by Lauren Vogel Weiss
Last June’s Santa Fe Marimba Festival had been planned long before Gordon Stout was selected to be in the PAS Hall of Fame, but it became a celebration of one of the marimba’s most well-known and influential artists. Among the performers at the New Mexico event were Kevin Bobo, Valerie Naranjo, and Dane Richeson, as well as host Samuel Lunt, and they all had one trait in common: being a former student of Stout. Others in attendance mentioned his compositions that influenced them. Sitting in the back row during each of the marimba clinics throughout the event, Gordon smiled with pride as each marimbist shared his or her perspectives on his musical accomplishments.
“If you’re talking about Gordon, you can’t single out only his teaching, or only his playing, or even just his compositions,” explains Leigh Howard Stevens, a 2006 PAS Hall of Fame inductee. “It’s not fair to someone who has that kind of breadth of a career.”
The Early Years
Gordon Stout was born on October 5, 1952 in Wichita, Kansas, to parents who were both professional musicians. His father, a French horn player, and his mother, a flautist, were members of the Kansas City Philharmonic at the time of their middle son’s birth. “I remember family road trips across the country, listening to classical music in the car,” says Stout. “I learned all the Beethoven symphonies by ear, even before I knew who Beethoven was.”
The family moved to Elmhurst, Illinois while his father spent six years in the Chicago Symphony. By then, Gordon was taking piano lessons. In 1960, Louis Stout moved his family to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he started a 28-year tenure as the Professor of French Horn at the University of Michigan. “As the story goes,” Gordon recalls, “my dad took me to the school of music when I was about eight or nine years old. He introduced me to all the professors and I chose the marimba—and Jim Salmon.” James Salmon, who was inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame in 1974, taught at the University of Michigan from 1954 until 1972.
“I chose Jim Salmon because he was a very nice man who was easy to be around,” Stout says. “And I chose the marimba because the first time I hit a bar, I thought the sound was just incredible.” Gordon also began playing timpani during junior high and added snare drum and the rest of the percussion instruments in high school. He marched tenor drum and then snare drum in the Pioneer High School Marching Band in Ann Arbor, and played in the school’s concert band and orchestra.
Gordon’s father bought his son a used Deagan instrument. “It was a three-and-a-half octave marimba,” he recalls. “My father had all the metal parts nickel-silver plated and had cases made by a company in Chicago. It was a beautiful instrument, and I’ve kept it all these years.”
When it was time for Gordon to go to college, he chose Eastman at the urging of his mother. “I immediately fell in love with the school and with John Beck [who was head of the department],” Gordon remembers. “I had studied with Jim Salmon for more than ten years, so it was time to move on. John Beck was my only official percussion teacher at Eastman, but I learned from a lot of people in many different ways. For example, I learned a great deal by sneaking into the Eastman Theatre during Rochester Philharmonic rehearsals and sitting in the balcony with my binoculars and watching Bill Cahn play snare drum or cymbals and John play timpani.”
Another “unofficial” teacher was Bob Becker, who was a graduate student during Stout’s freshman year. “I was playing Ginastera’s ‘Cantata para Americana’ with the upper-class ensemble,” explains Stout. “I was on the marimba part and kept missing my entrances because I was watching Bob play xylophone. I had never seen anything like that before. So I certainly learned from Bob just by being around him and watching him play.”
Stout was one of the founding members of the Eastman Marimba Band in 1972. “Dave Mancini and I formed that,” he recalls. “Jim Salmon mailed me all the originals he owned of the ragtime solos by George Hamilton Green, Harry Breuer, and Red Norvo. We copied them and started doing arrangements.” The Eastman Marimba Band’s first record, Nola, was released on the Mercury Golden Imports label in 1976 and was the first of Stout’s now fourteen recordings.
