Steven Mackey is an accomplished and decorated composer, performer, and teacher of innovative contemporary classical music. His works felicitously merge various styles within classical, rock, opera and music theater genres. His most recent project, Lonely Motel, received four Grammy nominations and won for Best Small Ensemble Performance. Mackey was generous enough to entertain questions even amid the heady whirl of Grammy weekend.
1. Describe your recent project ‘Lonely Motel.’ How do you see it working musically, and how does it represent your artistic aspirations?
‘Lonely Motel’ is probably best described as a song cycle. It doesn’t tell a narrative story per se but each of the eleven songs reveals more about an unusual character. There is a definite arc to the music. The songs flow into one another with the sixth song, “Stare,” being the watershed/centerpiece where things turn darker and probe deeper.
The piece deals with the human propensity to quickly commit to and stubbornly protect one’s personal view of reality, even though it may be extrapolated from a fuzzy or incomplete set of facts. Musically, this plays out in different ways. “Stare”—for example—begins with a seemingly random sequence of chords in an inscrutable rhythm. With the addition of a melody and some more rhythmic elements, the disorientated harmonies of the opening are heard as a plausible progression to a song, an anthem even. It works the other way as well; music that seems to be comfortably settled turns out to be in a different meter than originally thought, inciting adjustment and/or disorientation.
The piece also plays with perceptions of larger musical issues of genre and style. It slides between and among music that is invented from the ground up with no external reference, music that has a kind renaissance feel and music that references rock music, to name a few points on the compass. “Ghosts” has the cellist playing electric bass and the percussionist playing drums for a hard-driving rock song, but the thematic material is taken from “Overture,” which is the most “classical” movement. Are our prejudices about genre based on something as slippery as orchestration? Or are content and orchestration inseparable?
2. As with last year’s ‘Dreamhouse,’ ‘Lonely Motel’ has been nominated for multiple Grammys. To what extent—if any—do such accolades influence your music or provide inspiration for it?
Of course it is very exciting to be nominated two years in a row. Now with ‘Lonely Motel’ to actually win a Grammy, I’m thrilled. It is particularly satisfying with these two works because they are quirky, personal and unconventional. It is heartening to be rewarded for works that are not middle of the road but rather extremely Mackey-fied. That said, my favorite part of being a composer is not the “big night” – the award, the fancy-pants performance, etc., but the privilege of being consumed with the pleasure of conjuring and realizing musical fantasies.
3. On ‘Lonely Motel,’ the renowned multi-disciplinary artist Rinde Eckert [And God Created Great Whales] provides the libretto and singing vocals. You’ve been working with Eckert since 1998 when you composed the opera ‘Ravenshead.’ What particular artistic affinities between you two combine to produce such moving and successful creations?
Rinde and I actually started working together in 1995—‘Ravenshead’ premiered in 1998—and we became close friends early on and have maintained that friendship through several collaborations. We have very sympathetic sensibilities; we both aspire to be simultaneously playful and serious, to deal with big issues and do a little dance at the same time. Most importantly we are both musical omnivores and find inspiration in a wide world of music, theater, and art.
One special thing about working with Rinde is that he is not just a great writer but also a great musician, singer and composer. Since my librettist is also my singer, we can have a very immediate and potent creative process in which the music and words can evolve together through improvisation and back and forth exhortations.
4. The libretto of ‘Lonely Motel’ ranges from the detached clinical prose of psychology to lyrical plaints of the broken heart to moments that combine the two, as in the tautological and repetitive line, “Depending on what is defended, our defense is more or less defensible. ” Likewise, the music ranges widely and forms delightful combinations. Would you mind talking about the range of music and how it might echo the lyrical situation?
You put your finger on another important aspect of our synergistic collaborative relationship. We are both very interested in finding ways to make sense of a wide and diverse world that does not intrinsically make sense. Technical language, vernacular speech, the King’s English and poetry are all aspects of his work and their musical analogs are all aspects of mine. The psychological language of ‘Lonely Motel’ and the architectural jargon of ‘Dreamhouse’ are formal, ritualistic and without heavily laden emotional content, which leaves room for the music to inflect and contextualize. Often those are interesting polysyllabic words that shape the singers mouth in interesting ways and they become part of the orchestration. On the other hand, ‘Lonely Motel’ also has some very sweet and earnest love song poetry, as in the song “She Walks as if the Moon,” which I imagine to be sort of a modern day lute song. I don’t think Rinde nor I are aiming at an iconic monothematic art but rather trying to tie together a wide and fascinating world of possibilities.
5. How do you see yourself within larger traditions of music and what do you add to those traditions?
I see myself as being squarely in the tradition of concert music where Mozart and Stravinsky are two (of many) beacons. Like them, I aspire to distill a wide and deep swath of human experience into a listening experience. I also aspire to create something new and personal while being open to diverse influences. I write music that is about the music I love but not like that music. For hundreds of years classical music has been renewing and strengthening itself by broadening its gene pool and I hope I am contributing to that breadth.
6. What projects are you currently working on or have you recently completed?
I just finished a piece for a group called Soli based in San Antonio scored for violin, clarinet, cello and piano. Upcoming is a piece for the Brentano String Quartet, which will be an observance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK and a piece for the Long Beach Symphony commissioned by the Aquarium of the Pacific to highlight the urban ocean – the dense and diverse population of people and marine life concentrated along the Southern California coast. I’m waiting for a sign about which I should start first.
7. Why did you choose BMI?
It seemed like all my composition teachers in college and grad school were BMI composers and a couple of them had won the BMI Student Composers Awards [presented by the BMI Foundation] when they were young, which I thought was very cool. Then when I won the award and came to the big city and met Barbara Petersen I was sold. Barbara and later Ralph Jackson have always been so very helpful to me.
8. What is your favorite live music venue?
Carnegie Hall(s) has the right space, acoustic and vibe for most of my musical needs: String quartets in Weill, orchestras in Stern, and hybrid ensembles in Zankel. It’s tradition and my long relationship with it adds to my affection.
9. In addition to being an esteemed composer and musician, you’re also an award-winning teacher. What advice would you offer composers just starting out?
My best advice is to make sure you love the act of writing your music – it is not just a means to an end, it is also an activity that will dominate your daily life. Not only will that love fend off petty jealousies, bitterness and self-pity, it will make you much more productive and happy person. Loving the sound of your music as you wrestle it from your head to the page is perhaps the most important aspect of loving the process but it is not the only one.
10. Fill in the blank: Every time you hear _____, you _______.
Every time I hear the crazy E-flat in the scherzo of Beethoven’s last String Quartet, I laugh but also get a little scared.