Steven Mackey: String Theory


Steven Mackey

String Theory

Brentano String Quartet

Steven Mackey, electric guitar

Physical Property

I've Grown So Ugly

Troubadour Songs

On All Fours

Smoke Fragments

String Theory

Steven Mackey was born in 1956. His first musical passion was playing the electric guitar in rock bands based in northern California. He later discovered concert music and has composed for orchestras, chamber ensembles, dance and opera. Since the mid 1980's he has resumed his interest in the electric guitar and regularly performs his own work, including two concertos as well as numerous solo and chamber works.

Mackey was born in Frankfurt, Germany to American parents in 1956. He attended the University of California for his BA, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa; the State University of New York at Stony Brook for his MA; and Brandeis University for his Ph.D. Mackey is currently Professor of Music at Princeton University where he has been a member of the faculty since 1985. He teaches composition, theory, twentieth century music, improvisation and a variety of special topics. As co-director of the Composers Ensemble at Princeton he coaches and conducts new work by student composers as well as twentieth century classics. In 1991, he was awarded the first-ever Distinguished Teaching Award from Princeton University.

As a composer, Mackey has been honored by numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, two awards from the Kennedy Center for the performing arts and in 1995 he was given the Stoeger Proze for Chamber Music by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. His Indigenous Instruments was selected to represent the U.S. at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris in 1990. Mackey has been the composer in residence at numerous music festivals and will be the featured composer at the 2003 Holland festival in Amsterdam.

Among his commissions are works for the Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Kronos Quartet, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, the Fromm Foundation, the Borromeo String Quartet, Bill Frisell and Joey Baron, and cellist Fred Sherry.

Over the past decade Mackey has increased his performance activities. In 1991 he toured Japan with the Kronos Quartet performing his new works for string quartet and electric guitar, On the Verge/Troubadour Songs, and gave the premiere of his Myrtle and Mint for guitar and storyteller at the Bang on the Can Festival in New York City. In 1992 he was again on tour with the Kronos Quartet performing his Physical Property. In the summer of 1994, he performed his first solo electric guitar evening at Roulette in New York City and has subsequently appeared throughout the country. In the summer of 1996 Bridge Records released a CD (#9065) of his compositions for electric guitar entitled “Lost & Found”. Since 1998 Mackey has performed Deal, for guitar and large chamber ensemble, many times throughout Europe and the U.S. In April 2000 he gave the premiere of Tuck and Roll, a concerto for electric for guitar and orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony with subsequent performances in San Francisco at the American Mavericks Festival. In 2002 Mackey will tour Europe with The British ensemble Psappha in an all Mackey program.

His monodrama - Ravenshead - for Tenor/actor (Rinde Eckert) and electro-acoustic band/ensemble (The Paul Dresher Ensemble), has been performed nearly one hundred times and is available on CD. In a year-end wrap up of cultural events, USA Today crowned the work the “Best New Opera of 1998.

In September of 2001 BMG/RCA released Mackey's first orchestral disc with the New World Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas calledTuck and Roll.. The disc includes Tuck and Roll (concerto for electric guitar and orchestra), Eating Greens, and Lost and Found. His music is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

I have always loved the string quartet. I was a musically illiterate, teenage rock musician when I first heard a string quartet and it deflected my fate towards concert music in general and composition in particular. The string quartet is a perfectly balanced ensemble in which each instrument can blend with the others or stand in relief, and where each has the possibility of infinite gradations of tonal nuance with a variety of bow strokes and placements, not to mention plucking. The quartet is capable of a wide range of expression, from light-hearted to profound and from bawdy to refined. We know this because some of the greatest music ever written - the greatest music imaginable - confirms these virtues.

The quartet's tradition is so rich that there is a separate tradition of composers getting vertigo when attempting to stand on the shoulders of past giants. Nevertheless, the lure of the medium, perhaps even fueled by the sense of challenge, has kept the string quartet at the center of concert music for two-and-a-half centuries and counting.

One of the benefits of coming to concert music from rock/jazz/vernacular music, as I did, is that such an intimidating legacy is less palpable. I approached my first string quartet with unmitigated enthusiasm, and music for string quartet continues to dominate my work, with twelve works: six for quartet alone, one for quartet and soprano, four for quartet and electric guitar, plus fifteen arrangements of old blues and rock songs.

The latter two categories are an obvious bridge between my checkered past as an electric guitarist and the paragon of classical music virtue - the string quartet. In general, I'm sure that the fact that I am a guitarist has contributed enormously to my relationship with the quartet. On the one hand, my background has enabled me to approach the medium with a fresh perspective on texture and sound, where rock, jazz and world music are as important a backdrop as the romantic quartet literature. On the other hand, while the guitar may be the black sheep of the string family, it has nevertheless made me familiar with the physics of vibrating strings, and the ergonomics of coaxing and controlling sound from strings. So, while I may not be a `real' string player, my instincts about what is possible and effective have enabled me to contribute to the technical and expressive vocabularies of the quartet literature.

