Friday, October 12, 2018

Arranging Class

A really important teacher for me was Dave Lalama, who'd played piano and arranged for Woody Herman. I studied with him for just a week - a workshop on arranging (see footnote, below), but it taught me a lot about the music profession, about art, and about teaching.

Dave would come ambling into the classroom, a disheveled and hilariously cynical presence, and speak to us without the slightest pretense. A tumble of words straight from the slightly spacey and put-upon soul of the jazz musician.

Discussing a particular arranging problem, he'd say "I approach it this way. That's because I like it when it happens like this, but other people like it when it's more like that, so they approach it this other way...let me show you how that works. Oh, and one of my favorite arrangers, Sal Nestico, does pretty much the opposite, and it looks totally wrong on paper but he makes it sound great. Here's what that looks like...."

Every assertion came with a disclaimer and five alternatives, and the word "wrong" was used only as a compliment. The result was an unviably complex flowchart, but I understood that this was the entire point. If you try to do something creative via a flowchart, you're doing it wrong. Creative people shouldn't be instruction-followers. They should certainly be armed with knowledge - moves they can make, plus alternative moves and alternatives to the alternatives. But they should be equally comfortable with blowing it all up and doing something sacrilegious if it brings the best result. If you're someone who needs a bright, clear "procedure", you ought to be an MRI technician, not a music arranger.

The casualness - dare I say "lazy fuckdom" - with which Dave informally expanded his mushrooming flow chart was key. For every ten non-creative students who threw up their hands in despair at this apparently sloppy teacher's refusal to tell them how to do stuff, there'd be one manic little automaton geared up to input the entire gigantic branching tree of alternatives, internalizing every decision fork and faithfully rendering the entire tumbleweed in their heads.

That ain't it, either. It was abundantly clear that Dave himself was no cold-blooded walking algorithm of orchestrational decision branches. He'd hem and haw a thousand ways, lumpily recall stuff he'd seen or heard, and stir the pot until something ingenious popped out, but he didn't operate in the realm of formulae. It was a matter of bemused, savagely committed playfulness - a strange and rare combination of qualities, indeed, but one which is something of a magic formula.

I was the only one in the room who "got" it, but I really got it.

Musical arranging is the least understood part of the musical business while also the most conspicuous. Only a tiny percentage of a given musical performance involves the melody you probably key in on. The rest isn't simply "accompaniment", though it seems that way to a melody-focused layman. Those strings providing lush texture have been given notes to play, and those notes are not inevitable. Someone had to devise them and assign them, and every situation is unique (per above, it's not a matter of rote procedure...though procedures do exist and those who follow them - like formulaic screenwriters - will never create an affecting result). You need to decide when the drums come in, and whether there are background vocals, and, if so, how and where they're used and what they actually sing. Pretty much everything you hear is the arrangement. And, again, none of it is inevitable; someone applied a great deal of taste and know-how in making a zillion decisions.

The Beatles were only a quartet, but their arrangements (mostly done in studio postproduction) were breathtakingly ingenious. When you arrange a larger ensemble - say, a studio orchestra or big band - the arranger is really the auteur. A composer contributes a single line of notes, but the arranger makes it music.


Unknown said...

I remember this week. Take The A Train, last four notes a half-step up.

Jim Leff said...

I don’t remember that reference, but good to hear from you, Scott!

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