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An Expansive View of Timbre for Marimba by Payton MacDonald

Mar 3, 2021, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

We live in a marimba world dominated by yarn mallets. I like yarn mallets, and I use them every day. The standard marimba repertoire has been mostly designed with that sound in mind, so it makes sense that the majority of marimba players would primarily use yarn mallets. But as another generation of marimba players emerge, I want to suggest that we explore more timbral variety. With newly-commissioned works, improvisations, and other formats of expression, there is ample opportunity to expand our timbral palette.

When I perform with my Super Marimba project or for my solo improvised concerts I use all manner of mallets — many of them homemade. This includes rubber, wood, plastic, paper, and yarn mallets that I cover with all sorts of different materials, including Tyvek, paper and plastic bags, Styrofoam, duct tape, flip flops, string, bags of bells, etc. The term I prefer is “actuators.” I don’t expect that to become standard in the lexicon of percussion terms, but I like it better than “mallets” because it frees me from thinking solely about mallets and opens the door to things one can rub or scrape or slide across the instrument in addition to striking it. 

Despite the popularity of yarn mallets, you can strike a marimba with virtually anything.

I’ve also experimented with preparing the instrument by taping various things to the bars (plastic spoons, pieces of rubber, cotton balls, etc.) that rattle and buzz with each stroke or mute the bars. Sometimes I will cover the marimba with plastic, cloth, or whatever else is on hand. I’ve also dropped the upper manual of bars upon the lower manual so they chatter away as I move around the instrument. Sometimes I throw loose bundles of small dowels or handfuls of dried beans on the bars. At times I utilize the frame or resonators as an instrument. Combined with electronics, I’m able to significantly expand the timbral range of the marimba. None of this does damage to the instrument. Even wood mallets can be used in the low range of a marimba if one’s technique is sound. To date I have not cracked any bars, although I’ll admit that I’ve scratched a few, but only on my personal instrument at home.

Several things have influenced my interest in timbral variety on marimba. Keiko Abe’s playing was a formative influence on me, and she often used cluster slap mallets in her compositions. My mentor at University of Michigan, Michael Udow, used a wide variety of mallets, and he always encouraged his students to build their own mallets so they had total control over their sound. I’ve taken inspiration from the gyil or balafon players of West Africa, whose instruments buzz and rattle. The resonating gourds under the keys of those instruments have a hole covered by a membrane of spider’s egg sac filaments, plastic, or paper. The buzzing sound is considered integral to sound of the instrument. I’ve also worked with many electric guitar players over the course of my career and observed how they use pedal boards to enhance and expand the timbre of their instrument. I’ve been influenced by John Cage’s music and other composers from the American Experimental Tradition who suggested that we open our minds to a more expansive appreciation of sound, one free from a simple dichotomy of good or bad, and include every sound as a possible source of music. 

Despite the thousands of possible sounds one can draw from a marimba, the majority of players prefer yarn mallets. I believe there are several reasons for this.

First, I’ve observed that most of us are primarily concerned with our own physical comfort. Yarn mallets feel good and produce pleasing sounds; they sit nicely in the hands, and they produce warm, resonant tones. As much as anyone else, I love the deep, sweet, earthy tones of a good marimba played with an excellent yarn mallet. But while that sound might be appropriate for some solo repertoire, I find it limiting to promulgate a repertoire entirely based on that sound. Interestingly, this is the one criticism of marimba recitals I hear from other musicians or laypersons who are really listening: no matter how accomplished the playing, the instrument lacks color compared to strings or winds.

Yarn mallets also don’t always work well in ensemble situations. For many ensemble situations the player will need hard cord mallets or, more often, rubber mallets. Unfortunately, those are not nearly as comfortable, nor do they produce as sweet a sound over the instrument, and they make it much harder to create the illusion of sustain when rolling. During my time with the new music-group Alarm Will Sound, I needed rubber mallets or very hard cord mallets most of the time. Medium or soft yarn rarely projected well enough to balance with a large ensemble, and the sweet, mellow timbre was easily covered and subsumed in any material beyond a solo or a soft duet. It wasn’t always comfortable to use such hard mallets, but it’s what the music demanded. (Amplifying the instrument is one way around this, but that creates another set of problems.)

Second, the percussive arts are subject to intense industry influence, including from mallet manufacturers. These companies make great products, but after being subjected to yarn-mallet advertisements, most young students conclude that yarn mallets are the only way to go. Then the situation becomes circular: the companies influence the players on their mallet selection, the players then commission pieces for that sound world, the composers write the pieces, then the mallet companies respond accordingly. The circle is complete.

