A Composer Who Escapes Easy Labels
PRINCETON, N.J. — The path to the music room in Steven Mackey’s spacious Princeton home is lined with toys: a phalanx of toddler-size vehicles, a toy kitchen, a Thomas the Tank Engine table crisscrossed with rail tracks. Next to the brightly colored plastic objects, the black grand piano takes on the wryly amused look of a buttoned-up uncle at a birthday party, besieged on all sides by cheerful chaos.
No wonder Mr. Mackey, a composer, guitarist and professor of music at Princeton University, gets little work done at this piano. For that, he and his wife, Sarah Kirkland Snider, who is also a composer, retreat to another part of the house. And yet their children — a son, Jasper, 4, and a daughter, Dylan, 2 — still manage to invade his music.
Next month, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will present the East Coast premiere of Mr. Mackey’s “Stumble to Grace,” a piano concerto featuring Orli Shaham as soloist under the baton of Jacques Lacombe; the concerto was commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
It was inspired, Mr. Mackey said, by watching Jasper “learn to walk, first by just throwing himself on the floor and then by gradually becoming more graceful.”
The piece begins with awkward, stumbling movements in which the pianist is exhorted to use “all thumbs” and ends in a burst of exhilarating contrapuntal virtuosity.
“Some of my favorite pianistic influences have a charming wrongness to them, like Thelonious Monk, who just managed to play the right ‘wrong’ notes,” Mr. Mackey said. “At the other end of the spectrum is Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ — to me that is still the most virtuosic sounding piano music.”
The progression from one to the other is not a straight line in the concerto. Rather, like a child’s learning curve, there is what Mr. Mackey calls a “two steps forward, one step back” motion to it, punctuated by dissonant, traffic-noise chords in the orchestra.
“Something that comes up a lot in my music is the non-malevolent chaos of the world,” Mr. Mackey said. “And depending on my mood, it’s either glorious or scary.”
As a composer, Mr. Mackey, 57, is as hard to classify as his music. He is a tenured professor, the chairman of the Princeton music department and a Grammy winner for best small ensemble performance, with the group Eighth Blackbird and the vocalist Rinde Eckert, for the 2011 album “Lonely Motel: Music From Slide.” Yet he is still something of an outsider.
For starters, there is his instrument, the electric guitar, which had been considered alien to classical music until he began to team it up with string quartets and write concertos for it.
Mr. Mackey was born in Frankfurt, lived in Europe as a young child and moved to Northern California when he was 8. He took up the guitar in the fifth grade but did not learn to read music until the age of 19. When he was 13, and his brothers were in their 20s, he provided the soundtrack to their LSD trips, improvising for hours. But the most psychedelic music, to him, was something blasted over the speakers at a rock concert in Sacramento — Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite, as it turned out.
A music appreciation course at the University of California, Davis, where Mr. Mackey started out studying physics, introduced him to Machaut, Mozart and Beethoven and made him decide to become a composer. He taught himself to read music. Before long, he was studying 12-tone composition — he earned a Ph.D. at Brandeis University — but later discarded that method in favor of an omnivore style that integrated his rock roots, world music and a scientific fascination with “cool sounds” produced on an array of unusual objects.
“I want music to be very human,” Mr. Mackey said. “It’s not that I’m on a mission to make music more accessible with vernacular music. I just think that’s how music should go, and my models are Mozart and Stravinsky.”
In between teaching, composing and raising a family, Mr. Mackey makes time for his prog-rock band Big Farm, which is releasing its debut album in May. His fellow band members are the new-music percussionist Jason Treuting, the Dutch jazz bassist and composer Mark Haanstra, and Mr. Eckert, whose eerie yet accessible vocals skim the border of performance art.
“I come from the thing that punk was rebelling against: pretty sophisticated musicians devoted to really developing chops,” Mr. Mackey said. “So I’ve always admired virtuosity. It goes with this idea of identifying with the soloist.”
That may be one reason that many of Mr. Mackey’s recent works are concertos, among them works for saxophone quartet, marimba, cello and a violin concerto, “Beautiful Passing.” That work, written in 2008 for the violinist Leila Josefowicz, “takes as a metaphor my mother’s incredible serenity and generosity at the moment of her death,” Mr. Mackey said.
“Her last words to me were, ‘Don’t be upset. I’ve had a beautiful life, please tell everyone I’ve had a beautiful passing,’ ” he said.
In the concerto, that serenity is expressed in quietly soaring lines played by the violin that contrast with the agitated protests of the orchestra. Often the violin’s tone flits in and out of harmonics, mimicking the hypnagogic state between wakefulness and sleep that Mr. Mackey said he entered in the weeks after his mother’s death.
“Most of the time my work isn’t so directly related to one life experience, “Mr. Mackey said. “But all the life experiences are ground up like a powder and sprinkled over everything.”