Payton MacDonald: Super Marimba
Fever Pitch

Even the most accomplished virtuoso is handcuffed to some degree by an instrument's inherent limitations; challenged to wring a mournful cry, the violinist does so with consummate ease while the marimba player struggles to produce some reasonable simulation. Be that as it may, Super Marimba clearly suggests that if any percussionist is capable of conjuring the cry in question, it's probably Alarm Will Sound member Payton MacDonald.

Though the multi-layered clusters that dominate his album's six compositions suggest MacDonald took full advantage of studio multi-tracking, the pieces were, in fact, recorded in one take with no splicing or overdubbing. The seemingly multi-limbed virtuoso approximates a mini-ensemble by generating real-time layers of loops while playing marimba on top, with the underlying loops sometimes accumulating gradually and at other times appearing all at once. Doing so obviously positions his compositional approach within the American minimalist tradition of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and LaMonte Young, but MacDonald extends the style by drawing upon the traditions of improvisatory jazz and Indian classical music (MacDonald has studied tabla drumming for many years with Bob Becker and Pandit Sharda Sahai). Specifically, he incorporates theme and variation processes of solo tabla drumming to develop multi-rhythmic cycles of melodic streams.

While the approach is distinctive, so too is the very range of marimba sounds. Sometimes he deviates from the instrument's familiar soft tone to simulate the sound of sticks rattling together, while a clipped, backwards phasing effect introduces a modern electronic flavour. MacDonald's multiple beaters—rubber and wood, soft and hard, wrapped in plastic and foil—also account for the music's contrasts. Furthermore, he extends the conventional marimba's sound by adding amplification, a mixer, a digital delay effects pedal, and another pedal used for looping and reversing loops.

While MacDonald's music draws upon the minimalist tradition, however, it's important to note that his music isn't merely comprised of layered patterns but instead acts as a meeting ground between notation and improvisation. Furthermore, while there is a consistency of sound, the pieces compositionally contrast from one another in mood and character. “Ascending Sunshine Shaman,” MacDonald's homage to Terry Riley, features flowing rivers of velvety patterns while the ponderous and macabre “Spider” simulates the insect's spindly crawl. The album's most distinctive piece, “Mystic Woods of Shadows,” transforms the marimba's customary hammering into fluid tones that murmur like an alto flute. As mysterious as its title suggests, MacDonald here combines the familiar plunk of repeating patterns with bouncing ball clusters and slurring lines to conjure a captivating landscape. Though Super Marimba includes remarkable performances, it's ultimately less noteworthy for its technical virtuosity and innovative instrument effects than for the strength of its compositions.

October 2005