Friday, 14 April 2017

Creativity and Musical Arrangement

To find out what arrangers think about the creativity and music arrangements, I interviewed Allan Gilliland, dean of fine arts and composition at MacEwan University and a prolific composer and arranger. His base of operation is classical music, but his experience as a jazz trumpeter has allowed him to write and perform in many music genres for both small and large ensembles. When I spoke to him, his recent musical adventures included the scoring for the Edmonton Citadel Theatre's production of Sense and Sensibility and a new orchestral composition for jazz legends Tommy Banks and PJ Perry for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's 2017-2018 season.

Typically, Gilliland says, an arranger works with someone else's melody. The arranger must do, as Gilliland says, "everything else." This "everything else" includes scoring for the instruments in an ensemble, harmonization, bridging, transposition, and countermelody.  One form of arrangement popular in jazz is contrafact: the use of chord progressions, rather than melody, from someone else's composition. An arranger in contrafact thus creates the new melody over the chords.Thus George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" has lent its chords to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker's "Anthropology" and to Django Reinhardt's "Daphne."

Gilliland says that some "famous and great arrangements" have not received the respect they deserve because of the music industry's greater valuation of original composition. Arrangers are paid through fee for service. Unlike composers, arrangers tend not to get royalties, since only melodies can be copyrighted. Gilliland gave the example of Gil Evans, whose collaborations with Miles Davis are legendary. Also legendary is the fact that Evans received no royalties from the success of those collaborations. (Read Stephanie Stein Crease's biography of Gil Evans to find out more.)

In the case of contrafact, chord progressions cannot be copyrighted in American law, so a musician can generate a copyrightable melody over an uncopyrightable chord progression. The contrafactual arrangement, therefore, lies in a tender zone at the interstices of copyright law and the emulation of other musicians.

Gilliland says that the diminished status of arrangers is unfair because they are doing "really creative work." Jazz and big band in particular use arrangements heavily, so these genres lean on the labour and ingenuity of arrangers.

Gilliland  both composes and arranges, and he says the creative act is present in both. For arrangement, he says that creativity feels different, more "bound" to the originating melody. He agrees that there can be a "clash of creativity" between the original work and the arranger's desire to interpret that work through instrumentation and scoring. Some song standards have been arranged countless times, so the challenge is to make an arrangement that stands out from others. Gilliland says that some arrangers will ask themselves, "What can I do that people won''t expect?" Some arrangements, for example, are "deconstructions," such that the original has been dispersed in complex ways into the arrangement. Compare, for example, Dave Ballou's arrangement of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington's "Smada" to a recording of the original.

Or compare a standard version of "O Canada" with Gilliland's arrangement.

Sunday, 2 April 2017


As part of my novelty agenda for this year, I plan to be a busker for a day. Why a busker? I was walking around doing chores and thinking of novelty ideas. All kinds of strange thoughts enter my head when I am desperate for ideas, as I often am. The word busker surfaced, and I had to admit that, yes, I have never busked before. No way around it.

Other ideas I generate I can eliminate because they cost too much money to arrange (go to Easter Island, buy a horse), or I can see no reasonable route to accomplishing  the novelty (compete in the Olympics, become an inventor), or I just don't want to do it (yell at a rude person I meet in public, rob a bank). Busking for one day, though, I could not handily dismiss.

I can more or less play a piano accordion, so I plan one day this summer to go outside to a street corner and play. All my work in coming up with a repertoire of songs got me thinking around music arrangements. I want to do one or two new songs to supplement my existing collection of accordion music, which is dominated by classical music, folk tunes and American jazz standards. Has someone out there, for example, arranged "Hotline Bling" for piano accordion? (Yes, of course.)  If so, where can I find the sheet music?

From this speculation, I asked myself, What kind of person would be in the business of arranging Drake songs to publish as accordion sheet music, or as sheet music for any other instrument, for that matter?

I need to investigate.