A special thanks goes to my following past and present colleagues for guiding and inspiring me over the years to seek a better understanding and achievement in bass marimba design.
John Bergamo (1940 – 2013)
(1975) Follow Your Drives and Imagination - John thought my ideas on instrument design had merit. He encouraged me to keep designing and building experimental percussion instruments. At the time Cal-Arts had offered three music program categories: Performance, Composition and Arranging, and General Music. John sponsored me and petitioned the Cal-Arts Music Dept. to open a fourth category of music exploration for musical instrument technical studies. Quote from a Mentor’s Report (5/14/75): “Chris is the epitome of why we should change General Music to special music as he is a very special person. In addition to being a fine craftsman he is also a fine pianist who plays almost entirely by ear. He has my highest recommendation to continue his work.”
Daleth (Del) Roper (1905 - 2004) In Memoriam
Master marimba designer, builder, performer, and Carillonneur.
(1979) Sharing Tech Info and Tid Bits - Del understood the mechanics and engineering of marimba bar design and tuning. The first thing he told me was to acquire a mechanical-rotating disc strobe tuner. You have to see the pitch in order to know how sharp or flat you are during the tuning process. You never guess at the pitch!
The other critical part is in knowing how much material to remove in the precise location that aligns with the harmonic structure of the bar's pitch. "Tuning the fundamental (or primary) pitch alone won't do it. The (upper) harmonics are equally as important."
An American composer and leading proponent of microtonal or "xenharmonic" music. He also created a series of experimental musical instruments.
(1979) Endless Building of Instruments and Endless Exploration of musical scales and Intervals - In the little amount of time I knew Ivor, I learned that he had incredible knowledge in how musical instrument systems and their scales worked. He became my primary learning source. As I peppered him with the musical what and why questions, he delivered on every one of them to my amazement.
All around his house and yard were metal tube xylophones each sounding a particular scale. These all demonstrated his level of understanding. His ability to make instrument after instrument impressed me, because each project provided me with a new learning opportunity and generally with amusing and captivating results.
This was my first exposure to the microtonal (greater than 12 notes per octave) system. The sound was quite amazing and very different from our 12-tone chromatic system. He constantly talked about greater-than-12 music systems.
I learned that Ivor had a lot of supporters and detractors. In part, this was due to his dislike of the 12-tone equal tempered (Western) scale, and his constant "down with 12-tone" ranting both verbally and in writing. He basically felt all of the 12-tone scale's intervals were not harmonically pure. His belief was by further slicing up the spaces within our 12-tone system into greater intervals (e.g.19-tone, 24-tone, 31-tone, etc.) he could create intervals (two notes played simultaneously) that sounded more in tune.
Ivor also wrote an amazing amount of work on microtonal scales and was regularly featured in Interval magazine,
Emil Richards (1932 – 2019)
Regarded as Mr. World of Percussion due to his worldy travels to acquire many types of ethnic, cultural, and traditional instruments. Probably the premiere percussionist having wide-ranging performance expertise in worldly percussion instruments. Worked extensively in Hollywood in the motion picture and recording industries.
(1980) Encourage Refinement - Having met Emil through NAMM, he wanted one of my bass marimbas, but with additional range and to be able to split into two parts (naturals and accidentals) for ease of portability for the cartage companies. The two-octave "extended bass marimba" was designed to provide additional range. (<--Instrument is shown on the cover of a 1980's issue of "percussion arts")
In 2009 Emil insisted I build him a Bass Flapamba - an unusual instrument in which the bars are suspended over resonators from a single point - like a diving board. This certainly took me out of my comfort zone of marimba construction in which the bars are normally suspended from two points where the nodes of the fundamental or 1st harmonic are located. The resulting tone of the single-point suspension results in a "thumpy" bass sound.
Emil had a tenor flapamba that was originally built by M. Brent Sewell (<--photo to the immediate left). This provided some insights into the design, but didn't provide much help into the bass region where the functioning flapamba bars proved to be very stubborn in their willingness to function as desired. The solution was ultimately revealed in how the lower pitched bars needed to be anchored into the body of the instrument in such a way that their energy wasn't absorbed or diminished by the support structure. (Go to wikipedia marimba and scroll down to the flapamba header for more information.)
David Ahlstrom (1927 - 1993) On-Line Archive
Mr. Ahlstrom composed "The Bishop's Horse", which features Chris's Extended Bass Marimba (which, by the way, was the sister instrument to the marimba Emil Richards had).
(1980) Staying Excited - David was like a cheerleader for my instrument projects and acted like a kid at Christmas time around them whenever he came down from San Francisco to Pasadena for a visit. He inspired me to experiment and take my instrument designs to the "next level." Besides composing for them he was also a supporter and provider of many of my percussion instruments to the music program at San Francisco's Lick-Wilberding High School.
Director of the Los Angeles Harry Partch Ensemble - His group performs compositions written by Harry Partch; an iconoclast who designed and performed his own self-made instruments built around the 43-tones (per octave) equal tempered scale.
(2012-13) Continue to Learn by Doing - Your skills and confidence really gets put to the test when someone comes along and asks you to build a Marimba Eroica. The demands and desires of the Harry Partch songbook must have been pressing John Schneider to obtain just that instrument. Although, I had acquired many years of knowledge in designing bass marimbas, the effort this project required had put my abilities on display to deliver. The real challenge was the verification and proof that the Eroica's lowest note, of the four pitches, (F-22Hz!) was actually functioning. Clearly this frequency is below our human ability to hear it as an actual tone. But, hanging tools rattling on the walls, every time that low bar was struck, was convincing proof that the energy from the bar-resonator combination was present and a reassuring sign that the pitch was in fact working. Whew!
In 2013, John wanted me to build another Harry Partch instrument called the "Spoils of War." It consisted of a single bar perched on top of the straight column (that vibrated at 55Hz) and was surrounded by other percussive elements, e.g. brass artillery shells, wood block, etc.
In 2017, Chris was called into service again to help in the design and construction of a "Boo" project. In this context "boo" referred to Harry's original "bamboo" instrument that consisted of several tuned bamboo tubes. Each note was a length of tube that contained a vibrating tongue at one end and a closed-off end at the other. The tongue was struck with sticks to cause resonance.
In following Harry's musical system, this new instrument also required 43-tones to the octave. The range of this instrument is one-and-a-half octaves which requires a total of 64 tubes.
Natural bamboo was not used due to their fragileness and a problematic grain structure that would often lead to splitting. Instead, the tubes used are a structural linen-based phenolic composite, which is literally indestructible.