July 13th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Transgender birth certificates: No sex, please, we're Victorian

EDITORIAL Laws, sporting bodies, the AHRC: Abolishing women's rights in sport

CANBERRA OBSERVED Did Turnbull attempt the constitutional gambit?

FOREIGN AFFAIRS China kills prisoners on an industrial scale to obtain transplant organs

NATIONAL AFFAIRS A Q&A to clarify issues in Cardinal Pell's appeal

REFLECTION ON GENDER Male and female He created them: A teaching moment

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 5: The cosmos in the New Testament

CULTURE OF DEATH Melinda Gates and other wealthy lemmings lead the race to dusty death

EUTHANASIA Death comes to the Garden State: A blunt view

ASIAN HISTORY Dien Bien Phu: Curtain raiser to bigger conflict

HISTORY AND RELIGION Faith in reason alone gives more heat than light

BOOK REVIEW Roadmap to the law and transgenderism

HUMOUR The last act is bloody ...

MUSIC Dull Tune? Arrangements can be made

CINEMA Tolkien: Captures the storyteller but not the man

BOOK REVIEW We have nothing to fear but fear itself

BOOK REVIEW The days of calm before the storm

NATIONAL AFFAIRS High power prices lead to more deaths of elderly

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Dull Tune? Arrangements can be made

by David James

News Weekly, July 13, 2019

A fundamental difference between classical music and popular musical forms is that the latter routinely uses arrangers, whereas such a concept is alien in classical music. It makes no sense to talk of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (arranged by Mozart), because that much is self-evident; he wrote it all.

A DIY arrangement

Arrangers, by contrast, were widely used in many of the jazz music forms in the middle of the 20th century, and arrangers are often the most musical contributors in many popular songs. They represented something of a bridge between the technical expertise of the classically trained musicians and the raw, untrained talent of popular music performers and songwriters.

In the jazz field there are more famous arrangers than there are composers. Because of the heavy dependence in the jazz repertoire on the American songbook, often the most distinctive musical creativity came from the arrangers. George Russell, Nelson Riddle and Gil Evans, among others, became famous for the distinctive way in which they structured their horn parts and strings. They developed distinctive sound textures that did not just support the music but became the music.

Some important composers also made their mark as much for their arrangements, the distinctive ways they combined instruments: Duke Ellington, Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, Glenn Miller.

Perhaps the most enduring of the jazz arrangers is Gil Evans, whose beautiful textures in Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain rank among the best the form ever produced. The contrast between the quiet lushness of the orchestra and the plaintive edge of Davis’ trumpet has no parallel in Western music. Evans’ use of voicing (chord structures) and contrary motion in the instruments turned simple pieces into works that parallel classical orchestral music.

The advent of amplification technology in the 1950s meant arrangers, and the big bands they worked with, became peripheral; it was no longer necessary to have a lot of instruments to produce the desired volume. Amplifiers and PA systems did the job instead. Jazz bands mostly became small ensembles.

Arrangers still existed, though; they just went into the studio and started to use some of the new possibilities provided by the emerging technologies. Producer George Martin contributed great breadth to the sound palate of The Beatles, especially in Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album whose new sound textures represented a seminal development.

Another exceptional piece of arranging was, improbably, executed by the vapid presenter of Countdown, Molly Meldrum, in the song, The Real Thing. He turned an effective pop piece into an evocative, multilayered aural experience in which the instrumental textures constantly shift and sound tracks from historical events are cleverly overlaid.

Since the 1980s, the arranging devices in popular music have been mainly used to enhance the rhythm. Due to the heavy use of compression in recording, it is difficult to get much sense of variation by changing the instrumentation, and the sonic adventures of the 1960s by that time were seen to have become outdated.

Perhaps the best exponent of this skillful rhythmic arrangement is Quincy Jones, whose rhythm section approach in Michael Jackson’s mid-career albums are among the best in all of pop music.

More recently, as pop songs have become less interesting and more monotonous, studio arrangers are the most likely to bring songs out of their mediocrity. There are, for example, some interesting uses of percussive string lines in songs like Coldplay’s When I Ruled The World, or Untouched by the Veronicas (whose output is otherwise remorselessly uninteresting).

Many studio arrangers are using technology to shift the sound by deliberately distorting some instrumental sections; a method for exploiting the heavy compression rather than being limited by it. Layering, where only some parts of the ensemble are used at some times, while in others all the instruments are playing, is being used to good effect.

An example of this would be Shawn Mendes’ There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back, in which the rhythm section track alters constantly, while Mendes’ singing remains much the same.

Watching what arrangers are doing is to observe how highly trained musicians intersect with musicians who may have a talent for words and melody, but sometimes little else. They rarely get much of the credit but, at their best, they can turn the mediocre into the exceptional. It is a small way in which high-level expertise intrudes into the world of popular music.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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