Schenectady Gazette (New York), February 21, 1989
Says Instrument Should Be Heard in Concert Halls –
Marimbist Brings Musical Message to World
By ALAN GINSBURG
THE BEAT GOES ON – Alex Jacobowitz, a professional marimbist, adjusts a "Rising Sun" headband on Aker Elementary schoolteacher Elizabeth Schmidt during a recent concert at the school. Jacobowitz, who holds a master's degree in music from Ithaca College, explains to the audience why the marimba is an excellent instrument for performing classical music. The marimba is a deeper–toned instrument than the xylophone and uses hardwood bars arranged like a piano keyboard attached to a frame. The modern marimba has metal tubes beneath the bars as resonators. Hollowed gourds were used as resonators in early marimbas.
(Gazette Photo — Garry Brown)
COBLESKILL – When most people hear "marimba," they think of Latin American music or the strolling mariachi bands of Mexico, says Alex Jacobowitz, a professional marimbist whose mission is to convince the world that the music of the marimba should be heard in orchestral concert halls.
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"I'm hoping someday to be the evangelist of the marimba as Segovia was to the guitar," says Jacobowitz, 28, who's been bringing the musical message of the marimba to schoolchildren in assembly programs and to adults through solo concerts in both the United States and abroad.
The marimba's origins can be traced to the early Bantu tribes of southern Africa. In Bantu, marimba means many songs. The marimba is an excellent instrument for performing classical music, says Jacobowitz, whose repertoire includes works by Bach, Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov.
"I think a lot of people find that it's a new-age sound. It's very natural, it's not synthetic or contrived, and many find it meditative," he says.
Most people associate the marimba with the xylophone, but there are differences, he notes.
The marimba is a deeper-toned instrument than the xylophone and uses hardwood bars arranged like a piano keyboard attached to a frame. The modern marimba has metal tubes beneath the bars as resonators. Hollowed gourds were used as resonators in early marimbas.
The instrument may be played with small mallets made of rubber to produce loud percussive sounds or mallets wound with woolen yarn, string or thread to create mellow sounds. The player uses either two or four mallets.
Popular in Central America, the marimba was transported there by slaves brought from Africa by the conquistadors in the 15th century, Jacobowitz says.
"Since 1821, the marimba has been the national musical instrument of Guatemala and even to this day, by law, radio stations are required to play at least one hour of marimba music a day," he says, noting marimba bands are found throughout the country, even at airports and hotels.
"The problem is that marimba players are considered only to be like street performers and their playing is not given a lot of respect," says Jacobowitz, who hopes to elevate the status of the marimba by playing it as an orchestral instrument. Like Andres Segovia, who helped revive serious interest in the guitar and transcribes many pieces for the instrument, Jacobowitz hopes to create audiences for the marimba.
"Here in America there are very few marimbas and most people feel that it has no particular quality of musicianship," he says.
He explains that early marimbas were pentatonic – had a musical scale with only five tones – and equivalent to the black keys on the piano. Around the turn of the century, someone made the instrument diatonic, producing a scale of eight tones, like the musical scale of the piano.
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He notes that it takes little talent to begin playing the marimba and that it's easy to improvise, first using one mallet and then two, but playing becomes more difficult when four mallets are needed for more complex works such as compositions by Bach and Beethoven and orchestral transcriptions.
No music was written specifically for the Marimbas until the 20th century. French composer Camille Saint-Saens used a xylophone to imitate the sound of a skeleton dancing in his symphonic poem, "Danse Macabre" in 1874, Jacobowitz says. And in 1906, Gustav Mahler used one in the first performance of his "Sixth Symphony."
Jacobowitz says while doing research on the marimba he came across a 19th–century xylophone soloist named Guzikov, who had performed for such notables as Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria, Prince Metternich, Austrian statesman, and the king of Belgium.
He had a strong following in Paris and Vienna, where he played in crowded concert halls.
"Guzikov had a certain amount of cult appeal. Unfortunately he died at the age of 32 and didn't have the opportunity to add to the repertory of music for the instrument, so now I'm taking up his legacy, trying to say, ‘Look at all the musical capabilities there are for the marimba.’"
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Since most people see the marimba as a percussive instrument and don't conceive of it as a keyboard instrument as well, says Jacobowitz, he's decided to demonstrate that classical music can be performed equally well on a marimba as on a piano.
Bach himself didn't specify which keyboard to use when playing his works; he said the "well-tempered clavier," he notes. "Bach wouldn't have cared whether or not his music was played on a marimba, so if he didn't care, I don't know why anyone else should.
"I am actually adding to the music, because while Bach wrote most of his keyboard works for the harpsichord, the harpsichord doesn't have the volume control that I have on the marimba."
Nonetheless, there are still purists, he adds, who would say that a piece written for the piano should not be played on a marimba because the marimba doesn't have the capabilities of the piano.
"Even France, which has a well-founded musical establishment, finds this stuff very new and doesn't know exactly how to deal with it," says Jacobowitz, who has lectured and given marimba concerts at a French Conservatory.
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By playing classical pieces on the marimba, says Jacobowitz, he's "taking the older music and saying, ‘Look, the music is still just as valid.’ What I'm doing here is not letting the instrument itself become the focus of the message. I'm simply going through the same educational points that a keyboard player would go through, except I'm using the marimba because of its novelty to keep kids' attention a little more focused."
"It's not a question of how easy it is to play the marimba, but how easy it is to do well, and that's hard," he says.
Jacobowitz's fascination with the marimba began while he was studying to be a percussionist in college.
"I was only 19 at the time, which was very late to begin, but I decided I was going to be monomaniacal about it and just put in lots and lots of practice to make up for the time I lost," he says. "Since I got out of school I have been promoting myself, not knowing how people would take to the marimba, because when people hear "marimba," they think of maracas, mariachi bands, bandleader Xavier Cugat and Carmen Miranda, the singer who wore fruit on her head."
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Since he's been performing at schools and concert halls, however, he believes he's helping to change that image of the marimba and the marimbist.
Jacobowitz, who holds a master's degree in music from Ithaca College, is both performer and teacher. With wit and a flair for the dramatic, he draws the attention of his young audience as he tells them tales of the classical composers whose works he plays.
At a recent concert at Aker Elementary school, Jacobowitz played Beethoven's “Für Elise," Rimsky-Korsakov's “Flight of the Bumblebee," a Bach “Two-Part Invention," a Japanese piece, "Sakura" and even a rock 'n roll tune by Led Zeppelin, "Stairway to Heaven."
Besides playing the marimba, Jacobowitz performed on the vibraphone, which, like the marimba, he notes, is a hybrid of the percussion and keyboard families and “therefore perfect for giving ‘old' music a contemporary interpretation."