Sounds Heard: Steve Mackey—It is Time
If you can’t convince the members of So Percussion to stop by your house and play a show in your living room, their latest release, It Is Time, just might offer the next best thing.
The disc contains only a single work—Steve Mackey’s five-movement, 38-minute It Is Time—which was composed expressly for the quartet. It comes bundled, however, with a 5.1 surround sound DVD of a complete performance that allows the viewer to get up close and personal with each of So’s members and peer over their shoulders as they work their way through the piece. The black box-like theater setting in which it was recorded keeps all the focus on the men in black and the myriad instruments the piece incorporates—from a single metronome to a full compliment of drums, bells, whistles, and assorted noisemakers—all played against a backdrop of video footage that imitates or accents the percussive action in the foreground.
While the almost-concert-at-home performance was a great bonus, I actually found myself more strongly attracted to the audio-only portion of the recording package. Where the video allowed me a peek at the performers in action (a treat I missed when the work was premiered at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in March of 2010), the range of sound employed in Mackey’s music is so rich that it rewards focused attention. A continuously shifting timbral palette manipulates the pace of passing time. Of the many striking moments, the microtonal tuning of the steel drums was a particularly ear-catching highlight.
Sometimes the time references are ticking and ringing right in your face, but at other turns Mackey suspends them. In the press materials that accompanied the disc there is a quote from Mackey attributing his inspiration for the piece to the experience of being an older father to his toddler-aged son, and the reflection on time this has led him to engage in. “It Is Time fantasizes that we might have agency with respect to time,” he explains. “An African poet named Isaac Maliya wrote a poem called Time is Time. The first stanza—’Time sits, Time stands, Time is Time’—suggested a terse melody that became a dominant lyrical element in the piece. It is first unveiled in the ‘Steel Drum’ movement but shards of it permeate much of the music.” Indeed, there are plenty of sharp, concise musical statements incorporated, but also languid moments to float down and slide over.
Structurally, Mackey has divided the work so that the first four movements (“Metronome,” “Steel Drums,” “Marimba,” and “Drums,” respectively) move almost seamlessly from one to the next and allow each of the quartet’s members to take a featured turn in the spotlight. “Epilogue,” the brief two-minute closer, balances on the lethargic but not melancholy tones of the bowed saw, and sets up a stunningly punctuated end to this sonic ride.