Tag Archives: Bob Becker

Reflections on the Nature of Marimba Music.



After the defeat of China’s army by the British in the first Opium War, (1839-42) Japan, concerned with the possibility of a foreign invasion, adopted Dutch military music for fifes, drums and trumpets to discipline and train their Samurai warriors in western infantry tactics. This was the first western music sanctioned by Japan since the expulsion of foreigners in 1640. In 1875, Japan’s government introduced a nation wide public school music program based on an American model.  By 1965, only 90 years after this official embrace of western music, the influence of Japanese composers began to be felt in western avant-garde art music circles [1.].

The Marimba in Japan:

The programme above is from Ryan Scott’s first DMA recital, played in Toronto, Ontario on 22 January, 2014. Ryan’s DMA thesis will probe Japanese art music for marimba. His work on this project has been facilitated in part by New York City resident and former Keiko Abe student Alan Zimmerman. Alan gave Ryan access to his encyclopedic knowledge and massive library of Japanese compositions for marimba, dating from its inception as art music in the 1960s, to the present.

Ryan anounced from the stage that prior to 1965, Japanese marimbists played arrangements of traditional folk songs and western classical music. Marimba virtuoso Keiko Abe (b.1937) convinced prominent Japanese composers to write art music for marimba and manufacturers to upgrade the quality of their instruments.[2.] Between 1965 and1985, more than 500 works of art music were written for marimba by Japanese composers and many of them are still performed today.

I had thought to write a critique of Ryan’s performance, but instead,found myself musing over his announcement regarding Keiko Abe and Japanese composers. I began thinking about the marimba in North America. What follows is almost entirely anecdotal, but during a lengthy telephone conversation, Ruth Cahn, who has been in the middle of most things percussive for many years, confirmed most of my remembrances. Thank you Ruth. Nevertheless, I take responsibility for all errors and the opinions expressed.

The Marimba in America:

Clair Omar Musser, (1901-98) a marimba virtuoso, composer, arranger and conductor, organized concerts for marimba orchestras. One of the first of such groups was a 25 piece, all-girl marimba ensemble for a Paramount Pictures event in Chicago. In 1933, Musser presented a concert with 100 marimbas and in 1950, a concert with 500 players for a  Chicago railroad fair. His repertoire consisted mainly of arrangements of popular classics along with compositions of his own. Musser was also an engineer. The marimbas he designed for the J.C. Deagan Company are considered today the finest of their kind ever made. [3.]

The Percussive Arts Society:

Founded in 1961, the Percussive Arts Society (PAS) today has a membership that includes percussionists from almost every university, college and conservatory in North America. Administered primarily by and for university percussionists, the PAS acts as a nexus for students, teachers, composers, performers and manufacturers, providing them access to school programs, pedagogic trends, new instruments and music.

Leigh Howard Stevens:

By 1980, a nascent group of educators and performers began to champion the marimba as a solo instrument and the popularity of marimba playing grew exponentially. Arguably the most influential marimbists was Leigh Howard Stevens (b. 1953). Stevens studied with Vida Chenoweth [4.] and later created an entire system for marimba playing. He devised a new grip, new mallets and a new marimba design, all complimensts to his vision. Stevens also wrote hundreds of etudes, and a vade mecum to disseminate his ideas. His work has influenced marimba composition and performance and has been adopted and adapted by marimba players throughout the world.

 Marimbas in the United States:

A marimba provides melodic and harmonic components often lacking in all but a few percussion programmes of the past. In most major music schools, marimba studies have become the backbone of  its percussion department. Importantly, this helps validate percussion studies within academia. Post graduate degrees, often unavailable to percussionists  prior to the marimba’s ascendency, are today, the norm, even for students who eschew traditional instruments and specialize in solo marimba performance.

Marimba Music in the United States:

Two major concertos for marimba were written before 1960: Paul Creston,1940 and Robert Kurka,1956. From 1969 forward, most concertos were being written by foreign composers. [5.] In 1987, John Serry completed a marimba concerto commissioned by Leigh Howard Stevens and other marimba soloists followed suit with commissions of their own. Unlike Japan however, only a small amount of solo music for marimba has been written by America’s art music composers. One of these, by Jacob Druckman (1928-96), is Reflections on the Nature of Water (1986) a masterwork, now almost thirty years old. Aside from the Druckman work, practically all pedagogic, ensemble and solo recital music has been and is being written by percussionists. A recent national marimba competition provided applicants a repertoire containing 15 compositionds, 13 of them written by percussion teachers.

