Mackey keeps on rockin’ in the formal world
Some of the most vital words of wisdom Steven Mackey has for his composition students are these: “You don’t need composition lessons. You need therapy.” Translated, Mackey is telling his students, in the postgraduate phase of their careers, that they are sufficiently versed in the technique and language of classical music. It’s time to pay less attention to notes on paper, and focus on what’s living inside of them, what experiences have registered in their memories.”It’s finding what’s uniquely them,” said Mackey. In assessing the work of his students, Mackey, who has been teaching at Princeton University for 22 years, doesn’t ask if the music is technically accomplished. “They’re expert composers. It’s a question of, is it authentic? Is it totally committed?”Mackey would have welcomed those questions. As a graduate student at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, and then a doctoral candidate at Brandeis, he was the model of an aspiring composer: “I was writing good student music, complicated and intelligent, impressing my teachers, winning young composer awards.”At the same time, he was suppressing, consciously and entirely, that which was uniquely him: a rock star who wanted to wail on the electric guitar.
Mackey’s formative musical experience was well outside the realm of the conservatory, arguably against the law, and even beyond the incomparably permissive boundaries of his childhood setting, in the Northern California of the late ’60s. As he details on his website, his older brothers would drop acid, while Mackey himself would be pressed into service providing the musical backdrop – six-hour stretches on solo guitar. (Left unresolved is why the older Mackey boys preferred the noodlings of a 13-year-old amateur to, say, the 23-minute “Dark Star” from the Grateful Dead’s “Live/Dead,” played more than a dozen times.)Rather than scarring him, those sessions instilled in Mackey deep rock ‘n’ roll dreams. He took off from the University of California, Davis, where he had been studying physics, to take a stab at his two real passions: rock music and ski racing. The opposing nature of those ambitions came to a head one weekend in the winter of 1974 at the Bear Pen, a “disgusting shithole” of a nightclub, according to Mackey, on Lake Tahoe. Mackey had gone there to play some music and ski; he left convinced that the rock lifestyle didn’t leave room for freestyle mogul skiing on the professional level.”People buying you drinks, you’re getting high. It’s 4 in the morning before you’re settling down. You do an original song, but people yell, ‘Play the Doobie Brothers!'” he recalled. “And I was a professional athlete. My health was starting to decline.”When Mackey resumed his formal education, he began to see and hear and embrace the world in a new way. Having never heard classical music before – “I was from rural California; we didn’t have BBC radio,” he says – he enrolled in a music-appreciation elective. There he experienced sounds that were like rock ‘n’ roll, but raised to another power.”I heard Mozart piano concertos and Stravinsky ballets and late Beethoven string quartets,” said the 51-year-old Mackey, who is spending the first half of the summer as a composer-in-residence with the Aspen Music Festival and School. “Coming from where I was coming from, that was the hippest, trippiest, most rock ‘n’ roll music I’d ever heard. All there was in the world was rock, from Joni Mitchell to Jimi Hendrix. That was the entire gamut of music I knew.”To those ears, classical music was daring and ambitious. “They didn’t care whether people could dance to it,” said Mackey. “These musicians were trying to capture the whole of human experience and distill it into a listening experience – that was the most that music could be. I felt like I was listening to the place – concert music – where the composer was expected to go out as far as he could, and grab the human experience on Earth. It wasn’t designed to sell, or to do your laundry to. It was like life, designed to occupy your head.”
Having been turned onto classical music, Mackey declared his intention to major in music. But when he informed the head of the music department at Davis that his skills were limited to rock guitar and he couldn’t read music, Mackey was told that his case was hopeless. He went into a spell of mourning over his misspent youth.”I went through a period of: ‘What a sucky background I had,'” he said. “But then I realized it was a great background. I was training my mind and my ear, and making things up. “But there was a time I was thinking, boy , wouldn’t it have been great to take piano lessons at 6?”Instead, in his mid-20s, Mackey took private lessons in classical guitar, picked up the lute, and fancied a career directing an early-music ensemble. But the music professor at Davis saw the progress he was making, and offered Mackey an independent study course in composition.”It was excruciatingly difficult,” he said. “I had these adult ideas in my head, but a childish grasp of notation. I literally gave myself headaches trying to figure out what I was hearing so I could get it down. But it was exhilarating, all-consuming and intense. I knew it would keep me busy the rest of my life.”The head pain might be attributable to a severe effort at identity suppression. Trying to fit in with “the egghead crowd” at Stony Brook and Brandeis, Mackey packed away his guitar, hid his past, and never allowed rock to influence his serious music. Leaving academia, however, put another spin on his creative pursuits.”In grad school, people are paid to be interested in your work,” said Mackey. “Your music lives on your desk and your teacher’s desk.”Out in the real world, Mackey let his freak pen fly. He incorporated rock and blues – “my mother tongue” – into his compositions, and began playing guitar again. He aligned himself with avant-garde players like the Kronos Quartet, who built no stylistic walls around music. “My natural DNA, some fusion of rock, blues and concert music, started to seep out,” he said.
In 1995, Mackey composed “Deal,” a piece commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and guitarist Bill Frisell. It put the electric guitar on a prominent stage. But writing for Frisell, who had successfully blended jazz and country but wasn’t a classical player, Mackey still had to hold back some. Shortly after, Mackey was approached by Michael Tilson Thomas, who wanted a pure Mackey piece – “a big concerto, where you’re front and center,” said Mackey, repeating the conductor’s words – for Thomas’ New World Symphony.The result was “Tuck and Roll,” which Mackey will perform Sunday, June 8, with the Aspen Festival Orchestra and conductor David Robertson. “The impressive thing is the way the electric guitar interacts with the orchestra,” said Mackey, “plays with the oboe, the viola, these discussions and arguments on that level. It said, ‘Hey, maybe the electric guitar has something to offer here.”
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For “Groundswell,” which has its world premiere here July 21, in a recital by the Brentano String Quartet and violist Hsin-Yun Huang, Mackey delved into another segment of his DNA makeup. The piece was written last summer, when Mackey was in Aspen and during his honeymoon in Italy. (His wife, Sarah K. Snider, is also a composer, and was a composition fellow in Aspen last year.) In Colorado and in Italy, Mackey’s thoughts returned to his former career as a skier.”One of the groups that commissioned it wanted a theme of the essential elements. I said ‘earth – well, that’s mountains,'” said Mackey, who stopped skiing for 20 years following an injury, and took it up again eight years ago. The piece tracks an ascent up the hills on the Tuscan coast, then to the higher Rocky Mountains, for which the violist switches to harmonica to represent gasping for air. It plateaus with a peak experience – “austere, serene,” said Mackey.Mackey still finds himself sometimes on the outside looking in – a rocker in a the concert world. “But it cuts both ways,” he said. “I find my background, my niche, my insistence on the kind of music I write, has closed a lot of doors. But it’s opened a lot of doors.”I tell my students, you can gauge what you’re doing by the people you piss off. You just have to make sure you piss off the people that you should. If they don’t stand for a kind of music I want to play, then it’s fine to piss them off.”It sounds very punk. But Mackey finds that same attitude in the roots of classical music too.”Beethoven wasn’t throwing his bedpan around the room to fit in with a paradigm established a generation before,” he said. “He was trying to find out what music could say.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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