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Humboldt has front row seats for a music fest celebrating an overgrown xylophone

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Marimba One

When Nancy Zeltsman meets someone, on an airplane, for example, and says that she's a marimba player, "the next question is always, 'What's that?'" She usually answers that it's like a giant bass xylophone, since everyone is at least familiar with the toy version, even if the reference only calls to mind "the music behind the dancing skeletons" in cartoons. Probably you've heard it as the default ringtone of an iPhone, the music between stories on NPR, on Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville" or the Rolling Stones' classic "Under My Thumb."

Somewhere around the age of 8, Zeltsman, who began playing piano at age 5, had a small revelation. "I'm a musician," she thought, "but I'm just not sure the piano is my instrument." Later, as a teenager, she was "hooked" on the tympany and xylophone, but it was the rosewood keys of the marimba that won her heart. "There's just something seductive about the fact that you can make this very rich, warm tone from a resonating piece of wood," she says.

Zeltsman suspects that this sound, the natural ring of once living wood, is what draws so many people in, including the musicians attending the marimba festival that bears her name. This year, the marimba world converges on the HSU campus for the Zeltsman Marimba Festival. This is the first time the 11-year-old festival, which has taken place in Los Angeles, Boston and Amsterdam, is happening here. The festival runs June 30 through July 13, with eight nights of concerts for the public and master classes taught by an international faculty of marimba all-stars for musicians. Arcata is already hallowed ground for marimbists, as it is home to Marimba One, maker of this somewhat mysterious instrument that is at once rhythm and melody, ancient and high-tech.

If you've ever looked at the inside of a piano, you've seen how the keys control soft little felt hammers that strike the taut strings to sound the notes. To play the marimba is to move inside that space, holding the mallets in your hands and hitting the rosewood slats directly, controlling the force, angle and speed of each strike. "It means we can actually do a lot more sophisticated types of strokes," says Zeltsman. "That's how you can really be more expressive." She feels the instrument is capable of "a bigger range of sound quality and color" than a piano, with more ways for an individual musician to create a unique sound, even though fewer notes are ringing at once.

You could be forgiven for mistaking the marimba for a xylophone. The basic principal is the same: hitting slats of different sizes to produce notes. But the marimba's double row of wooden bars creates a completely different sound, warm, rich and natural, as opposed to the metallic chime of a xylophone. It also has the range and fullness of a guitar. Below each of the marimba's bars is a resonator tube that acts to enlarge the sound and, well, resonate, just as the body of a guitar or a piano does. Like the guitar and the piano, the marimba lends itself to solo performance, both rhythmic and melodic, capable of a broad range of moods from playful to haunting.

Zeltsman can't help dancing a little with her marimba. In a video posted on her website, she darts back and forth over the keys with two mallets crossed in each hand, swaying her shoulders and smiling as she taps out a whimsical passage accompanied by clarinet. The marimba is 8 ½ feet long, and unlike the piano, your fingers aren't in contact with the keys, and you can't sit. While most players don't focus on how their bodies move, Zeltsman points out that playing requires "big physical gestures" that are part of the sound and the experience of playing. To hit the bars and hit them just so involves the whole body, shifting weight, changing posture, reaching out and pulling in.

The concert portion of the festival will give participants and the rest of us a chance to see and hear players who Zeltsman says have "really explored the instrument." A few of the ensemble pieces in the concert series will also feature master class participants who have been coached by faculty members. Two to three headliners are scheduled each night for the sake of variety — of which there is a great deal. Opening night, June 30, for example, features California native and former principal percussionist of the San Francisco Symphony, Jack Van Geem, whom Zeltsman calls one of marimba's "best kept secrets." The same evening, Beverly Johnston from Canada will perform one piece on marimba and flower pots. Actual flower pots. Another piece will have Johnston doing a little rapping. That's just the first night. Zeltsman is as excited for the performances as anyone, saying, "I am personally fascinated by everybody on the faculty, so I'm kind of dying to hear all of them."

At least seven of the instruments to be played at the Zeltsman Marimba Festival were made by Marimba One, in an industrial building at the end of O Street in Arcata. Company owner Ron Samuels has a sleepy-eyed smile as he ambles around the factory floor in flip flops and a wool sweater. "I'm not OSHA safe today," he says, shrugging at his footwear. The same deep marimba sound that lured Nancy Zeltsman into playing gave Samuels the itch to build one. After that, "to satisfy my addiction I had to start selling them," he says with a soft chuckle. Some of his earlier models went back to the instrument's African roots, using gourds, a few bundles of which still hang from the ceiling in nets above the shop. Founded in 1986, Marimba One now employs roughly 25 people and is widely recognized as one of the top American marimba manufacturers, alongside companies like Malletech, Musser and Demorrow.

