For five octave marimba and computer generated sounds ; 2004 ; Duration ca. 17 minutes
    Commissioned by Nathaniel Bartlett

This composition provided me with an opportunity to explore the remarkably wide range of textures, timbres and playing techniques available on extended five octave marimbas. In the hands of virtuoso soloists employing contemporary four mallet techniques the marimba often no longer sounds to my ears like an idiophonic percussive instrument, but rather can create an extraordinary breadth of subtle colors, phrasings, expressive gestures and nuances that at times are almost suggestive of vocal, string instrument or piano performance techniques.

A particuarly prominent element within Precipice is the utilization of various types of tremolos (rolled notes and chords) that are possible between the mallets of the two hands. Some chorale-like passages, for example, feature continuous alternations or transformations in tremolo technique, so that two intertwining patterns emerge: the progression of melodic intervals and chords, and the changing ways in which these pitch patterns are arpeggiated, articulated and modulated. Nathaniel Bartlett, a brilliant young marimba virtuoso who commissioned the piece, offered many valuable performance and notational suggestions

Many of the computer-generated sounds, especially during the latter half of the piece, were derived from sampled recordings of Nate playing isolated tones on his marimba. Often, however, this may not be readily apparent. By digitally altering the frequencies, durations and attack/decay characteristics of these tones, and through granularization -- slicing variously pitched sampled tones into tiny frag- ments, then stringing and inter-cutting hundreds of these sound grains per second into timbral "necklaces" -- it is possible to create pulsating or glistening sound colors that to me have a haunting richness and depth.

Live performance of this work is possible with 2 (stereo), 4 (quad), 6 (hex) or 8 (cube) audio channels and loudspeakers at high (96 kHz 24 bit) audio resolution, which increases the dynamic range of recorded sounds. This makes it easier to balance the live marimba and the pre-recorded computer part so that both have "punch" in louder passages and clarity in very soft passages. Spatialization of the computer-generated sounds to "virtual" locations throughout the hall was accomplished by means of processing techniques derived from ambisonic formulae first developed in the UK - procedures very different from ping-pong, cinema-style surround sound procedures that are more common in the U.S.

Ambisonic quad (4 channel) and hex (6 channel) decoding provide full two-dimensional (left/right and front/rear) localization of every sound. Cubic (8 channel) playback over upper and lower quad speaker arrays, employed by Nathaniel Bartlett on his traveling rig in his performances of the piece, provide 3-dimensional sound localization, so that the sounds seem to be located at various heights. The published score by Mostly Marimba (see below) provides the computer part in stereo and quad versions.

PDF score excerpt
This excerpt is page 2 of the published score, beginning about one minute into the piece. The second system illustrates some of the variable types of four mallet tremolos employed in the piece. The dashed line hairpin symbols above the treble staff denote increases and descreases in tremolo speed.

MP3 audio excerpt
This excerpt, also beginning about one minute into the piece (so that one can follow the score excerpt while listening to the corresponding but longer mp3 clip) is taken from Nathaniel Bartlett's recording of the work.
Duration: One minute 20 seconds; size 2.5 MB ; encoding 256 kBit true stereo

SACD recording: In August, 2006 Albany records released an SACD album featuring Nathaniel Bartlett that includes Precipice as a feature work. The album also is entitled Precipice.

The hybrid, three layer SACD disc contains three versions of the album, enabling us to play the album on three otherwise incompatible types of audio systems:

  1. on normal compact disc players (44.1 kHz sampling rate, 16 bit)
  2. on SACD players connected to stereo speakers, resulting in "high definition stereo" (equivalent to a higher sampling rate and bit depth, resulting in greater clarity, definition, depth and "realism" in the sounds and more "air" or "spaciousness" in the recording ambience
  3. on SACD players connected to multiple loudspeakers, such as a 5.1 or quadraphonic surround speaker array; this is the preferred listening format, although at the present the least common, due to its higher cost; on a high quality SACD multi-speaker playback system the audio quality may approach that of a live concert performance.

Score publication In May, 2011 the performance score for Precipice, along with the computer part and a Pure Data patch that enables the soloist (or a computer operator) to control playback of the computer part on a laptop or desktop system, were published by Mostly Marimba publications.

This work was premiered by Nathaniel Bartlett on March 30, 2004 on a concert of my music presented in Eastman's Kilbourn Hall. As of May, 2011 he had performed the piece on more than 150 concerts throughout the US.

A video of Nathaniel Bartlett performing a portion of this work is available on YouTube
A quicktime video of a performance at (SCENE) Metrospace, an alternative art and performance space in East Lansing, Michigan can be viewed here.
An mp3 can be downloaded at napster and a RealPlayer version can be found here

Reviews of Bartlett's "Precipice" SACD disc can be read online at Audiophile Magazine, at answers.com, at Barnes & Noble editoral reviews and at SA-CD.net

For performance information on this work please contact Mostly Marimba publications.

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