The string quartet, as a medium, is important to me not only because I've written more quartets than anything else, but also because it is the medium that has led me to new musical topographies that have then become part of my general musical landscape. The string quartet has been at the center of my development as a composer. My first quartet (String Quartet 1983, recorded by the Lydian Quartet on CRI), represented the culmination of all my training and education to that point. My second quartet (Fumeux Fume, 1987, from which Smoke Fragments were excerpted for this disc) was the first piece in which I followed my personal instincts about how a quartet could sound instead of aspiring to a learned paradigm as I had done in my first quartet. In this work I pursued heterogeneous yet fused textures; the instruments make individual, even idiosyncratic contributions (pizzicato, diverse bowing techniques, harmonics, strict measured notation, free spatial notation, etc) to an ensemble texture that I regard as a single sonic image.

My next venture for string quartet, Troubadour Songs (1989), includes electric guitar. From the outset it was my aim to compose a quintet, to integrate the contrasting sonic worlds (acoustic versus electric) and the contrasting cultural references (refined versus `low-down'). My strategy was to invent a musical world that was somewhat exotic for both factions so that neither had privilege or jurisdiction, and where the five instruments would be mutually dependent and required to cooperate with one another. This led me to incorporate microtones into the harmonic fabric that evoke a sense of a fantasy, fairy tale world where electric guitars and string quartets might live happily ever after. The microtones also demand cooperation in the more technical arena of intonation. The use of microtones and a general fairy tale, story-telling, yarn-spinning approach to continuity continued to interest me over the next few years, including the composition of On All Fours (1990).

The blues arrangements for string quartet I did in the late eighties had a great impact on this and subsequent music. I regard the bluesmen of the mid 20th century (Robert Pete Williams, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf et al.), travelling up and down the Mississippi, as the troubadours of our age and the keepers of a rich tradition of story telling through song. Troubadour Songs quotes a melody from a 12th century troubadour as well as a riff I devised as the basis for my arrangement of I've Grown So Ugly, by Robert Pete Williams.

These blues arrangements were an excuse for me to find ways to make the string quartet bark and growl and generally get “low-down-and-dirty” which has not been a central element in the classical/romantic tradition. On All Fours benefits directly from these explorations. The piece was written soon after my father had a massive stroke that left him with aphasia - a neurological condition in which the afflicted cannot access his/her vocabulary but is fully cognizant of his/her failing. He was also unable to walk, although he could crawl. On All Fours is dedicated to dogs, dolphins and my father after his stroke: creatures with wit, soul and intelligence but with the simultaneously comic and frustrating inability to communicate easily or precisely.

Where On All Fours explores an ebullient spirit squeezed through an afflicted physique, Physical Property (1992) is unchecked athletic exuberance top to bottom. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty I was a professional freestyle skier. My vision of perfection was to careen down the mountain, head over heels, arms and legs flailing, on-lookers gasping, and somehow end up at the bottom with a smile on my face and not a flake on me. This aesthetic comes out more in Physical Property than in any other work of mine. A sequel to Troubadour Songs, this piece celebrates the rush of live performance. The guitar here is allowed to live up its reputation as the edgy, driving symbol of adolescent rebellion while the quartet counters with flashy, virtuoso fiddling.

String Theory (1998), for amplified string quartet and digital delay, stands out from the other works on this disc in a curious way. Whereas the other pieces on this disc explore the connections among a kaleidoscopic variety of materials, String Theory is monolithic. The entire piece is ruthlessly limited to descending scales. However, it possesses a connection to the other pieces in that it is less about the musical materials (tunes and chords) than about the movement through and between the materials. The material is primarily a place to get to and leave from and the thrill for me is more in the journey than the layover. (I traveled a great deal with my parents as a child - sightseeing, visiting friends and relatives, etc. I must confess that I always preferred the incidental details encountered in transition, the rhythm of change out the window, and the surprise of the odd city arising out of the flats, to standing in front of Buckingham Palace or feeling trapped in my cousins' house.)

On the one hand it may seem like the obsessive focus on scales in String Theory represents a turn toward a more traditional emphasis on material. However, in my mind, scales are too generic to be of any interest as destinations, which again places the burden on the movement from one scale to the next. The `true' material is like `matter' in relativistic physics - merely energy in motion.

