One of the things I do for a living is write music for other musicians. Sometimes an artist will need a string quartet arrangement, sometimes it’s an arrangement for chamber orchestra, sometimes it’s for a horn section or marimba choir. An artist might come to me with an extremely detailed articulation of what they’re looking for, or they might only have a vague, general idea of things. There are occasions where the artist wants an arrangement to be the centerpiece of a song, and other occasions where the orchestral elements need to blend with guitars, bass, keys and drums, adding texture and dimension to the overall sound. With each project, it’s completely different.
Part of the fun (and challenge) is writing in a way that’s consistent with the sensibilities and sound-world of a particular artist while maintaining something of my own aesthetic leanings—knowing that these artists have heard things in my own work that they’ve resonated with, which is why they contacted me in the first place.
Take a listen to the collection of arranging samples below. If you’re interested in hearing more, or want to discuss arrangements for your own project, I’d be happy to talk with you. Contact me here.
Cassandra Jenkins (Weathervane Music) – flutes, clarinets, trumpet, bass trombone, string trio
I love Cassandra Jenkins’ music for the same reason that I love Charles Ives, Claude Debussy, Van Dyke Parks, Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk, and for the same reason that I love the film scores of classic Walt Disney movies like Bambi or Cinderella: playfulness. Playfulness is important and playfulness is deep – we forget ourselves. In ‘Perfect Day’, woodwinds play peek-a-boo with the lyrics, strings move with trilly shimmer, trumpets punctuate, and trombones unfurl a bassy blanket from which to watch the clouds. Listen to the full song and see two fascinating production videos here.
Lushlife (Weathervane Music) – string trio, horn trio, clarinet
Raj Haldar’s ten-minute, four-movement, epic hip-hop meditation on the mysterious and cryptic Toynbee Tiles. String glissando canons, R&B horn passages, and lonely clarinet lines all contribute to the conceptual straddle of tired asphalt city streets and the stormy surface of Jupiter; of the earthbound and the cosmic. Read some musings on the project and the process, or just cut to the chase and hear the song in all its enigmatic glory.
Twin Sister (Domino) – string quartet
“In Heaven”: The juxtaposition of hypnotic train-like rhythms with ephemeral keyboard, guitar, and electronics gestures points toward those liminal spaces between waking and dreaming. I mirrored this idea with a combination of chords whose resolution is drawn out like taffy and insistent intertwining pizzicato lines.
“Spain”: There is something so fun about those classic 1960′s John Barry/James Bond scores: ‘Goldfinger’, ‘From Russia With Love’, ‘You Only Live Twice’. This song was a neat opportunity to dip into that world.
mewithoutYou (Tooth & Nail; Redeye) – string quartet, flute, clarinet, trombone choir
Aaron Weiss’ lyrics are full of odd characters and beautiful turns of phrase, redolent of fairy tales you haven’t heard since childhood. For “The King Beetle On the Coconut Estate” and “The Fox, The Crow, and The Cookie” (see a really fun video here), the band was interested in having different instrumental groupings reflect different characters in the narrative of the lyrics (a la Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”). For example, in “Beetle King”, the strings represented the professor, the trombones the general, and so on. Tales of love and loss and the search for meaning, with beetles and all manner of critters. For “Bears Vision”, the band wanted a different approach; something epic, textural, and continually building in momentum. Urgent, syncopated sixteenth-note runs in the strings, heraldic trumpets, and trombones at the top of their register: epic unlocked.
Sun Airway (Dead Oceans) – string quartet
The concept for this project was interesting. Jon Barthmus, the driving force behind Sun Airways, listened through hundreds of orchestral works, chopped them up and reassembled them to create his own patchwork-style arrangements. A measure here, a chord there, stretched or compressed, transposed or pitch-shifted to fit the song in question. My task for this project was to transcribe and rearrange Jon’s work for string quartet. My favorite part was the end of “Over My Head”, where the arrangement had to imitate a disjointed loop or a record skipping.
Elvira Nikolaisen (Sony BMG) – string quartet, flute, clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone, trombone choir
Emil Nikolaisen, Elvira’s brother and the man behind the acclaimed Norwegian shoegaze outfit Serena Maneesh, produced this record. I’ve never met anyone with the same affinity for the music of the 70′s. This music is unabashed in its love for that era, and was recorded on vintage consoles, tube microphones, and tape machines. Writing arrangements to accompany Elvira’s lovely voice was a treat, and a rare opportunity to don my musical bell-bottoms.
