Nov. 21 2008 12:00 AM

Nathaniel Bartlett brings enhanced marimba magic to Scene Metrospace

(Amelia DeVivo/City Pulse)
John Cage, the Zen master of chance music, would have enjoyed the coincidence that happened in East Lansing Thursday night. In a town where avant-garde and new music fans go begging for months without input, two cool things were going on at exactly the same moment.

At Michigan State University’s music building, a modern ensemble called Musique 21 was playing a full slate of new and adventurous music from students and teachers. Across Grand River Avenue, at Scene Metrospace, Nathaniel Bartlett, the master marimba manipulator from Madison, Wis., came to town to do his latest ear-stretching dance with mallets, wood and electrons.

It was Barlett’s third performance at Scene Metrospace in the past couple year, but they still under-price him. You get six bucks’ worth of fun just looking at his equipment. He’s got a laptop with programmed levels and tone sequences, flat screens that display the score for him, a matrix of foot pedals and a beautiful see-through amp with a curvy gadget inside that looks like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. (It’s an aluminum heat sink, Bartlett explained after the show.)

Taking full command at center stage, Bartlett’s marimba looked like a futuristic city turned upside down. Its golden resonating tubes nestled into one another like stout organ pipes.

The rig looked preposterously orderly and neat, even though Bartlett dragged all his equipment, even the cables, from Madison, in a late November snowstorm.

For the audience, the most important piece of hardware in the house was Bartlett’s “cuboid loudspeaker array.” Eight speakers — four on the floor, four at head level —teleported every sound to its optimal spot in the room. Bartlett called it “sonic spatialization,” which he considers an under-explored part of music compared to familiar aspects such as pitch, timbre, dynamics and such.

This wasn’t the spatialization you get at the Multiplex, with cop cars and armored trucks whizzing past your head, but a probability cloud of sonic events materializing all around your body, usually with great clarity and presence. (Bartlett uses sound sampled at 24 bits, not 16, as CDs do, cramming in much more information.)

Bartlett performed three longish pieces, moving gradually from maximal density to minimal. His movements were calm but intense, often approaching dance.

After a hushed intro, the first piece burst out with a cascade of jangling electronics that sounded like all the china at Buckingham Palace going down a garbage disposal. From then on, it came down to the tension between the earthly ring of marimba keys and otherworldly outbursts of Bartlett’s processed sounds. Timbre, pitch and dynamics trumped melody and harmony, the last of which was reduced to ghostly hints.

Another great thing about Bartlett is that he deploys his whole body, not just his arms. During the third piece, he tapped his foot in a cryptic pattern and re-played the taps via computer processing. Suddenly, the taps sounded like 30-ton iron claws dragging across a battleship deck. Other variations were softer and more complex, like bursts of wind with voices inside.

As the concert drew to a close, Bartlett pulled out a violin bow and began to slide it along the edge of the marimba, producing a hot, brain-bifurcating blade of sound. Then he pulled out a computer keyboard from a side console, and you had to wonder if was going to slide that across the marimba, too. Would the amplified clash of synthetic computer keys and rosewood marimba keys bring about the apocalypse foretold by technology-haters for centuries? Nah — Bartlett just rested the keyboard on the marimba and carefully tapped a few keys. He was only closing his program and powering down for the night.