Steven Mackey: Outsider on the Inside

Steven Mackey

Steve Mackey, more than almost any other composer I can point to, is glowing proof that you really can’t label a lot of the music being made these days. There’s chatter all over the web about whether someone is uptown or downtown, a maverick or someone working within a tradition, pop or classical, an insider or an outsider. (I’ve purposefully mixed the order of these…) Steve is somehow all of these things. But to hear him explain it, it doesn’t feel like that radical a synthesis…

FJO: Do you think of yourself as an insider or an outsider?

SM: That’s a good question. I’ll frame it in the following way. Last year when I was teaching at Tanglewood one of my students said to me, “Steve, you’ve had a really great career. I want to have a career like you.” And I thought, “What do you mean?” Because, jumping ahead, I guess I do think of myself as an outsider and I always felt like I’m kind of on the fringe, nibbling away at the core. And he said, “Well, you’ve had the opportunity to do some really mainstream things,” as he put it “inside the box things, and you’ve made the time to do a lot of outside the box things.” So I enjoy that sense now that I’m nibbling around. I’m everybody’s sort of, “Oh, yes, Steve Mackey,” but nobody would put me at the center of American music. Probably because in the big time musical establishment, you know, related to the orchestra, I’m kind of that wacky guy. I’ve been performed by most of the major orchestras, but that’s an adventurous program for them. So the fact that I do all the free improv stuff and play the electric guitar automatically puts me on the outside, but occasionally I’m allowed inside.

FJO: But you began this whole trajectory on the outside, of classical music anyway. It’s so funny that we’re saying this because rock is really the inside and classical music is the outside.

SM: Yeah, that’s right. [laughs]

FJO: Your initial musical background wasn’t classical music…

SM: Rock and roll, blues… As I got older, I realized that I couldn’t sing. I can go “ooh” and “ahh” behind the girl singer that we had in my band, but my voice has no character. So I decided to put more energy into being a guitar virtuoso and really started practicing a lot more to focus on my guitar technique. Rock and blues technique is not that much, so that led me to other things, to jazz and fusion, more purely instrumental veins of music. But I didn’t go too far with that, because that’s when I discovered classical music, around age 19. And I thought: Nobody had ever read that job description to me before. That was what I should be doing, music where the whole experience was distilled into the listening, rather than music I was doing which was to accompany seduction or cleaning the house or various other activities.

FJO: So, it wasn’t like you got into classical music directly through rock, listening to, say, progressive rock bands that were incorporating classical music?

SM: I did. A big influence on me back in the day was Yes. I walked into a live Yes show in 1973 which was promoting the Tales from Topographic Oceans album. There was this aquatic set and over the loudspeakers Firebird is playing. And I thought, “What is that music?” I’d seen Yes a couple years before and Steve Howe, the guitar player, played this half-hour set of classical guitar, and again I was like, “What is that music?” I mean, he’s playing the bass and the melody at the same time. Some of his original stuff, but he also played a Bach Gavotte. So at that point I sort of registered: Note to self—check out classical music and check out Stravinsky. But still, I grew up in northern California and there was no public radio there at the time. There certainly was no BBC 3. It was very easy to avoid classical music. So it wasn’t until I got into college that I really started to identify: Yes, classical music is that and it’s got a tradition of experimentation; as opposed to my rock and roll head telling me that classical music is for nerds. Then I really got into the late Beethoven quartets and realized Beethoven was throwing his bedpan around. He wasn’t worried about selling Cadillacs; he was passionate about this. This is really trippy music and this is the ultimate progressive rock to me.

FJO: Now, at this point, do you still listen to rock?

SM: Yeah. I mean, for myself. As John Harbison told me when I was a student of his at Tanglewood 20 million years ago, “Nobody ever escapes the music they loved when they were 17.” So if I’m on a long drive and falling asleep, I go for the classic rock station because it’s something I can sing along to.

FJO: I thought you didn’t sing?

SM: I can sing along, and really loud, and if nobody’s hearing, it’s great. Sarah and I just got back from a road trip to Boston, and she’s really into indie-rock, so we’re listening to Sleater-Kinney and Interpol and these bands, and I’m finding my favorites in that world.

FJO: You say “that world” even though your music combines a lot of these elements. Do you compartmentalize?