Stout’s freshman year at Eastman was also Joseph Schwantner’s first year on the faculty there. “I took composition lessons with Joe and also had freshman theory with him,” Stout remembers. “Then I studied two years with Sam Adler and finished my last three years at Eastman studying with Warren Benson. Warren and I would frequently talk about percussion-related subjects, and he was certainly one of my major influences.”
Benson, who was inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame in 2003, was instrumental in naming one of Stout’s best-known pieces. “The ‘First Mexican Dance’ was originally ‘Etude No. 9’ in the Second Book of Etudes,” Stout explains. “Most of those pieces are very complicated rhythmically and atonal in harmony. Warren said, ‘This one piece, No. 9, doesn’t really fit. Why don’t you take it out of that collection, write another piece in a similar style, and call it “Two Mexican Dances”?’ So Warren was the one who heard something Mexican sounding, to him, in this etude! I followed his advice, took it out of the etude book, wrote another piece—the ‘Second Mexican Dance’—and called it ‘Two Mexican Dances.’ So it’s totally Warren Benson’s fault,” Stout says with a grin.
According to Leigh Stevens, “Everybody knows and plays, rightfully so, the famous ‘Mexican Dances.’ Those were seminal works that changed the future of the marimba because of their textures and ground-breaking techniques they introduced to four-mallet literature. The left hand in the ‘First Mexican Dance’—disjunct, leaping, Alberti-like bass—was unprecedented and a huge musical leap—pun intended!—for the marimba and its compositional possibilities. Likewise, the filigreed four-mallet patterns of the ‘Second Mexican Dance,’ forming intricate harmonies, had no historical or pedagogical roots in the previous marimba literature. They set the marimba off in a new direction.”
Stout’s first compositions were actually written before Eastman. “It started when I was a senior in high school,” Stout says. “I wrote ‘Elegy’ and ‘Reverie’ as study pieces for the ‘Suite for Marimba’ by Alfred Fissinger, which was one of the first solos I learned. That was how I started writing for marimba. Fast forward a few years to when I was a junior in college and you get the ‘Mexican Dances’.”
By the time Stout left Eastman in 1976, he had a Bachelor of Music degree in Applied Percussion (the coveted Performer’s Certificate) and a master’s degree in composition (although he didn’t finish his master’s thesis until 1980). “Warren Benson helped me decide to do the master’s in composition because it would make me more versatile and able to teach theory and composition.”
Clinician and Performer
The first PASIC was held in Rochester in the fall of 1976. One of the featured performers on marimba was Gordon Stout. Following his appearance there, he was quickly recruited by Hal Trommer of the J.C. Deagan Company to endorse their instruments. He also used Mike Balter Mallets, and his music was published at that time by Joel Leach at Studio 4 Music. [Studio 4 was acquired by Keyboard Percussion Publications, which publishes Stout’s more recent works, so all of his published pieces are now available from one publisher.]
Stout traveled around the country, giving marimba clinics and master classes at various colleges and universities, sometimes as many as three-dozen a year. In 1977, he recorded his debut album, Music for Solo Marimba, which included several of his own etudes as well as “Two Mexican Dances.” In 1980, he performed at a second PASIC, this one in San Jose, California. His clinic there covered new performance opportunities through chamber music. By 1982, Stout became a Bergerault artist. The company sponsored his appearances at the next three PASICs (1982, 1983, and 1984). Stout also served as Educational Director for the company.
In 1983, Bergerault sponsored his first European clinic and concert tour. Stout, along with his wife Christy, traveled to Belgium, France, Germany, and Holland. His second solo marimba album (now out of print), Gordon Stout: 2, was released around this time and included concertinos by Paul Creston and Niel DePonte.
