My mother played marimba in high school. She won "first chair" at the state band competition (I have never asked how many competitors entered in the "marimba" section). She even played in a little band that had a radio show each week. I believe their "pay" was a weekly steak dinner.
The marimba came into our family when a gospel-music Christian missionary ran out of funds in my mother's home town. My grandfather, both a staunch churchman and a man with an eye for a bargain, purchased it and brought it home. The rest, as they say, is just the wave of the mallets.
Once in a while, my mother would pull out the wooden mallets with the soft heads and play the instrument. She'd hold two or three mallets in each hand, and coax a waving, flowing sound which I can hear in my mind even today.
My own collisions with music tended to be less flowing. I took years of piano lessons, for which I have always been grateful in that I learned to read music. I cannot play piano, though, and showed little promise and less determination in my studies. My younger sister, by contrast, can play piano by ear, being able to work out not only the melody but elaborate arrangements without sheet music.
My mother had a chromaharp, which I borrowed during law school. I taught myself the rudiments of playing simple folk songs with a pick rolling along the strings. Later, I bought an autoharp which had been wired with a pick-up. In the Christmas season, I'm apt to pull it out, play "Silent Night", "Greensleeves" and "Kum Ba Ya", and think to myself "I should play more often". But I rarely do.
I read an article by a fellow named Bart Hopkin, who described how to make a driftwood marimba. A driftwood marimba is made by using found wood, set up (a bit untidily) on top of supporting pieces, to create a marimba-like effect. The "notes" arise because of the length and consistenty of the wood.
Hopkin edited a magazine called Experimental Musical Instruments. He said something I like, which went: "When you decide to make your own instrument, and particularly one that is not modeled after any standard instrument type, you step outside of a whole set of expectations about both the practice and the sounds of music. Having done so, you are free to make music as unconventional as you wish, or as thoroughly conventional as you wish". I belivee that the magazine is now defunct, but he maintains a website at this location.
I like the idea (and the actuality) of creating instruments from scratch, or from
things not thought of as instruments. I'm intrigued by the notions that what is and is not "music" is a preprogrammed societal construct, although, when I say that, I reserve the right to fully enjoy "Free Bird" and "The Boys are Back in Town".
I sometimes think that a similar home-made ethic should apply to all sorts of things. Lately, I like the phrase "institutional change". I hear people denigrate change unless it can be "institutional change". There's something to be said for this. I can well imagine that if a few of our institutions were more compassionate, then things might go a bit smoother.
I believe, though, that institutions change very slowly, and that often one has to ignore the institutions altogether. That's not to say that they don't do good. They're rather like an orchestra, which plays certain symphonies, and plays them rather well.
Yet I keep thinking that there are places for those of us who aren't musical to nonetheless strike a note or two. I'm not speaking of "random acts of kindness", although random acts of kindness is perhaps a subset of the things I mean. I mean the construction, design and implementation of micro ways to help.
I like the notion that owning a little house, or renting one's very own room or apartment, gives one a sense of ownership in something real. It's an illusory sense, granted, but a sense nonetheless. I begin to focus, though, on whether I can make more personal down payments on small scale change.
I always notice that the people who sponsor what to me are rather garish social events nonetheless raise far more money than I could ever dream of raising, for good causes. Even as they wear what are to my mind somewhat fake smiles and somewhat underfashionable clothing in photos in the "social pages" of the Sunday papers, they are nonetheless really helping with funding for things that need funding. I do not see much profit in denigrating those efforts, even if I am willing to denigrate the sad misuse of peroxide's heirs.
But I like the idea of individually designed projects, like home-made instruments.
Maybe the melody is not so pleasing. But maybe the songs can go into spaces they don't usually reach.
I had a satisfying experience yesterday that reminded me that I do enjoy being able to help. It's not that I mind doing the business cases--indeed, I really like them. I don't mind evening the scales of justice for folks who don't "need" anything but a fair day's work on an interesting project. But when I can do something quite small, that nonetheless makes a difference, I'm always very pleased. It was a small thing, really--someone who sought me out on Thursday for whom I could do some good with the right analysis and a quick bit of correspondence.
I imagine myself holding three mallets in each hand, and, in flowing motions, hitting out at the various bits of cut blocks that are my skill set. I haven't been playing long enough to know what the sounds might be. But I think there's something to be explored here.
To change the topic and reverse upon the metaphor,though, I'd like also to build musical instruments. In college, I was enrapt by the little Harry Partch documentary they show in music lecture classes everywhere. Partch developed his own scales, musical instruments and sound, in elaborate detail, with a fascinating influence on much of what has come after. I developed a Partch fascination for some years. His was an interesting life, and certainly not free of frusrrations and worries about obscurity. But I like that he had a sense of mission that he never really lost. Call him a genius or call him an eccentric--he thought he was on to something.
I think that sometimes it's good to be "on to something". Then one can play the giant bottles with the improvised mallets, and know one's destination.