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Interview: Chris Rishel

By Nicholas Wright | April 26, 2014


We at RARB have been intrigued by Chris Rishel's unique approach to arranging since we reviewed I Used to Live Alone, the breakout 2011 album from UChicago's Voices in Your Head. The album was a breakout for Rishel as well; in addition to arranging the entire album, he also contributed music for three original songs. Rishel's arrangements have since garnered numerous awards, including Outstanding Arrangement at back-to-back midwest ICCA quarterfinals in 2011 and 2012 and back-to-back CARAs in 2012 and 2013 for Best Mixed Collegiate Arrangement. So we were understandably excited when he recently agreed to share the specifics of his technical and creativity approaches with us.

RARB: I understand that part of your early musical development involved barbershop singing. Can you elaborate on how barbershop has influenced your arranging style?

Chris Rishel: I gained a lot from my early exposure to barbershop, but I’d say the most important aspect was an appreciation for the awesomeness of a well-tuned ringing chord. Beyond that, singing and analyzing great barbershop arrangements also helped me develop good instincts regarding the unique features of a vocal ensemble as a polyphonic instrument (every musical instrument has a distinct timbre which lends itself to specific applications). For example, certain chords played on the piano sound nicely balanced and clear, but when sung, are muddy and incongruous (e.g. many low-voiced 3rds, particularly in close voicing).

Additionally, good barbershop also does a wonderful job of creating an emotional arc, particularly using dynamics and range to great effect. However, a criticism of the barbershop style is that its technically constrained framework limits song selection and the arranging approach in many ways, and ultimately, doesn’t use the incredible flexibility of the human voice to its full potential. Interestingly enough, I think learning many of the arranging techniques of how such moving music could still be created so effectively given the restrictive rules gave me a great foundation. When I moved to the less restricted world of modern a cappella, basically anything I could think of could be tried, if not done.

RARB: Will you ever return to barbershop?

CR: I will almost certainly return to barbershop at some point, since I really love singing it (to the point that I shelled out the cost of a lifetime membership to the Barbershop Harmony Society), though I think I would find it pretty challenging to arrange well within that framework now that the I’ve become accustomed to working without restrictions.

RARB: Any suggestions of barbershop arrangers to study?

CR: If you’re interested in some examples of great barbershop arranging, check out the work of David Wright and Aaron Dale, which you can hear on the recordings of pretty much every champion quartet over the last 20 years (in particular, Vocal Spectrum, The Gas House Gang, and Ringmasters).

RARB: So much of a cappella arranging is based on transcription. Do you have any advice for arrangers that are looking to develop their arranging?

CR: Transcription is a very powerful skill that every aspiring composer or arranger should seek to master. Although it can be time consuming and frustrating to develop, in the long term, it will reap benefits far beyond the ability to just write down everything that is happening in the music. With practice, it will become more effortless and instantaneous, which allows more brain power to be devoted to actually understanding what is happening conceptually and why. This helps arrangers take the great parts of the original, leave the not-so-great parts behind, and also retain some free brain power for new ideas to make their arrangements even more effective.

Although a fairly obvious way to make an arrangement stand out is to significantly reinterpret the original song, this is easier said than done and doesn’t always make sense (if the original song is awesome, you might want your arrangement to try and recreate the same experience vocally). To make a transcriptive approach more successful, I think it’s important to have a solid understanding of your target audience and performance context, and how they may differ from the intent and audience of the original song.

RARB: Can you give us an example?

CR: One pretty common way that a largely transcriptive arrangement can fall short is when the goals of the original song and those of the cover arrangement don’t quite line up. Consider pretty much any recent uptempo Top 40 hit. Those songs are designed for loud dance clubs, standing-room only concerts, morning commutes, background noise while working, etc. They are fun and effective in pretty much all of these contexts because they don’t require their audiences’ full attention, and maintain their energy with a relatively constant, loud, in-your-face pounding thump-thump-thump. In contrast, consider a typical collegiate a cappella show, where everyone sits in their seats and (more or less) politely gives their undivided attention to the moderately-amplified group on stage. In many ways, this much more closely resembles the audience of a symphony orchestra than a Kesha show. Thus, even a perfectly accurate transcriptive arrangement of the relatively repetitive We R Who We R in this context will likely come off as stagnant, as it’s very difficult for the group to maintain such a manic energy level in that context. This problem is compounded by any number of other potential yet common issues: a sound system that is ineffective at really achieving the necessary thump-thump and/or wub-wub, poor selection of background textures (i.e. syllables), using parts from the original that don’t translate well to the voice, even the lack of powerful visual stimulation, etc. A fairly easy way to spice up an arrangement for a song like this is to use your musical toolbox of dynamics, range, tone, density, etc. with some new ideas sprinkled in to create contrast, develop the arc that many of the originals lack, and highlight and enhance the “moments” of the song (which when set up and done properly, make the audience cheer and are extremely memorable).

