Writing for strings
Writing for strings
The Robert Farnon Society
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1967
Quincy Jones was with Philips Records for quite a long time, as an A and R man. We made about four or five albums together, including the one with Sarah Vaughan. I directed the orchestra; he was in the control room A and R–ing, as it were. I think that contract resulted from the fact that my orchestral music appealed to him. And he was interested in writing for the orchestra in that way—for the straighter instruments and strings. Not just the jazz side of it, which he had done for so many years. This, of course, is what he’s now putting into practice in his film scores.
It’s surprising how many of these jazz boys want to write for strings. I remember having a letter from Victor Feldman, saying he’d love to do some string writing, and asking if I’d give him a correspondence lesson or two. He sent over some examples; I sent back corrections, and so on. We just did it on a friendly basis—because we’re old pals, you know.
The same applied to Quincy. We used to have little chewing–the–fat sessions, when he would ask about string voicings and whatnot. Likewise the baritone player Sahib Shihab, who lives in Denmark. We had some friendly little get–togethers in Copenhagen. He would do a few bars, and we’d talk about it. And I think he learned more that way than he would trying to find some book which would instruct him along the appropriate lines.
To write for strings well is quite an art, I believe. A lot of people today are writing for strings the same way they would write for saxophones. And it sounds that way—you know, rather dull. They have one phrase for about eight bars with a big slur marked over it. But a violin can’t do that. He’ll run out of bow—even if the bow is 20 feet long. He couldn’t phrase that way.
In string writing, bowing is very important. That is, whether it’s an up–bow, a down–bow, or whatever. It requires a bit of study. So does the harp—that’s a most complicated instrument to write for.
Scoring for the straight woodwinds also calls for a little bit of skill. If it lies well for the instrument, the player will give it more—and it sounds better. If you put the part in front of them, and all the bowing is marked, all the dynamics and everything is there, it immediately sounds right on the first read–through. And, of course, that makes a musician feel good, too—the fact that he got through, perhaps, a difficult string piece the first time. But he couldn’t do that if the bowing was all upside–down. It would make him look a bit of a Charlie—when he’s not.
The string writing, I think, has had a lot to do with the jobs I’ve been asked to do. Because most of these big dance bands–cum–string orchestras have rather uninteresting things to play. Even Glenn Miller, when he had that magnificent string section during the war—he didn’t use it. They were playing long notes all the time—instead of interesting string parts.
Writing for singers? I’ve never enjoyed it to any great extent. I like working with the orchestra by itself. I’ve written for many singers—and I don’t ever remember one side becoming a hit. I did string arrangements for Vera Lynn till I was blue in the face, and never a hit. Then she decided to get someone else—Roland Shaw—and the very first number he wrote for her was a hit! I just didn’t have any luck. Although the Sarah Vaughan record came off. But that was almost orchestral writing, anyway. We had the Danish choir, the orchestra—and Sarah herself is like a musical instrument. She’s so intelligent; she listens to the accompaniment and just weaves in like an ad lib tenor or whatever.
As a matter of fact, Sinatra is like that. too. He knows just where to slide in. But on our ill–fated album, into which I put a lot of work, he just wasn’t in very good voice. He’d just returned from a world tour, and was doing concerts at the Festival Hall each night. He, too, claimed that his voice was tired. Therefore he wouldn’t allow the record to be released in America, because the singing would have done him more harm than good. So he rested his voice after that, I think, and about five or six months later he made an album, on which his singing was much improved. Yes, it would be nice to do another one with him if it’s not too late.
Tony Bennett and I have been trying to make an album for years. Just recently he asked if I could come over to New York to make one. And I couldn’t, because I was just beginning the BBC Farnon In Concert series.
Incidentally, Tony has recorded the floperoo Eurovision Contest song that I wrote—“Country Girl”. Apparently it’s become quite a hit in America since its release there. He’s also incorporated it into his act at the Copacabana—just accompanied by a harpist; which would be interesting. We’re hoping to have him as a guest on the Sunday radio show, when he comes over in May. So we might have a chance to hear his performance of my song then.
