Here’s my version of Little Drummer Boy. The music is stated first on harp: you’ll hear the familiar tune on top and my original bass line below. Next, the music is repeated on harp an octave higher, in such a way that the bass line from before now functions as a middle voice; a new, simple bass line is added below. Finally the music is restated as a trio for toy piano, bass, and timpani.

Here’s my arrangement of Once In Royal David’s City. I debated how much detail to include and ultimately decided to keep things simple. After working out a contrapuntal bass line I considered adding a third voice but couldn’t find a way to do it without stealing attention from the outer voices and making them more difficult to follow. From a harmonic standpoint I felt I didn’t “need” a third voice because I hear fairly simple harmonies in this piece and all the essential harmonic information is already supplied by the outer voices. I felt myself struggling against a preconception that I “should” do something to create a fuller texture but in the end I didn’t see the point. The music is stated twice on piano and then once with bass and celesta. (As a side note, while looking for recorded versions of the tune I came across the Christmas arrangements of Sufjan Stevens and liked them — definitely work listening to).

In this piece I took the recurring four-note motif from Carol of the Bells (which is in fact based on a Ukrainian folk song) and used it as the basis for a two-part canon. My structural concept was to state the motif in every measure, alternating between the upper voice in odd measures and the lower voice in even measures. I started by working entirely in G-minor but found that things got boring quickly so I decided to take the piece through a circle progression of sorts, with a key change every four bars. After I had sketched things out I noticed that the canon ended an octave lower than it started, so I decided to repeat it once from that point, letting the piece descend one more octave before reaching a cadence. The canon is not strict — there is some material around each key change that occurs in one voice but not the other — nevertheless, most of what you hear in the lower voice in any given measure is a repetition of what the top voice stated one measure earlier.

After listening to my original version over and over, I wondered if I could make the lines a bit easier to follow, so I created an alternate version. My main change was to add rhythmic displacement so that the carol motif can always be heard as the single entrance at the beginning of each bar (the other voice is now tied on the first beat). After making this change I listened again many times, trying to focus on one specific element or dimension each time (top voice, bottom voice, carol motif, etc.) and noticing points where I lost track or had trouble following that element. In trying to concentrate entirely on the top line and track it from start to end, I found my ear became confused at certain points where a pattern of descent is broken. At the beginning of the piece, the top voice sets up a pattern of descending every four bars but later it makes some unexpected upward skips necessitated by key changes and range considerations. I tried to smoothen those upward skips with some figuration that hopefully guides the ear and adds a little variety to the texture, and I added a trill at the end to signal the cadence.

Later I realized that my two versions could be spliced together to create a longer piece that contrasts simpler rhythms (first half) with increasingly complex rhythms (second half). Here is that final version:

A little bit of fun with the wassail song. I took the tune and added a bass voice that creates some rhythmic dialogue. The ornamentation at the very beginning was my attempt to create a galloping effect that evokes the movement of the wassailers from door to door.

Bass version:

 

Harp version:

Here’s a first look at In Dulci Jubilo. I say first look because the tune is so beautiful (in a deceptively simple way) and there are so many sublime settings by great composers to take inspiration from, that I really hope to return to this. In the current clip I set the tune in two-voice counterpoint. In writing the counter-melody I found myself tending toward a stricter treatment of dissonance than I had used elsewhere. I also found myself using more similar motion than I often do. I’m usually a bit hesitant to use lots of similar motion in counterpoint, fearing it might spoil the independence of the voices, but what I’ve realized in working with this tune is that you can use lots and lots of similar motion as long as contrary motion occurs in all the “right” places, which is to say it occurs on a macro scale. One way to assure that is to start by writing a skeleton of the contrapuntal line in long note values, making sure the skeletal line has enough contrary motion to preserve the independence of voices; then you can elaborate the skeletal line, bringing in lots of similar motion on a micro scale. In this clip you’ll here the same music repeated three times — first voiced in the lower register of a harp, then repeated on harp an octave higher, and finally presented as a duo including glockenspiel and string bass.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue arranging Christmas carols without at some point addressing Jingle Bells. There are people who have an aversion to all Christmas music, associating it with the superficiality and hyper-commercialization of the season, or else assuming that because it is popular it is probably bad. In my own arranging, I have not taken that stance. With every arrangement I’ve done, I started by hearing something in the tune that I really loved — a reason to work with it for hours on end — and while I’ve tried to give alternate, occasionally humorous perspectives on the tunes, my intention has never been to parody them but always to respect them as good music. Jingle Bells had been one exception in my mind: a tune that I thought I might really hate — whether because of irreconcilable aesthetic differences, or the trauma of overexposure, or both. And so I avoided Jingle Bells and imagined that when I finally got around to arranging it I would need to give it some kind of special treatment, like never actually listening to my score. But today I got to working with Jingle Bells, and the process turned out to be quite fun. In fact, the experience was like working with any other tune. For this one I took a two-voice contrapuntal approach, and enjoyed discovering how the counter-melody could bring new dimension to something so familiar. I worked in C but then transposed my score to G so I could contrast a low statement of the whole piece with one an octave higher. When I transpose scores, the transposed version usually doesn’t sound “out of tune” to me, though I notice differences in register and sonority. In this case, for whatever reason, the G version sounded completely wrong to my ear for some time (that’s to say I couldn’t “interpret” it as sensible music — perhaps I was still trying to hear it in C), but after a period of acclimation I came to like it. Here’s that G version:

And here’s my original version in C — let me know if you have a preference:

This is my harmonization of O Little Town of Bethlehem. I started, as always, by writing a simple bass line for the tune, thinking that I might later develop it into true counter-melody like I had done with my bass line for O Tannenbaum, or else use it as the foundation for an elaborate harmonization, using elements from jazz theory, like I had done with Silent Night. However, as I started exploring possibilities, I found I kept wanting to alter my original bass line and transpose into a higher register to create a brighter, clearer sonority; and as I started experimenting with harmonic options I wound up with a very simple three-part harmonization that seemed “right” to my ear. I made several attempts to elaborate it meaningfully, either extending the chords or adding passing tones to connect successive harmonies, but after struggling in this direction for hours I concluded that nothing I had come up with actually sounded better to me than my simplest version. Perhaps this is a quirk of mine but I’ve always loved it when composers expose harmony in its barest form — there’s something satisfying about listening to a simple, undecorated progression that just makes sense on its own. That preference aside, my undecorated harmonization was sounding a little too sparse as a piano piece so I decided to try different instrumentation, ending up with this arrangement for oboe (playing the tune) and two bassoons (providing the harmony). This might sound like a version you’ve heard before — I’m making no attempt to be “original” here — but it was an important part of my process to start the harmonization from scratch and see where my ear guided me.

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