Now that we’ve talked about ways to interpret an arrangement while staying true to the basic blueprint of the song, let’s look at what happens when you throw said blueprint out the window. From here on we walk the aforementioned fine line between that which is pleasantly original, and that which is original for the sake of itself. The former is wonderful, while the latter can be a good exercise but is often annoying from an audience perspective.
As we did while looking at interpretive arranging, we begin with a basic choice and a set of tools to move forward. This time, our choice isn’t whether to adhere to the original structure of the song we’re working on, but rather how much of that structure we want to remain intact.
This is an excellent time to check in with your gut feeling about a song. Think about applying the technique of emotion-reaction-assessment to determine which parts of a song are most important to you as a listener. If the chorus melody really grabs you and the chord structure of the bridge feels just right, take note that those are elements you will want to strongly consider keeping in your final arrangement (regardless of how far you stray from the original in other areas). Write them down, put on your swim trunks, and get ready to dive into the deep end.
Once you’ve got what you want to keep, take a look at the elements you have to work with. Elements of song structure include form, rhythm, and harmony, which combine to create style. The more elements you tinker with, the more you move a song away from its original style.
Now to the big question – how can you accomplish this transformation? I first saw one of my favorite approaches articulated by Nick Girard of Overboard at an arranging workshop hosted by my college group, Ithacappella. Nick was the mastermind behind Overboard’s Beatles concept album, Help!, and was the driving force behind its conception and arranging.
In his presentation, Nick talked about taking the song you want to arrange and thinking about what you want it to convey to a listener. Once you have this idea handy, you can go out and find another song that you feel conveys the same elements and copy those elements over into your arrangement.
Several examples were highlighted in the presentation, but the one I remember most is “Something” from Help! To Nick and Overboard, George Harrison’s original version of “Something” epitomized a pop music message circa 1969. In order to update the tune, while retaining its pop flavor, Nick sought out a modern example of a pop message, settling on “Makes Me Wonder” by Maroon 5. To quote Nick himself:
“The song's original aesthetic probably wouldn't reach out and grab a modern pop fan, so instead I sought to find a modern song with a (loosely) similar harmonic structure upon which I could apply the structure, lyrics and melody of ‘Something,’ which I found in Maroon 5's 'Makes Me Wonder'.”
Thus the funky guitar and nimble percussion of “Makes Me Wonder” was married to the ethereal mood and chord structure of “Something” to make a decidedly more modern, yet still distinctly poppy result.
In Overboard’s rendition, the form is basically unchanged, and the melody and harmony (though generously embellished) remain recognizable. It is the element of rhythm that is given the most obvious overhaul. Remembering that we are thinking from an audience’s perspective, and considering the iconic status of the song in question, the “gut check” step for many people arranging this song would probably yield (as it did in this example) quite a lot of effective material for the final product. A lesser-known song might not be as fruitful, but these decisions are all a part of what makes the result unique to you!
If you’re having trouble breaking with your original impression of a song, a good approach might be to seek out as many covers of the tune as possible. Be aware that this may predispose you to a less original interpretation than you may have otherwise created (however, some very successful a cappella “reinterpretations” have actually been covers of lesser known versions of popular songs – they were simply unexpected to the ears of their target audience!). Researching how others have gone about the creative task ahead of you might help to get the juices flowing.
In summary, creating a re-interpretive arrangement is like a conversation with a song in which you do more of the talking! Listen first to what strikes you as critical, assess what you have left to play with, then dive in - seeking out other interpretations or other songs to use as style guides as you feel them helpful. Remember, creativity comes from your own unique reaction to music, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes in pursuit of an understanding of that reaction. This is a tough skill to develop, so pay attention to what seems to work for your audience and your performers as you continue to hone your craft.
Tune in next time – I’ve got one more installment on arranging to fill in some of the gaps between interpretive and re-interpretive, and then we’ll move into production and solo delivery!
About the author:
Robert Dietz is a recent graduate of Ithaca College in upstate New York where he received a dual degree in music and business. He began singing in high school when he founded the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) winning male quintet, Ascending Height. During his time at Ithaca College, Robert had the pleasure of performing with and conducting Ithaca College’s only all male a cappella group, Ithacappella. Along with Ithacappella, Robert had the honor of twice advancing to the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCAs), as well as sharing the stage with the internationally renowned rock band, Incubus. In addition to his CARA awards and nominations, Robert also holds three ICCA awards for outstanding vocal percussion, and his 100th arrangement received the award for outstanding arrangement at the ICCA semifinals at Rutgers in 2009. He currently lives in Sydney, Australia and is pursuing a graduate diploma in Music Composition and Production at the Australian Institute of Music.