SM: Not in my own music. I really think in my own music I’m mixed up at the DNA level. I’m not on any kind of conscious mission to mix these things. I really think this is how music goes, and I can’t do any other. I guess I do distinguish a little bit in the sense of a road trip. Rock music with a leaner texture—guitar and drums—just comes off speakers in the car better than classical music; the mid-range response and road noise make it hard to listen to and appreciate classical music in a car. Although that’s why I bought the Lexus I have; classical music sounds pretty good in there. I certainly don’t think of it as high/low, I just think of it as engaging my body in a different way with different kinds of music.

FJO: Now, a CD like Lost and Found on Bridge, which has all your electric guitar music, or even the new one, Banana/Dump Truck, with the duets you and Fred Sherry did… If somebody who was a fan of classic prog rock bands like Yes or King Crimson or Gentle Giant were to randomly turn the radio dial and hear it, I think they’d relate to it. Does it crossover that way?

SM: It probably does because I do. Like I said, I don’t think of it as crossover music. I don’t think of myself as taking a stance here and reaching out over there. I think of my DNA combining all those things at the beginning. As you know from meeting my dog a few minutes ago, I’m a dog lover. New breeds are being created all the time I discovered from watching the Westminster Kennel Club show. I thought that the breeds were 200 years old and they were established and now you’ve got these pure breeds and mutts. In that dialectic I would have to say I’m a mutt. But the fact of the matter is, in my heart of hearts, I feel like I’m a pure breed yet to be sanctioned. And in watching the Westminster Kennel Club you find out, well, in 1993 this breed was sanctioned. It started out as a combination of several breeds, but the traits were appreciated and the breeds kept being crossbred, and then this is its own dog. And in a sense, this whole idea of being a mutt is something that came up as a blip in music history in the middle of the 20th century. Mozart has sacred music, Austrian folk song, Turkish marches, learned counterpoint from J.S. Bach, ceremonial music, military music, all these things. In his time, he was eclectic and now he embodies the pure classical style. I feel like…the voice of a generation! [laughs] I feel like I’m coming naturally to all these musical experiences because of technology, time, place. Middle class America had the best education state money could buy. One hundred years ago, to have the education I had, I would have had to have been a member of the aristocracy. I had a great education although I really grew up in a middle class home playing Little League. I think that my music, and a lot of music of people of my generation, really embodies all those things. So it’s not crossover. It looks [that way] to a musical establishment up close in our time, but I predict that, like Mozart, in 50 years, people in my milieu will be regarded as a pure musical utterance that represented a time and a place.

FJO: Well, that’s really interesting. So, you’re an optimist?

SM: I guess I am, yeah.

FJO: But nowadays every time you open a newspaper or a magazine you read that this is the end of classical music. It’s over. There are no radio stations that play it anymore. Orchestras are dying. Music education has gone out the window. When you were saying that you were the product of this great musical education, I was thinking to myself, could somebody grow up and become a Steve Mackey now?

SM: I think I’m an optimist and a cynic. I’m cynical about this, because music has been dying for hundreds of years. When Monteverdi put in the unprepared dissonance, it was the end of music. And Schoenberg with the wrong inversion of the 13th chord in Verklärte Nacht, you know, music is unraveling. Music has been dying forever. It’s also this idea that we’ve been talking about—this kind of not-crossover but cross-pollination—that has always kept music alive. And it’s what I’m “criticized” for. I gave a talk at Stanford and they’re very Eurocentric there. Ferneyhough is teaching there and the graduate students really had a hard time with my approach. They criticized me for my lack of genetic purity. And my response is [that] we have laws in this country about not marrying your cousins to keep things healthy. Music has always kept itself alive with cross-pollination. Stravinsky’s music is so vibrant: serialism, Russian folk song, American jazz, all these things. We now even think of that as modernism, right. So I’m optimistic that it’s just that people are looking at things too up close.

Back to your original question, America’s youth has an education which isn’t a “good” musical education judged in terms of traditional notation, those kinds of values, dictation, and all that kind of stuff, but they’ve got computers and technology and access to a lot of music that they ingest. They can be musical omnivores. Again, I am optimistic that that counts for something. A new, vibrant music from that omnivorous music culture will lead to a “serious” music, a concert music that is alive.

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