Choosing the right arrangement

Since we started our duet we have always been faced with the small issue of a lack of repertoire. On one hand we could blame ourselves for choosing a rather unique combination of instruments which obviously have not had the history or prestige of the more traditional string quartet or piano trio; but on the other hand we actually quite enjoy the fact we have a limited amount of repertoire, it creates a sense of excitement when we discover a new piece and creates huge amounts of potential for the duo in the eyes of composers and publishers. Sometimes though, we really want to be able to place a well-known piece into our recital, a classic from history which everyone loves. In this case I often turn to arranging.


The first few questions Emily and I ask is which piece do we want to arrange? And why should we arrange?  Choosing the right piece takes some time and the most important part of this process is listening. Whether that’s listening to our favourite pieces and composers or finding a new Spotify playlist and simply shuffling through it and waiting for something to pop out. Sometimes it literally happens that way, we will be listening and thinking maybe this one, this piece may work and then all of a sudden it hits us and we know we have found the right piece. To choose a specific example, the hardest piece I have arranged for the two of us is Saint-Saens famous Danse Macabre. Emily suggested listening to some Saint-Saens and of course this piece was near the top, the minute those violins started with those famous open fifths I knew this piece was perfect. So why arrange this piece? Well, everyone knows it, it has a wonderful story to accompany the piece, there is a lack of long sustained notes (good for both harp and guitar), it is fast energetic and it’s timing would fit very nicely into a concert programme. This is usually how it goes, a triumphant moment of discovering the right piece and then several weeks (or months in the case of Saint-Sean) of arrangement and struggle!  Most recently we listened to Debussy’s Cakewalk (from the children’s corner) and have had a similar excitement with that piece – I now just need get on with it!


Anyone who has arranged a piece of music will tell you that when it comes to arranging for their own instrument (in my case the guitar) a large part of the battle is already won. Without thinking, I know that that 7-note chord is impossible, and this section here is rather easy to play. I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m just saying it’s a lot easier than arranging for the harp… I like to think I’m improving, but I can guarantee that when I take an arrangement or composition to Emily after the first few bars she will already be shouting at me and scribbling all over the page – whoops. The majority of the time though we both enjoy working through an arrangement. For both of us we see each instrument as an extension of our own; in fact when we were recording our first EP we discussed a lot with our technician about making the instruments sound like they were one instrument, tricking the audience into believing they are listening to just one of us when in reality we are both playing. This is something I love to capture in our arrangements, the instruments complement each other wonderfully and writing the instruments as if they were one helps make the performance tighter and therefore more enjoyable. I’m sure many guitarists will join me in agreeing that the guitar can be a limiting instrument at times, whether in dynamics, range, or sustain; what is wonderful about playing with a harp is that it can act as a wonderful extension to the guitar. When arranging or even composing I have a much larger pitch range, I can get more power from our dynamics, a larger collection of tones and together we have a huge list of extended techniques which act as the spices for our arrangements. For instance, In the Saint-Saens I use my thumb knuckle to lightly tap the bridge around the 5th and 6th string to represent a timpani – it works a treat!


I would encourage any musician to have a crack at arranging. In my experience it has taught me so much about the intricacies of the harp, helped with my theory and even assisted in my performance. I hope at some point you get a chance to hear one of our arrangements, we nearly always perform one or two in a concert.


Hoping you are all well and settling into the new working year.


The Cherry Stone Duo