Rich DeRosa: Strategies for string orchestra arrangements in a jazz concert setting.

When Jazz at Lincoln Center commissioned me to write seven arrangements for string orchestra to accompany Joey Alexander and his group, these were my primary considerations:

    1. Strike a meaningful balance between featuring the orchestra and Joey’s group.
      • The first set will feature Joey’s group alone so the second set will definitely need to feature the string orchestra in a distinctive limelight.
      • But it will also be important to allow the jazz group to do what it does naturally without being constrained by overly-written orchestrations.
      • The string orchestra will be performing live in a more vigorous jazz environment. Its size will probably be 1/2 to 1/3 the size of a typical orchestral string section. Therefore, it will be important to write in a way that will provide enough strength to balance effectively with the jazz group.
    2. A string orchestra, as beautiful as it may be, essentially offers a monochromatic timbre. I like to find effective ways to instill contrast:
      • Activity vs. space – a constant presence can dull the senses.
      • Full texture vs. thin texture - feature high and low frequencies as well as the more typical tutti sound.
      • Offer a variety of tone and expression – natural or normal, harmonics, tremolo (bowed and fingered), etc.
    3. Find a contrasting concept within each arrangement. Some arrangements feature the strings alone in spots. Others feature the strings mostly in support. Others feature the strings in a highly interactive role with the jazz group.
    4. Appropriate number of string players with regard to the music and the budget.

I decided not to use basses – we couldn’t afford them and I felt that, for this project, they weren’t really needed. I asked J@LC for 22 players (14 violins, 4 violas, and 4 cellos). They were able to give me 20 players so the violin count went down to 12.

  1. Avoid excessive divisi but look for opportunities to use open strings for additional pitches. In general, with significantly fewer players than in a full orchestra, I refrained from creating moments of excessive divisi when the jazz group is playing. Assigning two pitches to my six 1st violins will reduce their power and presence by 50% (three violins on each pitch). Although double-stops (each player plays two pitches) may be possible, they increase the potential of intonation problems and can make the performance more cumbersome. However, an open string can easily provide an extra pitch along with one stopped string (but the two strings must be adjacent). The process is simple for the player and there is no loss of power.

With the basic strategies outlined, I began the creative process. In an effort to set the strings in different ways, I considered each composition’s context to determine how contrast could be achieved from one arrangement to another.

Joey’s composition “Soul Dreamer” is in a fast 3/4 but flows inside a feeling of ‘1’. This is marked primarily through the chord progression (Fmi – Eb – Db – Eb) with each chord inhabiting a bar. The resulting 4-bar “loop” becomes more pronounced as melodic phrases are presented within each loop. This motion can become insidiously aggressive and its presence is readily displayed within the jazz group. The strings will better serve the composition and its mood by offering a distinctive contrast. They capture the programmatic feeling of dreaming, floating, and panorama via three aspects:

  1. high frequencies that are slow and relatively soft;
  2. phrases that mostly avoid the bar line as well as the vortex of the 4-bar loop;
  3. avoid full chords in the violins – use mostly wide intervals – primarily perfect 5ths. This provides a sense of transparency.

Strings are great for creating a long sustain. This will add a sense of calm but it is important to use pitches that are common to any moving harmony. The need to move will cause distraction.

Though I have mentioned a concern for using divisi within the violins when power or presence is needed, you will see that I have chosen to do exactly that; but it is for a different reason. Since the breakdown of the string sections is set at 6644, the divisi is used here to reset the proportion within the three pitches in the violins during the introduction. All of the 1sts play the high Eb. When the Ab emerges in bar 10, one desk of 1sts moves to the Ab to join with the 2nd violins. In bar 12, as the G emerges, one desk of 2nds remains on Ab while the other two desks of 2nds plays the G. This provides an equitable distribution of players (4/4/4) with all three pitches.

A similar purpose exists in bar 54. Although, with a quick glance, it appears that there are five different pitches spread across the orchestra, a closer inspection reveals that the harmony is simply the sound of an open Ab major triad presented, from the top down, as C-Eb-Ab. Although the notes of the triad could have been assigned accordingly to the 1st violins, 2nd violins, and violas, I have the cellos handle the bottom pitch (Ab) to provide more girth and lushness. The 2nd violins are assigned a divisi to reinforce the top pitch – C – in the 1sts and the middle pitch – Eb – in the violas). Since there are three desks of 2nd violins, I assigned one desk to join the 1st violins while the other two desks join the violas. Ultimately, the breakdown for this triad results as follows: C with 8 violins, Eb with 4 violins and 4 violas, Ab with 4 cellos.

