Notes On Dylan Henner’s Marimba Music

“I still believe that the primary virtue and usefulness of criticism resides precisely in its limitations—in the fact that the critic’s fragile linguistic tryst with the visible object is always momentary, ephemeral, and local to its context. The experience blooms up in the valley of its saying, to borrow W.H. Auden’s phrase, but it does not survive that moment.”
– Dave Hickey, Air Guitar (1997)

Being a percussionist, I’m attuned to music that features percussion used in an interesting and idiomatic way, meaning: percussion played in a way that pushes its potentials without getting stuck in its cliches. Percussion-less, programmed beats, ubiquitous in, and an essential engine of, many electronic popular musics, don’t usually catch my attention, maybe because I know how little such beats rely on drumming know-how for their making. That’s one thing about programming rather than playing music: you risk missing out on the very action that makes playing music an active, alive endeavor.

So I was delighted when Spotify recommended to me the music of Dylan Henner, a (somewhat mysterious) producer and percussionist. Henner’s “We Lay Down in a Field of Orange Flowers and We Listened to the Birds” is a remarkable track that I’ve listened to numerous times. It features marimba playing—which is almost the sole sound source for the music—and inventive ways of manipulating/processing it. Henner combines simple chord arpeggios in the mid and low registers with fast rolls in the upper registers. Production-wise, he uses the width of the stereo field so that we hear those arpeggios and rolls panned hard left and right, leaving space in the middle for the occasional long bell tone or field recordings. 

What most impresses me about “We Lay Down” is how it generates a sense of emotion from the marimba playing by reconfiguring the minimalists’ key compositional device: repetition over time. This isn’t a four-minute song, but a twenty-minute journey that takes its time declaring and joyfully reiterating its themes, strategically surrounding marimba hits with silence, rolling intense chord washes, and processing here and there so that patterns fold back upon themselves like a kaleidoscope to reveal the music’s fractal-like design. The music sneaks up on you, as if saying look at how far we can feel with the time we took. I’m still puzzling out how this piece is so sneakily effective. Is it its limited timbral palette? Its patient way with repetition? Its percussive urgency? The muffled voice recording that enter at 7:15? The ratio of the sound of played marimba to the sound of edited marimba? Such is the seamless construction of “We Lay” that these questions can remain unanswered, as our experience blooms up in the valley of its saying. In sum, our not being able to explain away all of the elements that make a piece of music work so well proves that it does.

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