Arrangement. Reinterpretation. Quodlibet.
Cover. Remix. Mashup.
(And the one I really hate “Putting my own spin on it.” Ffs.)
There are so many ways to describe what is essentially the same thing, probably more than I’ve mentioned above. Musicians will get hung up on semantics, but largely these are just plain silly because for most good artists the intent is the same, to communicate a personal interpretation of somebody else’s work.
I love arranging other people’s music, particularly creating choral arrangements. There’s just something about the focussed unanimity of a chorus, that singularity of purpose expressed simultaneously by a large number of individuals, it has a unique power. Although it requires something of a suspension of belief when choirs start singing in the first person singular, somehow it still manages to work. Crazy but true.
Arranging pop songs for choirs is a particular passion of mine. The choral music market is absolutely awash with pop song arrangements so many of my musician colleagues ask me, why I would bother with such a thing? The answer is this; because I want people to actually hear the words of the songs and realise that many pop songs have genuine and often heartfelt meaning, and the only way I can do it is by doing some extra interpretation for the audience and kinda meeting them halfway…
Let’s take as an example the ABBA song Fernando. For most of us, myself included, the first image that springs to mind are the smiling and squeaky clean ABBA foursome, their faces glowing in the golden light of the campfire, strumming their guitars and swaying and singing a cheesy tune. But ask yourself these questions now - Who was/is Fernando? What did he do? Who did he do it with? How does he feel about the consequences of his actions? I doubt that very many people at all could answer these questions, and they probably don’t think they care to. I think they should care, because it’s actually much better than a silly cheesy tune!
The text of the song was written by Björn Ulvaeus and tells the story of two old men remembering fighting alongside each other in a battle during the 1910 Mexican revolution. Oh em gee, who knew?? I decided to try to communicate through my arrangement both the military might of the battle and the personal nostalgia for the friendship, plus also a teensy bit of humour because, let’s face it, there’s just something inherently silly about ABBA (blame Muriel’s Wedding for that, ABBA fans!).
Military might came in the shape of bugle/horncalls and a drum-like pattern that appears in the piano introduction and coda. The choir joins in the drum pattern with the words “Ra pa pum pum” a la The Little Drummer Boy (there’s the humour!). The nostalgia is represented by a slow tango accompaniment for the chorus “If I had to do the same again, I would my friend, Fernando”.
At it’s first performance, there was immediate laughter for the first few “Ra pa pum pum”s but then a change happened. Rapt silence. I could hear people were listening, with an attentiveness they had probably never given to the song before. Afterwards a friend came up to me and said “Wow Sally, I just realised I’d never really heard that song until tonight”. I couldn’t have asked for a greater compliment.
If you come to my next show The Beatles Unplugged don’t forget to clean your ears out first and I promise to provide you with some fresh, new things to really listen to!