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Three Dance Etudes for Marimba Duo or Ensemble

Around 1972 while in high school, I accidentally discovered Steve Reich's "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ" when WBAI in New York broadcast parts of a recent Ojai festival. I was transfixed by the energy, the luscious harmony and sonority, and the radically different use of time, unlike any music I'd ever heard. I taped this dazzling piece off the radio (long before the first LP of the work was recorded) and listened every day. I eventually discovered more of Reich's music and remained fascinated by his unique world, rabidly curious about how it could hold my interest. Despite this affinity to Reich's music as I was just beginning to compose, I had no temptation to write in this so-called-minimalist style.

Later in the 1970s, I attended Cornell University where the composer David Borden truly was a rockstar composing music similar to Reich, and selling out large auditoriums in Ithaca. He was on the university's dance faculty rather than affiliated with the music department. 

This luscious offshoot of minimalism keep following me. In the early 1980's I had a shift on WXPN, the radio station of University of Pennsylvania, and David Borden was an esoteric favorite of the progressive pop programmers, unknown to the classical and avant-garde DJs. Paul Smadbeck's marimba music also got a lot of airtime, and I was beginning to think I ought to at least try one piece with this concept of very slow progression over time, with a very fast textured surface.

Suddenly all these ideas coalesced when I had a Thanksgiving dinner in 1984 with the marimba virtuoso Nachiko Maekane. Nachiko had just presented her Carnegie Recital Hall debut, and the NY Times wrote that "not only did she not miss a note all night, but it was inconceivable that she could have missed a note." Nachiko seemed to know every piece in the marimba repertoire, and everything about popular music in Japan and the United States. When Nachiko offered to tour with anything I'd write her for solo marimba, I knew this was the time to experiment with these sonorities and ostinatos.

This new exploration took the form of THREE DANCE ETUDES. The title was an easy call, as each movement was a study on a different dance rhythm. The 1st movement is in 3+2+2+3, primarily with harmony in 3rds and triads; the 2nd movement is a study in 3+3+2 vs. 4+4, with octaves as the primary interval; and the 3rd movement is a study in 3+2+3 vs. 4+4, with 5ths as the primary interval.

As I developed these long ostinato movements, almost always in 4-mallet voicing, I realized it would be better for 2 or more players for two reasons: the power and stamina of a 20-minute piece seemed more practical when each player had a stream of two pitches rather than four, and the dramatic interplay between two players maintaining these rhythms would be more exciting than a solo player, since an ensemble ostinato wouldn't accommodate fatigue! However, I made a tough decision (perhaps the wrong decision) to notate the music in one single condensed score, so marimbists can decide which way to distribute their notes.

In 1985, the American Music Center successfully lobbied the music world to declare American Music Week in early November, and many organizations had special festivals and premieres. On November 10, 1985, Hitoshi Maeda and Brian Prechtl premiered the work as a duo in Philadelphia, and Nachiko Maekane premiered it solo in Sacramento. A few weeks later Nachiko performed THREE DANCE ETUDES in Hawaii, in an outdoor shell. When a breeze blew the music away, she continued from memory.

last updated February 19, 2020