- A Cappella Reinterpretations
A journey through vocal arrangement innovation
- My freshman year of college, I joined the UC Men's Octet, UC Berkeley's premier all-male a cappella group and (at the time) the only group to hold two national a cappella championships. Being a part of the Octet has had a profound effect on my life, and in particular, on my style of creativity. While the Octet is just an a cappella group at the end of the day, I attribute a lot of my creative development to my time in it. As a group that prides itself in its innovative performance, as a novice arranger, there was a lot of pressure to be creative with how I interpreted music for voice. Here I have put together a chronologically-ordered anthology of my arrangements I made while in the Octet and after I left.
As this page is primarily dedicated to documenting my thought process in creatively arranging a cappella music, it is important to briefly delve into how exactly I make each arrangement.
This first video is of the Octet us performing Smash Mouth's version of "I'm a Believer" for our Spring Showcase (I'm the guy in the middle who leads the crowd in doing the wave), and its also the first arrangement I ever made.
- Conception: The first step for every arrangement I do is to sit down with the original song and think of how I want the arrangement to sound. I ask myself a number of questions as I listen. Do I want it to have the same feel as the original song or am I creating something new? What is the essence of the song - what parts are important to maintain the identity of the song and what parts are superfluous? How can I add to the song to make it better? How will the arrangement interact with the soloist and choreography?
- Creation: This is the part where I begin to get my hands dirty. I typically load the song into recording software like Garageband and sing over parts of it that I had ideas for. I start with the parts that I want to really stand out from the rest of the song, then work on transitional parts. Throughout this process, I go through multiple iterations of each section, informed by my answers to the questions I asked before this step as well as my new perspective on these questions now that I have started actually arranging.
- Implementation: After coming up with ideas for all or most of the sections of the song, I open up a new document and write down the actual musical notation for the entire song. I then import the music back into Garageband and layer recordings of myself singing each part until I have an mp3 file of the final arrangement.
- Before I delve into the details of this arrangement, it is important to note that the Octet does not do vocal percussion (beat boxing) - it is actually written explicitly in our bylaws that we can't! As a result, every arrangement must be of a certain style such that a need for vocal percussion is never felt.While I do believe that this arrangement successfully jumped this hurdle, it does succumb to the problems of first arrangements: awkward jumps, open chords, and less imaginative syllables and vowels. On a more positive note, despite the fact that this was my first arrangement, it is one of my most popular due to fun bit parts strewn throughout the song.I decided to do the wave with the audience at this part (1:41) because 'instrumental' breaks in a cappella are really boring and awkward for audiences to sit through. Additionally, audiences like to feel engaged in a performance. From my experiences at baseball games, there is no better way of engaging an audience than making them do the wave - I know it was my favorite part of going to a game.I also threw in a little unexpected sexual innuendo to break up the PG atmosphere of the song. At 2:03, the group sings "oh how I was soaking wet" then lets out a nice moan. This combined with the imagery of all eight of us tearing off our clothes or rubbing our chests all in the span of only a few seconds makes for a pretty funny moment. Sex always sells, but only if its subtle. The audience will get tired or put off if you are (too) sexual too often - I've seen this happen with a number of a cappella groups.People like/want what they can't have (easily). So showing a little ass goes a long way for comedy, but only if done in moderation such that the audience doesn't expect it.On that note, the next video is of us performing "Jizz in My Pants" by the Lonely Island Boys at the same show. Another relevant rule of sex comedy is that being overly proper when talking about sex is also pretty hilarious. This arrangement was my layman's attempt at a classical piece. Check it out.
- If you haven't heard this song before, it is a rap with relatively few harmonies in the background music. As a result, I had to come up with melodies and harmonies from scratch. The aim, which I think was achieved at least in part, was to be overdramatic about everything. I imagined a bunch of thirteenth-century friars singing about the coming of Satan, except rather than the coming of Satan, the coming of... well, you get the picture.
One of my favorite parts of this arrangement begins with the sinister singing of "la la la..." over the main melody (1:14). I think it adds an air of creepiness before we take it to the next level a few bars later with a good-ol' four-part fugue. As someone with relatively no classical training, I couldn't write this part according to formal rules of writing fugue. I just had to wing it and write it as I heard it.This next arrangement of "Down" by Jay Sean mixed with "Forever" by Chris Brown was initially for our Fall Showcase, but ended up being used in our competition set.
- This was the first time I mixed two songs, which for most a cappella groups consists of singing through part of one song, then part of the other song, then layering the two on top of each other at the end. While I did end up layering Down and Forever at the end of the arrangement, I tried especially hard to be innovative and intelligent about how I mixed them before that.
I wait about a minute to introduce Forever because I wanted to give the audience enough time to get 'attached' to Down so that Forever would come as a surprise and future injections of Down would be welcome. When Forever begins, Isaac sings a few lines from Down over everything to show the thematic similarity between the two songs. Phrases like "we'll go up to the sky and never come down" mixed in with "I'm gonna take you there" don't seem out of place and are rather complimentary to the overarching theme of running away with a loved one.
At 1:56, I think the creativity really comes through. At this part the group splits into eight unique parts consisting of a three-person chord, syncopation between a bass and a baritone, a fugue-like intertwining of the melody that Albert sang alone initially and a first tenor counter to it, as well as Geoff's baritone solo of the bridge from Forever, which is the only part that is actually in either song.
