What is a Xylorimba?

Posted by

(Are the overtones tuned differently in various ranges of its keyboard?)

The term xylorimba clearly refers to some kind of hybrid instrument, but it depends on who is using the term, and when. Even the word itself is a composite: xylo is the common Greek root meaning ‘wood’; and rimba is an arbitrary clipping of the word ‘marimba’, which itself comes from an African (Bantu) root meaning ‘tongues’. I have seen indications for xylorimba in music by various composers (Boulez, et al.), but there is never any information given regarding overtone tuning. In a number of works (Couleurs de la cité céleste, for example), Olivier Messiaen calls for a xylophone, a marimba and a xylorimba, suggesting that he had a very specific type of instrument in mind. In some scores (Des canyon aux étoiles, for example) Messiaen gives specific ranges, varying from 4 to 4.5 to 5 octaves, as well as the clarification that the xylorimba sounds as written. Both the Premier company in England, and Bergerault in France have marketed instruments called xylorimbas, however I have neither seen nor heard either of these versions. For a number of years Premier manufactured a four-octave: C4 to C8 ‘xylophone’, which I have played. That instrument was tuned throughout its range the same as their marimbas – with the second partial two octaves above the fundamental. Some of the old Deagan catalogues list, and picture, instruments called xylorimbas – the 730 series – but they give no information about overtone tuning. Those instruments are only three octaves: C4 to C7, or F4 to F7. I have been told that the Leedy Company in the United States produced a five octave xylorimba, but, again, I have not seen one. I personally have never encountered an instrument having two different overtone tunings on the same keyboard, although Claire Omar Musser is quoted in a 1932 magazine article as claiming that the instrument called a ‘marimba-xylophone’ is tuned with octave overtones in the low range and quint-tuned in the upper range. ‘Quint’ tuning is a method of placing the first overtone (i.e., second partial) of a bar an octave and a fifth above the fundamental.

I have seen several Deagan instruments labelled with the word marimba-xylophone – the 4700 series, for example – in fact I own one of them (a #4726). These instruments invariably have been tuned exactly the same throughout the range. My instrument is 4.5 octaves: C3 to F7 and is tuned with the usual ‘marimba overtones’ (second partial two octaves above the fundamental). According to the original Deagan catalogue the largest instrument in the marimba-xylophone series –  #4732 –  was six octaves: E2 – E8, but it is unknown if Deagan ever built one of them. I think the term marimba-xylophone refers to the upward extension of what is usually considered the highest octave of a standard marimba, although that’s all it is – terminology. Hal Trommer, who worked for Deagan for many years, has said the reverse: marimba-xylophones are really xylophones extended downward into the standard marimba range. For the earliest examples from before the 1920s, that would be equally true, because none of Deagan’s instruments from that time were overtone-tuned at all. They tuned only the fundamental and just let the overtone go. It’s immediately audible on any old (pre-1920s) Deagan marimbas and xylophones that haven’t been retuned. For Deagan xylorimbas and marimba-xylophones produced before 1927, then, the question of multiple overtone tunings on the same keyboard is moot – no overtones were tuned.

Just as manufacturers, over the last two decades, decided to extend the standard marimba range downward, they also could easily extend the range upward without redefining what a marimba is. The same goes either way for xylophones – for example, the Deagan Artists’ Special #268 was five octaves in range: C3 to C8. I also own a #268, but my instrument was retuned, using quint overtone tuning, at the Deagan factory sometime after 1940. I don’t know if the overtones were originally tuned, and if they were, in what way. The quint-tuning system that is applied to xylophone keyboards by a majority of today’s manufacturers is a relatively new concept introduced by the Deagan company in 1927. For a long time after that, there was no agreement about it being something that defined xylophone-ness. To this day, both overtone tuning and keyboard range are parameters determined entirely at the discretion of manufacturers. The only defining feature of the xylophone vis a vis the marimba, as far as composers and conductors are concerned, is transposition: the xylophone sounds one octave higher than written; the marimba sounds the written pitch. Performers have always been free to play either type of instrument with any kind of mallet they like – there’s no law against playing xylophones with yarn mallets or marimbas with rubber mallets. It’s still common in Europe to find instruments marketed as ‘xylophones’ that are tuned like marimbas, have no resonators, and have keyboards configured like vibraphones. As long as it is made out of wood and is played as a transposing instrument, it counts as a xylophone. By this definition, Messiaen’s version of a xylorimba is really a marimba, because it’s made of wood and sounds as written, but until I run across both a vintage, non-retuned Deagan #730 xylorimba, and a non-retuned Deagan #4732 marimba-xylophone, I can’t completely answer the question. Plus, Messiaen’s dead!

Bob Becker (June, 2005)