Click here to see Soul Dreamer (score excerpt)

You can hear the result via the video recording of the concert.

Joey’s composition “City Lights” is much more energetic. In this context, the strings are placed inside the composition’s rhythmic phrasing to intensify the energy.

During the intro, a long sustain is used but the 1st violins are directed to use bowed tremolo for more energy. This technique is also employed in bars 21-22 as it enables vigor and crescendo.

Strength in numbers is important in vigorous jazz contexts. For adequate presence and a bold, dynamic statement, strings sound most powerful when playing the same idea in octaves as you can see in bars 20-22.

Pads are very effective as a soothing contrast to the energy of the jazz group. But the texture can become more interesting when switching registers. In bar 25, the 2nd violins and lower strings establish a darker pad in contrast to the high 1st violins that emerge in bar 32. The friendly key of D minor provides a good opportunity for them to use natural harmonics; this creates a more ethereal but still resonant sound. In addition, since both pitches are on open strings, each player can easily perform these two harmonics simultaneously. With no need to divide the 1st violin section, 100% power is retained. In contrast to the ethereal quality of the violins, the lower strings return with a fuller pad that builds into a break to prepare the melody.

When the melody enters, the listener is pleasantly distracted with something new so the withdrawal of the strings will not be disappointing. The phrasing of the melody is designed as a clear 4-bar statement with an equal amount of space following the phrase. This provides an excellent opportunity for the strings to respond melodically in an antiphonal manner. Separate bows are used for vigor with the sustained note occurring during an up bow. This facilitates the crescendo which is dramatically important. (In bar 47, you will notice that two of the 8th notes have what we would typically think of as a slur. This marking indicates that the notes within the slur are to be played within one bow stroke. My choice here will result in an “up bow” on the following sustained pitch.) Another benefit in this key is that the quick vacillation within the “melodic answer” (bar 46) is handled easily because the Ds at the bottom of the phrase are found on an open string. The cellos do not have an open string in that range so the phrase is harder physically and more challenging with regard to intonation. To be inclusive but cautious, I simply cued the phrase as an option. By the way, notice that the cello part is written in tenor clef. With pitches above middle C on the piano, unlike when writing for trombone in a jazz context, the classical trombonist, bassoonist, and cellist normally read in tenor clef to avoid multiple leger lines.

Click here to see City Lights (score excerpt)

While listening to the entire arrangement, you’ll hear how the aforementioned concepts are utilized. As a reminder from my previous blog, here is the MIDI demo version with Joey’s original studio trio tracks. When creating a MIDI version of an arrangement that is to be used for live performance, it’s important to write the music within the confines of the instrumentalist’s practical performance ability.

“Peace” is a beautiful ballad that is also composed by Joey.  This seemed like a perfect opportunity to feature the strings alone and have them set the mood. (Joey’s subsequent entrance with the melody has greater stature as a result.)

With the strings unobstructed, it’s possible to indulge in divisi to create thicker harmony without concern for losing presence. But I wanted this piece to unfold gradually so I still opted for presenting only one note at a time. For a subtle entrance that emerges gradually, the “up bow” indication is important (typically, a string player will start with a “down bow” on beat 1). The request for no vibrato is also important as it creates a sense of stillness.

Each pitch sustains to create a fuller texture that evolves gradually. You’ll see in bar 2 where I indicate divisi for the same purpose as before: to create an equity of 4/4/4 while using three pitches in the violins. The 4 violas enter in the latter part of bar 2. In bar 3 of the viola part, the first set of double pitches (Ab, C) is to be performed as a double stop to preserve a 4/4/4/4 continuity (violins and violas) within the chord texture. The Ab is established previously in bar 2 so the additional C in bar 3 occurs in a staggered fashion. This helps the player with intonation since both pitches aren’t played simultaneously.  As the music thickens harmonically, and to avoid more abundant intonation concerns, the viola section (and the cello section) divides to perform the subsequent sets of double-pitches. Although the violas and cellos at this point are designated to have only two instruments assigned to each pitch, they are larger and naturally stronger and fuller than the violins. As a result, there is less concern with the numerical imbalance.

