The incredible Jo Lawry asked me to write a string arrangement for her song "Taking Pictures," included on her new album by the same name.
Jo was pretty far along in the process of her recording at that point and the track existed in a fairly complete form. The vocals were almost done, the guitar accompaniment was pretty specific, and there were bass and percussion touches that gave the song a shape and pace.
It is always challenging for me to write for an existing track. When tracking is done with all the musicians at the same place and at the same time, players get a chance to react to what their peers are playing - in real time. We play more, less, use different timbers and registers, play softer, louder, all in response to what the other parts are doing. As an arranger, I usually get to set a framework, set the mood and shape and by that help create the environment in which the musicians react and make music. It is a ton of fun, and very rewarding when it works well. When I was a kid, I used to love creating paths for water to stream in - planning little pools and waterfalls, and then pouring water in and seeing how it all works. This aspect of arranging feels the same.
Writing to an existing track is like "reverse engineering" this organic process. I need to really pay attention to what's on the track, and imagine additional lines and textures that will work with and enhance that. I also try to get in the head of the musicians playing the existing parts to make sure the material I add might have elicited the responses that are captured on the recording:
What made the guitar player play a bit louder on that chord?
Should I anticipate that with a Cello line that builds a little bit before that spot?
That sort of thing. (Gil Goldstein speak to this - and other very worthwhile things - on this episode of Leo Sidren's podcast The Third Story).
As I dug in deeper in to Jo's track I was contemplating the "String Arrangement" instruction. I felt it would be really nice to have the warm embrace of a brass ensemble. There's something vaguely European about that sound to me, and something outdoorsy. Like a Christmas Market. Spiced wine. That mood seemed to fit the tune and lyric:
And since I couldn’t find the words to say
I booked a window and an aisle
I hoped we’d find the key in Paris
And I could take some pictures of Mona Lisa’s smile
I suggested it to Jo and she very trustingly allowed me to go down that path.
So I started writing for 3 Euphoniums and a tuba. I got to know the Euphonium (and it's cousin the Baritone Horn) during my army service in the IDF orchestra. I made it a habit to practice writing for different instrument "choirs" to get to know them. The IDF orchestra had something like 11 clarinet players, 6 or 8 trombones (some doubling on Euphonium) and 3 or 4 Euphonium players, so there was plenty of brass to choose from. I arranged "When You Wish Upon a Star" for 6 Euphoniums and tuba, and rehearsed it at the army base. I loved the sound, especially the upper register which is intense but still pretty sweet and warm.
I added some violins and cellos to that, and a bit of Celeste - and I'm very happy with the result.
Jo's album is spectacular; great song-writing, fierce performances and overall shape and pace that really draws you in. I'm so happy to be a part of it.
Check it out here: