Keiko Abe ‘The Wave Impressions Concerto for Marimba’: A Colourful Concerto

Hello readers! Welcome to blog 5 of my Female Fortnight Challenge and today we are coming into the 21st Century with a composer I am extremely fond of – Keiko Abe! This percussion giant has pushed the boundaries of tuned percussion composition for decades, and I am so very happy to sharing my favourite piece by her today – The Waves Concerto for Marimba. I hope you can find some delight in Keiko Abe like I can, she truly is an absolutely wonderful musician.

Keiko Abe was born in Tokyo, 1937 and she is primarily known for being a virtuoso marimba player and composer. Whilst in primary school, Abe began to learn the xylophone under Eiichi Asabuki. At age 13, Abe won her first contest, and from then she began performing in a professional capacity. She went to Tokyo Gakugei University where she received her undergraduate degree in music. She stayed on at the university and completed a master’s degree in music education. In 1962, she and two other marimba players founded the Xebec Marimba Trio. This ensemble performed Abe’s arrangements of folk songs, popular music and a wide-range of other styles of music. This performance opportunity was intense and the trio recorded a whopping seven albums between 1962 and 1966. As well as the trio, Abe also founded her own TV show, where she taught young children how to play the xylophone. Further to this, she also hosted her own radio show entitled “Good Morning Marimba”.

In this decade of Abe’s life, she managed to record thirteen albums in a 5-year span, as well as doing all of her educational work. Abe is also well-known for her collaboration with the Yamaha Corporation. In the early 1960s, Yamaha were looking to change and develop their designs of tuned percussion instruments, most notably the marimba. The corporation chose Abe to help assist and with the new designs. Abe was supposedly chosen for her original ideas of the marimba sound, design and development. Her ideas strongly guided Yamaha to develop their design of the marimba so that it would blend more effectively within an ensemble. She also persuaded them to stretch the range of the marimba from four to five octaves, which is now the standard for marimba soloists. Since then, Abe has always been associated with Yamaha, and she further aided their designs for new percussion mallets and xylophones.

As well as very successful performer, Abe has also composed over 70 works, all of them focusing on either the marimba, or other closely associated tuned percussion instruments. She bases her compositions on improvisation, which are then further developed into formed musical ideas. Amazingly, a lot of her compositions for marimba have become standards of marimba repertoire. Due to Abe’s education background, she is a big believer in helping young musicians, so she also commissions a lot of works by other composers. Abe is also a professor at the Toho Gakuen School of Music and she was the first woman to be inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame (1993). Abe is incredibly popular in Japan as a performer, but as a composer she is internationally recognised as an experimental and developmental composer of percussion music.

For this blog I am looking into her work The Wave Impression Concerto for Marimba. Abe composed this work in 2002 and it was initially written for orchestra, marimba. However, I found an excellent recording with a wind orchestra and Keiko Abe playing the marimba herself. I will include links to both the wind and orchestral versions for you to peruse at your leisure. For this blog though I will refer to the instrumentation of the orchestra arrangement. There is not a wealth of information on this particular work, but from the title and the music, it is clear that the sea is the main theme that runs through the work. Abe explains in this short paragraph what this concerto is all about:

“This piece consists of three contrasting musical elements and the approaches to the marimba. There is a short introduction with Japanese affections before the violent rising phrases of solo marimba and the energy of the marimba always leading the orchestra. In the middle section, a slow melody, almost an image of praying, is written over the deep and low range sound of the marimba. After the cadenza, the dreamlike world expands with changing meter. In contrast with the middle section which has the colour of a Japanese-like melody, in the final section, the long continuation of the marimba eighth note triplet gives a vital spark and the melody, that likes enjoying life, builds an energetic climax integrating with the orchestra. This is a concerto opposing the unique and original composer’s marimba sound and the profoundness of the orchestra and expressing a free-spirited style unconstrained by format.”

The concerto begins with a rumble from the orchestra, which set the scene for when the energetic marimba enters. There is an explosion of sound when the marimba starts playing, and the entry uses the range of the marimba. The soloist then plays a select two chords, which gradually speed up until a flourish into the top end of the instruments. The orchestra proclaims the initial motif once more. The marimba enters again with a similar entry to the first, with slight variation. The drums shadow a single motif from the marimba. This leads to a short silence before a climactic section with the marimba playing a succession of intervals in each octave of the marimba. The orchestra follow this, and the percussion section begin to reflect the rhythmic movement of the soloist. Another short silence is heard, then a very petite section begins. The marimba plays with the shaft of the stick, rather than the head to create a different tone and also a much quieter dynamic. This is then contrasted by a louder section, where the soloist plays with the head of the stick once more. The flute and piccolo also play this motif with the soloist. The more disjointed section is accompanied by a counter-melody from the lower brass and a pizzicato motif by the upper strings. This section sees the complete range of the marimba being used, which gives colour and a range of different tones.

Another section begins with the soloist using the shaft of the stick to create a more petite sound. A small orchestral interlude leads onto the soloist returning with a predominantly pentatonic motif. At times the marimba and orchestra are in unison, but more often than not there are always two melodies going on at any one time. A climactic section leads to the marimba leading a variation of a motif into the orchestra bringing down the mood to a dark and mysterious atmosphere. The soloist plays a sequence of notes down in the bottom range of the instrument, which gives a very woody timbre. The dynamic is extremely quiet here. The ominous lower strings add a lot to the timbre here. As the marimba begins to creep up in range, so do the strings. This middle section is what Abe describes as the “dreamlike” section. A much more dramatic atmosphere is created, and this dream like state is moving up and through the marimba. Next is a wonderful melody played in the upper register of the instrument.

The next section begins with a more up-beat tempo. The soloist and orchestra play in unison, with the soloist embellishing the initial theme. Soon the mood drops back into the very dark and moody atmosphere, with the soloist playing in the lower register once more. This leads into the cadenza which shows off the wonderful tones and range of the marimba. After the cadenza, the orchestra begin with a pizzicato motif. The tonality has turned major here, and the feeling is much more free. The marimba is playing a variation of different rhythms above the orchestra. There is another orchestral interlude, with the ensemble developing the main themes, the marimba returns and there is a rush of sound soon dies away into another interlude where the soloist plays with a mixture of the shaft and head of the sticks. There is a bold chord from the brass, which is where the sound of the marimba grows into dynamic fruition. The compound time signatures used in this section reflect the dexterity needed to play this kind of concerto. The complex rhythms are played until a climax, where the orchestra stay at a loud dynamic, but the soloist plays on the shaft again. This is one of the first times the soloist is not leading the ensemble.

A percussion breakdown section leads into another ominous section from the winds and strings, the marimba returns with harder sticks, which create a much brighter sound. The fluctuation between chords in this section creates an amalgamation of sound, which leads to a very frantic climax once more and the soloist playing an incredibly fast melody. The marimba then plays a broken chord down the whole range of the instrument. A swell from the orchestra leads to a triumphant end to the concerto.

So that’s my take on Keiko Abe’s The Wave Impressions Concerto for Marimba. It is an absolutely fantastic work that was composed by an equally as fantastic composer. This concerto highlights the versatility, sound and intricacies of the marimba and how, with the help of Abe, the sound is able to blend and sound at one with an ensemble, whilst still being able to lead. I really enjoy Keiko Abe’s music, she a fantastic musician who uses her virtuosic talents to aid her ever-expanding marimba repertoire.

This blog is, of course, dedicated to all my percussion-playing friends, but in particular the percussion section from university so Tom, Will, Robin, Andrew and Hannes. These chaps kindly let me into their section when I had a lip infection and was unable to play my instrument in orchestra! Big love to you guys, you’re all fantastic! (Told you I would do a percussion-based blog soon!).

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recordings:

This is the orchestral recording, which I prefer.

This is the wind orchestra arrangement, which has Keiko Abe playing the solo part herself.