Despite the popularity of yarn mallets, you can strike a marimba (or any percussion instrument) with virtually anything. Yarn mallets are only one option among many, and a rather new one at that. In fact, for years marimbists preferred rubber mallets. (Early vaudeville xylophonists even used wood mallets.) If you listen to early recordings of Vida Chenoweth or Claire Omar Musser, you’ll hear that much of the time they were using rubber mallets, as were their peers. But as marimbists developed new ways of playing the instrument in the late 1970s, the timbral approach to the instrument changed. The new generation of artists advocated using longer birch shafts with a yarn wrapping around the ball of the mallet. This type of mallet produces a sweet, mellow sound with a pleasing blend of the fundamental and overtones of each bar. It is an inviting sound, especially when one is standing over the instrument. What people missed, though, is that this approach works for a particular style of playing and for a particular repertoire, but it’s not the only way to play the instrument. Indeed, it is often at odds with the demands of some styles of music, especially in ensemble situations.

Just because most people use medium yarn mallets now does not mean it was always the case. Styles and attitudes change. Nothing is set in stone, not even the hallowed yarn mallet. If we explore radically different mallet options, we expand our range of expression on the instrument. Violinists have all manner of expressive devices literally at their fingertips (or bow), including sul tastopizzicato, sul ponticello, different vibrato speeds, spiccato, etc. Our choices with marimba are seemingly much more limited, but in fact we can explore dead strokes, playing with the shafts, and playing on nodal points or different beating spots on the bars. Combined with different mallet choices, various preparations of the instrument, and now electronic processing, the sound possibilities are truly limitless.

With all the problems in the world it may appear petty for me to be griping about mallet selection. After all, if someone prefers yarn mallets, that’s their own business, right? Sure, but these details matter because they are indicative of larger issues. When you reache into a bag and grab a pair of mallets, you are making a statement whether you want to or not. It may be a statement that only fellow percussionists fully appreciate, but it still ripples out and beyond the specific activity of tapping wooden bars and the community that surrounds that activity. This is why I make many of my mallets. When I was in high school I did it because I couldn’t afford manufactured mallets. Now I enjoy a sponsorship from a company that makes exceptional mallets, but I still build some of my own mallets (or actuators) because it gives me total control over the sound, the sound that is appropriate for that specific musical situation, and it forces me to engage more deeply with timbre, one of the most fundamental parameters of music. Let me be clear: the companies creating great mallets are doing excellent work, and they provide us with the necessary tools for realizing the majority of our repertoire. Even if we wanted to make all our own mallets, we couldn’t match the quality of what the companies offer, since they have patents on their designs and materials, and the infrastructure needed to produce consistent products. I’m not arguing that we do away with those mallets; I’m merely suggesting we consider expanding beyond the world of yarn mallets, especially as we commission a new generation of composers and we develop our voices as improvisers.

When a whole generation of percussionists relies solely on manufactured mallets, their range of expression narrows considerably. Most of the young men and women I’ve taught in my job as a university professor are in their late teens or early 20s. Typically, this is a time of searching and discovery in one’s life. One of the most important aspects of going to a college or university is to learn to think independently, analytically, and creatively, and to question systems. Even something as inconsequential as mallet selection can inspire the next generation of percussionists to think more deeply about every aspect of their artistic lives.

I believe that it is time to move to another stage in the evolution of marimba playing. It is time to explore a more expansive approach to timbre. With the world at our fingertips — thanks to the internet — we have unprecedented access to more music than at any other time in recorded human history. In mere seconds we can traverse the globe, listening to master musicians from many diverse cultures. When we zoom in on different kinds of music from different parts of the world, we hear a cornucopia of color blasting from our speakers. Why not let that us inform and inspire us? Why settle only for yarn mallets?

Payton MacDonaldPayton MacDonald explores the frontiers of art in a variety of settings, from Carnegie Hall to remote wilderness locations. He spent his early years drumming along with jazz records while exploring the Rocky Mountains near his home in Idaho by foot, bicycle, and skis. Eventually he was shaped into a percussionist who plays marimbas, snare drums, bicycles, plants, pots and pans, and anything else that might produce an interesting tone. Along the way Payton discovered Indian classical music, and after 20 years of studying that ancient music he now sings it in concert halls, yoga centers, and ashrams. He looks for ways to connect his diverse interests, and filmmaking has been particularly effective for that. His first film, Sonic Divide, shows Payton pedaling his mountain bike 2,500 miles along the Continental Divide while performing 30 new pieces of music. His second film documents the rise of the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble. Payton studied music formally at the University of Michigan (BFA) and Eastman School of Music (MM and DMA), as well as with the legendary Gundecha Brothers (Dhrupad vocal) and Pandit Sharda Sahai (tabla). He is a Professor of Music at William Paterson University and tours nationally and internationally as a percussionist, singer, and speaker.

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