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“Monk Suite”

I recently mentioned a bunch of ongoing projects, including multiple musical ones. I figured I’d post about a few of those right now, one at a time. This is the first of a few that will be getting posted by scheduling, between today and the weekend. 

Short version: I’ve been inputting an old arrangement of some jazz tunes by Thelonious Monk for jazz quintet plus chamber orchestra using Musescore, and it’s going well. I have no audio of that to share at the moment, but hopefully will in the coming months!

“Monk Suite”

Original Post (22 Feb 2023):

When I was an undergrad in my university’s music department—way back in the mid-90s—I took an orchestration class from the violinist on staff. He wasn’t much of a prof, if I’m honest: he was obsessed with string arrangements and said little about woodwinds and brass, and his efforts were mostly focused on training the next generation of local violinists during private lessons in his office, so we got little feedback. I knew that going it, and I knew that he probably wouldn’t dig jazz, but I didn’t let that stop me from choosing, for my final project, something that I wanted to do. I sat myself down at a piano in one of the practice rooms and worked like a dog for several weeks on a project I called “Monk Suite.” It was a three-movement arrangement of some Thelonious Monk tunes—Ruby My Dear, Well You Needn’t, and ‘Round Midnight—for jazz quintet and chamber orchestra.

Unsurprisingly—but disappointingly—I have no idea what mark I got, or what I was supposed to learn or demonstrate in this big “final project” we submitted: he didn’t write a a single comment on the manuscript or notes, or even a grade. This was infuriating for two reasons: 

  1. I really wanted feedback. I wanted to learn more about orchestration! I’d worked my ass off on it, for many hours, and really wanted some pointers that could help me improve, especially my string writing.
  2. I was pretty sure he’d just turned his nose up at it because it involved jazz music.

The second reason is actually just assumption, mind you. He was pretty monomaniacal about Classical- and Romantic-era string music, and didn’t seem to care about anything else, but it’s possible that he was aware other things existed and felt leery of commenting too much outside of the stuff he knew and understood well himself. I was leaning hard on my listenings to, for example, Charlie Parker with Strings, say:

… and I’m sure he never listened to that in his life, and didn’t really get what I was going for. (My other model was some of the orchestral scoring in the film Mo’ Better Blues, which I don’t think has ever been released as a score album anywhere. I can’t even find samples online or anything.) The funny thing is that people would say, “You should have written something he’d have understood,” as if it’s the student’s job to cater to the prof’s knowledge and taste—a ridiculous proposal, albeit a very common one.1

Still, all these years later, hearing the music I created back then for the first time, the resentment toward that prof that I had felt has essentially faded away and I just feel impressed and proud of what I was able to do with so little help. I think I was studying Russell Garcia’s The Professional Arranger Composer (volumes 1 &2), which were not amazing books, but honestly they helped me more than anything in the orchestration textbook we used in that class.

I can’t help but wonder, how in the hell did I do such a reasonable job on this arrangement? Sure, I hear (and have corrected) some flaws here and there—some voicings that could have been better, some spots where the voices could be swapped to slightly more colorful effect, or where specific instruments could and should have been used but weren’t. (I included two clarinets in the score, but underused them so much that one could consider it almost passive-aggressive toward clarinetists!) I found some spots where adding horns enriched things immensely, and I know now that I have to study up on writing for harp because I don’t have any clue what I’m doing on that front. Also, of course, I discovered the biggest problem: I’d done the arrangements from a Bb lead sheet, not one in C, so everything had to be transposed… which put some phrases out of range for the instruments, meaning further adjustments. Listening back to Movement 1, “Ruby My Dear,” even having not yet input all the dynamics, I find it’s actually a pleasure to listen to! Imagine that! And that’s me listening to it for the first time, years and years after I wrote it. Cheapo soundfonts (for now) but I may be able to put together a decent backing track with some software and sample synths in time. The way Musescore has opened it up to me is wonderful, and again—oh, had something free and easy like this been available thirty years ago… oh, if only!

When I started out, I didn’t know that Musescore could separate voices into parts for printing. Ooops! Something to fix before I declare this finished.

I’m also proud of how much I’ve retained from what I learned. Returning to music periodically, my biggest worry is having forgotten too much, but… it always seems to come back to me quickly. Well, except the muscle memory for saxophone. That takes time and work. (And a practice room, which I currently lack.) It’s a big piece, and I’m only about a third of the way through, after spending an hour or two a day for a week and a half. That’s pretty slow, but then, I’m inputting everything manually. I still haven’t hooked up my wind controllers to my Mac and figured out metronome input (or whatever it’s called) in Musescore—and I don’t have a musical keyboard for inputting notes, so it’s a lot more clicks as I input things, even using tricks like copying lines played in soli and just adjusting the notes in each instrument’s part.  

Anyway, consider this a work in progress: I’m not sharing the score because the first movement isn’t even done, but also because I’m not sure what I’ll do with it when it is done. It’s not my own tune, so there would be copyright issues with just sharing it; likewise, I’m not sure it’s quite good enough to offer for sale, either, or how one does that sort of thing anyway. But I’ll at least share some recordings here, I guess, and I’m probably going to use it as a backing track for practicing these tunes, too. (I could maybe publish it as such—surely some people would like to try their hand at performing some Monk tunes with an orchestra, synthetic or otherwise? Though… the arrangements also contain enough melodic material it’s probably under copyright, which means officially seeking permission and so on. I don’t know much about that.)

We’ll see, I guess. For me, even just hearing these arrangements is a cool experience, so I’m happy to do the work required. 

  1. My saxophone prof was also pretty much the same way. Imagine being so out of touch with the world as to suggest that jazz is an “irrelevant” genre for the saxophone! You have to be pretty far up your own back end to think that.

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