Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Microtonal Monk: Quartertone Variations on "Blue Monk"

During a 2014 interview with Stacy Momstellor on WSKG radio, saxophonist Branford Marsalis said the following: "In the western scale there are only twelve notes, and it is amazing how many sounds you can create with twelve notes." In many cases, this is true. But not always. Here, I will show two examples of how one can get beyond the 12 notes commonly used in the Western scale. Typically, the Westen scale is divided into twelve equal parts, also known as half steps or semitones. Many circles refer to these systems of note organization as the twelve tones of equal temperament, or12TET.  The pieces we'll examine today are built on a system in which the scale is divided into 24 equal parts or quartertones. This can be referred to at the 24 tones of equal temperament, or 24TET.  



Below are two examples of a microtonally altered "Blue Monk" by Thelonious Monk.  This tune is a good vehicle for quartertone alternations, being that the melody is already centered around semitones. 


Example 1 is my rendition. Here, I'm using the middle register of the instrument. The sound has more weight, but some of the quartertones are a lot more difficult finger and play in tune. Also, because I'm playing twice as many notes, the melody now has a double-time feel.


Example 2 is by Argentinian saxophonist Dario Dolci. In Dario's example, he's using the upper register of the instrument, which can make it slightly easier to play the quartertones with more clarity--not to negate the difficulty of what he's doing. As you'll hear, Dario has also slightly varied the melody.




I've also, included a few fingering charts for those of you looking to get your quartertone fingers wet. 


(1) This first chart is from a book titled Preliminary Exercises and Etudes in Contemporary Techniques for Saxophone by Ronald L Caravan. An amazing book!

(2) The second chart is by classical saxophonist Johan Vanderlinden.  He's doing a lot of great work!

If you decide to try these, here are a few pointers:

  • Use a chromatic tuner
  • Be prepared to make slight alterations more suitable for your own set-up
  • Be patient. You have to allow your fingers to get used to the newfound awkwardness and your ears a chance to get used to the quarter-steps.

Have fun!

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