E and I got the word last week that the Drexel Treblemakers were putting out a last call for arrangements for this year’s repertoire, which meant several all-nighters between the two of us.
The TMs are a contemporary acappella group, which E used to sing-for and music-direct when she was at Drexel. “Contemporary acappella” means that they recreate modern pop hits with just their voices.
As an example, here’s perhaps their best arrangement of all time, of the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby”:
When I say “arrangement,” I mean just that – an arrangement of notes that make up the composite song that comes out of the group. Acappella songs don’t happen out of thin air. Unless you’re in a group of the finest doo-wop singers around (each equipped with pitch-perfect ear and all egalitarian when it comes to choosing what instrument to sing) it takes some specifics to turn a pop song into an all vocal jam.
It’s the job of an arrangement to replicate the song for voices in the form of sheet music. As an arranger, you might take the approach of transcribing each specific instrument individually for voice, or you might prefer to address the overall tonality of the song instead. Either way, it’s hard work – especially if you’re doing it by ear rather than from print music for the song.
“By ear” means you sit down and pluck out every note that’s being made in the song, transcribing its pitch, rhythm, and dynamics, until you’ve got an entire song. An average 100-bar rock song in 4/4 with six voice parts offers circa 3000 notes to transcribe.
It’s even harder when arranging for an all-female group, because you have less dynamic range to work with. With a bisexual group you have men to sing the lowest of the lows – you can duplicate a guitar easily, and cover most bass parts (or create the illusion of them by maintaining the divide between the lowest note and the next highest note).
Even an all-guy group has a massive range – as a baritone I can reliable produce soprano Ds and higher, which means a group of 12 of me would only be half-an-octave shy of the highs of a girl group … but with an entire extra octave on the bottom (and that assumes all girl-groups will be able to sing down to a Baritone D, which most cannot. TMs has always been special in that regard).
Female groups have a reduced range, which makes it harder to arrange well for them. Thrashy rock songs rely on a lot of low Ds and Es, and most girl groups don’t have them. And, girl groups largely wuss out when it comes to vocal percussion.
Luckily, the TMs have never had those two problems, and have stretched to crazy lengths to accommodate my arrangements. I had my good buddy Sara singing low C#s on “Stay,” and our maid of honor Amanda doing sub-woofer rattling kick drums on “I Think I’m Paranoid.”
Both of us used to arrange like mad for the TMs when we were in school – we arranged two-thirds of their first CD (That page has sound-clips, and The TrebleMakers on MySpace has whole songs. Listen to “I Think I’m Paranoid” on the former, and “Rhiannon” on the latter – one of the best all-female acappella arrangements I’ve ever heard (not surprisingly, by my wife)).
Since we’ve graduated we always have a glut of songs we want to do for the TMs, and this year we actually finished two – the most we’ve done since 2006. I arranged Paramore’s “That’s What You Get,” and Erocked Ingrid Michaelson’s “Die Alone. Mine was good-but-wobbly when I first heard it; E’s sounds even better than the actual version.
We both wanted to do another song had been debating between Rilo Kiley’s “Portions for Foxes” and “Breakin’ Up.” The former – a guitar rocker – was more my speed, but the latter – a sparse, funky tune – was better for E.
When we got the word that the deadline was looming E forged ahead with “Breakin’ Up,” which left me songless. The group now includes singers born after the release of Like a Prayer, so digging out an old Madonna chestnut wasn’t necessarily the best option (and that means they were only ages 6-9 when most of my favorite female modern rock was on the radio – yikes).
In a pinch, I went to the path of least resistance: Kelly Clarkson.
I love her. TMs love her. Audiences know her stuff. Easy pick.
The lead single from her new disc All I Ever Wanted is “My Life Would Suck Without You,” which is a bit of a … hrm, how shall I phrase this … piece of tripe. It’s a straight-forward DDR stomper with an unsubtle melody and absolute crap lyrics.
The next single is scheduled to be “I Do Not Hook Up,” co-penned by Kate Perry & new AI judge Kara DioGuardi. You can see that Kelly is already rocking it pretty fiercely:
The lyrics are a bit dishwatery, but the music is awesome – like KC fronting Fall Out Boy. Once I got past some of the lamer turns of phrase it was insta-love, listening to it ten times a day.
Last Thursdayish, on perhaps listen number six of the day and while contemplating if I could really arrange it for TMs due to the spread of notes in that main riff, I realized something major – the chorus is the same damn thing as “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down,” just a whole step higher. You can sing the melodies of each interchangeably.
Go ahead, try it.
Acappella groups love medleys, and I didn’t think the TMs could resist the next KC single combined with FOB’s biggest hit. My mind was made up. I walked home on Friday singing the bass notes of the song over and over, and began arranging as soon as I was in the door.
In crazy-record time – under 72 hours – I arranged the entire song by ear. That’s a big leap from the months it took my to do “Stay,” which started out as guitar tab on a cocktail napkin.
I started out sketching in as many of the bass notes as I could, skimping on rhythm unless it was important (which it is with the walks on the chorus), and then adding the vocals. I find that to be the easiest way to get started with a by-ear arrangement, as everything else has to fit between the two.
Afterward I went back to layer in the guitar riffs, heard mostly in the verses, before wrestling with chorus harmony Kelly notoriously stacks multiple harmony notes and auto-tunes them to sit tightly together, which makes it nearly impossible to pick them out. It’s more of a best guess situation, and I needed the guitars first so I’d have a litmus test for if I got the harmony wrong.
Finally, I fleshed out the interior chords of chorus and the remainder of bass rhythms, as well as brought the bridge to life. I spent the remainder of Sunday and Monday splitting instruments intro appropriate voice parts, fudging the riffs a bit where necessary to sound smoother for voice, and adding the “SWGD” medley to the bridge.
I finally gave in to sleep and needing to do other stuff, emailing the group my arrangement without all of the lyrics, syllables, and dynamics. I told them I’d go back and add them if they picked it.
TMs chose new tunes last night, and both “IDNHU w/SWGD” and “Breakin’ Up” were on their list. We’re still waiting to hear if either of our tunes made it in to the repertoire.
And that’s where I was through Monday night. Next up: open mics, impromptu press kits, twitter addictions, and impending broadway auditions.