Though breathing is not required to perform on a string instrument, it can be quite dramatic to create a sense of “breath”. The breath mark in bar 3 is placed deliberately for effect. It signals a saturation point for the opening pyramid while the brief moment of space also allows the players to reset, find their next pitch, and change into a slightly more relaxed character.

The intro culminates with its fullest harmonic texture as it is heard in bar 5. But, with only 12 violins, I still choose to use only 3 pitches within both sections to maintain a 4/4/4 equity. Actually, there is another option that I could have considered: The E in the 2nd violin part is playable on the highest open string. The B below is playable on the adjacent A string. This means that a double-stop could have been performed with all six of the 2nd violins easily performing both pitches. But the open string (E) makes the use of vibrato impossible. To cultivate more warmth at this point, I chose to have the 2nd violins divide in favor of using vibrato by playing the E on the A string.

The chord in bar 5 is a Bb7 with both lowered and raised 5ths and lowered and raised 9ths. Of the seven chord tones only six are employed; from the bottom moving upward they are: D – Ab – Db - Gb – B – E – Ab (the melody note is doubled two octaves lower in the cello section). The root (Bb) is omitted purposely. First, the sound of Bb is already present in the cello part in the beginning of bar 4 and the tonality of the intro centers on Bb (note the opening pitch – high Bb – in the violins). But, more importantly, I want the chord in bar 5 to have a sense of floating. The strings are assigned as follows: 4 violins on each of the top three pitches. The lower four pitches are split evenly with 2 violas and 2 cellos assigned to each pitch.

The strings cadence and subside as Joey presents the melody. They become even more still and gradually withdraw. Common harmonic tones are crucial here. Notice how thin the texture is in bar 6. If too many chord tones remain, they will become “trapped” by the harmonic progression and will need to move which will prevent a sense of stillness.

Click here to see Peace (score excerpt 1)

Bars 34-49 show how various register placement and texture (monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic) can provide welcome contrast within a ballad.

Click here to see Peace (score excerpt 2)

“Freedom Jazz Dance” provides another stark contrast with an opportunity to explore different colors from the strings. Joey’s soulful ostinato chord progression sets the mood for this version of FJD. It feels more introspective while still offering elements of blues and passion. The cellos are tethered to the ostinato to flesh out the texture and provide more bottom. Simultaneously, this allows Joey a bit more freedom with his left hand so he isn’t necessarily nailed to the ostinato. The violins create a lofty “ceiling” that floats above the groove and ostinato. Although their function is similar to “Soul Dreamer”, careful inspection will reveal that the interval of choice is the sweeter and fuller 6th in contrast to the hollow perfect 5th that is abundant in “Soul Dreamer”. 

As with “City Lights”, the nature of melodic phrases followed by space naturally invites a melodic response from the strings. The rhythms here are intricate so bowing is once again important to naturally aid the string player in capturing the right phrasing. It’s more natural to have heavier accents in the down bow position. Consecutive bows (whether up or down) can also prevent the string players from rushing.

Click here to see Freedom Jazz Dance (score excerpt)

During the solos, the strings are used similarly to a big band format: riffs are cued as the improvised solo reaches its first saturation point. Subsequent cues are used as the solo intensifies and climaxes.

Although there are a total of seven arrangements for this program, I’ll stop with these four as I believe there is enough here to demonstrate the strategies.

I hope you enjoy listening to this music.

My third and final blog in this series will delve into specific arranging, conducting, and recording strategies when writing for strings in the recording studio. Topics include MIDI demo preparation, click tracks, conducting, layering to create a larger string orchestra sound. The examples are from other projects that were recorded for CD productions.

If you have questions, please contact me at richard.derosa@unt.edu

 


About the Author:

Richard DeRosa received a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Composition in 2015 for his big band composition “Neil” which is dedicated to Neil Slater: the director of the One O’Clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas from 1981-2008.

Since 2001 Mr. DeRosa has arranged and conducted music for Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to feature Toots Thielemans, Annie Ross, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Roberta Gambarini, and Renée Fleming among several other notable artists. He was a prime arranger for the theater project (A Bed and a Chair) featuring the music of Stephen Sondheim and created an arrangement of Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea for the swing jazz Broadway show After Midnight.  Mr. DeRosa was also a featured arranger for the Wynton with Strings concert celebration in 2005.  His most recent project as a featured conductor and arranger for the LCJO was Bernstein at 100 which premiered in November of 2017.