I love the string quartet and it has been a great privilege for me to rise above my station as an electric guitar player, and perform with some really great groups such as The Brentano Quartet. I've played Physical Property and Troubadour Songs with dozens of quartets and have thereby gained an appreciation for the challenges of performing my music. My music frequently weaves a tapestry out of quite discrete and distinct threads of music. The individual player is often asked to play notated music that sounds improvised yet fits in a particular relation to the other parts, or to play a passage that is written to suggest phrases and accents, sometimes even tempos, that are contrary to the prevailing fabric. It takes incredible musicianship to portray these wacky musical characters with convincing abandon while maintaining the control necessary to support the ensemble as a whole. The members of the Brentano Quartet are amazing in this regard! They vividly characterize every quirky phrase while fastidiously fulfilling their responsibilities to each other. This requires a combination of impeccable instincts about musical character, consummate rhythmic skill and feel, and a genuine kindness - even altruism - among the players; you can hear all that when Brentano plays.

I love the string quartet and I love this string quartet. I met The Brentano Quartet almost ten years ago when I showed up a couple hours before they were going to perform On All Fours. I had never heard of the Brentano Quartet and, frankly, didn't expect much, since I had coached the piece with a couple of other groups by that time and knew that it was fiendishly difficult. In addition to the issues of rhythm and characterization common to all my music, On All Fours has the added difficulty of retuned - scordatura - instruments and odd microtones. It is tricky music performed on reinvented, unfamiliar instruments. The first time they played the piece for me, it was just as I had imagined and I had the wonderful feeling of being understood. I assembled a tape of a group of my quartets that I thought represented a good overview of my work and asked them to consider recording this disc. Seven years later, after playing all these pieces in live performance several times, after being rejected for a recording grant, after a recording session was cancelled due to jury duty, after all of us at various times wondered if this project was still active, after the general doubt about whether a record label would be left standing to release the disc… here it is!

This disc would simply not be here if not for the shepherding of Producer Judy Sherman. As soon as Brentano expressed interest in the project, I asked Judy - of whom I've been a fan since 1990 when I worked with her and The Kronos Quartet - if she would be willing to produce the disc. After being rejected for a grant and wondering how I would pay her for her services, we worked out a bartering agreement. In return for her producing my disc, I wrote her husband, violin virtuoso Curtis Macomber, a solo violin piece. It was a win-win situation for me: I got Judy Sherman to produce my disc and the privilege of having Curt Macomber perform a new piece. Judy did a great job as producer, coach, and psychotherapist.

Since its inception in 1992, The Brentano String Quartet has been singled out for their technical brilliance, musical insight and stylistic elegance.

Within a year's time, the Brentano String Quartet claimed the distinction of being named to three major awards, winning the first Cleveland Quartet Award, the 1995 Naumburg Chamber Music Award and the 10th Annual Martin E. Segal Award. For their first appearance in Great Britain at Wigmore Hall the Brentano was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for the most outstanding chamber music debut for 1997.

The Quartet became the inaugural quartet in residence at Princeton University in 1999. They were chosen by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1995 to participate in the inaugural season of Chamber Music Society Two, a program designed for outstanding emerging artists and chamber musicians. The Quartet was also Wigmore Hall's quartet-in-residence for the 2000-2001 season.

The Quartet has appeared with pianist Mitsuko Uchida at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, at the Library of Congress and at Lincoln Center, and collaborated with Jessye Norman in her 1998 Carnegie Hall and 1999 Epidaurus recitals. In the fall of 1998, the Brentano String Quartet performed to great acclaim in various venues across Australia, including the prestigious Sydney Opera House, and were featured in a “Live From Lincoln Center” telecast.

The Brentano String Quartet has made appearances in the major musical centers in North America including Alice Tully Hall in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pittsburgh's Frick Museum, La Jolla Chamber Music Society, Chamber Music Society of Detroit, the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, and venues in Washington, DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Houston, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Boston.

The Brentano's summer festival appearances have included the Festival De Divonne in France, Chamber Music Northwest, the Vancouver Chamber Music Festival, Chautauqua, Caramoor International Music Festival, the Taos School of Music and Interlochen's Advanced String Quartet Institute.

The Quartet is named after Antonie Brentano, whom many scholars believe to have been Beethoven's mysterious “Immortal Beloved,” and to whom he wrote his famous love confession.

They maintain a strong interest in the music of our time and have had several works written for them, including the Sixth String Quartet of Milton Babbitt, Chou Wen-chung's “Clouds,” and two quartets by Bruce Adolphe. The Quartet celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2002-3 with “Bach Perspectives,” a project in which ten composers were commissioned to write reflections on Bach's Art of the Fugue.

Produced and engineered by Judith Sherman

Assistant engineering by Jeanne Velonis

Editing assistants: Jeane Velonis and Hsi-Ling Chang

Recorded May 10-12, 20000 and July 19, 2001 in Richardson Auditorium of Alexander Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

Extra cello for On All Fours provided by Michelle Michaelsohn

Technical Director, Princeton Music Department: James Moses

Production Manager, Richardson Auditorium: Jack Schenck

Special thanks: Chris Bynum, Christoher Gorzelnick, Bill Pierce, John Burton