But I haven’t done much songwriting—no talent for it, really. “Country Girl” took me about three months to write—it was a great struggle. I enjoyed doing it, but no one should take that long writing a song, I don’t think.
When it comes to arranging—even if it’s just a pop song, I use the same form that I would for a serious work. I have, more or less, an idea of the format of what I’m going to do with it, but I never know how it will develop. And I like developing arrangements of any kind. They should be developed somewhere. Otherwise, it could be just another stock printed arrangement. What happens is: I lay out, say, a complete four–or five–line sketch right from the beginning. Then, when you score it—that’s the joyful part. Adding the gingerbread. The hard, creative work has been done in the sketch—you have your framework, as it were. Therefore, you can sit back and it’s just like writing a letter then—you add the different little colours and flourishes as you go along.
My approach to composition has always been the same, really. I like to think it’s improved a bit, because I’m certainly learning every day. But I know what I like to do. I still want to write serious music, because I enjoy it so much.
In 1962 I wrote two large orchestral works, one to showcase Oscar Peterson and his Trio and one for Dizzy Gillespie, which we were to record in Berlin. And I wanted to use six or seven lead men from London, not being too familiar with the musicians in Germany—to make sure that at least the leaders of each section were going to carry us through. It was just as well I did, because, although we found a wonderful string section over there, at that time the brass and saxophone players weren’t too good. They’re much better now—at least there are more available.
However, the British men were informed by the Musicians’ Union that, if they proceeded with this recording involving American musicians, disciplinary action would be taken. And when Dizzy, Oscar and Norman Granz, who was promoting this album for Verve, arrived in Berlin, they each received telegrams from the American Federation of Musicians. They all stood to be expelled from the Union if they carried on with the project. Of course, that scrubbed the whole thing.
The reason we went to Berlin was that, if it were to be done in New York, it would cost the record company a fortune, what with the travelling expenses and everything. We had about 75 musicians in one section of a movement—plus Oscar’s Trio. Then plus Dizzy. Whereas the Union fees and general costs in Berlin would be much lower.
So Norman wondered if we could do it in England, but that wasn’t possible, either. It was decided to shelve it for the time being, and, if I came to New York later on, perhaps they could do the Dizzy side of the album. Then the Oscar side at another time, and spread the expense over like that.
Meanwhile, Dizzy and Oscar both joined other companies. I joined Philips, who didn’t allow me to work for another company, because I was under exclusive contract. Eventually I got permission to do the LP on Verve—but something else happened. Dizzy went to the Far East, I think. Some situation always came along to stop it materialising.
But I still hope we can do it some time. I might even orchestrate it for a smaller combination. Perhaps that would give us a chance, financially., to record it, without having to bring m a gallery of strings. String players are very expensive these days. I’d certainly like to revise some of it. By now it would be a dated work—it’s four years old.
I do think that jazz dates very quickly. It always will, somehow. The same as improvisations in classical works—I think they date. In the old days, concertos included a cadenza which was to be improvised by the particular player—I imagine that, if what he did then was played today by Rubinstein, it would sound very dated. Anything that’s improvised dates. Listening to the Goodman band now, although it’s great and brilliant, it sounds terribly corny to me—when you compare it with the swinging arrangements they play today.
Some of the things they do in jazz today really amaze me. Look at Dizzy—the way he has improved. When I used to play with him, he was even worse than I was—dreadful player. But now he’s great, and I’ve told him so. He often says: “I’m glad you gave up the cornet, man!”
When I played jazz, I didn’t have the incredible facility of, say, Al Hirt. I don’t think anyone else did in that era. In my opinion, the techniques in jazz have progressed to such a fantastic degree of excellence that it’s almost impossible to believe.
Copyright © 1967, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.