One other piece of advice I would offer is to always write for the strengths and weaknesses of the singers you actually have. Specifically, consider each person’s range, tone, expressiveness, tuning, textural skills, etc., along with any other unique abilities he or she may have. For example, although my arrangements for Voices in Your Head are nominally written for SATB, the arrangements actually consist of about 8-10 parts, each written with one or two specific people in mind.

RARB: Several of your original compositions, including Boomerang, Life of the Mind, and Sharp have seen enormous success in the a cappella community. Do you believe that we should place a greater emphasis on the creation of original music?

CR: I think first and foremost, groups should make the music they want to create. While I do agree with the notion that creating original music is important for the genre of a cappella to be taken seriously, I don’t think that every group has a moral imperative to do so. Additionally, being such a cover heavy genre makes a cappella more accessible (both to the singers and the audience), which is a good thing that gets to the heart of who we are as a community. Given that a significant percentage of people in a cappella are amateurs (myself included), for most newcomers, it is often easier to more or less transcribe an existing popular song than it is to write and arrange a brand new song. That said, I think a good deal of emphasis is already placed on original music within the core of the a cappella community, so if a group decides to take that step and does a decent job, they will likely be well-received by critics, compilations, awards, etc. One other thing to consider is that, while composing and arranging certainly have technical and legal distinctions, a re-envisioned cover that perfectly fits the group that sings it can make the song seem as though it was always written for voices, and can feel just as original as an original song.

RARB: Would you mind elaborating on your process of arranging music into "vocal scenes"?

CR: When I decide to arrange a song, one of the first things I determine is, in a big picture sense, what am I trying to create—in fact often times, I know what I want to create before I find the right song with which to apply the idea. Do I want to totally reinvent a song (and if so, how), or do I want to basically vocally recreate and enhance a song using roughly the same reasons a song works in its original form? Am I going to try to tell a different story than the original interpretation of the lyrics, or even create an overarching story between several unrelated songs (i.e. a slightly more purposeful medley and/or mashup).

Once I have that figured out, my next steps can vary. If I’m going for an arrangement that is fairly true to the original, I’ll probably spend most of my time at the piano learning to play the song and singing along. Once I know it moderately well, I loosen up how much I’m thinking about what I’m playing, which inevitably leads to “variations”. I put that in quotes because although sometimes I’ll deliberately substitute a different chord/bass line/rhythm/counter-melody/etc, just as often, I’ll accidentally make a mistake which turns out to inspire an idea for something even cooler that I can then deliberately pursue. I then end up writing much of what I’m playing into voice parts directly (although sometimes this can get a bit tricky since the arrangement can end up with more layers than I have fingers and/or piano skills). In this scenario, I tend to know many of the details of the song's original arrangement very early.

However, if I decide I’m going to get especially creative, often I’ll learn the song just well enough to mostly know the melody and the lyrics, and then I take a step back. From there, I work on developing a conceptual map of the arrangement, focusing on the arc and the moments. When I start to get some clear and specific ideas, I’ll write them on a blank piece of paper or a print-out of the lyrics (usually just a couple of sentence fragments for each section of the song). Also, in contrast to working at a piano, I try to hear most of the ideas in my head and sing them to myself, since I find this better allows me to take advantage of the unique abilities of the voice and frees me from having to worry about technical constraints (e.g. too many parts or too wide of chord voicings to be able to play well). Interestingly enough, I’ve found that for me, the most productive place for this approach is in the shower—I tape pieces of paper to the walls so that I can quickly jot down ideas without taking me out of the zone. Once I have the basic map figured out for the whole arrangement, then I head to the piano to work out the details before putting the arrangement into Sibelius.

Here's a scan of the map I created for We Found Love after the first shower I spent thinking about it. If you’re familiar with that arrangement, you can see how many of the mapped ideas manifested in the final version, while other ideas hadn’t yet been fleshed out or ended up changing pretty significantly (please excuse the terrible handwriting and water damage).

Click to view full-size

As far as how I then create “vocal scenes,” sometimes I have a very specific image or feeling that I want the listener to experience. I close my eyes, let my mind create a soundscape to match the the visuals and feelings of what I imagine, and often latch on to a particular lyric of the song. In the example of We Found Love, I really wanted to create an intimate setting for the arrangement under the “yellow diamonds in the light,” which I interpreted to be like stars. In the very beginning of the arrangement, I imagined a firework being launched into an empty sky, exploding into thousands of sparkling yellow stars.

That said, in reality, almost every arrangement has some combination of these two approaches.

RARB: Post-Voices in Your Head, what does the a cappella future hold for you?

CR: Unfortunately, as I wrap up my 3rd year of medical school and prepare for residency in anaesthesiology, I have much less time to devote to a cappella. However, I am still arranging for Voices in Your Head behind the scenes and will hopefully be recording and editing some new material for them to release soon. I am also looking to put together some recorded-only collaborations to keep arranging, composing, and producing recorded tracks (I love the potential for nuance and finesse offered by the recorded medium). Even if I am somewhat absent for a couple of years, you can be sure I’ll be back soon.

Chris Rishel's arrangements and much more are available at


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