Iain Farrington, the unsung star of CLS’s CLoSer concert with Sam Lee, made quite an appearance without actually stepping foot on stage. Perhaps when I tell you he’s a composer and arranger, that might actually make a lot more sense. He’s also got a phenomenal performing career as a pianist (check him out playing at the London Olympics with the LSO).
On Thursday 17 November, Folk song collector Sam Lee sang songs from his Mercury Prize nominated album Grounds Of Its Own, and The Fade In Time, but in a way he’s never sung them before—with an orchestra—thanks to the genius of Iain Farrington, whose busy and diverse career has led him to arrange for a wide range of styles like traditional African songs, Berlin cabaret, folk, klezmer, jazz and pop, to name just a few.
For this concert, Iain arranged 8 songs of Sam Lee’s, turning folk music for a relatively small ensemble of 6 musicians into a large scale orchestral work for 36. If you’re doing the maths, you’d think an arranger could just give sextuples of six different parts and call it a day.
But Iain didn’t.
He wants to bring live music to as wide an audience possible (CLS does too!), and whether you love classical music and don’t know much about folk, or visa versa, Iain’s arrangements of Sam’s songs take you to the ‘other side’.
- How do you even start to go about arranging Sam’s folk songs with 5-6 players and then making that work for an orchestra of 36 musicians?
It’s not just the fact that Sam Lee’s band is a folk collective, but the instruments they use are not necessarily orchestral instruments (e.g. banjo, ukulele, koto, hang drums, violin, cello, trumpet, percussion, double bass). When you listen to how they play, it’s relatively free and semi-improvised. They’ve worked out a sound specific to that group.
I’ve kept the original harmony and structure and some harmonic phrases, but because of the bigger orchestra, I’ve redesigned the songs to work orchestrally whilst still retaining the sound of Sam Lee’s musicians. Some songs lend themselves to orchestra, others are lighter, and one had to be rewritten (Lovely Molly) which is choral. New harmonies and solos from several instruments will be bringing out the text. The hammer dulcimer will feature and improvise, bringing out the element of complete freedom, which is important to have when you’re crossing these worlds.
The biggest challenge for these songs is down to the fact that Sam’s is a song collector. He’s collected songs from different places and people, who often sing unaccompanied, wonderfully free, with tempos that are flexible and highly expressive and not wedded to any regular rhythmic accompaniment in quite a number of his songs. Small bands find this easier because you follow the lead singer, but in an orchestra this is more difficult. I wanted to retain the freedom that allows Sam to be flexible.
- How important is the text to the songs when you’re putting an arrangement together?
I’ve taken the text as the be all and end all. The words are illustrative of nature, landscapes, birdsong, ideas of town and country, love and marriage. Sam’s versions are cutting edge, not saccharine, with an immediacy and appealing grit to the sound. It’s not lush or romantic, and likewise I wanted to avoid that sentimentality. Folk songs for larger ensembles run the risk of sounding too fattened up, too rich, leaving none of the grit left. I wanted to retain that element of raw clarity.
- Why did you choose to arrange 8 of Sam’s songs?
I wanted to make sure there was enough variety. It’s easy to do one type of arrangement, but I wanted enough contrast. Orchestral arrangements can be dull when adapting pop music, for example, which uses loud guitars and drums, where a string section might only play chords, with a jab from the brass, a trill from the winds. I think if you’re going to be working with an orchestra, you have to write for the musicians properly. Be exploratory. Try and make things interesting for both the audience and the musicians themselves. The orchestra isn’t the background but in the foreground.
About Iain Farrington
Iain Farrington has an exceptionally busy and diverse career as a pianist, organist, composer and arranger. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at Cambridge University. He has made numerous recordings, and has broadcast on BBC Television, Classic FM and BBC Radio 3. Through his multi-faceted work as a musician, he aims to bring live music to as wide an audience as possible. Iain’s concert programmes often mix popular and jazz elements into the traditional Classical repertoire. His many chamber orchestral arrangements allow large-scale works to be presented on an affordable smaller scale. His biography can be found here.
By Zak Hulstrom