Their music has failed to make an impact on audiences outside percussion circles. It is commonly based on classical forms and structures and is heavily influenced by basic marimba technique or the latest fad. Their music also demonstrates the American percussionist’s preference for loud, fast, continuous and repetitious music. [6.] For example, soon after the appearance of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, in 1973, percussion students and teachers began writing pattern music and continue doing so. In the words of a professional musician and friend, “Most composers are arrangers”.


Note: The works on Scott’s program above by Yoshio Hachimura, particularly Ahania II, and Tokuhide Niimi, differed in substantive ways from many American compositions for marimba. They were mesmerizing, rhythmically and harmonically ambiguous and occasionally weightless. Remarkable too were their sudden, surprising silences and absence of expectation. [7.] The latter, best described by John Cage who said of his close friend, “I love Takemitsu’s music because it doesn’t lead me anywhere”.1

I was impressed by Ryan’s lack of histrionics, all too common among players today, and the concentration of his mature artistry which allowed the music’s unique qualities to appear without his intervention. Michio Kiazume’s Side by Side is a congenial and equally virtuosic substitute for Xenakis’ Rebonds and was played with clarity and panache. I was delighted.

Ryan is commissioning a select group of composers. One being a marimba concerto by Erik Ross (2007). On the program above, the work by Oesterle for marimba and koto is a welcomed addition to the repertoire.

Ryan Scott has two more recitals and as rumour has it, he plans to present both by May of this year. I look forward to hearing another half dozen works from Japan, all new to me and I thank Ryan for instigating these ruminations.(Ryan’s last two recitals will now be played in the Fall of 2014.)

Foot Notes:

[1.] See Burt, Peter: The Music of Toru Takemitsu, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[2.] Many percussionists including myself, were familiar with the works of  Keiko Abe before her first visit to North America in November,1977. Though impossible to quantify, her presence inspired many students to play modern music and encouraged marimba soloists to write their own original compositions.

A detailed comparison of the grips, mallets and styles of Abe and Stevens and their effects on marimba performance would make interesting reading and a beneficial companion to Scott’s thesis.

[3.] If one wishes to hear a large marimba orchestra playing typical Musser repertoire, one can purtchase the CD The Marimba Festival Orchestra conducted by Frederick Fennell and recorded in the Eisenhower Theater of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. The orchestra was assembled by Lee Howard Stevens and featured soloists Gordon Stout and Bob Becker. Resonator Records by Marimba Productions, Inc. 1999.

[4.] The importance of Vida Chenoweth and her teacher, Clair Omar Musser, are worthy of attention.

Vida Chenoweth ( b.1929), one of Musser’s students at Northwestern, played her first solo recital in Chicago in 1956. She performed concerts world wide until an accident prevented her from playing at her former level. She is a member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

[5.] See: Conklin, M. Christine: An Annotated Catalog of Marimba Concertos Published in the United States Between 1940 – 2000. Marimba Concertos listed, chrinologically, alphabetically by composer, with orchestration, marimba size, date of composition, an interview and reviews, DMA thesis, University of Oklahoma, Norman, 2004. UM number 3134393.

[6.] I sent trombonist/composer Vinko Globokar an ensemble improvisation recording. His reply, paraphrased, was, ” This is typical of American music. Continuous, repititious. For the trio improvisations, our percussionist brings only two or three small instruments. Our idea is to never repeat. Always search for new ways to make sound”.

[7.] See Takemitsu, Toru: Confronting Silence, Fallen Leaf Press, Berkeley, California, 1995. Pgs. 51-57 contain Takemitsu’s thoughts on his use of silence and the concept of Ma.


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Percussive Arts Society 2011 International Convention: Some memories.

Steven Schick

The opening event was a Wednesday evening concert titled “Masterworks”  The first half began with Steven Schick  performing Psappha and Bone Alphabet.

Schick’s performance of Psappha was to date the best playing of that piece I’ve ever heard. His clarity balance and control was artistry at its highest level. It proved the point made to me by a composer friend of mine who said, “Contemporary music is not bad, it’s just badly played”.

I was convinced by Schick’s performance that the key to understanding  Psappha was an adherence to a steady tempo. Without this, relationships between  The form and structures of Psappha would be  incomprehensible and rendered meaningless.