I did this next arrangement of "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor for the Golden Overtones, our all-female counterparts on campus. This is also the first example of the the mp3 arrangement methodology I use.
- I don't know if I consider this arrangement to be especially innovative. Due to the nature of the song and the fact that I was arranging for a group other than my own, I limited myself in how much artistic license I took. I do think the second verse (1:48) is a pretty unique spin on what would have otherwise been a pretty boring part. I chose to accent certain parts of the solo with the arrangement here as well as in other parts of the song to provide a sort of frame of the solo so the group sounds a little more cohesive with the soloist.This was particularly difficult to arrange because, as I said earlier, it was for an all-female a cappella group. This made it so I had to keep the bass high enough so it could be heard, but not too high as to not provide a strong foundation for the chord. Also, a typical pitfall of arrangers of music with female vocalists is that they give them ridiculously high parts. It isn't that the girls cannot sing these parts, its that girls sound annoyingly screechy when singing in that range.This next song is an arrangement I did of "Hey There Delilah" by the Plain White T's I did as a sample to demonstrate a point:Every song has infinite possibilities and that a song's potential should not be judged on the sound of the original song but rather the song itself.
- The original song performed by the Plain White T's feels like it is moving due to the steady up-tempo quarter notes being played on guitar. I proposed this song to the Octet, and was quickly shot down due to the fact that the original song just doesn't have that much depth or dynamics.In general, people are afraid to be creative. Stepping outside the box to try something new is really risky, but that is the only way real progress is made.This is true of a lot of a cappella arrangers. Many find the ability to sound EXACTLY like the original song, but without instruments, the most thrilling part of a cappella music. I couldn't disagree more. A cappella is about searching for new meaning in music and finding unique ways to express it. This is what makes a cappella creative rather than computerized.On the topic of taking creatively enhancing previously crappy songs. Below is an arrangement I did of the song "Crawl" by Chris Brown.
- This song is one of the most repetitive songs I've ever heard. It essentially builds up for the entire song without any sort of release. Regardless, Albert really wanted to sing it for our spring show, so I gave the arrangement a shot. I think that this is one of the coolest arrangements I've done. While there is no point that I would like to draw attention to in particular, I think the fact that the arrangement builds on itself as it goes on is pretty neat. It starts with nothing but the solo in the beginning, then has some intertwining parts and bells toward the middle, and finally ends with some strong block chords, none of which existed in the original song.Ironically, I would attribute the uniqueness of the arrangement to how boring the song was originally. The more uninteresting a song is, the more I am forced to be creative with arranging it. If you compare this arrangement to another one that is based off a less-boring original song, you might be able to see this. For example, the next arrangement is "Ladies' Choice" from the movie version of Hairspray.Also, that's me singing the solo!
- Because the song already fit the Octet style well and had a lot of dynamics and fun vocal parts built in, I didn't need to do as much creative thinking for it. What I did do, as I usually do for these kinds of songs (see I'm a Believer), was add bit parts. One of the best parts about the Octet is its sense of humor. You can expect two things from the Octet: first to be musically on point, and second to be hilarious. There was no way I was going to get up and sing about how much of a ladies' man I am without throwing in some humor. This song has everything from manly grunts to girly voices, to a quote from "The One that I Want" from Grease.This next song is a little bit more serious, but still ended up being pretty fun. It's a medley of"Break Your Heart" and "Dynamite" by Taio Cruz and "In My Head" by Jason Derulo.
- Here the emphasis was originally on the story-line of the song. There were originally only supposed to be three soloists. The idea is that they are all trying to persuade the girl they are singing to to be with them and not the other two guys. The Octet I arranged this for ended up deciding that they wanted to include more people on the solos, so they nixed the story idea, but kept the arrangement's flow through each song.
Another important thing to note about this arrangement is that in arranging it, I took a lot of advice from others. I got ideas for some of the parts from other arrangements of the songs on YouTube, and it was the Octet that came up with the really cool slide at 3:16. This would be a good time to make an important note about the creative process.
Something you can create on your own does is never as great as something you create with help of others.On that note, none of these arrangements would have been possible without the Octet. I have learned so much from the group as a whole as well as each individual member old and new.
- These are only a small sample of the arrangements that I have done over the past few years. Please contact me if you are interested in hearing any of the following:
- She Bangs by Ricky Martin
- This Magic Moment by the Drifters
- That Thing You Do by the Wonders
- Ali Maula by Nusrat
- All of the Lights by Kanye West / Fanaa by Chama Chamke
- Desi Girl by Dostana
- Cyclone by Baby Bash
- Stand by Me by Prince Royce / Beautiful Girls by Sean Kingston
- Heartless by Kanye West (interpretation by Kris Allen)
- We're So Starving and Nine in the Afternoon by Panic at the Disco
- Sugar Pie Honey Bunch by the Four Tops
- Little Surfer Girl by the Beach Boys
Party Rock Anthem/I Hate Luv Stories by LMFAO and I Hate Luv Stories
What Makes You Beautiful/Gangam Style by One Dey irection and Psy
Electronic Music Medley by Avicii, Deadmau5, Ellie Goulding, Flux Pavillion
Good Life / Adhoore by OneRepublic and Adhoore
Sweet Dreams by Beyonce
Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5