The marimba, an African-origins instrument typical of Central America (it’s the ‘national instrument’ of Guatemala) was introduced to the classical world by European modernists in the first half of the 20th century as a function of a brand of shocking primitivism very similar to the one that introduced jazz to the same area. Like most introductions of the kind, it was picked up later in the century by composers who stripped its presence of primitivism and valued it instead solely as a different percussive source of sound (think, for example, of Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître of 1955). Minimalists, in particular, have had a soft spot for it, perhaps because it produces the sensation of listening to light, sweet tones, to sounds that do not impose over others and have a very short duration. It is, in other words, a great alternative to the piano inasmuch as it is capable of more defined expressions than its percussive peers, but enjoying the advantage that it is probably still unfamiliar to the regular classical music listener. In this collection of Marimba Concerti with Percussion Orchestra, which includes pieces by distinct composers whose works deal importantly with percussion, you’ll find a showcase of contemporary expressionism unhinged from the kinds of demands that burden percussion orchestras when a high degree of emotionality is involved (which basically means having strings or, you guessed it, a piano).
The expressionism in display here is not necessarily tied to a sense of loss of the self or vertiginous decay as its old modernist partner was, but a condition of intensity that highlights emotions freed from conventional musical associations. “The Alabados Song” by Paul Bissell, the album opener, provides a grand introduction into this condition by subverting its folk-sounding name and shifting the calm, sweet, melodic nature of the marimba into a more abstract, anxious, melancholic development. It is definitely the leading instrument of the piece, with the rest of the percussions serving with great precision to push its various frantic peaks into more noisy territory. The “Song” sets the right tone for the rest of the album as an exploration of possible relationships between these instruments, between that unique marimba feeling of easiness (for me, specifically, a reminder of Mexico City plazas in tranquil, sunny Sundays) and the equally undefined but nevertheless much more precise, harsh impact of drums and cymbals.
Jan Van Landeghem’s “Concertino for Two Marimbas and Six Percussionists” seems to continue these ideas, except it takes the marimba to two different places based on its status as a percussive instrument in many ways equal to a drum: first, it presents it as capable of developing ‘narratives’ of sorts, and second, it tightly emphasizes its percussive capacities, particularly by the end of the second piece, where, after a while of listening to the marimba take the ear through a definite path, a switch takes place and the other percussion instruments lead the way while the marimba works as noisy highlight. It’s an interesting development that comes to a climax in Chihchun Chi-Sun Lee’s “Concerto for Marimba and Four Percussionists”, where the marimba joins clapping, finger snapping and drums as a base that overlaps with voices that also punctuate rhythms. This overturned relationship between the ‘lead’ of the marimba and its ‘support’ creates a simultaneously fiery and quiet experience of listening.
Daniel Adams’ “Concerto for Marimba and Percussion Ensemble” veers off into another side of the relationship that recovers the folk themes first hinted at by Bissell; an atonal exploration gives way to a short section with a dance rhythm by the three-minute mark, and with it a seemingly meandering path that is none other than a quiet growth towards silence. Paul Reller’s “Concertino for Marimba and Percussion Ensemble” continues by starting quiet but growing into a percussive mass that, interestingly enough for the album as a whole, is the only one that features a piano. This creates a great interplay between percussions that is nonetheless dominated by the more assertive, hard sounds of the piano, an uneven dialogue in which the piano’s speed and hardness is answered by the marimba’s better integration with the rest of the ensemble: where the piano soars in romantic individuality, the marimba is grounded in an equally romantic collectivity. The album ends with Cayenna Rosa Ponchione’s “The Creation”, the longest of the pieces, which also serves as a conclusion that explores most, if not all, of the overarching themes in the relationship between the marimba and the percussion orchestra. Out of all the compositions, it is also the most moving, the most emotionally charged, if only because it takes great care to develop a deeply expressive narrative flow that easily shifts from silence to quick, emotive passages.
All in all, this album recorded by the McCormick Percussion Ensemble constitutes a uniquely interesting exploration of an interaction between percussions rarely seen in the world of modern composition. If you have any interest in the crossings between folk instruments and classical ones, whether out of a modernist commitment to the new or just sheer curiosity, this album is definitely for you. (David Murrieta)