Arrangement for INC Choir - Video and Notes

Last July, we had the opportunity to provide music for the Iglesia Ni Cristo’s 95th Anniversary. FILharmoniKA plus some friends and reinforcements. It was a wonderful night and I had a great time writing arrangements for the praise songs.

I’d like to feature here one of my arrangements for the 95th Anniversary. “Mga Alipin Sa Malayong Silangan” (Servants from the Far East) was composed by the National Artist, Lucio San Pedro. The Tabernacle choir already had their own arrangement of the song, and my task was to write the orchestra part to accompany the choir.

Here is a video of the song: (please wait for it to buffer first and then scroll to the 1:00 mark)’

Alipin Sa Malayong Silangan

So how do I tackle an assignment such as this? I’ve tried many methods, but here’s a simplified and generalized workflow that I use a lot:
1. First, internalize the material given. Take into account not just the melody, but the lyrics as well. What is the message? Who is the audience? In this case, the material is a song of praise to the Lord God. From internalizing the material, I can get a good overview of the outline of the arrangement already. If the line goes “Praise Him, Praise Him,” repeatedly, then that will probably be a majestic section. (Unless the client or artist specifically calls for a more intimate or tender treatment). On the other hand, the verses where the song seems to be narrating a story seem to call for more subdued devices. More on that later...

A side note on internalizing a given song: If I have been given an audio file of a song to rearrange (meaning there is already an existing arrangement) and I am required to make a completely new and original arrangement, I usually don’t like spending much time listening to the old arrangement. Instead, I play the audio file a few times, notate the melody on paper or software, and work on it from there. The reason for this is I find I’m freer to think of new environments for the song in question when I’m not too familiar with the old arrangements. But for songs that I’ve heard hundreds of times prior to rearranging them, well, that’s a story for another blog post...

2. Make a rough outline or sketch of the arrangement. Following my notes from the previous step (e.g. where I determine the peaks and valleys of the songs to be roughly located), I do a quick sketch of the arrangement. I like doing this step on a condensed score staff paper, with the melody written out in one of the staves. This way, I don’t need to flesh out everything at once. It gives me free rein to jot down contrapuntal lines that come to mind, not necessarily fully orchestrated at this point. If the song/melody is the FOREGROUND, here now the PRIMARY BACKGROUND begins to take shape. Lines or blocks of music which support and enhance the melody. The BACKGROUND usually consists of many levels. Also, the foreground and background usually shift from one instrument or instrument group to another. And instead of writing out the full orchestration, I can just specify here, “string pads” or “horn beds” or “majestic brasses”, something along those lines.

For this song, if the section called out for a majestic treatment (such as the repeated “Praise Him, Praise HIm”, or Purihin, Purihin) I’ve put in trumpets, trombones, horns, cymbals and drums.

3. After the rough sketch, I flesh out and fill in the details using notation software. Here is possibly the most tedious part of the orchestration process, but it also can be the easiest in terms of need for ideas - since I have already plotted out the whole song in a sketch. I already have the major counterpoints in place, the accompanying devices, and the only thing left now is to decide (with more detail) what instrument gets to play what. Here is where I decide how many string parts are needed for a particular section, or how I will voice them.

Here is also the stage where I still tend to consult orchestration books. Sometimes I forget about the ideal ranges of instruments, especially if I’ve not written for them for quite sometime. (Of course, the consulting part is skipped when I’m really in a hurry - and I just tend to go with the stuff I know instead of trying out new things).

Many times, stages two and three overlap. Sometimes I like to do sketches up to three sections, and then if I’m running out of ideas, I try to flesh out the sketch. And then, from that fleshing-out, I get more ideas for the remaining sections. I also use the playback function of the software here, but only to check for errors, and also to get a general overview of how the piece is coming out.

4. Lastly, I play back the arrangement on the software, and try to revise. Sometimes I need to erase certain parts, in order to lend more clarity to the arrangement, and also to make the “big” parts stand out more. For instance, if I find that one of the sections is a really busy one in terms of accompaniment, I would delete notes from the previous section in order to not overcrowd the melody. I’m still of the school of thought in music where the main melody is the main feature of the arrangement.. All else is written to enhance, clarify, and solidify the message. This does not mean that arrangements should be oversimplified. My most favorite arrangements are those that have the depth and complexity, but they feature the melody so well, that it can only be magic.

Also, check out Gerard Salonga’s arrangement of Sumilang Na, which has become one of my most favorite arrangements for the year. Been also studying the score for this one.

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