with taste. Steinway Artist Simon Mulligan
Rediscovery. Steinway Artist Jenny Lin
The Path to Rediscovery
Pianists discuss arranging popular song for steinway & sons spirio.
By Ben Finane
STEINWAY & SONS SPIRIO, the world’s finest high resolution player piano, connects the listener with hundreds of performances at the touch of an iPad. The exclusive spirio library is regularly and automatically updated, and features everything from J.S. Bach to Irving Berlin to Billy Joel, unlocking the furthest reaches of a steinway’s expressivity.
Many of the pianists who record popular songs for spirio choose to make their own arrangements for solo steinway, and have arranged everything from Noel Coward to Burt Bacharach to Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, David Bowie and Coldplay. But such a feat is not lightly undertaken.
“I always ask myself,” says steinway artist Simon Mulligan, ‘How would Billy Joel want his song immortalized on a steinway?’ The palette of sound and aural color that can be created on the instrument is unparalleled, and the spirio plays back with unnerving accuracy. For my pop song arrangements, such tonal variety means I can try and squeeze every harmony and nuance from the original recording, without blurring the vocal line, while sometimes adding my own flourishes” — “tastefully, I hope!” he adds with a laugh.
Mulligan has arranged songs for spirio by such diverse artists as Michael Jackson, Adele and Ivor Novello. The goal with each arrangement, he says, is to convince the listener that a great pop song can also be “covered” by a solo piano interpretation without losing any of the song’s feel. “Of course,” Mulligan adds, “I’d want people to sing along, too!”
steinway artist Jenny Lin, who has arranged Chinese and Taiwanese pop songs for spirio, values accessibility and staying faithful to the original tune. Lin agrees with Mulligan: “Everyone should be able to sing along.”
For steinway artist Earl Rose, practical concerns for an arrangement come first.“I first will consider in what key I want to play the song,” he explains. “Usually the song’s sheet music is written in the key of the original hit recording. That is not certain to be the best key for a piano arrangement. By using a different key, I sometimes will find a timbre that brings something to the song that’s new.
“The other consideration is tempo,” Rose continues, “and here I usually let the melody dictate that to me. Since much of my spirio recording is improvised, this can vary should I record more than one take.”
Finally, for Rose, comes the question of alterations. “I alter the original chords all the time,” he says. “It’s a huge part of what I love about arranging for the steinway, which has such a wonderful depth of sound it inspires me to constantly look for voicing and chords that make use of that opportunity.”
For pianist Jed Distler, who has arranged and performed jazz standards for spirio, the familiarity of the song’s melody comes in to play, and how it can best be presented on the piano.
“Choices of texture and register, stylistic approaches — all of these issues are important,” says Distler. “Ultimately, clear melodies and interesting, vibrant pianism are my primary goals when making piano arrangements. Also telling a story: having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not too short, not too long.”
“I always ask myself: ‘how would Billy Joel want his song immortalized on a steinway?’ ”
Some arrangements can present unforeseen challenges. For Simon Mulligan, challenge struck when he was recording songs from Justin Hurwitz’s score to La La Land. “The music has such energy, thanks to a huge studio orchestra and choir backing up the piano and vocal lines,” he explains. “It was frustratingly fun, trying to cover all the notes, while maintaining the groove, especially for the faster songs where you have the melody, brass stabs, a sustaining choir, a two-hundred-beats-per-minute walking bass line, as well as some devilish piano riffs to work around!”
Earl Rose had to get creative with contemporary songs, including Radiohead’s “Exit Music for a Film” and Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” “Theses songs are not keyboard oriented,” he explains, “so it challenges me to think of an approach that feels natural on piano but also relates in some way to the original.”
Some of Jed Distler’s performances of Burt Bacharach songs presented the pianist with a special concern: “I wanted to create a full-bodied, almost orchestral image on the piano,” he explains, “without resorting to empty effects and keeping the melody afloat.”
Creating a spirio arrangement and spending so much time with a piece of music can unsurprisingly lead to a newfound appreciation of a song. For Simon Mulligan, it was Linda Perry’s song “Beautiful,” written for Christina Aguilera. “ ‘Beautiful’ uses bold chromatic harmonies and a strong driving piano line to underly the lyrics,” says Mulligan, “and as such has entered my jazz quartet’s ‘not-considered-jazz’ set list, along with other favorites: Stevie Wonder’s “Same Old Story” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Earl Rose had to reconsider the Fab Four. “I’ve just recorded several Beatles songs (“Here, There And Everywhere,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and several others) for spirio, and I find them so creative and fresh no matter how many times I play them. They allow for many different interpretations, which is wonderful!”
Jed Distler found that some masterpieces don’t need improvement. “Certain standards usually lend themselves to improvisation,” he says. “However, by restricting my improvisatory impulse and focusing upon presenting the melody with varied textures, dynamic levels and register choices, I developed a newfound appreciation for the sheer melodic eloquence of pieces like John Coltrane’s “Naima,” Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” and Duke Ellington’s “Warm Valley.”
For Jenny Lin, spirio arrangements were nothing less than a path to rediscovery. “I rediscovered and have a newfound appreciation for Chinese pop songs,” Lin says. “Now when I travel to Chinese–speaking countries, I can identify pop singers on TV! I was especially happy to have gotten to know Teresa Teng’s songs, perhaps the most famous Taiwanese/Chinese pop singer in the world. Her songs brought back so many childhood memories listening to my grandparents sing them growing up. Teresa Teng songs are always the number-one choice in karaoke bars in Asia.”