52 marimba recordings in 52 weeks

52 marimba recordings in 52 weeks. I needed another massive project to focus my energy and this is it. I’m now ten weeks in and it’s rocking. If you want to listen to the music GO HERE.

the whomptronkle, one of the many homemade actuators I use in these recordings

There are three basic categories of recordings:

  1. Super Marimba
  2. Explorations
  3. one-off projects, usually collaborations

The Super Marimba recordings are focused aesthetically: modal, psychedelic, layered, textured recordings, often groove based and tuneful. The Explorations series is my sonic sandbox, and includes everything from sweet, delicate pieces to music that is completely bonkers, off the charts fucking nuts.

It’s exhilirating and exhausting. The recordings typically take about 20 hours per week, sometimes less, oftentimes much more.

Bike riding was an inspiration for this. The ultra-distance bikepacking events I’ve completed have a lot in common with a project like this. In the ultra-endurance sports community people do these kinds of irrational, arbitrary, soul-expanding events all the time. (E.g., Dean Karnazes doing 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days . . .) This stuff might seem insane, unless you’re wired a certain way, in which case it’s essential to maintain sanity. For me, going insane is not doing some crazy project that pushes me out of my comfort zone. Me and couches don’t get along well. I need to be in motion.

Mike Winkelman‘s art was also an inspiration. He has produced an original work of art for almost 14 years straight, which adds up to almost 5,000 works of art. He hasn’t missed a single day. That’s extraordinary. Fortunately, we’re friends and he’s letting me use some of his art for the recordings. Here are a few examples from the last few weeks:

I’m finally ready for something like this. I couldn’t have pulled this off even five years ago. I didn’t have the confidence, nor was my playing quite ready. The toolkit has to be massive to do this, and the well has to be deep. (Undoubtedly completing my Sonic Divide project also gave me the strength to try this.)

The other development in my music is that over the last six years I’ve become reasonable adept at using Ableton, a music software program for live or studio applications. Indeed, at this point I regard it as a second instrument. It’s a vast program and I’ve likely only tapped about 20% of its capability, but I can do what I need with it. Over the last 20 years I’ve spent many hours in recording studios pestering engineers with questions about mic placement, rooms, EQ, compression, reverb, mixing chains, and more, and I’m now able to handle the recording myself. I don’t anticipate winning any Grammys as a recording engineer, but I’ve held up my recordings to others in the same genre and I feel confident that they’re solid. At the very least, they sound the way I want them to sound, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters.

Having my marimba set up in my office with the mics ready to go and my computer just a few feet away makes it easy for me to lay down tracks at any time of day. Certainly the quarantine has also been helpful as I don’t have any concerts to prepare for.

This project is also possible because the infrastructure for sharing music has finally become user-friendly and affordable. Between Distrokid and Bandcamp I can upload a full recording in less than an hour. Of course, that brings with it a new problem: there are literally millions of great artists uploading great music every second of the day, but how does anyone find it? I’m confident that there are millions of people out there who would like my music (especially the Super Marimba material), but finding those people and building that community is easier said than done. I’m very good at producing work, but not so great at promoting it. That’s something I need to work on. The diversity of my artistic output also makes me a marketing nightmare, but these are solvable problems that I will continue to address.

Quantity can beget quality. There are those rare creators who produce very little work but everything they produce is perfect, but most of the best artists I’ve engaged with in every discipline are prolific. They’re prolific because it’s the work that matters the most. It’s the daily meditation of getting up, finding the flow state, working, sharing it, and then doing it again, day after day, week after week, decade after decade. The creative act becomes reflexive, like breathing. Not every piece is perfect, perhaps, but the act of creating is perfect, and even the less-than-perfect pieces are necessary to build the vocabulary and support the aesthetic intuition that leads to the best work.

