On first look, it may appear as if the marimba and the electric guitar don't share much in common. They aren't often paired in traditional ensembles. Even their respective provenance — the guitar stemming from ancient Asian and Indian instruments and the marimba having been developed in Central America by African slaves — suggests a wide divide in how the instruments came to be.
But for two local musicians, the combination has served as means to explore experimental, avant-garde sounds that contribute to Houston's underground music scene.
Electric guitarist George Heathco and percussionist Luke Hubley, both graduates of University of Houston's Moores School of Music, first collaborated while on fellowship as part of the Da Camera of Houston Young Artists Program, an initiative that strives to nurture emerging instrumentalists, vocalists and composers. Roughly a year ago, the two founded the Liminal Space Contemporary Music Ensemble in an effort to continue their musical partnership.
"It turned out to be a beautiful fit," Heathco says. "The percussive act of striking the marimba bars with mallets mimics the percussive quality of a pick brushing against the guitar strings. There are also similarities in how the individual sound is sustained, typically a strong attack followed by sharp drop."
It's like a tuneful hit-and-run.
"I'm interested in Frank Zappa, heavy metal and 19th and 20th century classical music. Some may consider that odd, but why does it have to be?"
Both instruments also create the illusion of long, continual notes in the same fashion. The marimba player uses soft mallets to lessen the initial attack (the precise moment when the sound begins), followed by quick, repeated hits on the same bar — what's dubbed as a roll — to broaden the physical tendencies of the instrument.
The strength with which a percussionist executes the technique dictates the volume. Changes in height and force result in gradual shifts in dynamics. The electric guitar, and the acoustic guitar as well, has an analogous method that achieves legato passages.
Heathco describes this melange as delivering a jazzy tone quality. Moreover, the unlikely mix also gives meaning to how the duo views its role as an arts presenter.
"With Liminal Space, we want to focus on newer composers who often get shafted to the fringe," he adds. "We are interested in composers with diverse backgrounds, those who dabble in classical, rock, jazz and improvisation equally. For lovers of contemporary music and experimental noise — and rock for that matter — we hope that what we present is an experience."
The layering of an acoustic with an electric instrument brings up an interesting dialogue as it pertains to classical versus popular genres, questioning the idea that each type belongs in a separate (but equal?) category. The group's upcoming performance, titled "Time and Tension: An Evening of Electro-Acoustic Music," set for Wednesday night at Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, delves into the possibilities offered with digital processes and the outcome when technology is juxtaposed with non-amplified sounds.
"I'm interested in Frank Zappa, heavy metal and 19th and 20th century classical music," he says. "Some may consider that odd, but why does it have to be?"
Curating an experimental concert
The Wednesday concert program centers on Samuel Carl Adams' Tension Studies, which was originally commissioned by San Francisco-based classical duo The Living Earth Show. Through multimedia visual programming software, the guitar effects gradually uncloak a baseline while toiling with the instrument's tuning framework.
Also on the program is Nathan Davis' Diving Bell, a work written for triangles and computer processing that extrapolates the rich harmonics that all too often are lost amid heavier orchestral textures. Dutch avant pop composer Jacob TV's The Body of Your Dreams, scored for piano and boombox, samples bits from American infomercials — remember the AbTronic Pro? — to render a deconstructed, yet rhythmically hypnotic loop that's outright hilarious on the surface. As the piece states, "kind of like an inside tickle."
"The fragments were taken from a product that sent electronic signals to your stomach to — hopefully — flatten it," Heathco explains. "It's an interesting piece. Although it may feel humorous and lighthearted, it's very serious in its construction."
The world premiere of Hugh Lobel's Lotus City Songbook, commissioned as part of Liminal's New Music Intitative, is aligned with Heathco's goal to support colleagues with ties to the local music scene. Houston-based composer Robert McClure's Integrated Elements, written for the African gyl, includes non-traditional approaches of creating sound.
As for Heathco and Hubley's hope for Liminal, future plans are still in the works. Over time, they are looking to grow into a larger collective that influences the movement nationally, similarly to what ensembles like Alarm Will Sound and Bang on a Can have accomplished in raising awareness about a tangent of music that's more inclusive than exclusive.
Liminal Space Contemporary Ensemble presents "Time and Tension: An Evening of Electro-Acoustic Music" on Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., at Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios. Tickets are $10 online, $15 at the door.