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Monk Suite, One Page at a Time

UPDATE (21 April): Well, I’m almost finished entering the “head” section of “Ruby My Dear,” (at a rate of one page a day, but having missed one day: I’m at the final “A” of the first time through the AABA form) and while that may not sound like I’m very far along at all, what remains once I’ve done that is the solos (a lot of empty staves in those, with only a few backgrounds) and the Coda, because–being a lazy git–I didn’t do a different, separate orchestration of the head for the end of the tune. (The orchestra does what any jazz quintet does: go back to the top, play the same thing through to the coda. I’m not proud of that, but, well… that’s what I wrote.)

I’m actually more pleased with this thing than I expected. I mean, I don’t think it’s something I would ever try to sell or publish for money, but there’s some neat things in it, and I get the feeling I actually knew a fair bit for an inexperienced undegrad: there’s a nice (if brief) brass chorale section, some interesting stuff done with the strings and woodwinds, and so on. I get the feeling I worked very hard on this orchestration at the time. I’m still blown away by how hearing it–even just played using the free, and slightly cheesy, synth software that comes with Musescore, has allowed me to make little cosmetic changes and fix little mistakes along the way.

(Which is to say, the file I’ll be producing isn’t quite a purely archival file. There are a few little changes and improvements here and there, things I didn’t want to leave them as they were, and wouldn’t have if I’d known what I wrote at the time would sound like. But I’m fine with that: I’m not narcissistic enough to imagine anyone analyzing these scores a century from now, and even if someone did, the changes are so minor they wouldn’t matter anyway.)

Once I’m done with this, I may actually try do some simpler arrangements for small string orchestra and jazz quartet or something–the sort of thing I’d do for a jazz soloist who wanted to do an album like this one:

… just for the fun of it. (There’s no real demand for anything like that, but it’d be nice to know how to do it. Would be even nicer if I could find a couple of such arrangements to analyze for myself.) And hell, I may try doing some original chart for big band, if I can come up with a melody to slap onto some familiar set of changes.

ORIGINAL POST: The newest in my notation projects is a suite of Thelonious Monk tunes that I arranged for orchestra, by which I mean, a proper classical music orchestra: flutes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, a little percussion, a string section and a harp. This orchestra accompanies a classic jazz quintet (sax, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums). It’s not quite a modern symphony orchestra or anything, just what I imagined to be a TV studio orchestra in the 1950s or 1960s. This was my idea of what Third Stream meant, back in Saskatoon in 1996. (I know better now, but at the time, I thought it meant jazz group accompanied by orchestra, or those “______ with strings” albums one ran across sometimes–I’m thinking of , or, The Birth of the Cool and Porgy and Bess, well, anything that went beyond the big-band paradigm, really.)

The arrangement was actually homework for an orchestration class I took with a professor named Robert Klose. Bob was a violinist, and to tell the truth I took two classes with him: my first music history course (which spanned the Classical and Romantic eras, and given his focus on the violin, all we really looked at was symphonies), and music orchestration. The orchestration class was tiny: myself, a voice major named Lisa Zmud, and an elderly bassist in town whom everyone seemed to know somehow. (I’m pretty sure her name was Dorothy, and if I remember right, the professor actually had to inform us that she’d passed away over the weekend, at some point during the course. She was famous in the local music scene, though by the time I knew her, she was mostly famous for stopping her car in the middle of an intersection to put on her lipstick.)

I’ll be blunt, the class was alright (much better than the history course I took with Prof. Klose) but not particularly in-depth, and didn’t really get me anywhere near where I wanted to go. Of course, nobody masters orchestration in a semester, but there were other reasons that it was hard for me to make headway: I have never had quite good enough an ear to listen to an ensemble and then transcribe what everyone’s doing, so I needed scores to look at… and there were none available to me, especially the directorship of the campus big-band shifted and politics started leading the band in a direction I didn’t want to go. I did spend time studying Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring–of course–but I don’t know that I really got as much out of it as I could have with some guidance.

Besides, I found it difficult to apply even the stuff that was useful, since my instincts regarding orchestration were shaped by listening to people like Gil Evans and Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and, yes, Gunther Schuller and even Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America:

… as well as, probably my favorite examples of orchestration at the time, the album Word of Mouth by Jaco Pastorius, especially on tracks like “Three Views of a Secret”:

(The album’s a killer, and any music lover should hear the whole thing. You can, over on Youtube.)

