Arranging Puzzles

I often think of arranging a song as a puzzle. You’re given a melody and original harmony, and you have to figure out a logical solution with acceptable voice leading, chord structure, bass line, balance, voicing, rhythmic interest, faithfulness to the original, creative departure from the past, needs of the ensemble you’re writing for, and a couple dozen more challenges.

Wednesday night I witnessed one of the most remarkable puzzles and solutions I’ve heard in a long time. At The Real Group concert in Jenison, MI, they premiered a piece entitled “Water” by Anders Edenroth. It was an emotionally and socially charged piece about the value of water in our lives in many contexts.

What made it a remarkable arranging puzzle? In addition to covering complex harmony and melody in only 5 voices, each singer was holding a tuned water bottle outlining a five-part chord. He created counterlines and obligato with those five notes, and had to balance the vocal writing knowing that whatever pitch he needed from the bottles, that singer couldn’t simultaneously be singing.

Talk about a writing challenge. And though I didn’t talk to him about it, I am fairly certain he relished the challenge – the puzzle of painting himself into a tight corner and then writing his way back out.

When you’re writing, try placing an obstacle in your way – you’ll end up discovering more interesting writing along the way. For young arrangers, like a current student of mine, it might be as simple as saying, “no solo in your next arrangement.” Water bottles is ninja level.

What corners have you successfully written yourself out of? Tweet me or drop a line on Facebook and I’ll publish a list of ideas next week.


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