I was recently asked to present Ryan Murphy’s arrangement of “Flight” on a reading session and he was kind enough to answer some questions and share his insight. It’s a wonderful piece of music published through Walton Music and the Andrew Crane Choral Series.
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(Ryan Murphy is the associate music director of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, UT.)
GB: Could you briefly share the story about how this arrangement came to be? Are there any details about the commission or the premiere that you think would be interesting for people to know?
RM: I was not familiar with “Flight” when Dr. Cherilyn Worthen approached me about doing a commission for the Utah Valley University Women’s Choir. I quickly researched the piece and completely fell in love with it. The premiere was at the ACDA Western Conference, which was held in Salt Lake City, March 2020. Sometimes when you attend a premiere it can be a bit nerve-racking as you are always critical of your own work. But in this case, I was able to lose myself in their stunning performance and it was a thrill to be there for it!
GB: The song was originally written as a vocal solo, but arguably the most famous version is the duet recorded by Sutton Foster and Megan McGinnis. You’ve clearly honored the spirit of that version in the way you divide certain lines between the sopranos and altos. As an arranger, what is your thought process for deciding when to change something that’s in the original vs. when to leave it alone?
RM: I spent a good amount of time immersing myself in both versions. Your question is very perceptive because the task became what to keep from the original vs. finding what I might be able to bring to the table. The song is so good on its own that I really saw my role as trying to enhance what was already there. Other projects require more intervention and liberties!
GB: Going along with that, what did you find most inspiring in the source material? And how did that inform the way you wrote the piece?
RM: I love that the song has such a tremendous sense of yearning, reaching, and dreaming. There’s also an awakening going on, mixed with some angst; standing on the edge looking out over what life could be. Some of that is in the lyrics, some of it is in the modality of the music and the way the cadences never quite resolve. The music seems to keep unfolding and spinning until the end of the piece, and we can see it fade into the distance as if it were continuing after the final notes. I wanted the arrangement to reinforce those themes and feelings.
GB: Your choral writing is beautiful, but to me the thing that really makes this arrangement stand out is the accompaniment parts. I’ve always felt that the hardest part of being a choral arranger is writing good piano parts. And so, I’d love to hear more about what your approach was when writing the piano and strings. What does that part of the creative process look like for you?
RM: That part of the process involves a lot of sitting down at the piano, improvising, and experimenting! In this case, the introduction became very important for setting the mood. It begins very simply in the upper register of the piano (which can be very evocative), so that people can paint a picture in their own mind. The music needed to be paced in both texture and rhythm to build up to the soaring lines that were coming in the voices and the lushness of the strings. Finally, the introductory motive of descending lines was used throughout (m.25-32 for example). It ties together the almost stream-of-consciousness style of the lyrics, and it reverses when the music needs to ascend (m.41-53). You’ll also notice the introduction returns at the end of the piece, giving a feeling of coming full circle.
I knew as I was writing the arrangement that the piano part needed to work equally well without strings if necessary. So while the strings add to the beauty, sonority, and expansiveness, (and I greatly prefer it with strings), the piano part can stand on its own. It was crafted first, and the strings were then added on top. As I did, I was looking for ways to complement, enhance, or change the texture. I was very conscious of when to add them and when to let them rest.
GB: Without going too deep down this rabbit hole, what advice would you give to arrangers that are trying to take popular songs or commercial styles of music and elevate it into—for lack of a better term— “serious” choral music?
RM: Some things translate more easily from a popular idiom to the “serious concert” stage, and it can be a fine line. For me the issues at play are the original material itself, (does it lend itself to that treatment?), the approach to the accompaniment (whether instrumental or vocal) including textures and harmonies, and finally it must be grounded in solid craftsmanship (motivic and harmonic unity) in the desired style.
GB: What is your favorite moment in the arrangement?
RM: While I love the high, soaring “ahs” in the choir, I probably love even more the end of the piece, where after a unison octave (m.119) the choir comes together on a cappella, unison notes. It’s the change of texture that’s thrilling, which obviously couldn’t happen without everything before it.
GB: What advice would you give to educators teaching this piece to their choir for the first time?
RM: There needs to be an air of spontaneity about this piece, as if the words were being created in the moment. The repeated pattern of two 8th notes followed by a quarter note should not become overly strict or robotic in nature. Of course, all of the notes and rhythms need to be there, but the final performance will benefit from some rubato and freedom.