All around the cavernous warehouse space are pallets and shelves of rosewood bars, stacked like gold bullion. The sawdust in the air is less sharp-smelling than in a typical woodshop, and the floor is constantly being swept. Samuels explains that Marimba One almost exclusively uses rosewood, the preferred material for marimbas, because of its "naturally musical" qualities. The exception is a one-of-a-kind showpiece with a frame of ziricote, a rare wood found in Mexico and Guatemala that has a beautiful swirling grain, to be unveiled at the Zeltsman Marimba Festival. Samuels regularly travels to Central America to buy the high-quality rosewood, inspecting trees and planks before having them milled and shipped back to Arcata for air and kiln drying.

Honduran rosewood is rare, only growing in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. The tree is not on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of endangered species, but those in the marimba business are concerned about its future. Some companies are trying out synthetic materials or alternative woods, like padouk, which work, but don't make quite the same sound. Marimba One is talking with Vice Mayor Mark Wheetley and the Arcata City Council about the possibility of establishing a sister forest in Belize modeled after the Arcata Community Forest. Samuels and his team are also researching ways to best use their scrap materials, so they waste as little as possible.

Despite the distance from the forests of Central America, Samuels built Marimba One in Humboldt because "it's nice here. People love it here." He says he prefers working with people who are happy to be where they are, a relaxed contentment he's not sure he could find somewhere like Los Angeles. Samuels himself left the Los Angeles area to attend HSU and fell in love with the area. Humboldt County's steady climate is also good for marimba making. Fairly constant humidity is optimal for wood, and the North Coast doesn't have the same wild variations in temperature that can wreak havoc with tuning on the East Coast. Even so, the concrete shop floor at Marimba One is heated to keep a constant temperature, and its storage warehouse around the corner is downright balmy.

Josh Stumps, the head of acoustical research, is wearing safety glasses and working a band saw, carving arches into the undersides of bars, roughing out notes to be fine-tuned later. Behind him are broad slats of wood with names written on them in chalk: "Ghost," "Pyite" and "Caspian." The boards are named by the men who work on them to ensure that each marimba's frame comes from a continuous piece of wood. Extra pieces are kept aside on the off chance that a frame will need to be repaired.

Master tuner Brian Stern works off to the side of the shop in a small, low-ceilinged room that feels a bit like a humidor. Shelves of cocoa-colored bars cover two walls, each shelf faintly marked by a musical note. Spider, a husky mix, rests her chin on her paws in the corner. Stern picks up a bar and taps it with a mallet in front of two sawdust-covered microphones. The mics are hooked up to a strobe tuner, a retro sci-fi machine with spinning dials that whir into a visible checkerboard pattern when the correct pitch is achieved. If the pitch is off, Stern uses the drum sander directly below the tuner to shave off a little more from the arch on the underside of the bar. Knowing how much to sand and from what part of the arch is something that takes years of practice.

This is where the technological exactitude ends and a well-trained ear takes over. To "voice" a marimba according to the musician's desires, Stern listens to the bars, their strong or weak overtones, the "brightness" or "darkness" of their sounds and the evenness and clarity of their ringing due to natural variations in the wood. The assembled marimba needs to have a consistent tonal quality among the keys, a unified palette of notes. To a layperson, the process can seem a bit mysterious. To a marimbist, however, the nuances of sound are vital, and worth a high price. A marimba made with the cream of the rosewood crop will cost thousands more than Marimba One's standard model, which runs about $13,000. Premium voicing and other customization can bring the price tag to around $25,000.

The marimba, specifically its keyboard, is delicate. Poor storage and poor playing can both damage an instrument and its sound. About a decade ago, a high school sent in for tuning a marimba so out of whack that Samuels called up the music department to ask what had happened. He was told the students had been allowed to "have at it," hammering away at random and leaving the instrument "confused." On the other hand, when world-renowned marimbist Katarzyna Myćka sent her instrument in for tuning, the Marimba One tuners were surprised to find it sounding even better than when they first built it.

