Take Flight

For five octave marimba, computer processing and computer generated sounds ; 2009 ; Duration ca. 14 minutes

    Written for Nathaniel Bartlett
    Commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation
    Pure Data performance patch and subpatches by Matthew Barber

Take Flight is the second work I have composed for marimba virtuoso Nathaniel Bartlett, written five years after Precipice. However, the relationship between the marimba and computer parts in Take Flight is more interactive than in Precipice, and the two parts occasionally fuse into one -- procedures made possible by advances in software engineering during the past few years. There are several passages in Take Flight in which segments of the marimba part, recorded live during the performance, are incorporated into the computer part (and the marimbist thus plays against himself or herself), and others in which the live marimba part provides a source signal for computer synthesis, which transforms the timbre, articulation and expressive qualities of the instrument.

Take Flight celebrates one hundred years of aeronautical aviation, a concept that Bartlett first proposed to me in 2007 when he approached me with this project. Composition of the work was supported by a commission from the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, and preparation of the score was underwritten by a grant from the Hanson Institute for American Music.

The piece is designed to showcase several facets of contemporary playing techniques for this wondrous instrument at which Nate particularly excels. These include a wide range of articulation and sticking techniques, ranging from "whispering," smooth, liquid runs to aciculate, pointed or explosive accentuations. Also exploited are several types of four mallet rolled tremolos, which can be delicate and gossamery, or rumbling, or thunderous, or sound like sustained vocal or organ tones (with very little "quavering"), or like rain on a tin roof.

Additionally, I wanted to highlight Nate's melodic phrasing, which can be exceedingly fluid and persuasive. Even in passages widely disjunct in pitch, where tones in high registers decay very quickly while tones in lower registers ring for several seconds, and the timbres of these registers varies markedly, he is able to interconnect groups of melodic tones so that one hears nuances and inflections and not just a succession of notes. There are many melodic segments in Take Flight where lines cascade in sinuous arcs, and others that feature a contrapuntal interplay between higher and lower registers.

The computer part incorporates three types of operations:

  1. Passages in which the live marimba part is recorded into a buffer in computer memory and later played back, either at the original or at a transposed pitch level. Sometimes the computer playback of these sampled marimba fragments is routed through a multitap delay line to produce multiple, closely spaced echos, a procedure that tends to produce rippling or granulated undulations -- a recurring textural signature of the work. (In the score example below, the brief marimba passage recorded at the very beginning at boxed cue number 1,is played back at boxed cue number 5, transposed up a major second).
  2. Passages in which the computer performs realtime pitch and amplitude analysis (by means of the PD objects bonk~ and/or fiddle~) of monophonic lines played by the marimbist and, using this analysis data, synthesizes a unison "shadow" of the marimba line, but with a more legato and sustained, "airy" flute-like timbre, or else with a ring modulated timbre reminiscent of bowed bars. In both cases, by sustaining the marimba tones, the computer processing is intended to transform a "dry" monophonic melodic line of rapidly decaying tones into a more variegated melodic/harmonic texture with a pulsating (slowly, in this instance) or rippling quality.
  3. Playback of 16 synthesized soundfiles, ranging in duration between 8 seconds and one minute, 51 seconds. The textures of these synthesized soundfiles often feature
    • sounds with a rustling, murmuring, flapping or rippling quality, perhaps redolent of sounds of nature, or else
    • metallic, grinding, scraping or palpitating sounds, possibly suggestive of machines, tools and human industry.
What these two timbral/textural threads often share -- their nexus, or connecting link -- is a thrumming, throbbing or granular quality, similar to the pulsations of the marimba tremolos. And, in fact, many of the sounds in both categories were derived from granulation and processing of sampled sound sources such as crickets, bird chirps and wing flaps, gourds, beads, pins, venetian blinds, metal tools (saws, files, bolts, ball bearings, pipes, chains, staplers) refrigerator and clothes dryer hums, creaking doors, shopping carts and crumpling aluminum cans.

All of these computer operations are effected by a Pure Data patch and subpatches running on a laptop computer. In most performances this patch is controlled during performance by the marimbist, using a foot pedal and graphical controls on the laptop computer monitor, although it is alternatively possible for a "computer operator" to trigger the computer part cues ("events").

Take Flight initially was designed for performance over an 8 channel cubic loudspeaker systems, such as Nathaniel Bartlett's cubic surround rig (see this introduction and select the click here link for a diagram). This setup enables sounds to be spatialized to various perceived heights as well as to arbitrary left-right and front-rear locations. Simpler quad and stereo performance versions of the work also are available.

PDF score excerpt

This excerpt is the first score page of the piece. Notational symbols employed in the marimba part are explained in these performance notes

Forthcoming SACD recording:

Take Flight will be a featured work on Nathaniel Bartlett's next commercial recording project, a hybrid multi-channel SACD (also playable on conventional stereo systems) entitled Powered Flight.


This work was premiered by Nathaniel Bartlett on May 29, 2009 at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin. Subsequently Nate has included the piece on numerous programs on his 2009, 2010 and 2011 US concert tours.

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