29 November 2007

Marimba Magic

A few Friday nights ago, I just happened to see a small flyer advertising a concert by an Israeli marimba-ist for the following evening at the Conservatory of Music. I had never heard of Asaf Roth, but do love live music and marimbas, and he looked kinda cute. I assumed it would be good, but never imagined that it would turn out to be one of the most incredible concerts I have ever been to.

I’d been to the conservatory once before. It’s a small venue; sort of long-in-the-tooth, but with that old-world French charm and decent acoustics. The concert was free-of-charge, and open seating. I settled into the perfect spot to see and hear.

Asaf started with a few lovely, mellow pieces, and all the stress in my body started to drift away as I was caressed by the music. As the concert progressed, his selections built in intensity.

‘Remembering’ is one of the most remarkable musical pieces I have ever experienced. Before he began, Asaf explained that, since he was only one person, he was going to use an electronic loop pedal to stand in for additional musicians. Then he demonstrated. He tapped a switch with his foot, and into a microphone said “come”. Instantly, the word was repeated, "come, come, come", in a steady 4/4 beat. Then he tapped the switch again and added “on” Now we heard, “come on, come on, come on.” Then, “shush”; “shush come on, shush come on, shush come on”. Demo over; he began to play.

The piece starts with a simple, slow, melodic line, of about 12 measures. Then he abruptly stops, slowly moves to his left and picks up maracas. Another pause, he taps the electronic loop switch, which replays the 12 measures, on top of which he shakes the maracas. Again, an abrupt halt, then over to a xylophone, and another dimension is added to the piece. I think this is where he goes back to the marimba and we now hear what sounds like a mini-orchestra playing the most beautiful, somewhat haunting, music.

Marimba Spiritual, was even more mesmerizing. This piece started slowly and built in speed and complexity, once more utilizing the music loop. The rhythms sink inside you and at one point I flashed back to a Sufi performance I had seen in Cairo; it had that same feel of grabbing your soul and nearly putting you into a trance-like state. I gave up trying to figure out how many layers he had put together or understand how he could keep track of it all. This man is not only a seriously talented musician, but a master of multi-tasking.

At this point I should mention that I have never been able to sit still when I hear music, and simply do not understand how others do so. Especially when beautiful melodies and intoxicating beats are coursing through your body. I hate having to be consciously aware of restraining my normal physical reaction, which would be to really sway and move along with the music. Mostly, I was transfixed by Asaf’s performance, but a few times I peeked at the people around me and they were like rocks in the ground, not a foot tapping, nor a head bobbing.

The next delight was “Peter and the Wolf.” A Vietnamese woman, who had introduced Asaf before the concert, walked onto the stage. She sat down at a chair to his right, adjusted the music stand which held her script and, ever so slightly, nodded to Asaf, who started to play. Let me tell you, I may have only understood a few words of the language, but it didn’t matter. Between the excitement, wonder, and joy in her reading, added with that marvelous “Peter” score and Asaf’s variations, the entire audience was swept away on a magical journey. What was truly amazing is that our narrator did not speak marimba, and Asaf did not speak Vietnamese, yet they functioned as one, never missing a beat or a word. Even more phenomenal, as I learned after the concert, was that they had only practiced together one time. Granted, the woman was a conductor and performing arts teacher, which I found out later, but it still was a remarkable feat.

Another piece included students form the Conservatory. I had been wondering about all the percussion instruments sitting on the left; bass drum, a snare or two, some cymbals or bells, and I think a timbale. This piece was all percussion and Brazilian beats. Anyone who knows me will understand that it was close to pure hell for the Samba Queen to remain seated. Asaf was more of a conductor this time, using that traditional Carnaval instrument, the whistle. Truly awesome. And, as with “Peter”, they had only rehearsed together once.

Aside from the instruments I knew, Asaf had this electronic thing that I could not see. I sounded like it was a keyboard, but then sounded like percussion. He did this very bizarre thing where he sang and played the keyboard together, but it all meshed together to produce what sounded like a choir. I simply have no way of describing what the heck it was, but it was cool.

I was buzzing by the time the music stopped. I was still buzzing when I got home. Since I don’t have any way to get his CD, I am now forced to listen to snippets off his website. How is it that I had never heard of him? And what if I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time to find out about the concert? No matter; it was meant to be.

Do give his music a listen http://www.asafroth.com/