Percussion Group Cincinnati

Then came a Percussion Group Cincinnati amalgamation of three Post-Cultural Revolution Chinese composers with the tongue and memory twisting title “From some of L AM- MOT(Qu Xiao-song), through WATER MUSIC (Tan Dun), to portions of DRAMA (Guo Wen-jing)

Since hearing Chris Lamb’s premier of  Tan Dun’s Water Music, I am still convinced the work’s greatest moment is the long, slow fall of water which ends the piece. It remains an enchanting sound particularly in a concert hall and may be in danger of becoming a cliché, something like the Mark Tree.

The work put together by Percussion Group Cincinnati contained an absolutely mesmerizing  chime solo. I can think of few moments in my experience to compare with the timelessness and touch displayed in those notes. (I couldn’t see who played this chime part, but a friend at the concert told me he thought it was Alan Otte.)

Between the chimes and the water came music I’m used to hearing on the table of my licensed massage therapist. The only thing missing was the massage. I don’t know if this is typical of the Post-Cultural Revolution composers or the product of the Percussion Group Cincinnati’s pastiche. Worth noting however is the fact that at no time was I aware of this being “Percussion” music.

Susan Powell

Susan Powell has created important percussion programs at Ohio State University. Though I had visited Ohio State on 2 occasions as a clinician, I had never heard Susan play. Therefore I was interested in hearing her presentation Xylophone +. Susan and her husband Joseph Krygier are exploring atypical xylophone repertoire.

The opening works were by William Cahn and Christopher Deane. The next work was Pattern Migration for tape and xylophone by Krygier and, for me the most successful work on the concert. Then followed a collaborative composition by Powell and Krygier. The programme ended with three virtuoso rag tunes by various past masters arranged as a medley and brilliantly played  by Susan.

Based on what I heard I believe Susan’s idea about building a concert repertoire for xylophone not based on early 20th century dance music is worthy of expansion and I applaud her and Joseph for their efforts to date.

Bob Becker

I could not miss the opportunity of hearing Turning Point, Prisoners of the Image Factory, Unseen Child, Cryin’ Time, Never in Word and Mudra. With the exception of Never in Word, I had played these works as a member of Nexus. Now I was to hear them again from the audience played by a hand picked group of virtuosi.

What I heard was a surprise. Becker’s music had always been interesting, exciting and challenging. All of those were present from out front, but the expression and mood was a new experience for me.

Bob’s music has a dark quality, something faintly disturbing. His music is modal and almost always in an odd meter, 5/4, but there is more.

And now, remembering feelings from my performances of these works, the word incomplete comes to mind. Somehow, his works never resolve in a traditional way- for example, as a five-seven chord announces the end of an eight bar phrase. This leaves a listener with a feeling not of what might have been, but what is to come. An intriguing and elusive quality.

Bob’s virtuosi made the same mistakes we always made in Nexus.

James Campbell, University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble.

Jim’s ensembles are always prepared. This year he had chosen an early work by my teacher Warren Benson and had asked me to write a biography of Warren and a programme note for Warren’s Streams.

Streams is so quiet, Jim had phoned to asked my opinion about beginning his programme with the piece. I was doubtful the work would be heard in the hotel conference rooms reserved for these types of concerts unless some sensitive miking was used.

Ultimately, Jim decided to open with Blue Burn a rhythmically interesting work by Joseph Tompkins who wrote the work for the University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble.

The performance of Streams was remarkable. Streams is a difficult work because it requires extensive use of techniques not usually required of percussionists. The ensemble gave a beautiful performance. I wished Warren could have heard them.

Streams is a piece for teaching. There are important lessons for students. It is a work in contradiction to most percussion ensemble compositions of the last 50 years. It’s difficult. It’s also very good.

There are two issues with Streams which I’ve never heard satisfactorily resolved. The percussionists are required to hum pitches and college percussionists cannot do this. Perhaps a small choir of voice majors would take care of the problem.  The other concerns a slide whistle glissando that always sounds out of place. Maybe a synthesizer is the answer here.

Jim followed Streams with a work that opened with tape sounds that perfectly dovetailed with the mood of Streams. Thank you Jim and the ensemble.

N.B. During the last few years, the PASIC has been shortened by a day. This schedule is less tedious, more doable, compact, easy to absorb.

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Posted by on December 5, 2011 in Articles, Commentaries & Critiques


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