Unity and Variety

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The balance between unity and variety in music is a technical/artistic challenge that composers have been grappling with for probably as long as they have been writing music. It seems to become a more urgent issue, however, when you head into the nineteenth century with the development of the idea that works should be individual – that they should have recognisable identities that distinguish them from all other works. There are all sorts of reasons for this aesthetic shift, but changes in listening habits are indicative. When the orchestra is the background music for a duchess’s card game, symphonies can be more generic, but when the lights are lowered to put everyone’s attention on the orchestra, the music needs to do more to distinguish itself.

Those of us writing a cappella arrangements of popular songs from the last century might be working on a more modest scale than the nineteenth-century symphonists, but we face similar artistic and technical challenges. Specifically, there is the question about how much to repeat stuff. It’s a simple question, but the answer is always interestingly non-obvious, because of the effect that repetition has on a piece’s sense of identity.

You see, self-referentiality is central to building a sense of persona. Managed déja vu is how you give the sense that yes, these bits of music belong together, they are part of the same thing. A person’s sense of self-identity is built through the maintenance of an internal autobiography, in which they select certain experiences from their past to narrate to themselves as a way to understand who they are and why they are like that. Thematic development in music has the same kind of function. Just as I am the kind of person who finds it hard to walk past a cheap joke, David Wright’s arrangement of ‘Cross the Mason Dixon Line’ finds itself perpetually compelled to start phrases with bass propellents.

On the other hand, excessive thematic working becomes first dull, then annoying, as anyone who has listened to all of Schumann’s 4th Symphony will testify. This takes the inner coherence produced by self-referentiality and elevates it to a point of self-obsessiveness. People who are so focused in on themselves that they haven’t got room to let anyone or anything else affect them are just not appealing company. (Definition of a conversational bore: someone who says what they were going to say anyway, whatever you contribute.)

And whilst managed repetition is key to building a sense of coherent characterisation, the things that make a piece of music striking or memorable or appealing – the things that make us care about it – are the things that stand out as unique occurences. As David Wright put it, poignancy is something you get by evoking something once. He also refers to these moments as ‘singularities’ – he is a mathematician, after all – and articulates this idea as being ‘where it isn’t smooth, where it crinkles’. It’s the same with people of course – it’s the unusual events that stand out in our personal narratives, not the routine ones.

It’s something I’ve noticed more than once that when I’ve been arranging something by request, the person I’m arranging for will often have a particular detail in the original song that they really love and really want me to include – and it will be detail that happens only once. It’s often really quite subtle – and in one instance took me about 8 listenings before I caught onto what they meant! – but for them it was the musical equivalent of the way you just adore how your beloved’s cheek dimples when they smile. The singularities don’t have to stick out, but they do need to be there.

As an arranger, I often recognise the presence of these singularities by anticipating the pleasure a performer will take in singing them. Either that, or I find it surprising myself. The following is not an uncommon inner dialogue in my head as I arrange:

‘Ooh, I wouldn’t have thought of that. Oh, I guess I just did.’

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