In 1986, while on a performance tour with trumpeter Robert Levy as part of the Wilder Duo, Stout was in Arkadelphia, Arkansas at Henderson State University. “That’s where I met Doug DeMorrow,” says Stout. “He set up a five-and-a-third-octave instrument that was not finished yet; the resonators weren’t polished and the bars had not been stained.” But Stout was so impressed with the instrument that he decided to endorse DeMorrow and played one of their marimbas at his PASIC ’86 concert at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, on which Stout premiered “Autumn Island” (from “Islands from Archipelago: II”) by Roger Reynolds. Stout also appeared at PASIC ’87 in St. Louis and at PASIC ’89 in Nashville under the sponsorship of DeMorrow.
“Several years later, I was at Leigh’s house in Asbury Park [New Jersey],” Stout explains. “We set up both marimbas side by side, and that’s when I decided to play Malletech.” By 1991, Stout was endorsing Malletech marimbas and a line of signature mallets, an association he continues to this day.
Following his graduation from Eastman in 1976, Stout taught percussion for three years at St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s City, Maryland. During the 1979–80 school year, Stout also served as a marimba instructor-in-residence at Wichita State University in Kansas. He also spent many summers (1979–90) teaching at the Birch Creek Performing Arts Academy in Door County, Wisconsin. In 1980, Stout began teaching percussion at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, where Warren Benson taught from 1953–67. In addition to being the Professor of Percussion for the past 32 years, Stout also served for 12 years (1992–2004) as the Chair of the IC Performance Studies Department.
“My fondest memories of Ithaca are of the many students who have been here over the years and then left and done very well for themselves—in spite of working with me!” Stout says with a chuckle. “During my first year at Ithaca, Paul Smadbeck and I shared a house together while he was finishing his master’s degree, and Mike Burritt [current Professor of Percussion at Eastman] was a freshman. [Lawrence University’s] Dane Richeson’s second daughter was born in Ithaca while he was a master’s student here, and I am her godfather. Dave Hall, who plays in the Grand Rapids Symphony, made history at Ithaca by winning the concerto competition three years in a row. Tom Burritt did his undergraduate degree with me. Naoko Takada was my first foreign master’s student.”
Many credit Stout for influencing an entire generation of marimba players. “He really helps his students find their own voice,” says Kevin Bobo, Associate Professor of Music (Percussion) at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. “Gordon makes sure that the individual player’s characteristics come through. That’s very evident, especially if you take all of the players who have studied with him over the past 20 or 30 years—they’re all very different. Most importantly, he is a genuine human being and a down-to-earth humble guy, and it’s refreshing to see that.”
Beginning in the 1990s, Stout continued to teach, perform, and now adjudicate, at various venues around the world. He was on the jury of the 1st and 2nd Leigh Howard Stevens International Marimba Competitions (1995 and 1998), the 2nd and 3rd World Marimba Competitions in Okaya, Japan (1999) and Stuttgart, Germany (2002), and the International Marimba Competition in Linz, Austria (2006). In 1998, Stout was the co-concertmaster (with Becker) of the 164-member Marimba Festival Orchestra at the West Point Percussion Festival. That same year he was also a featured performer at the World Marimba Festival in Osaka, Japan.
In 2002, Stout played in Hungary with Amadinda as the marimba soloist in “Route 666,” commissioned by Stevens and only the fourth piece Stout was commissioned to write. (The other three were 1998’s “Sedimental Structures,” commissioned by Robert Van Sice, and “Desperate Attitudes,” commissioned by Michael Burritt and Northwestern University, and 1999’s “Rivers of Wood” for young marimbist and chamber orchestra, commissioned by the Rivers School of Music in Weston, Massachusetts.) In 2004, Stout released his third solo album, Astral Projections, (Resonator Records). On New Year’s Day in 2006, Stout conducted a 100-piece marimba orchestra in the National Concert Hall in Taipei, Taiwan as part of the Taiwan International Percussion Convention.
