Mixed Collegiate Arrangement: All of the Feelings!
It’s all about communication.
When it comes to arranging, I appreciate technical wizardry as much as the next music theory nerd. But you have to engage me emotionally. That’s what it’s all about. All the substitutions, clever bell chords, and nifty groove change ups have about as much value to me as the world largest cubic zirconia, unless they’re being utilized in service of an arc that makes me feel something. Excitement, happiness, sadness, wonder, anger…doesn’t matter what it is, but it’s gotta be something!
I’m impressed by this category, because all of these arrangements succeed at that goal on some level. However, none does so quite as spectacularly as We Found Love (Chris Rishel). Holy cow, what an arrangement.
I think my single favorite thing about this chart is that it doesn’t exclusively play with melody and harmony; it plays with time as well. Often it does so in very meaningful ways. Think about it – when you have a conversation with someone, do you speak at an even tempo? Do you take the exact same amount of time at the end of each sentence before beginning your next thought? If so, you’re probably a robot (and let me be the first to congratulate you on gaining consciousness and an interest in music. I’m sure you’ll find it incredibly hard to quantify).
No. Music, like speech, often needs to ebb and flow. Not always, of course. Sometimes you want to lock into a metronomic groove. However, when you’ve got a message this powerful to convey, you’ve got to take your time. Voices does, and it’s stunning.
In arranging, arrival points are crucial. You know what I mean, even if you’re not an arranger. You can feel it. Those moments, both big and small, where the arrangement makes a point, highlights something for you, then gives you the time you need to digest. My favorite in “We Found Love” is the epic slide at :45, where the voices begin in the low register and wind up on a beautiful, crystalline chord way up high.
The Ballad of Mona Lisa (Nurita Abramowitz) has one such moment that is excellent in its own right, though totally different than the “Love” slide. The sudden switch to the unison at 1:28 is an awesome technical idea that just seems to fit the overall creepy flavor of the song. It’s actually one of my favorite moments from any of the nominees.
What weighs this arrangement down the most is the use of old school syllables that distract the ear (“dow,” for example). These syllables get the job done…but not as gracefully as they might. Certainly not as gracefully as the choices used in some of the other nominated arrangements.
On the topic of grace, I would be remiss not to mention the agile use of texture and dissonance in All My Mistakes (Will Kazda). There are some very sweet, understated textures happen throughout that allow space for the vulnerability of the soloist to come though. It’s a great approach to this song, from a narrative standpoint.
I also appreciate the evolution of this arrangement. The sound opens up, both in terms of range and the vowels used, at perfect moments. There’s also great use of the number of voices in play during certain sections – with singers dropping off from unison notes so that the sound changes character as it’s held. It’s all really effective and cool.
“Mistakes” may be the thinnest, most nimble arrangement in the bunch, and on the other end of the spectrum we have Give Me Love (Shams Ahmed). The production on this track is a little bottom heavy, which I think exacerbates some of the already low-heavy decisions in the arrangement (such as the decision to stack low 3rds at 2:58).
What I like most about this arrangement is the size of the choruses. The stacked harmonies above the lead are great (and just as a quick sidebar – I really like this lead a lot. Neither here nor there with respect to the arrangement, but worthy of note!). Each chorus hits really well, and the group somehow finds a way to up the ante for the final chorus by holding a big pad of vocals out over the first bar (I actually wish this pad lasted longer).
Overall though, this arrangement is just a little too dense for me in a way that never lets up. At times it works well – feeling earthy and almost chant like – but at other times I start to crave a little space and clarity to contrast with the bigger, heavier moments.
Not every arrangement needs to completely re-interpret the style of the original to be successful, but it’s certainly a way to make your work stand out as more compositional than transcriptive. Again, big points to Rishel’s take on “We Found Love,” re-imagining what was once a four-on-the-floor dance tune and turning its focus to the narrative of the lyrics.
This approach isn’t always inherently a good idea though – I find it less effective in Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promises (Matt Deitchman). Actually, to be honest, what bothers me most about this track is the exactness with which the singers deliver each line. It’s almost like a parody of choir singing, with each consonant so earnestly and exactly place. To my ear, it’s at odds with the sincerity of the message of the song, and it takes me out of the arc of the piece.
I try to divorce performance from arrangement as much as I can when I’m specifically analyzing arranging, but in this case I think the performance is relevant because the arrangement invites this over-exactness. Perhaps it’s not inherent, but it is a consideration when thinking about the way the song should be presented. If you know your group is prone to going over the top with choral diction, then maybe a choral setting isn’t the way to go with a song that’s almost folk-y at heart. Seriously, I can’t handle the line “I’m frightened by those that don’t see it” when every ‘t’ is so perfectly enunciated.
I don’t mean to be unduly harsh here – this arrangement is definitely solid from a mechanics standpoint, some of the voice leading is actually very artful. There are a lot of nice moments that I just think would land so much better if they were a little more relaxed.
Many of this year’s nominees are arrangements that draw from heavy source material. For one that’s pure fun, let’s look at Sparkling Diamonds (Mark Lee). This arrangement is rhythmically energetic in a way that I imagine would be really fun to watch live. The “Material Girl” interpolation is cute. I usually can’t stand that stuff, but this one gets a pass because it’s just so much fun!
I also really like the changes in vocal tone from the upper voices in this tune. It reminds me of one of my favorite tracks of all time: “You Can’t Stop Me” by Rajaton, where the singers shift vocal tones to provide contrast in the arrangement. The most memorable moment from “Diamonds” is the “ba dow” figure at :38. Again, just really fun stuff.
All that said though, nothing quite covers all the bases like “We Found Love.” It’s the perfectly blend of technical artistry used to enhance emotional storytelling. Can’t ask for much more than that!
Winner – We Found Love (Chris Rishel)
Runner Up – All My Mistakes (Will Kazda)
I’d like to see “All My Mistakes” recognized. Kazda uses a lot of really subtle, creative techniques throughout that give the solo the space he needs to communicate. That’s really crucial in a song like this, and hard to do!
Kudos to all the nominees in this category! It was one of my favorites this year.