Anatomy Of An Arrangement Part 4: … And Then Work Your Plan

By • April 22, 2008

If you’ve followed along for the past few weeks, you’ve had a general look over my shoulder as I received and negotiated a work call for some arrangements, organized the musical assets from which to draw musically, and planned the basic forms and road maps to follow when crafting the arrangements. I know the sexy impulse is immediately start creating something cool the minute you put down the phone (fortunately the call came while I was in my car) but usually that results in a “ready, fire, AIM!” scenario. I can’t stress this too strongly, since it’s so inefficient to make wrong turns and have to backtrack and detour.

With the road map established, I needed intros for each arrangement. The hack approach is simply to snatch the beginning or closing phrase of the tune and use it, intact, for the intro. Ask any church organist. Something in me just bristled at that. As these arrangements were intended for relatively soft-listening Latin FM radio airplay, my only real area in which to get creative was the intros, so I seized the moment. I figured I could go one of three ways: create a new melody to get the ball rolling, use motifs from the melody in crafting a statement that wasn’t a complete ripoff, or present something utterly unrelated to tune as the left bookend of the package. As it happened, I did all three. Let’s look at what happened with one: While aiming for an intro unrelated to the tune, I still wanted both familiarity for the listener and freedom from a pesky copyright lawsuit. The solution is to grab a nugget from a somewhat familiar classical piece in the public domain (generally 70+ years after the death of the composer) and adapt and redress it to set up the entrance of the tune. I turned to my trusty “Masterpieces of Piano Music” from Carl Fischer (piano reductions of hundreds of well-known orchestral, operatic and keyboard pieces from previous centuries). I auditioned many to find a good fit before remembering a Chopin piano prelude (Op. 28, No. 4, adapted so effectively for many scenes of Universal’s Lon Chaney biopic, “Man of a Thousand Faces”). Perfect. Familiar but not a total clichè (see example 1).

For symmetry, I needed for it to harmonically meander for 7 bars to lead into and establish the I-VI7-IImi7 one-bar pickup and beginning of the tune. I analyzed the harmonic structure and massaged a few left turns of my own to wind up at a satisfying tonic in seven bars. Working backwards from the planned key for the first statement of the tune (remember our carefully-planned road map?) I had to shift the tonality of the whole intro so its ending would dovetail perfectly (example 2).

To get the dreamy effect I wanted, I stole the top melody, threw it up an octave, and gave it to all four violins (2 firsts and 2 seconds, as only 2 violins on a high exposed line carries the ability to make captured spies talk…). This left the piano under-utilized and I pondered what to have him do. I remembered an effect (used so effectively by John Williams in his “Over The Moon” cue from “E.T.”) that I’ve always wanted to try. Basically it is playing a steady eighth-note melody, in octaves with another chord tone in between, made into fast arpeggiated triplets with the upper octave being the downbeat of each triplet (see example 3). Done rapidly and lightly it would contribute nicely to the dreamy quality I sought.

Conversely, the eighth-note pulse in the left hand seemed a bit heavy, so I halved it to quarter notes and reinforced it with pad-like whole notes in the remaining mid and low strings. (Another approach would have been to make the dreamy lead line a violin solo, but that would have shifted the focus away from the requested piano feature.) In sketch form, and voiced both for maximum clarity and fullness, here is the intro that resulted, lending variety and a strong dramatic presence to get the arrangement off and running (example 4).

The effect proved so satisfying that I reprised it, albeit briefly, later in the arrangement for good measure.

These examples aren’t included here to toot my horn, but are merely to show one approach to tapping that vast library of musical ideas and impressions which makes up each of us. If you suspect your library is a bit thin or anemic, perhaps you might want to adjust some of your listening or attendance habits, as almost no one can create completely on a diet of nothing. In a sense, we all steal. We have to, or no one would be able to relate to our creations. (And don’t forget that delicate dance a good arranger always does between what his listener finds comfortably familiar and stimulatingly new…)

Next week: Another intro, and a wrap-up on “working your plan.”

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