In October, 2018, Mr. DeRosa was the featured conductor and arranger for the concert productions of Joey Alexander with Strings which also premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

In 2012 the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, invited Mr. DeRosa to conduct and present his music in concert. After several other engagements with the prestigious ensemble, he served as their chief conductor and musical arranger from 2014-2016. He arranged and conducted the CD/DVD recording My Personal Songbook (released in 2015) which features the music of legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter who is featured with the band. A second CD titled Rediscovered Ellington (released in 2017) features his longtime music partners Garry Dial and Dick Oatts. Together they created unique and modern arrangements of Duke’s rare and unheard tunes. Mr. DeRosa’s newest CD release (2019) is Crossing Borders which features Gregor Huebner (violin) and Richie Beirach (piano) that includes new arrangements of several Beirach compositions. WDR projects with other guest artists include Joshua Redman, Stefon Harris, Kurt Elling, Patti Austin, the New York Voices, Ola Onabulé, Ute Lemper, Bill Mays & Marvin Stamm, and Warren Vaché.

Other commissioned arrangements have been recorded by the Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, and Glenn Miller big bands, vocalist Susannah McCorkle, trumpeter Dominick Farinacci on his CD Lovers, Tales, and Dances, and acclaimed solo violinist Anne Akiko Meyers on her CD Seasons….Dreams. Mr. DeRosa has also served as co-arranger, orchestrator, and conductor for the critically acclaimed recording projects When Winter Comes featuring guitarist Fred Fried, Dial & Oatts: Brassworks, and a double CD project That Music Always Round Me which Down Beat Magazine selected as one of the top recordings in 2015. Dial & Oatts composed music to fifteen poems by Walt Whitman and brought in DeRosa to create the arrangements for choir to be featured with a jazz chamber group that included Dial on piano, Oatts on saxophones and flute, and guest trumpeter Terell Stafford.

Mr. DeRosa’s arrangements for orchestra have been performed by the Kansas City Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Pops, the Portland Maine Pops, the UNT One O’Clock Lab Band with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra in Holland, the Czech National Symphony, and the Swedish Television and Radio Orchestra in Stockholm. Other European jazz bands, including the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, have commissioned his compositions and arrangements.

Mr. DeRosa’s compositions for television, film, and theater include background music cues for Another World, As the World Turns, The Guiding Light, commercials for Telex, Bristol-Meyers, and Kodak, various documentaries broadcast on PBS, orchestrations for independent films Gray Matters, Falling For Grace, and Standard Time, and more than twenty original music scores for the national touring U.S. theater company ArtsPower as well as orchestrations for Frankenstein, the Musical. He has also composed scores for videos and hundreds of audiobooks for publishing companies including Bantam Doubleday Dell, Random House, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and Prentice-Hall.

Earlier in his career as a performer, DeRosa toured and recorded with Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, Susannah McCorkle, Jackie Cain & Roy Kral, Chuck Wayne, and Marlene VerPlanck. Other employers include Marian McPartland, Gene Bertoncini, Warren Vaché, Larry Elgart, Peter Nero, and vocalist Chris Connor.

Mr. DeRosa is a recipient of UNT’s Presidential Faculty Excellence Award. In celebration of the university’s 125th anniversary, he composed a work for orchestra and jazz quintet titled Suite for an Anniversary. Mr. DeRosa is a full professor and the director of jazz composition and arranging. His former teaching positions were at William Paterson University, Manhattan School of Music, and The Juilliard School where he taught advanced jazz arranging for studio orchestra.

He is the author of Concepts for Improvisation: A Comprehensive Guide for Performing and Teaching (Hal Leonard Publications) and Acoustic and MIDI Orchestration for the Contemporary Composer (Focal Press) co-authored with Dr. Andrea Pejrolo. The latter book has experienced worldwide success, having been translated into Chinese in a subsequent edition. An expanded 2nd edition was published in November of 2016.

Mr. DeRosa’s publications for public school jazz ensembles are available through Alfred Music (Belwin Jazz), Smart Chart Music, J.W. Pepper, Barnhouse Music, while several of his works for professional-level bands are available through Sierra Music. All of this music is available through e-Jazz Lines. Mr. DeRosa remains active as an adjudicator and clinician for music festivals and is the artistic director for AJV (American Jazz Venues), an organization created by his late father, noted jazz education pioneer, Clem DeRosa.