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Unity and Variety

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Published on Monday 7th December 2009
A Cappella



The balance between unity and variety in music is a technical/artistic challenge that
composers have been grappling with for probably as long as they have been writing music. It
seems to become a more urgent issue, however, when you head into the nineteenth century
with the development of the idea that works should be individual that they should have
recognisable identities that distinguish them from all other works. There are all sorts of
reasons for this aesthetic shift, but changes in listening habits are indicative. When the
orchestra is the background music for a duchesss card game, symphonies can be more
generic, but when the lights are lowered to put everyones attention on the orchestra, the
music needs to do more to distinguish itself.

Those of us writing a cappella arrangements of popular songs from the last century might be
working on a more modest scale than the nineteenth-century symphonists, but we face
similar artistic and technical challenges. Specifically, there is the question about how much to
repeat stuff. Its a simple question, but the answer is always interestingly non-obvious,
because of the effect that repetition has on a pieces sense of identity.

You see, self-referentiality is central to building a sense of persona. Managed dja vu is how
you give the sense that yes, these bits of music belong together, they are part of the same
thing. A persons sense of self-identity is built through the maintenance of an internal
autobiography, in which they select certain experiences from their past to narrate to
themselves as a way to understand who they are and why they are like that. Thematic
development in music has the same kind of function. Just as I am the kind of person who
finds it hard to walk past a cheap joke, David Wrights arrangement of Cross the Mason
Dixon Line finds itself perpetually compelled to start phrases with bass propellents.

On the other hand, excessive thematic working becomes first dull, then annoying, as anyone
who has listened to all of Schumanns 4th Symphony will testify. This takes the inner
coherence produced by self-referentiality and elevates it to a point of self-obsessiveness.
People who are so focused in on themselves that they havent got room to let anyone or
anything else affect them are just not appealing company. (Definition of a conversational
bore: someone who says what they were going to say anyway, whatever you contribute.)

And whilst managed repetition is key to building a sense of coherent characterisation, the
things that make a piece of music striking or memorable or appealing the things that make
us care about it are the things that stand out as unique occurences. As David Wright put it,
poignancy is something you get by evoking something once. He also refers to these moments
as singularities he is a mathematician, after all and articulates this idea as being where
it isnt smooth, where it crinkles. Its the same with people of course its the unusual events
that stand out in our personal narratives, not the routine ones.

Its something Ive noticed more than once that when Ive been arranging something by
request, the person Im arranging for will often have a particular detail in the original song
that they really love and really want me to include and it will be detail that happens only
once. Its often really quite subtle and in one instance took me about 8 listenings before I
caught onto what they meant! but for them it was the musical equivalent of the way you
just adore how your beloveds cheek dimples when they smile. The singularities dont have to
stick out, but they do need to be there.

As an arranger, I often recognise the presence of these singularities by anticipating the

pleasure a performer will take in singing them. Either that, or I find it surprising myself. The
following is not an uncommon inner dialogue in my head as I arrange:

Ooh, I wouldnt have thought of that. Oh, I guess I just did.

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