HomeBlogsEdison Hung's blogWhat is a cappella arrangement? --- Interview with Hong Kong arranger Ng Yin and a cappella group Holick

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In Hong Kong, a cappella music is gaining its popularity: canto-pop stars invite local a cappella groups to perform in their concert; an annually international a cappella festival is being held by The Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, featuring world-renowned groups like The Swingle Singers and Rockapella. However, it is still a rather new music genre to the local audience. While they are enjoying the energetic performance and the beautiful harmony, the importance of arrangement is usually un-noticed. So why do we arrange? How is the process of arrangement? What is the technique of arrangement?

For the questions above, Ng Yin (Ng Cheuk-yin) and the 5-male vocal band HolicK are without a doubt the right candidates to answer. Ng Yin is a veteran musician, who was the first generation of a cappella group in Hong Kong. He composes, arranges, performs, produces and his creative edge brings him from traditional Chinese music to Western music, from classical to pop. Recently he shifts back his focus more on a cappella music. In 2011, he launched an ‘one man a cappella’ album Single Singers, featuring pop songs compiled into a cappella version done solely on his own. He frequently partners with HolicK to perform a cappella music on different occasions.

  
Why do we arrange?
An a cappella cover of a pop-song calls for a re-arrangement of the song from the original instrumental version. So what is a (re)arrangement? According to Ng Yin, (re)arrangement is to adapt different voice parts to sing different things to achieve acoustic effect. Take the song Don’t Scare Love (不要驚動愛情) from his album as an example, the melody and the harmony of the original version can be kept intact, yet the piano, guitar and the drum set parts have to be re-arranged for human voice, such as using beat box (vocal percussion) to substitute the drum set.

 
An arranger can keep the characteristics of the original song, or arrange it into a completely new version. It all depends on the feeling of the arranger. For instance, for Ng Yin’s album, he feels the original arrangement of the song Superwoman is pretty good already; therefore he didn’t make a lot of changes. On the contrary, Love Becomes The Shirt Of The World (愛變了這世界襯衣) felt a bit prosaic, so he made a drastic change to the arrangement, added some jazz elements, gave it a refreshing and lively feeling.
 
HolicK, the ‘user’ of Ng Yin’s works, believes that a good a cappella arrangement can strengthen and enrich the style of the original song, and even re-interpret its meaning. ‘A good arrangement can enrich the sound effect even if it is very simple in itself, making the song more protean and playful. From the singers’ points of view, a good arrangement should be singer-friendly, so that the singers can sing it without much difficulty and their vocal capacity can be fully explored.’ the members of HolicK said. Besides, HolicK thinks that new features should be added in the new arrangement, otherwise it is nothing but a transcription.

How is the process of arrangement?
Being an experienced arranger, Ng Yin is able to finish an a cappella arrangement within an half hour when it is urgently needed. If not, he may spend three to four days, with a view to fine-tuning his work and adding new elements into it. “When I have decided which song to be arranged, the first thing I would consider is the style. Should it be a bossa nova or jazz? Is the tempo fast or slow? Then I would deal with the key and the harmony. Any key change required? Should I modify the harmony of the original? After that I would start arranging the song. During this process, I would take recording of my own arrangement from time to time, so that I can listen to the effect I have arranged. If the outcome doesn’t match with my expectation, I can modify it until I feel satisfied. Recording is the most time-consuming process, but it is the most important step.” Ng Yin said.

Even Ng Yin has completed his part, the entire arrangement process hasn’t finished yet. Occasionally, it has to be further adjusted for the performers. HolicK explains “Sometimes we change the arrangement because some of the members can’t sing a particular note, or the music effect is not effective enough. We also tried the arrangement from some foreign vocal bands, but we found the arrangement of the harmony is not good enough, or not singer-friendly when we practiced it, in these cases, we modify them by ourselves.”

How about the technique of arrangement?
Apart from doing a cappella arrangement, Ng Yin also holds workshop to teach others the technique of arrangement. Talking about the technique, Ng Yin thinks that it is very important to listen to music of different kinds, so as to understand various musical style and learn their characteristics. This can definitely help to generate inspiration. Also, a good arranger should be able to think from the perspective of the singers, to make sure the song should be ‘sing-able’. He points out that every part in a song has a ‘soul’, we ought to avoid any meaningless notes, which would make a line ‘soulless’  Last but not least, Ng Yin believes an arranger should set his heart on arrangement, be bold to try new attempt.

After years of arranging, Ng Yin has developed some standard ways to arrange a song, which is unavoidable in his opinion. It is because no matter how he arranges songs in different ways, there are rules for him to follow. Afterall every kind of music has its own limitation. Taking a cappella music as example, Ng Yin expresses that human voice is the most difficult instrument to cope with, ‘compared with other instruments, human voice has much more limitation, such as narrow-ranged and pitch problem. And we can’t ignore these limitation when we do the arrangement.’

How is the  a cappella arrangement in Hong Kong?
He announced his return with an ‘one-man a cappella’ album, which is probably the first one in Hong Kong. Talking about his album, Ng Yin explains it was partly because he feels that the arrangement by the local groups are not good enough. ‘In general, the standard of the a cappella groups in Hong Kong is not at the top level, their repertoires are rather easy so that they can prepare themselves on stage within a short period of time. I think it has become a trend. I am not criticizing this phenomenon, but I do believe that apart from easy arrangement, we also need some difficult ones to diversify the current a cappella scene, to make a cappella more interesting to both the singers and the audience. Based on this belief, I had put more effort on the arrangement of the songs when I made the album.”

As an arranger who takes arrangement so seriously, Ng Yin, of course, has no surprise for hoping the audience could pay more attention on the arrangement of song, and appreciate the works of the arrangers. However, people tend to listen to the lyrics and the melody of the songs, but ignore the importance of their arrangement. So how can we learn to appreciate the arrangement of a song? ‘Just pay attention on the things other than the leading voice’ Ng Yin answered.

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