Rule of Three


Music for 18 Musicians

by Steve Reich
Classical composition

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We hear single pitches played on marimbas and xylophones, staccato and constant, as if rhythmic drips of rain. Before long, though, the percussionists start to move out of sync, overlapping freely. A cluster of piano pitches enter, followed by strings, clarinets, and wordless voices. The pitter-patter of the composition’s opening seconds transforms into a stream of endlessly repeating notes, which seems to ebb and flow in wavelike patterns. As the instruments merge together, blending into the soundscape, we are left almost unsure where one ends and another begins. After five and a half minutes or so, new motifs surface, dipping and bobbing within the texture. Buoyed by the piece’s momentum, we are content to float on.

Words by Lewis Coenen-Rowe

Cello Concerto No. 2

by Dmitri Shostakovich
Classical composition

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Roughly halfway through the first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2, something disturbing happens. The serious, passionate tones of layered string counterpoint are abruptly interrupted. A xylophone bursts onto the scene, its interjections mocking and comical. The strings, once smoothly bowed, turn to plucked pizzicato. The rhythm takes the form of an odd dance. Yet, despite the shades of humour, the mood is not lightened. The cello soloist is spurred on to ever greater levels of angst, vexed by the orchestra’s newfound frivolity, until it is cut off by the heavy strokes of a bass drum. With that punctuation, the music returns to the brooding atmosphere of its opening, any tensions unresolved. Here, Shostakovich inverts the listener’s expectation: sorrow becomes a goal to be regained, while joy is swiftly forgotten.

Words by Lewis Coenen-Rowe

Gone Daddy Gone

by Violent Femmes

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A xylophone plays a descending riff, a guitar paces back and forth, and a vocalist reminisces about a high-school crush: ‘Beautiful girl, lovely dress / Where she is now, I can only guess.’ The frontman proves prone to borrowing from the past; he recycles the earlier guitar line for his second verse, then lifts lyrics from a Muddy Waters track for the third. Yet it is the xylophonist who is star of the show, taking centre stage with an extended solo. Its musical material veers from dissonant chords to the slapstick of a cartoon soundtrack, each idea toyed with for just a few bars. The instrument retreats for much of the song’s final minute, only to return to the limelight in the closing seconds.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

Music for 18 Musicians: Listen to the composition here. Tom Service has written an introduction to the music of Steve Reich for The Guardian.

Cello Concerto No. 2: Listen to the composition (with sheet music) here, and read about the piece here.

Gone Daddy Gone: Listen to the song here.

Today’s connection

All artworks feature prominent xylophone parts.

Question of the day

Which artworks related to the word 'Xylophone' would you recommend?
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