This week I wrote an arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” for an Irish saxophone quartet. One of my favourite parts of writing an arrangement of a well-known melody is the chance to re-harmonize it but House of the Rising Sun presents an unusual challenge because the chord progression is as well known as the melody. Changing the chords therefore changes an important part of the song. The challenge for me as an arranger was what could I do to make the song sound fresh without changing what everyone likes about it? I’d like to share some of my thoughts from the process.
My solution was to begin and end the song with new and unexpected material while leaving the main melody and chord sequence unchanged (OK, there were a few embellishments). For my introduction, I stretched the lengths of some chords and shortened others to extend the 16-bar form to a 20-bar introduction. This introduction avoids the original melody and rhythmic pattern. Instead the melody descends while outlining a guide tone line for 13 bars and then quickly ascends for the last 7 bars. Using an odd number of bars (13 + 7) causes a little tension, so does the ascending melody that leads us to the moment where the famous melody and chord sequence begins. The overall effect is a buildup in which the listener senses that something familiar is coming soon, they have been given hints, but what and when are still a surprise.
Arranging the ending
After the final phrase (“And Lord, I know, I’m one”), I decided to take that snippet of melody and move it through a few keys in some clever fashion before settling on the tonic chord. I sat down at a piano and tried different things out in an attempt to be clever and was led in several different directions of endless possibilities. Sitting at a piano and trying different possibilities is great for learning/experimenting, but from my standpoint as a professional arranger, I was wasting time. I decided to just trust my instinct. I sang a descending melody that was in my head and I wrote it down (ex.1).
I now had the two things that I needed, a melody and the exact distance between where I was (the Ami7 chord) and where I need to go (the last note of the song). Using the last chord as a target, I worked backwards and put my melody through a trip of different keys via the circle of 5ths.
I specifically made the melody notes tensions in each of the chords (i.e. not the root, third or fifth). The melody notes appear as #9 and 13 through most of the chords. My reason for doing this was to provide contrast with the majority of the song, which highlights the basic chord tones (root, third & fifth) in the melody. I first became aware of this technique when I was learning to play the Gershwin standard, A Foggy Day. Gershwin used common chord tones throughout the song when the lyrics describe how dull life was. Then when the lyrics say: “Then suddenly I saw you there!”, the melody reflects the excitement by using the colourful tension notes in the chords while also doubling the amount of chord changes in each bar. I borrowed an idea from Gershwin and put the 9ths and 13ths in the final few bars to add refreshing new colours.
Adding harmony lines
After writing down my melody and chords, I filled in the harmony parts by added the descending 3rds and 7ths of the chords below the melody.
Adding a bass line
After after adding the middle parts, I added a simple bass line to emphasise (“drive home” in arranger parlance) the roots of the chords without detracting from the melody and harmony lines. Usually I would write the bass line before the harmony parts, but I was hearing strong harmony lines and went with my musical instinct.
Lastly, I added some dynamics and a finishing unison phrase that was used in the very start of the song. I felt that referring back to an earlier melody that I wrote was a great way to finish my my personal stamp on the song.
This was a very brief look at a few bars of music that I arranged for a saxophone quartet. The Blue Monk Quartet in Ireland kindly agreed to perform and record the examples in this blog post. If you have any thoughts, questions or suggestions for me, please leave a comment below.