Stout also continued his long association of teaching and performing at PASICs. He gave another concert in Columbus (1993) and premiered some works for marimba and violin (with Ellen Jewett) at PASIC ’97 as part of the Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commission. Stout wrote and premiered “Duo (Dance-Song)” with Lee Goodhew (bassoon) at PASIC 2000 in Dallas. The following year he taught a master class in Nashville, and then presented a “Marimba Perspectives” clinic with Steve Houghton at PASIC 2002 in Columbus where they premiered Stout’s new piece, “Incoming,” a duet for drumset and marimba. Back in Nashville in 2004, Stout participated in a Keyboard Committee panel discussion on “Keyboard Percussion Literature for Intermediates” and also performed with the “Malletech All Stars” accompanying Bob Becker during his ragtime xylophone clinic/performance. In 2009 he performed “Mouse Running” by Louis Andriessen as part of a PASIC concert showcasing pieces from the ZMF New Music Commissioning Project. Last year saw him perform on two Focus Day concerts in honor of PAS’s 50th anniversary: “Rhythm Song” by Paul Smadbeck (with Smadbeck) and “Nagoya Marimbas” by Steve Reich (with Adam Blackstock). Stout also wrote a special work, “New York Triptych,” for a 50-piece professional marimba orchestra, and he conducted the premiere.
Stout was a member of the PAS Board of Directors for three terms (1988–94). He also served as the editor of the marimba column for Percussive Notes from 1986–90.
Gordon Stout has published over five-dozen compositions, and he’s still composing. “I’ve written a fair number of pieces for marimba with other instruments,” Stout says. “And I think that’s really important for the health of the marimba.”
Stout has also written several choros (guitar music in a Brazilian folk style) for marimba and other instruments. “Pablo Cohen, our guitar teacher at Ithaca College, told me to look at the ‘Choros’ by Augusto Marcellino and try them on marimba, which I did. I’ve been playing them ever since and recorded them on Astral Projections. I started writing my own choros in 2005 and have written seven of them. The first one is for marimba and pandeiro, because of Dane [Richeson]. The next three are for marimba, percussion, and violin, because we didn’t have a bandonian player here. ‘Number 5’ is for two marimbas, and the last two are for marimba, violin, and percussion plus classical guitar, saxophone, and bass.”
Although Stout cannot choose his favorite piece, many others can. “The most intriguing are his original ‘Four Episodes’,” says Kevin Bobo. “They seem like a bridge between his older pieces and the music he’s writing now.”
Leigh Howard Stevens considered several pieces, including “the revolutionary two-mallet textures of ‘Wood That Sings’,” but chose “Sedimental Structures.” “Besides being deeply satisfying to play,” he explains, “it is on a short list of the real works of art in our solo marimba literature. It is one of the true masterpieces that Gordon has contributed to our literature.”
What advice would Stout give a young marimba player who was beginning to learn “Two Mexican Dances”? “If they’re not left-handed, like I am,” he says with a grin, “they could go to my Ideo-Kinetic Exercises for Marimba book. There are a couple of exercises that should help a great deal with the left-hand part.” Listening to the composer play the piece himself is another learning tool, especially since he recorded the piece twice, with several decades in between. “Interpretations of my pieces have changed and progressed over the years,” he explains. “As you continue to play pieces over and over, you improve them. You change them in little, subtle ways, and it develops almost organically over time.”
How does Stout think he will be remembered? “That’s not up to me,” he replies. “I hope that people don’t forget that I played marimba, but I think ultimately people will remember me most for my compositions. I say that because my playing is totally eclipsed by so many of the outstanding virtuosi that are on the scene nowadays. But I think my playing represents a certain standard; people of any technique can play my music equally well. You don’t have to be a Stevens grip or Burton grip player to play my music.” Stout uses what he calls the “Gordy grip.” “My approach to playing is based on sound, not technique.”
Kevin Bobo knows how his former teacher will be remembered. “Great playing and great writing, plain and simple,” he says. “He’s influenced countless marimbists and composers. And because guys like him paved the way, the rest of us have it a lot easier.”
photo courtesy Malletech