Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Arrangements Roll In!

First of all, tickets are now available for Pantheon Bar & Grill on Dec. 1st. Since it's the 30th Anniversary Concert of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, I recommend getting your tickets now. I've even talked Piper Laurie into making a personal appearance! So, go. Buy!

And, speaking of which, the thing that has kept me in such high spirits lately, aside from the great trip to Pismo and singing at the open mics -- I sang at another in Woodland Hills on Tuesday night -- is the fact that choral arrangements for Pantheon are beginning to flood in from Kathleen McGuire, who, if you check her blog, is sitting in a house outside of Victoria, Australia, way out in the countryside.

And the house is run solely on sunlight. The solar panels are supplying all her electricity. And that would be fine except that it's dead in the middle of winter down there and she's been dealing with overcast skies. However, she wrote just now, the sun has been out for four days straight. So, the songs have been coming fast and furious.

A QUESTION:
A few people have been asking me what it is specifically that she's doing which is different from what I've done with the songs. What does an arranger do?

Well, it's pretty simple. Composing and arranging are two entirely separate art forms. Myself, I consider myself to be a songwriter, pure and simple. The demos and recordings that I've made are intentionally as bare bones as the song will allow. Piano. Voice. Maybe some bass. Simple percussion. Some strings. Perhaps some guitar. A little sax.

Even if that sounds like a lot, it's really not because I try to keep even those few instruments as simple and as close to the song as possible. Just enough to fill out some harmonies or play melodic counterpoints I might hear in my head.

And I'm not trying to sound dismissive of my own work or speaking with false modesty. Doing songs this way is completely intentional on my part. I don't change keys. I don't pad it out with layers and layers of sound. My interest in making a demo is to simply present the song itself, as purely and unadorned as possible.

This kind of simple arrangement works well when it's just me sitting and singing the songs for an open mic, for instance. Or when I'm auditioning the song for a singer who wants to sing some of my material.

But when the song is to be done by a 250 voice choir with orchestra, it needs someone with the talent, education and skills that comes with being an arranger, a talent I simply either don't have or haven't cared to develop. I am constantly mystified and amazed at arrangers and what it takes to arrange because it's not just about having a mastery of certain instruments. That's the base knowledge you need.

No, a great arranger -- and this is Kathleen in a nutshell -- tries to peer inside the head of the composer and think, "If this person knew how to arrange, what would it sound like?" A mediocre arranger just makes every song sound like what the arranger would have written if he or she had composed the music.

Do you see what I mean? It's the difference between illuminating what's there and imposing something on top of what's there.

Last night, we were talking via phone and Kathleen said, after I praised one of the arrangements, "Well, I just did what you told me to do."

Right.

I told her it's like the Monty Python "How To Play The Flute" sketch where John Cleese says, "Just blow in one end and move your fingers up and down on the outside."

Sure, on a very literal level one could say that she did what I "told her." But if that's true, why does it sound like so much more? Because it's more than simply following instructions. It's about hearing more than that and delivering it, but staying within the feel and sound of the original.

Every time she sends me a new arrangement, it feels like Christmas morning. I open the present and just marvel at the magic on the page.
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Faithless Love - Blake Zolfo & Steve Schalchlin

Listen to us sing! One final show on Thursday, June 22, 2017 at 7pm at The Metropolitan Room.