or for the second arranger (what if I wanted to exercise some creative input?).

In the end, the process I used treated the arrangement that provoked the commission as just another cover version. I always like to listen to as many performances of any song I arrange as possible (youtube is my friend). If there’s a clear original or definitive performance I’ll listen to that the most, but referring to other versions lets you hear what other people consider to be essential to the character of the song, and what is variable. I’ve no principled objection to creatively rearranging even iconic bits, I should add, but I do have principled objections to disappointing people who have asked me help them sing a song they adore.

The listening process will be not only promiscuous but also obsessive. At any one time I have a very short playlist of up-coming arranging projects that accompanies daily tasks that are essentially non-verbal (exercise, travel, cooking) as a continuous loop. I treat my brain like the liver of a French goose and force-feed it in a way that I would regard as cruel if anyone else were doing it to me. This goes on up to the point where I have done the basic transcription and am ready to arrange, when I stop listening to other people’s performances and start listening to what my brain has done with them.

So, the way I coped with the potential anxiety of influence these other a cappella arrangements presented was simply not to engage with them consciously. I used them as a significant resource in uploading the songs into my head, but then put them to one side once my brain got onto the case.

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