Who can say what should be kept or what should be thrown away? Of course I have a baseline. Nothing goes public if I don’t fully believe in it and I end up deleting A LOT of tracks and obsessively reworking and editing tracks before releasing them, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if I spend too much time ruminating over things my creative process freezes. Different pieces speak to people in different ways at different points in their lives. So I do the work, I share it, and then I move on. And anyway, once it leaves my hard drive the work takes on its own life.

I love the marimba. It’s always been my favorite percussion instrument. I love the boom in the low register that fills your gut, the pop in the high register, the color of the bars, the shape of the instrument, everything. I love the way it is simulaneously a percussion instrument and a keyboard instrument, with connections to Bach and Debussy, but also to West African balafon players and Indonesian Gamelan, and in my case, the American Experimental Tradition. But even though I love this instrument through and through, I’ve never allowed myself to dive deep into the instrument. Not like this anyway. Not with this level of intensity, not with the full power of my creativity unleashed.

I don’t know where this journey will lead me, but I’m embracing the process. I feel like I’m gradually getting out of a familiar town. The neighborhoods are getting smaller, the population more sparse, services are dwindling, and dusk is settling in. There’s an anxious, nervous energy welling up inside me. It’s going to be a long night, but only in the darkest and most remote landscapes will I encounter those strange creatures that frighten and awe, both malevolent and quietingly beautiful. When dawn emerges, somewhere deep in the wilderness, surrounded by 52 recordings of my own music, I will feel resplendent with courage, a journey of my spirit etched in 0s and 1s, my soul radiant, energized, and smiling. I hope you’ll join me.

Memorizing mallet percussion music

Today I got to draw my favorite picture on the board for my students.
IMG_20190410_145100.jpg

That’s a percussion student standing on a dock and those are the shark-infested waters of memory slips in the water. One must build a dock with at least four pillars of support: (1) kinesthetic, (2) aural, (3) visualization, and (4) analysis.

Most developing mallet players only do 1 and 2, which is why they struggle with memory slips. 1 and 2 are important, but ultimately unreliable, especially when conditions are not ideal (e.g., cold room, no warm up, strange instrument, nervous, etc) 3 and 4 is where the real tedious work begins, but also guarantees a deeper knowledge of the piece, and is critical for preventing memory slips.

These ideas aren’t mine. Great pianists have been doing this for hundreds of years. I also learned this from Leigh Stevens when I attended his excellent marimba summer seminar in 1994. And then I learned it again in 2003 when I went on tour with Keiko Abe. Every day I would sit next to her on the bus as we went from town to town in Japan and she would have her eyes closed, in fierce concentration. Every once in a while she would pull out a score and study it for a few minutes and then put it back. She was visualizing herself playing the piece and whenever she got stuck and couldn’t remember which chunk of wood she was supposed to strike she would double check the score.

These techniques work. I tell my students about a book I read some years back that cited some research where scientists got together a group of people who had never thrown darts before. The scientists had everyone throw darts and they recorded the scores. Then the subjects were divided into three groups: a group that would physically practice throwing darts for a set time every day, a second group that would just visualize themselves throwing darts (and hitting the bulls eye), and a third group that would do a combination of throwing and visualizing every day. At the end of a period of time they all threw darts again and their scores were recorded.

The results were interesting. All of the subjects improved, but the group that improved the most was the group that did the combination of throwing and visualizing. But here’s what is really fascinating: the group that came in second was the group that only did the visualizing! The group that made the least progress was the group that only physically threw the darts.

Marimbas, vibraphones, xylophones, and glockenspiels aren’t much different than the bulls eye on a dart board. If you want to hit the right chunk of wood or metal every single time, no matter how adverse the conditions, you need to spend time visualizing yourself doing it successfully.

You also need to do some analysis of the piece so you have the structure mapped out in your mind. That works hand in hand with the visualization. The kind of analysis will change depending on the language of the piece. Obviously chord analysis won’t apply to a modern piece of chromatic music or a minimalist piece, but it really doesn’t matter how you analyze it or what terminology you use to label the different parts of the piece. What matters is that you have a road map in your head and that you can explain the piece to someone. Only then do you really have it learned.