Thursday, January 12, 2012

Steven Mackey talks composition and intersecting with Lady Gaga

Steven Mackey had the kind of 2011 composers dream about. In May, violinist Leila Josefowicz and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel gave the West coast premiere of Mackey's Beautiful Passing.Two weeks later, Mackey strapped on his electric guitar and joined violinist Jennifer Koh and the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group conducted by John Adams for the premiere of his Four Iconoclastic Episodes. September saw the world premiere of Mackey's Stumble to Grace, a piano concerto written for Orli Shaham and performed by Shaham and the St. Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson.
Mackey's year was capped in December by four Grammy nominations for the recording of his composition Lonely Motel. "It's the only time in my life that my professional life will intersect with Bon Iver not to mention Lady Gaga," said Mackey.

 Prior to the Grammy nominations I had an opportunity to chat with Mackey. 

Craig Zeicher: You’ve had the world premiere of Stumble to Grace and the West coast premieres of Beautiful Passing and Four Iconoclastic Episodes. You also have new recordings of It Is Time and Lonely Motel. How has it been dealing with all this?

Steven Mackey: The past few months with the premieres and the CD releases has been the easy part. The challenging part is the time in the kitchen trying to bring all those dishes to the table at the right temperature. I am not naturally a multi-tasker yet I find myself with a career made of diverse components including composing, performing, improvising, conducting, teaching, and being heavily involved in the recording, editing and mixing of my recordings.

A 70-minute collaborative work like Lonely Motel progresses in phases over many years and therefore overlaps with more compact projects like, Beautiful Passing, Stumble to Grace or It Is Time. Since I have a one-track mind and can’t work on two things at once, I plan out my composition schedule for the year in order to devote myself intensely to one composition project at a time for a number of weeks or months. If I spend the morning composing it is hard to switch to practicing my guitar part in works like Four Iconoclastic Episodes, so I try to bunch my performing gigs together so that I am only a practicing guitarist for a certain number of months per year and during those months I practice early in the day before I have a chance to be obsessed with whatever I am composing.

CZ: I read in an interview where you said your experience as a guitarist influences all your music. It seems like a mix of practical musical experience wed to something that's almost a part of your physical being. 

SM: The guitar is a very physical instrument and I can’t, nor do I want to, divorce myself from the kind of physical responses it engenders. Obviously rhythm, syncopation and groove are aspects of guitar playing that make a long lasting physical imprint. Just as vivid for me is the feel of playing inside the harmony versus playing outside the harmony or escaping harmony altogether with noise and feedback. Where one might catch a pianist/composer fingering an imaginary keyboard in order to wrestle an idea onto the page, I play air guitar. This not only has ramifications for the kinds of intervals and rhythms that I gravitate toward, but the ideas associate with a feel indigenous to the guitar which in turn suggests other aspects of the music as well.

My language evolves from a stew with equal parts of that physical understanding absorbed from playing the guitar and my understanding of tonal and atonal music picked up from 35 years of study and teaching. I hasten to add that those worlds are not distinct but blurred and overlapped, more so with every passing year. I hear Beethoven through the ears of Jimi Hendrix and when I imagine pitch class sets in Ligeti I visualize how they lay out on the guitar fingerboard.

My sense of orchestration is particularly influenced by the sound of the electric guitar even when I am composing a work that has no guitars in sight. The sound of a searing solo, clangorous harmonics, distortion and thoughts about signal to noise ratio are all orchestration concerns that I have consciously imported from the electric guitar.

CZ: I've been enjoying the new recordings of your music. Lonely Motel really bends genres and styles. How was it taking on the role of guitarist and narrator?

SM: I really enjoyed being the narrator. The let’s face it, the electric guitar was designed to be played while singing or bantering. I’m not much of a singer or banterer so this was my only chance to have a live vocal mic!

CZ: Rinde Eckert is amazing on the album too, how is that collaboration?

SM: It has happened a couple of times recently that people have heard Lonely Motel and asked “How many singers are on this record?” or “How did you get a countertenor to sing those rhythms?” Their jaws drop when I tell them that the bell canto tenor, the rock belter, and the angelic countertenor are all one singer – Rinde Eckert. And by the way, he also plays baritone horn on the record and wrote all the lyrics.

Rinde and I have been collaborating for 15 years. Together we have written an opera (Ravenshead), an oratorio (Dreamhouse), we have a prog-rock band (Big Farm) and now there is Lonely Motel. We have worked together in so many different ways in our various projects. Occasionally he presents me with a poem that I set to music, which is the traditional classical model. But just as often I will write some music on an agreed upon theme and he will write lyrics to the given melody. Sometimes we will bring some musical and textual sketches together and improvise and see if we can build something together. Apart from the fact that Rinde is a terrific writer and librettist, there is something special about having your vocal soloist sing his own words.

 CZ: It is Time really puts SO Percussion in the spotlight. How was it writing a virtuoso piece x 4? 

SM: Most of the percussion ensemble literature focuses on the group paying tight unison or interlocking rhythms. The excitement comes from the ensemble virtuosity and chemistry but the individuals are often lost. I wanted to write something for SO in which they would each have a section of about 10 minutes of music that they would lead as a soloist. We sat down over BBQ and I asked them each what instrument they wanted to be featured on and it worked out perfectly that Eric Beach leads off on a crazy multi-percussion set with a pump organ, mounted china cymbal, musical saw and a bunch of toys that we designed together. Josh Quillen follows with steel drums, Adam Sliwinski on marimba and Jason Trueting brings it homes on the drum set.

With their encouragement, I really just let my imagination go and left no fantasy unexplored, and they much to my amazement rose to every challenge brilliantly. One small example is that I kept hearing a melody played on musical saw. Eric learned how to play the saw from scratch, which is no easy feat. At the first rehearsal I thought I had made a horrible mistake but by the time of the recording he was a master. 

SO becomes a kind of quirky band with drums, where the marimba is primarily responsible for the bass, the steel drums sing the melody, and the multi set-up plays a variety of roles.

The only problem writing this piece for SO is that it demands such a high level of virtuosity of such specific skills that SO is the only group that can play this piece for the foreseeable future. 

CZ: What are you working on now?

SM: I'm dotting the I's and crossing the T's in a piece for the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and I just started a collaboration with Mark DeChiazza (the filmmaker who did the video for It Is Time) on a piece for the Soli Ensemble in San Antonio. 

CZ: Favorite guitarists?
SM: Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Bill Frisell, George Harrison, Pat Metheny, Leo Kottke, Julian Bream ... to name a few.

--Craig Zeichner
Editor, Ariama





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