Music Features

Marimba Player Marilyn K. Clark Silva on Cartoon Percussionists

Marilyn K. Clark Silva knows you're thinking of cartoons when you hear a marimba.
Marilyn K. Clark Silva knows you're thinking of cartoons when you hear a marimba. Marilyn K. Clark Silva

Marilyn K. Clark Silva is well acquainted with the classic cartoon trope of bones as musical instruments. The avant-garde percussionist is a walking encyclopedia of music history, especially when it comes to explaining her instrument's impact on pop culture.

Silva is an internationally renowned marimba player. She's headlined the 2019 OME New Music Festival and served as a resident artist at Tempe Center for the Arts. When she's not teaching or working on music, she works as a certified yoga instructor who specializes in helping musicians deal with the injuries and strain that comes from their physically demanding work.

For folks looking for something soothing yet adventurous to listen to in these trying times, her instrumental album Elemental hits that sweet spot. The 10 marimba-driven songs on the album are each themed around a specific element or aspect of nature. Accented with percussion instruments like rain sticks and kick drums, it has a trance-inducing quality, but it's not inert New Age music. Silva's tracks shift and surprise, taking the listener to surprising new vistas.

We talked with Silva about her record, what drew her to playing marimbas, and just why her instrument is so closely associated with cartoons.

Phoenix New Times: What initially spurred the elemental theme of the album?

Marilyn K. Clark Silva: I had this concept of doing a solo show and being able to control all of the different sounds being created while still having it be acoustic and creating a full experience. The marimba has so many different timbral possibilities. I’ve done so much contract work in the past where they said, “Hey, can you make it sound like this? I want it to sound like it’s coming out of a cave, or I want it to sound like I’m underwater.” So I had this idea of using the loop pedal to create these layers, using the different timbres of the marimba to build pieces that make the audience feel like they’re surrounded by that element.

One piece on the record that really struck me was “Pulse.” There’s a sound on it that sounds like finger-snaps —

They’re castanets. The idea of that is that the kick drum on there is a heartbeat, and the castanets are the EKG monitor. The pulse of having your heart tracked.

I’m sure you get this all the time, but I have to know: What drew you to the marimba?

I’m from a small town in Northern California, so there weren’t a lot of musical opportunities. There was a community band but no orchestras within an hour’s drive. I remember I was 10 years old, and I was with my mom at our town’s annual Christmas lights parade. It was particularly cold and rainy, sort of a miserable evening. We had to park really far away, and it was late at night. As we’re walking back to the car after the parade, I heard this sound, and I was like, “Mom, I have to see what is!” And she was like, "I’m cold and hungry. Let’s just go home." But I dragged her down the street, and we found our little high school marching band.

They were set up with portable xylophones, and they were playing Christmas songs. And I was like “I want to do that.” My mom asked if I wanted to join the high school band. And I said, “No, for a living.” She was like, “You’re 10, and you’re crazy.” But I did it.

You also do Yoga For Musicians. What inspired you to take that on?

Like so many teenagers and young musicians who did a lot of things growing up, I accumulated a lot of injuries: repetitive strain injuries from not using my body correctly, working past the point where you should’ve taken a break, and not stretching correctly.

I was also a dancer growing up, and we did yoga as part of our company’s class, so I was familiar with it. I got really into it when I was 18 after I started getting really bad migraines from shoulder and neck injuries I got from playing. Doing yoga really helped me a lot.

My friends pushed me to get my certification. I found that I have a knack for developing what we call protocol, which is, if there’s someone with a specific body issue, we develop things they can do at home every day to relieve that, get more functionality, and a greater quality of life. That’s how I came to it.

You’ve done a lot of scores and commissioned work. Do you relish having to work with the challenges that come from working under strict creative parameters?

I do all of my composition in set boundaries. I just found that so many of the New Music pieces that I was playing and premiering all sounded very similar out of this effort to embrace as many possibilities as possible. To me, the creative brain likes to have boundaries. It’s easier to create something that sounds unique if you focus on a few elements.

Do you ever have to deal with people’s preconceptions of your instrument? I grew up on Looney Tunes. So whenever I hear marimbas, vibes, xylophones, I end up thinking of chase scenes and exotica locales.

It doesn’t bother me because I taught music history for two years. It’s actually one of my favorite subjects, and a lot of those preconceived notions come out of historical accuracy. It’s not so much a stereotype as it is a limited understanding of the possibilities of the instrument.

The reason that you think of cartoons and chase scenes is that George Hamilton Green, a xylophone player, wrote most of the music for the early Disney cartoons. So that’s why that’s in the cultural subconscious, this idea that xylophones sound like cartoon music.

And it’s the same thing with the exotic aspect, with the marimba being seen as “island music.” That comes down to historical accuracy, too. The instrument originated in Africa and was brought here via South America. The marimba migrated up to Mexico, which led to Mexican marimba bands touring the States. They became really, really popular for a moment, so we started having our own marimba bands, and they altered the sound to make it more classical-sounding. So more of a resonant tone than the buzzing and shorter sound that’s more common to the folk instruments of Central and South America.

It wasn’t until the '80s that we started getting pieces that were written for the marimba as a virtuosic solo instrument.

As someone who’s been involved with local organizations like OME, I wanted to get your take on why New Music and avant-garde music seem to have taken such a firm foothold here.

I’d say it has a large part to do with the professors at ASU. Most of the New Music and younger music people operating here in town went to ASU or are still attending ASU and finishing up their degrees. I’m one of those people.

The professors there are very in favor of New Music and push students to play those kinds of pieces. I actually get hired sometimes by grad students to accompany them on their recitals if they want to play a piece that has a percussion part that might be a little robust for another student to play.

The other part is that Phoenix is a transplant city. So I think there’s an element of people coming here wanting something fresh and different. There’s less of an insistence on tradition here.

Marilyn K. Clark Silva’s Elemental is available for download (and compact disc) via Bandcamp.
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Ashley Naftule