Music Made-In-Michigan: Three Perspectives

Making a Sustainable Instrument

by Alex Smith:

In my experience as a percussionist, musical ensembles own large inventories of percussion instruments yet they rarely know much about their origins, specifically in relation to the natural resources and production processes necessary for their construction.  Additionally, the production processes of our globalized political economy often involve the outsourcing of labor and the allocation of international, and often rare, natural resources (David Harvey; A Brief History of Neoliberalism; et al.).  The music instrument industry presents no exception, and, because of such market tendencies, the makers, players, and natural resources of musical instruments are disconnected from one another.

In considering this disconnect the marimba particularly intrigues me, as the preferred resource used in the production of its “bars” is the increasingly rare, and endangered rosewood (Omar Carmenates; Honduras Rosewood: Its Endangerment and Subsequent Impact on the Percussion Industry).  Additionally, rosewood’s incorporation in the production of any American marimba requires that the resource be acquired internationally, which globalizes the production chain and greatly enlarges the carbon footprint of the production process. These realizations led me to the pursuit of an alternative to rosewood that could be sustainably consumed and locally obtained.

During the summer of 2013, funded by Michigan State University and under the tutelage of Michigan luthier and marimba craftsman Matt Kazmierski, we constructed a low-cost, four and one-third octave “sustainable marimba,” primarily comprised of Michigan woods and resources, in an attempt to provide a local and suitable alternative to the instruments in the marimba market today.  Upon the instrument’s completion I compiled a short video documentary about the project, entitled the Michigandered Marimba, which also features the music of Michigan artists and the work of Matt Kazmierski.

Below is the link to the documentary:

The world premier of The Michigandered Marimba took place on December 8th in the Cook Recital Hall of the MSU College of Music.  Additionally, MSU doctoral student Kelsey Tamayo premiered a piece entitled The Fallen Tree, written specifically for the instrument by Michigan composer Victor Marquez.  Not only is The Fallen Tree a beautiful and demanding work for solo marimba, but it also situates the “sustainable marimba” within its own musical context, free from culturally constructed perceptions of sound aesthetic preference aligned with rosewood-bar marimbas (Aaron Allen; “’Fatto di Fiemme’: Stradivari’s violins and the musical trees of the Paneveggio”).

Below is the link to a performance of the piece:


Composing for New Sounds

by Victor Marquez-Barrios:

When Alex first told me about this project, I found the motivation behind The Michigandered Marimba so inspiring that I could hardly wait to start writing the piece, which is a feeling that most composers treasure. But beyond the motivating story, listening to the instrument itself only increased my creative urgency. Out of the many particularities of Alex and Matt’s marimba, perhaps the one that struck me the most was the dry, raw wood sound it features.  Maybe because as a composer I have recently been interested in exploring different ways to use silence as a thematic element, this “lack of resonance” represented something I really wanted to exploit. In addition, having the opportunity to collaborate with two great percussionists such as Alex and Kelsey Tamayo made it possible to, through experimentation with different mallets and extended techniques, get the most out of the instrument in terms of my search.

The Fallen Tree, then, can be described as an experiment in the different ways in which sound arises from silence, inspired by a project in which life, in the form of a musical instrument, arises from seemingly non-living matter.


Performing on New Sounds

by Kelsey Tamayo:

It would have been around last summer that Alex came to me about performing a piece for the Michigandered Marimba project.  When he first started talking to me about the project, I was immediately excited to play on a different kind of marimba. This one would be removed from mass production.  It would be made with tender-loving care, an idea that intrigued me.

I had no hand in the physical production of the instrument.  However, I did help evolve the Michgandered Marimba’s voice.  The project’s composer, Victor Marquez, had met with Alex and me a couple of times to hear the instrument.  We changed the implements, we tapped the instrument with our fingers, we bowed the bars, we hit unconventional locations (i.e. the sides and the resonators), etc.  Victor would come in with musical material and we’d read through it.   From all of this experimentation, we learned a few things:

  • The instrument looks physically different, from the color to the spacing of the bars.
  • The marimba’s general sustain was minimal. The sustain it did have was more favorable to the higher range, a phenomenon opposite to the standard rosewood model.
  • It was lighter in tone, handling extreme dynamics fairly well.

It was clear that Victor had an idea for the composition, now known as The Fallen Tree.  The piece is lively and exhilarating, which can be heard in the fast groove and the passages where the performer covers the entire register of the instrument.  Sustain became an important element to the piece. Since the marimba could not sustain, we found a variety of ways to mimic it.  For instance, Victor asks to “echo” a certain passage. This is achieved by repeating a note or notes in a way to hear decay.  Additionally, rolls were also used in the lyrical middle section of the piece.  However, the conventional double lateral four-mallet roll proved troublesome.  Instead, Victor and I agreed that the ripple roll on the Michigandered Marimba was more appealing, giving the instrument more of an acoustic guitar sound.

In order to fully bring Victor’s piece to life on this instrument, I had to spend a lot of time developing a technique with this marimba.  The bars do not have the same rebound as a conventional marimba.  In many ways, I felt like I had to over-phrase passages in order for the listener to hear the larger musical idea I wanted to create.  Soft could get lost and loud could become too harsh.  Establishing the dynamic range was perhaps the most difficult thing, since I had to learn the way this instrument sang.  It was an exciting challenge.  Despite it’s difficulties, it’s the closest I have ever felt to truly understanding an instrument and the way it produced sound.

In a sense, I was aware of the depletion of rosewood.  However, as a percussionist, it is easy to turn a blind eye to the way our choices effect the environment. Our need to have access for equipment masks the effects of our consumption of materials.  At times, I am jealous that other instrumentalists can talk to the makers of their instruments and form this deep connection.  Many of the percussion instruments we play only have a label stating a ‘generic’ birthplace.  Being involved with this project has made me question the origins of instruments, the people who help carve their existence, the areas of the world instruments come from, and my personal involvement with these connections.

Overall, I must say I am thankful for Alex and Victor to let me be a part of this project.  And, I’d like to thank “Sassafrassy”, the name I gave the Michigandered Marimba, and Alex for changing my entire view on my connection to music.


  1. Reblogged this on Kelsey Tamayo.

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