3 Months in the Marimba Project

I’m now three months into my massive marimba recording project, and I have released 13 new recordings, one per week. Those plus the few I have in the hopper and my previous recordings put me up to 23 solo marimba recordings.

This project has changed my life in many ways. That sounds melodramatic, but I mean it seriously. For the last few years I’ve found my energies spread too far. After leaving Alarm Will Sound to focus more on my solo work, I was making films, singing Dhrupad, running a college percussion studio, playing in NJPE and various freelance gigs, etc. It was intoxicating to allow my creative powers to blossom in so many directions, but also exhausting, and at the end of the day I found that I just couldn’t keep up. In a burst of inspiration last October (partly from reconnecting with my long-time visual artist friend Beeple, AKA Mike Winklemann, who has created an original work of art every single day for 14 years), I decided to launch this massive marimba recording project.

So, it puts me behind the instrument about 20-30 hours a week, which in its own way is exhausting, but the extreme focus has been a welcome change from being too spread out. And what I’ve found is that there is so much to do. There are so many things I’ve avoided doing for a long time, and I realize now I was avoiding them by bouncing from one thing to another. It’s easier to stay busy than it is to solve problems, especially artistic ones.

Having a weekly deadline is important. Does quantity beget quality? In many ways, yes, I would argue it does, especially if one is already at a high level of musical and technical accomplishment. At the very least, the act of creating music has become more normalized for me, like brushing my teeth or making breakfast. The practicality of getting a recording out every week quickly overrides the conservatory-induced paranoia about producing masterpieces. Is every track going to win a Pulitzer Prize? No, but every track is part of an overarching journey that is deepening my relationship to the instrument, and expanding the expressive possibilities of the instrument, in all dimensions. I will vouch for every note that is on every recording. Nothing gets published if it isn’t the best work I can do at that time, but I also recognize that the recording I release this week may in some ways be stronger than the recordings I released two months ago. My playing is perhaps a touch better, I’m more confident with my creative powers, my vocabulary has expanded, and my skills with recording, mixing, and mastering continue to improve. And, for the first time in my life, I’m allowing myself to reflect in a more sustained way about my creative work.

Will I eventually cull some of this massive output of work? Probably not. It’s a zero-sum game to constantly look backwards and see only negativity. The true act of courage for an artist isn’t obsessing over an unattainable notion of perfection, but rather embracing the asymptotic process of discovering the most necessary and personal contribution to the field.

To be sure, I delete nearly as much material as I release. Many days I go in my studio for several hours and create and record music, only to hit delete at the end of the session. No matter. Sometimes knowing the right road is a matter of going down the wrong one for a little bit. I still manage to finish a complete recording each week.

Does anyone listen to this music? Does anyone care? So far, there’s been little engagement, only in the hundreds. I’m no different than any other artist. I would love it if my work was well-received and spread widely. However, I also realize that much of the work I’m doing is extremely intense and requires the listener to expend some time and energy digesting it, as well as an open mind about different parameters of sound and of what music is and can be.  It has crossed my mind that I would gain a bigger following in the percussive arts community and beyond if I released material that is more directly connected to the standard repertoire or popular music, but that’s not what inspires me. And, why do that when so many other artists are already doing it so well? Besides, I’ve already worked through most of the standard rep. As much as I enjoy playing it, I view it as more of a stepping stone to my creative work, not a final resting place for me.

I think there is room for all of us, but it’s important that we each be honest about how we can best contribute to the conversation. I’ve always tended towards the experimental and the avant-garde. As Lou Harrison once said, I’m in the R&D department of music. Certainly, it has less commercial appeal, but I do believe that those of us working in that area are contributing something meaningful to the art form. We’re asking “what if?”, a question that ultimately keeps the art form vital, and protects us from falling into musical and marimbistic solipsism.

So, I will continue. And as my engagement with the project deepens, I see how in fact that it isn’t really a specialization at all. It’s an expansion. An expansion of my creative powers, my foundational marimba and percussion playing, and ultimately about placing my creative voice into the vast, unyielding, beautiful, harsh, and wondrous world of creative music and the percussive arts community.

Thanks for reading and listening, much love to you, and best wishes in your own creative work. Please stay in touch.

One thought on “3 Months in the Marimba Project

  1. This was a wonderful blog entry about an inspiring project I’ve been following with great interest, awe, and admiration.

    It’s totally amazing that hundreds of people are following it! Jesus only had twelve disciples, after all. Maybe he would have had more if he had better chops like you!

    I better stop before I get too mushy and embarrass myself but I hope you know I’m always rooting for you and excited about what comes next!

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