When I recorded this celebrated English traditional carol for the Christmas album Hope from on High in 2008, I took advantage of the studio setting to develop it into a creatively enhanced ensemble work, changing keys and lead instruments and rhythms and moods --- on hammered dulcimer, guitar, bowed psaltery, bamboo flute, silver flute, etc. --- to have it develop in the form of the action story of which the words tell.
In retrospect, why did I feel the need to do it that way? Well, perhaps I intuitively was concerned that the beautiful, fetching folk melody, though quite lyrical, has a lot of repetitious features, and as an instrumental it would benefit from special treatment, rather than merely being played as a tune.
Recently I’ve had the desire to play this piece on solo hammered dulcimer and have had to consider how to treat it in a special way in this new live setting. An informal video of the result is below.
Here are some of the thoughts that went into the current version:
- Make a sequence that serves as an introduction, interlude, and coda. In this case I chose to fulfill a minor dream: to progress upward through the entire series of chords built from the scale! That is, the I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii- chords, all in a row. (G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#dim.)
- Over the sequence would be the members of the G chord (the tonic of the key of G) one at a time, so the left hand’s single note interplays with the continually shifting harmonies of the right --- in the intro it’s a G, after the first verse it’s a B, and after the second verse it’s a D --- then in the coda the B and G alternate (I thought of this one as I was playing for the video!) then move up to the D and walk to a final high G.
- Change the meter from ¾ to 4/4 to allow for a traveling kind of motion that can be interpreted in an expressive contemporary mood.
- Syncopate a good bit with the melody part in the left hand, so 1) it’s easier to play as the two hands cooperate for the overall effect (that is, since my hands have learned well how to function as a duet); and 2) to create an especially grateful mood.
- Use intriguing chord structures, and build them to a certain extent from a walking bass line described by the first note of each right-hand triad. Somehow, for example, it just sounds really nice to have many of the repetitious phrases end with the melody notes G-D-C over the Am chord that contains neither of the main melody notes!
- Stick fairly close to the melody the first time around, with a few personal tweaks --- but the second time, purposely improvise upward away from the melody as a sort of emotional response to it. (See my blog entry ‘Excelsior’ for more on the upward idea.)
- For the third verse carefully slow down into a tenderly contemplative mood, and let that lead into a coda that is a moderate finale in effect.
- In this arrangement, stay in the same key throughout; rather than create interest through key changes, use the steady narrative of the interludes and verse variations to propel forward through an emotional logic.
Perhaps in your own arranging of tunes some of these concepts can be adapted for appropriate effect.