Samuels and his crew believe that a marimba's sound can be enhanced by a truly gifted musician who is consistently hitting "the sweet spot" on the keys, allowing it to "open up" like the seasoned violin of a master. When asked how this kind of change in the sound of the bars is possible, Samuels, who has been building marimbas since the mid-1980s, smiles, touches his chin and answers, "I really don't know." Leigh Howard Stevens, owner of rival company Malletech in New Jersey and founder of the annual Leigh Howard Stevens Marimba Seminar, is a bit less romantic on the subject. Stevens feels that some of the talk about tonal distinctions of marimbas can verge on "marketing smoke and mirrors." He is also quick to point out the advantages of Malletech's patented adjustable tuning. Still, he acknowledges, "Ron Samuels makes a beautiful instrument."

Stevens attributes the improvements in a well-played marimba to the lack of key damage a skilled player inflicts. When a musician cares for a marimba properly — storing it at the proper temperature, not striking so hard as to crack the wood — the instrument can "age gracefully," Stevens says. Over time, the wood "shelf hardens," losing more moisture and producing a better sound.

The science of the resonators, the tubes that sit below each key like an inverted pipe organ, is more exact. Varying lengths of pipe (longer, then shorter, then longer) form an S-curve along the bottom of the instrument. Each pipe is plugged with a stopper at a specific level to amplify its corresponding key. This is Marimba One's signature Basso Bravo design, developed by Samuels and Stumps. The design allows their marimbas to play 5 ½ octaves rather than the standard five. Like Spinal Tap's amp, their marimbas go to 11.

The extended range is particularly useful for playing pieces originally written for violin, and it broadens the possibilities for the marimba as a concert instrument. It's a major selling point, and its secrets are guarded jealously. In fact, Samuels does not allow the taking of photos in the resonator section of the shop. Marketing Director Nicole Riggs, a French woman with sunny freckles and a wave of red hair, apologizes for the secrecy. The marimba industry "is a strange world," she says. "It's small, but the competition is fierce." Though some of Marimba One's designs are patented, she says they have been copied and replicated by rivals. Eight marimbas are boxed up for shipping at the moment, but she will not divulge how many the company builds or sells yearly. Riggs is even reluctant to share the full names of her tuners. She gives a small laugh and says that there are "very few in the world, and we treasure them."

As she sweeps briskly up the stairs, Riggs warns that photos are not allowed in the mallet shop either. According to the website, Arias Ruiz is "Boss of the Mallet World," an enviable title. "I'm more like a king," he jokes. Arias is a young man with black-framed glasses, and he spends much of his time in front of a machine that looks like it came from Tim Burton's garage. There are what look like bike chains, chunky gears and two strands of yard being wound onto the top of a wooden stick. "It's kind of a Frankenstein in a way," he says.

The winder is a mix of high and low tech, conceived of by local engineering guru Frank Jolly and developed by Samuels and Steve Cole. Cole, who sports a white handlebar mustache that is in itself a feat of engineering, is a former Yakima engineer. He and Samuels met while shoveling manure at Freshwater stables, and eventually Samuels convinced Cole to help with the more complex problem of winding mallet heads with two strands instead of the usual one. The unique double-winding system is another industry secret.

When Arias is asked how many mallets he winds in a day, Riggs quickly says that he cannot divulge the number. A box of at least two dozen sits on the table beside the machine. Arias, who is a drummer, says that the intricate weaving creates more variables for adjusting the sound they make. He shows off some colorful samples, slightly egg-shaped ones in navy and turquoise, and orange and gray ones that have a yin-yang swirl at the top. Riggs smiles and says they are fine to photograph — just not near the winder.

While he can hardly resist playing a few notes when there's an assembled marimba on the floor, Arias is no marimbist. It's hard to believe there isn't a closet player among them, but nobody in the shop will admit to really playing the marimba, even Samuels. It could just be that working with pros like Zeltsman and Myćka on the design and tuning of instruments over the years has made everyone humble. Samuels is president of the board of trustees for the Zeltsman Marimba Festival, and Zeltsman endorses his products, so he's thrilled that the festival is being held in Arcata, and he's planning tours of the factory for visiting musicians.

When Zeltsman, who's been playing professionally for more than 30 years, decided to make a career of the marimba, it was an unusual path. Most orchestras still don't have a dedicated marimbist. If anything, they have a percussionist who handles a number of instruments, one of which might be the marimba. In fact, relatively few pieces had been written specifically for the marimba back then. It has only existed as a concert instrument since the 1970s, despite its being, according to Zeltsman, "truly one of the most viable solo instruments." As a specialty, the instrument offered uncharted territory, a challenge too exciting for a young musician to resist.