I mean to say that, my orchestration prof was sort of trying to teach us to drive, and I was trying to land a probe on the moon and frustrated that it wasn’t working. Worse, the music department was small enough that a lot of stuff like this–final projects for courses in counterpoint and orchestration and so on–were things we wrote up, handed in, and got back with grades on them, but never got to hear played or sung, which made it really hard to learn from them.

I’m not whining, or anything. I mean, Ornette Coleman rose to fame playing on a white plastic alto saxophone. Plenty of significant composers didn’t get formally trained, or, you know, taught themselves. I never had a true genius for composing, really, and I’m fine with that. I tried, honestly I did, to plunk things out on the piano, but I was never very good at that either. So I decided maybe music wasn’t where my true talents lay, and maybe that was an accurate assessment in the end. (Who knows?) Still, I think the right equipment might have helped me to learn and achieve more…

Which is my real point: I am blown away by how much of an aid the notation software I’m using is. It’s kind of mind-blowing, really, and the inherent crappiness of everything I’ve notated so far (from my old compositions) has been very, very apparent to me… I mean, even more apparent than from looking at the score, because of the playback function in Musescore. It’s not that the software’s playback function can do what a proper group of musicians can do, of course, but I can hear pretty much what I wrote down, the notes and the rhythms, and my dependence on repetitions and so on–which seemed natural to me when I was learning to compose, but which seem like cheap tricks when you’re writing for an orchestra, now–just jump out at me as being, well… shortcuts.

(The most embarrassing shortcut of all being that I arranged this whole thing using the Bb lead sheets. I made some excuse in my notes about how this would produce a lot more flats in the strings, and a darker, richer tone, but it’s just as likely I couldn’t be bothered to transpose the lead sheet to C, or that I just did it without thinking, and then justified it later on. In any case, once I’ve input the whole thing, it should be easy to transpose everything down a whole step, then go back and check the note spellings and make sure nothing’s slipped down below of any instrument’s range, and save it. Musescore is pretty good with auto-transposing stuff. But what a silly mistake!)

In any case, notating this suite of pieces is going to be humbling, but I figure it’s a way of getting a handle on what I did back in the old days, and maybe getting better at it than I was then. I doubt my results will be spectacular–I can imagine Monk just shaking his head at the piece, if he were around to hear it, and muttering to himself as he left that sad scene–but maybe I’ll learn something, and that’s what I want. And who knows, maybe it’s not so bad after all? I figure if I have the thing set out as it is, I could always improve on the orchestration and develop it, especially building up the material played by the orchestra: it’s not hard to add a bridge section or even a chorus here, or to expand the introduction, once I’ve notated what was on the page.

Photo by William T. Gottlieb, 1947. Public domain. Click for source.

It strikes me that that’s what I would have been doing in the first place: notating, listening, editing, expanding, cutting things, and so on. Less flying blind, more conscious deciding about (and experimenting with) what I wanted the music to sound like. It wouldn’t have made me some kind of wunderkind, but I would have learned more, and faster. I won’t say it’s too late for me to still write something worthwhile (even though, ultimately, composing was something that took second chair to playing jazz anyway: I only got into it because the local music department didn’t have a jazz program, and going away to music school somewhere else didn’t seem feasible to me). But I do envy the young folks coming up, and all the resources available to them for free. (Certainly, price was one thing that prevented me from buying Finale back in 1996, and also kept me from embracing it when I decided to notate all these manuscripts I’ve been hauling around for years.)

Anyway, for now, Monk Suite will be getting my musical attention, at a rate of a page a day, until it’s all done. I am limiting myself to a page a day because if I don’t, it’ll take over and I won’t get done the writing I need to do. But a page a day means, well… slow and steady wins the race right? I hope to be able to upload the completed score sometime in May, at which point I’ll graduate to “In their Shadows,” a piece I wrote while studying under my last composition prof, Robert Lemay, right at the end of my formal music studies.

Oh, I just realized, I haven’t mentioned which tunes I arranged: the first was “Ruby My Dear”; second, “Well You Needn’t”; the third and final movement was “‘Round Midnight.” I’m just a page into “Ruby My Dear” at the moment, and at the rate of a page a day, it’ll be some time before this project is done. When it is, I’ll post about it, and upload the score to my Music page, as always…

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