Bifrost Arts (Great Comfort Records) – string quartet
When I started working on this one, I was told “think 1950′s Walt Disney, Philip Glass, and Judy Garland.” In the end, I decided to lean more Walt and Judy than Glass. The piece is all swoon and whimsy, and the nostalgia that the melody encourages is inescapable. The arrangement provides cheeky commentary throughout, with bluesy harmonized phrases and pizzicato exclamation marks. It’s always a good sign when your string players are smiling while they’re recording.
Jason Harrod (Lincoln City) – string quartet, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, trombone choir
It seems that a string quartet is practically obligatory for acoustic guitar ballads bearing the name of some long-lost love. Clichés are just so cliché, so I opted for woodwinds and low brass instead. Few things get me out of bed in the morning like a trombone choir; the sound carries a sort of a long-suffering and lonesome authority, which seemed right for the narrator of “Outposts”. “Movie Song” – it’s not every day you get to write a movie-score for a song about a movie: very meta.
Kurt Weisman (Important Records) – violin duo, flute, clarinet trio, trumpet, harp, electronics, gu zheng
Kurt sent me the basic tracks (keyboard, guitar, voice) that he wanted me to build on, along with a note that said “dense”. I said “Dense, coming right up”: kitchen-sink was the operative word. This arrangement ended up employing a neat combination of orchestral instruments and instruments a little more unusual, in particular the gu zheng (an ancient Chinese instrument with a multiple bridges and a whole lot of strings), which makes its appearance at the end of the song along side a cascade of pixilated trumpet lines.
I Was A King (Hype City/Sounds Familyre; K. Dahl Eftf.) – string trio, alto and tenor saxophones, flute, clarinet
The beautiful, barely controlled chaos in “Unreal” spurred the idea of a string trio that perpetually rode the line between sweet and sour, leaning one way one minute and the other the next. This push-pull quality of the strings was further accentuated by the contrast of an R&B horn section, securely locked in with the rhythm section. “Here To Stay” has a wonderful sense of both place and mystery. Low-register flute and clarinet seemed a good fit for the mood, particularly when set against insistent quarter-note chords in the strings. The string trio in “Pet Cemetery” is heard as music from another room down the hall, and the effect is lovely; the ear strains to hear like a mind straining towards a memory. The outro (excerpt below) was a last minute idea that moves the trio more front and center, and things start to get crazy. “One of Us” is a moody beauty. Great groove, great fun – see a video!
Danielson (Sounds Familyre) – alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, tenor and bass trombones
Daniel Smith’s music is a beautiful mixture of delight and terror, whimsy and danger, meditation and celebration. A sucker for all things the Louis Prima and Esquivel, he was after that inimitable sound of 50’s and 60’s horn harmonies; lots of air moving through lots of brass. Filtering such a classic approach to horn writing through an artistic vision as singular as Danielson’s was a particularly fun challenge.
Neighbors – string quartet
“Throw Me In The Water”: One of my favorite extended techniques for strings is called col legno, which involves turning the bow upside down and playing on the wood rather than the hair. When the bow is “bounced” in this way, it creates a prickly, rhythmically unpredictable sound. When the bow is drawn across the string in the normal fashion, it creates a glassy, uneven “ghost-like” sound. Neighbors was interested in an eerie arrangement, and this coupled with lyrics about spiders made col legno the obvious choice.
“You Jump In”: Sometimes you just need pure pop and big finish.
Ben + Vesper (Sounds Familyre) – tenor and baritone saxophones, piccolo, clarinet, string trio
“Hot Thunder”: This song was recorded for Shaking Through, a documentary series about the birth of a song. Arranging-wise, the attitude and quirky theatre of Ben + Vesper’s music was my guiding light. Few things say ‘attitude’ like the combination of tenor and baritone saxophone. String trio and piccolo flute added a nice sonic contrast to the low crunch of the saxes, and the clarinet solo, half composed/half-improvised, finished things off with a dash of spy-serial cool. To hear the full song and to see some fun behind-the-scenes video footage, go here.