Composer Steven Mackey: from rock guitar to “this new language in my head”


It’s no exaggeration to say that one note changed Steven Mackey’s life: E flat.

The E-flat in question appears in the scherzo of Beethoven’s last string quartet, which begins with an easy, skipping tune in F major. From nowhere comes this E flat – loud, insistent and in unison on all four instruments. The note is not in the key of F major, and it upsets the harmony, the rhythm and the trajectory of the pleasant little melody which preceded it.

Mackey remembers hearing that caveat on the tape recorder in his brother’s car when he was in college. A rock guitarist who grew up, his heroes were Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Duane Allman, and he got his first exposure to classical music through a music appreciation course at the University of California Davis. The effect of this foreign moment for Beethoven was decisive.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I want to be able to do this,'” Mackey said in a recent phone interview from his home in Princeton. “It was the most psychedelic rock music I have ever heard.”

The effect of this Beethoven moment and the rest of the music he heard in his class was so great that Mackey decided to switch from physics to music and become a composer – despite the fact that at the time, he couldn’t. I don’t even read music. He just knew he wanted to create it.

It was a rather extraordinary act of idealism – and, he admits, naivety – whose success can be measured by the fact that Mackey has become an inventive and sought-after composer. (Two orchestral works – “Tonic” and a marimba concerto, “Time Release” – are on a Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert on Oct. 19.) a teacher since 1985. That is, Mackey said, when he first took off. says, “I guess I’ve caught up now”.

In order to become a composer, Mackey gave up the electric guitar and became a lutenist and classical guitarist. When he started playing electric guitar again after graduation, there was “this new language in my head. It was like a natural amalgamation of the oldest DNA when a blues-rock guitarist had merged with this formal formation. And suddenly I had a voice.

Some of Mackey’s early scores were written for electric guitar and “traditional” classical instruments – in particular, two composed for himself to perform with the Kronos Quartet: “Troubadour Songs” and “Physical Property”. It was still a controversial idea when he wrote these pieces in the late ’80s and early’ 90s. Mackey still remembers a review he received after a performance, which he paraphrased like so: “Combining electric guitar and string quartet is a bad idea, and Mackey does it terribly. The only good thing about being at this gig was knowing that this mix would never happen again. “

Today these pieces are well known, and the fact that a composer plays an electric guitar is hardly mentioned. This made Mackey something of a trailblazer, which reinforced an important lesson. Just following his instincts, “I was standing up for something the world was about to be ready for, so I got credit for leading a charge where, in fact, I was just doing what came naturally. . “

The electric guitar is still a crucial part of Mackey’s composition. He often starts a new track by improvising riffs on it, creating a multitude of little ideas that he can turn into something more substantial – “spins,” he calls them. They become the characters of an as yet unwritten drama.

“And then I can look at all these little things and start to think of myself as a novelist – what kind of story can these characters tell?” “

One of Mackey’s most ambitious works is “Dreamhouse”, a colossal piece for orchestra, electric guitar quartet and vocals, which BMOP premiered in 2007 in America. It too began with one of these twists, a sentimental melody to which Mackey will eventually define the words: “I will build you a dream house / Where you can live / Where you will be safe.” In the final section of the play, this idea is taken to such a feverish level that it “crumbles under the weight of its own obsession,” he explained. Written in the shadow of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, “Dreamhouse” defends the proposition that “something that starts out as almost sweet becomes ironic and monstrous at the end”.

At one point in his career, Mackey used randomly generated pitch sets as a source of creative inspiration. After “Dreamhouse”, however, he found that he no longer needed the external catalyst. The essential character of his voice had evolved to become part of him. “It started to be intuitive,” he said. “I realized, I just heard it that way.”

He compared it to the movie “Back to the Future”, in which Doc Brown’s time machine initially requires a rare quality of plutonium for its energy. By the end of the movie, he works on banana peels and other junk. “After ‘Dreamhouse’ I just woke up and realized that everything I write has this quality now. I can just throw banana peels in it.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project

At Jordan Hall, Oct. 19, 8 p.m. Tickets between $ 10 and $ 50. 617-585-1260,

David Weininger can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @davidgweininger.

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