These days, Nancy Zeltsman is a chair at the Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music, both positions that were created for her in 1993 to teach marimba as a specialty within their percussion departments. While the marimba is gaining in popularity, such an emphasis on the instrument in a music department is still fairly rare.

There is also still a dearth of music for the instrument. For about a decade, Zeltsman paired with a violinist and "basically created a repertoire for violin and marimba because there wasn't any music written for that," she recalls. Most recently, she has been doing the same with a clarinetist. Her work expanding the catalog of music for marimba has been a "huge service" to the instrument, according to Dr. Marc Woolridge, professor of music at Indiana Wesleyan University, who is unaffiliated with her festival. He calls Zeltsman "a phenomenal player," and predicts that for Humboldt audiences, Zeltsman and Marimba One are going to make an "unbeatable" combination.

Most of the time, marimbists are alone in the back of an orchestra. Zeltsman's festival was born from her desire to create an event where marimba players could connect, "focus on musicianship" and share ideas about how to expand the marimba repertoire. "One of my little dreams," she says, "is to elevate the instrument as a concert instrument." According to Zeltsman, more than 360 people have participated in the festivals since 2001. Now, "a lot of them are starting to kind of make careers as marimba soloists or teachers ... and a lot of them have gone on to study with teachers on the other side of the world that they met at the marimba festival."

In comparison to his own seminar, Stevens says the Zeltsman Marimba Festival is "more of a happening," since the Leigh Howard Stevens Seminar is more strictly focused on technique and the method of playing he himself developed. At his annual seminars, "students know they're going to get hammered," he adds, laughing. "They probably have more fun at Nancy's."

Humboldt native Tyler Hunt is looking forward to the festival for the very reasons Zeltsman started it: the prospect of working with musicians and teachers from all over the world. Plus, "it's kind of cool it'll be here in my hometown," he says over the phone. The festival is "a whole melting pot of teachers and experience," he says. Hunt, 26, graduated from HSU with a degree in percussion performance, a field he will pursue further in the master's program at California State University at Long Beach. He says he plays "a little bit of everything" but finds the marimba alluring for its "powerful combination of the melodic and harmonic ... [and its] percussive element." Like Zeltsman, he's also excited about the new ground yet to be broken with the marimba. "People don't know what its potential as a concert instrument is." Hunt will attend the master classes and also perform in the participants' concert. Since marimbas are a bit large and expensive for a grad student, he'll be using one that HSU and local teachers are loaning for the festival. Still, he hopes to own one in the future.

Zelstman hasn't actually seen inside the HSU buildings the festival will be using yet, which makes her only slightly nervous. She says that putting the event together is always "a nail-biter," but once everything is happening, she enjoys seeing everyone connecting and inspiring one another. "For me the fun of it is once everybody assembles, just kind of standing back and watching it all click," she says, "I have no idea who's going to really get lit up by one person or another, but it's really just a blast to kind of stand back and watch that happen."

Concert Schedule

All performances $10, $7 for students and seniors

Sunday, June 30, 8 p.m.

"Marimba Mix"

Jack Van Geem, Beverley Johnston and the Joint Venture Percussion Duo

Arcata Playhouse 1251 Ninth St., Arcata

Wednesday, July 3, 8 p.m.

"Expressive Complexity"

Pedro Carneiro and Mike Truesdell

HSU, Native Forum, Behavioral and Social Sciences Building, Arcata

Friday, July 5, 8 p.m.

"Moods & Grooves"

Nancy Zeltsman and Fumito Nunoya

Arcata Playhouse

Saturday, July 6, 8 p.m.

"Jazz and More"

Christos Rafalides, Petros Klampanis, and other faculty and participants

Arcata Playhouse

Monday, July 8, 8 p.m.

"Participants Concert"

HSU, Native Forum

Thursday, July 11, 8 p.m.

"East and West"

Due East (Greg Beyer and Erin Lesser) and other faculty and participants

HSU, Native Forum

Friday, July 12, 8 p.m.

"North and South"

Javier Nandayapa and other faculty and participants

HSU, Native Forum

Saturday, July 13, 1-5 p.m.

"Participants Marathon Concert"

HSU, Native Forum

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