What Makes a Good Arrangement?

Our upcoming concert on Saturday 11th January at London’s Cadogan Hall will feature homegrown arrangements from our talented choir members. In this blog Simon talks about what goes into a great arrangement and how he goes about creating a magical sound that delights our choir and audience alike.

Let’s hand over to Simon…

Over the last few years, I’ve been invited to arrange a number of pieces for the Pink Singers. It’s a privilege and delight to do so – and I thought I’d share a few things I think about during the process.

Thinking about the audience

We make music to entertain, and so my first thought when starting a new arrangement is for audience and what I want them to experience. There are so many starter questions!

What story and emotions does the original song convey? Should the arrangement try to be faithful to this, or to subvert the meaning somehow, or give it a slightly queer angle? Done well, this can be transformative. For example, Chris Chambers’ aching arrangement of I Wanna Dance With Somebody takes Whitney’s dancefloor classic and transforms it. Although it’s instantly recognisable from the off, the feel couldn’t be more different. In the context of a queer choir singing this anthem, with rich clashing chords, the song takes on a new meaning: perhaps a longing plea from the closet; a reminder of our first queer crushes.

Should the arrangement be instantly recognisable? Or might it be interesting to play with it and do something unusual? Although it’s risky, the rewards can be great. The amazing musical director and arranger Sarah Bodhalbhai has written music for queer theatre shows in London for many years and I follow her work avidly ever since hearing her joyous arrangements of Sinitta’s So Macho recast as an elegant Viennese waltz, and Peter André’s Mysterious Girl reimagined as a rock n’ roll ballad, Elvis style (which you can enjoy in Sink the Pink’s amazing Escape From Planet Trash until December 22).

How can you hold the audience’s attention? So having figured out the story and the approach to the arrangement, the next challenge is to make it sustain interest for a few minutes – to my mind, that means making sure there’s a mix of light and shade, different textures and a sense of progression. And at this point, the craft turns to the performers: how to make it work for them. 

Thinking about the perfomers

From a performers’ perspective, there are a whole host of things to think about. There’s plenty written about good practice in writing music for choirs, and my go-to manuals for the technical arrangement aspects are Hawley Ades Choral Arranging, and A Capella Arranging by Deke Sharon). These books cover the fundamentals like vocal ranges and tone, basic harmony, phrasing, music layout, as well as more involved topics such as how to write effective vocal and body percussion and niche areas such as close harmony and barbershop arranging. 

Beyond these basics, there are a few other key things I try to keep in mind:

Make it interesting to sing: there’s nothing worse than a never-ending repetition. Apart from being difficult to memorise, it’s just boring. Even basses deserve the tune sometimes. 

Make it accessible!

The Pink Singers is a community choir and although we can tackle some pretty challenging stuff, the altos would rightly come looking for me with a frying pan if I gave them this bar:

Ultimately it’s about balance: you have to think about the level of the performers and create something that is both interesting to sing, but not so challenging as to be difficult to achieve or so nuanced that it is impossible to remember. And, of course, if there might be choreography to accompany the music, the rule of thumb is simplify, simplify, simplify! 

Make it interesting to play along with!

Many of our arrangements are accompanied by strings, bass, and most often piano. Our dear accompanist John Flinders does like something to keep his digits stretched on concert day and so it is up to us arrangers to make sure we rise to the challenge and ensure that all instruments – not just the singers – have their moment to shine. For example, in my arrangement of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill for the choir, there’s a short piano solo between verses which borrows a riff from her other classic, Cloudbusting – in an attempt to add some pianistic interest, a little contrasting colour, and a hidden easter-egg for die-hard Kate Bush fans (like me). 

Follow the rules… and then break them

And of course, having followed all these rules, it’s important to smash them up, ‘cos art is about subverting expectations.

This intense Vocal Line arrangement of Bjork’s Hyperballad, complete with mesmerising video, takes on Iceland’s most inimitable singer and somehow gets away with it – by staying faithful to the original whilst also making the most of the yearning dense polychordal vocal sound this amazing Copenhagen choir can make. 

On the other hand, Pentatonix’ recent arrangement of God Only Knows is pretty vanilla and barely deviates from the original. They released it as a Christmas song before Hallowe’en and you know what, they are so famous at this point, that they can do what they like and they can basically get away with it. Happy, sappy holidays, everyone!

This Puppini Sisters three-part version of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, accompanied by a jazz kit and double bass cuts through the histrionics of the original with a simple, cheeky vibe. It could not be further from the original – but it works.

The last thing you’d expect is a choir singing Underworld, right? Wrong. Michael Derrick created an incredible live band and synth arrangement of Born Slippy. Nuxx for our Night At The Movies 2 concert in 2018 and it is absolutely top of my list for us to perform again soon.

What are your favourite arrangements or cover versions of pop songs? And are there any you’d like to hear the Pink Singers take on in future? Leave a comment and let us know. 

Simon Pearson, Arranger and Bass

By Special Arrangement – Part 2
Saturday 11th January 2020 – 7.30pm
Cadogan Hall, Sloane Square, London SW1X 9DG

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