Saturday, April 27, 2013



Xylophone is a natural fit, being a percussion instrument in an orchestra. I thought of X-ray and the “X-Files” which I adore, but ended up with xylophone, as I knew I would; it was inevitable. When I was a kid, playing the viola in the San Jose Youth Symphony, we routinely tackled all sorts of music that we didn't play in public schools, or private schools for that matter. The reasons being, A) the instrumentation was always a bit off, 50 violins, 1 viola no cellos, and 2 string basses. There would be 75 clarinet players, but no sax players. That sort of thing.

A colorful group! They make me happy and I haven't heard a note yet!

Then, there was the matter of talent. Not everyone could afford private lessons, or wanted them. Some of the students didn't even want to be playing whatever it was they were playing. One kid got stuck with a bassoon, because it was all that was left in the band room and he was late the day they handed out the instruments. We had to listen to him carp all year. Better than listening to his playing.

Violins are a special kind of Hell. When you first start out on it, it sounds horrific. I don't care if you're Heifitz, you are going to suck out loud. Your talent and ear determines how long you will suck. That and the forbearance of your parents. I was banished to the garage until I made it non-suckable. About the time I achieved that, I discovered the viola and switched, and didn't pick up a violin for 30 years, until someone offered me lots and lots of money. I still think I suck at it, but no one's complained yet; I still prefer my viola.

It looks like an upside-down piano keyboard; I'm a bit dim about anything non-string in music.

Anyway, back to the Youth Symphony. We were playing things like Brahms' 3rd Symphony, and Schumann's 4th Symphony. Franck's D Minor Symphony and Liszt. So, one of our concerts was devoted to playing Camille Saint-Saëns' “Carnival of the Animals.” This piece has 14 movements, each devoted to an animal, or group of animals. There is one called “Aquarium” which is haunting, one called “Personages with Long Ears,” one named “Pianists,” ( Saint-Saëns could be wry) and one called “Fossils.” This is depicted by the xylophone, wooden, but not a marimba, as there are various types. So, the xylophone resembles dry bones.

Of course, now that I've thought of this piece that I played when I was about 14 and have never played again (it's not a hugely popular piece in the symphonic world) I can't get this tune out of my head. It's quite catchy. I'm not a huge fan for French composers by and large, but I do enjoy Camille Saint-Saëns and his compatriot Hector Berlioz. They both knew how to push the envelope for modern symphonies. Hope you enjoy the fossils!

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