Robert Paterson may not be the first or only person to use six mallets on the marimba; but he’s fast becoming a proselytizing percussionist for the technique. He has developed it based on the Burton grip with two additional mallets and is composing works to help expand the repertoire for sextuple sticking.
Christian Carey: Hi Rob. Thanks for talking about your unusual approach to playing the marimba. Lots of marimba repertoire is playable with a mallet or two in each hand. When did you first try adding two additional mallets to your technical routine? What did you feel this approach allows you to do at the instrument?
Robert Paterson: I first began exploring using six mallets when I was an undergrad student at the Eastman School of Music. It actually started out as an accident: there happened to be six mallets lying on top of my marimba, so I quickly grabbed all of them and began fooling around with a waltz-type figure to try and impress a girlfriend. I just happened to pick up the mallets in a way that worked, and I was immediately hooked.
Six-mallet technique allows for expanded harmonic possibilities, so for example, I can play triads in each hand. I can also quickly alternate mallets, so if you number them left to right, 1, 2/3, 4, 5/6, or whatever combination works. I can also play one-handed rolls quite easily, and play ripple roll chords that sound much more robust. You can also hold different mallets from left to right, so for example, a large rubber mallet as mallet 1, then five hard yarn mallets, so that the lowest note sounds very full and distinctive. There are seemingly limitless possibilities. Basically, anything that can be done with four mallets can be done with six, and with six I can do so much more.
If there’s one single goal I have with this new album, it’s to prove that six mallet technique is not a gimmick: I am definitely not just playing block chords on the naturals (i.e., the lower bank of notes), and I can really move the mallets around quite freely. The one thing I can’t do super fast if use mallets like piano fingers. I can do that to a certain degree, and at a moderate tempo, but it’s usually easier to alternate notes in melodic runs left hand to right hand.
CC: How has being a percussionist and marimba specialist impacted your work as a composer?
RP: There are certain technical aspects of composing I definitely obsess over, probably more than if I had grown up playing the violin or any other instrument. I am fascinated with resonance, and how notes ring. I also like bell sounds, and often ask non-percussionists to play cup gongs (temple bowls or Tibetan bowls), finger cymbals and other hand-held percussion instruments. A recent piece I wrote entitled A New Earth for orchestra, chorus and narrator requires certain players to play custom-tuned wind chimes, the kind you might have on your back porch. I am not sure if this stems from a sort of secret desire to bring other performers to the dark side of percussion land (although most of the time they really enjoy it), or that I just can’t disregard my roots, or something else entirely. Perhaps the main reason is that I really wish orchestras and other ensembles had larger percussion sections, so maybe this is my way of compensating, a sort of back door approach.
CC: Just in terms of your composing career, you’re a busy guy, with residencies, commissions, and involvement in running an ensemble (the American Modern Ensemble). How do you keep in shape as a performer?
RP: That’s a great question, and one I constantly struggle with. As I started receiving more commissions, residencies, and so on, and also started to conduct more, I eventually had to cut way back on performing, and only do what I really wanted to do, which at this point, happens to be marimba playing (often with six mallets) and occasionally new music by other composers. When I was younger, I definitely played my share of Messiah timpani parts and road shows for a variety of orchestras and chamber ensembles, and even rock gigs, but I eventually decided to leave all that behind so I could focus more on what I really love to do.
For me, the key to keeping in shape is to play a little every day (or a lot, obviously, if I am preparing for a concert). Admittedly, I think this is easier for percussionists than brass or wind players, or even string players. I can get back in shape pretty quickly, but that’s also because I have a pretty solid technical foundation and practiced a ton when I was younger, so it’s not too difficult.
CC: Wednesday night is the release show for not one, but two CDs, one showcasing your six-mallet marimba playing technique, another by Makoto Nakura that includes a new four mallet work you wrote. How did this confluence of releases come about? Also, you’ve been writing works including marimba for a while. Why did it now seem to be an opportune time to showcase these pieces on a single disc?
RP: The double release idea just sort of happened. I have been planning on releasing this Six Mallet Marimba album for years, but never had enough music, without including pieces that have nothing to do with marimba or six mallets. Many of my six mallet pieces are on the short side, so you need a bunch of them to make a full album. I finally had an album’s worth of pieces, so this seemed like the right time.
As for Makoto’s album, recently, my indie record company AMR (American Modern Recordings) signed a deal with him to re-release his older albums and also release Wood and Forest, his new album. Makoto commissioned me to write a new four-mallet piece, and since this was happening all around the same time, we decided to combine the events. We are cross advertising to each other’s followers and audiences, which is great. It’s not every day that you hear two marimbas together, particularly in the Rubin Museum of Art, so we thought audiences might enjoy that.
CC: What will attendees get to hear on the show?
RP: I am performing a marimba solo entitled Komodo (inspired by Komodo dragons), Braids for violin and marimba, with my wife Victoria (written for her, and inspired by watching her braid her hair and musical forms based on different braiding styles), Duo for Flute and Marimba, a three movement work that I’ll play with flutist Sato Mougalian (the NY premiere), the world premiere performance of Stillness for oboe and marimba with oboist Keve Wilson, and finally the world premiere of a new marimba duo entitled Mandala, that was commissioned by Makoto. It is inspired by the theme of “happiness” and a Hevajra Mandala image in the Rubin Museum’s art collection.
Makoto will be performing four works: Mandala (with me), Forest Shadows for solo marimba, the four mallet piece I wrote for him, and two works by other composers. The first is Arbor Una Nobilis for marimba and violin by Jacob Bancks, which he will play with violinist Jesse Mills, and the second is Winik/Te’ for solo marimba by Carlos Sanches-Gutierrez. All in all, it will be a an exciting fascinating program, and I am really looking forward to hearing Makoto play live, and also to play this duo with him! It will be a complete thrill.
CC: AME seems to be going really well: getting lots of attention both for their live performance and recordings. What’s coming up next for the ensemble?
RP: Our next concert after this one is entitled The End Of The World, and it’s a collaborative event with Talujon, a NYC based percussion ensemble. AME will be performing works by a variety of composers, including George Crumb and George Rochberg, and Talujon will be performing works by Daniel Iglesia, Hannah Lash, and Daniel Wohl. Finally, next March, we will be presenting a concert tentatively titled Concertos & More, featuring works by Steve Mackey, Sean McClowry, a piece by me entitled Looney Tunes and a piece by Eric Nathan, the winner of our 2011-12 composition competition. We are also excited that we just became the official new music ensemble-in-residence at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, so we will be working with the composers at that institution as well.
We also have a few other recordings in the works, including a second two piano album (appropriately titled Powerhouse Pianists II) with Stephen Gosling and Blair McMillen, featuring piano duos by various excellent composers, a chamber vocal album of some of my music, and we will be on an album that will be released on Bridge Records with works by Steve Mackey. We have many other albums planned, but since we put a lot of love and care into each album, we try to only release them when they are good and ready and everyone is confident that they represent AME and AMR (American Modern Recordings) well. AMR thinks of itself as an indie boutique classical record company that releases the highest possible quality albums of contemporary music, so if we’re getting any attention, we’d like to think it’s because we have put so much love and care into what we do.
American Modern Ensemble
Wednesday November 14, 2012 @ 7:00 PM
$15.00 in advance / $30.00 day of
Member Price: $13.50
The Rubin Museum of Art is located in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City
on 17th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
(Rubin Museumwebsite here)