Steven Mackey: Outsider on the Inside


Princeton was once so synonymous with a specific theoretical orientation toward music that the name of the university often got used as an adjective to describe that style, much like the word Darmstadt is still used. But, these days, to say someone “sounds like Princeton” doesn’t necessary conjure up an automatic sonic impression. It’s been a lot harder to define since Steve Mackey arrived there.

FJO: Before you reached the age of 30, you wound up teaching composition at Princeton University. To the outside world, Princeton University was the most genetically pure place musically. I like to think of your coming to Princeton as a kind of Perestroika.

SM: It’s true, in a very literal way. I mean, they made a conscious decision to get someone who did not go to Princeton. When I got to Princeton, everybody who was at Princeton had been at Princeton. But the other side of that is, I think the “Princeton tradition” is still very pure, but from this new Westminster Kennel Club dog show metaphor that I’m talking about. I think we really stand for something. If you break it down, you can see the strains of various influences, you can see the cross-pollination, but I’ve been here for 20 years and Paul Lansky has been here for 30 years and it’s simpatico. Paul says it very well. He says, “Princeton has always had a tradition.” Milton Babbitt notwithstanding. He’s a little bit on the outside of this comment. Milton Babbitt’s maybe the most famous for projecting the image of Princeton… But Milton Babbitt’s not the only one. Peter Westergaard, Claudio Spies, Jim Randall, all these guys…

FJO: Although Jim Randall was the outcast of this bunch.

SM: He was kind of the outcast but he comes under this thing that Paul always says that Princeton has a tradition of having very complicated reasons for writing music that sounds like Schubert. Music that sounds like Schubert is a broad description, but there’s a lot of music that’s come out of Princeton that is very thoughtful; it has very complicated, rigorous underpinnings, but there’s a variety to the sound. Jim Randall is sort of out there, very spare music. Milton is more your typical twelve-tone poop-squeak kind of thing. It’s exciting for me to think about in the 20 years that I’ve been here that Princeton’s reputation has changed, but I think it still has a strong point of view.

FJO: Well, are there people now at Princeton doing set theory and hexachords?

SM: No, that’s over. But there are people at Princeton composing with slide rules. There’s still a heavy conceptual component to the general body of compositional work that comes out of Princeton, but set theory? I teach a class on that and it’s historical. I find techniques like that and methods to be really interesting and a way to get out of yourself. Where I differ from, say, Milton and Claudio and Peter is that I think they really believe in the twelve-tone system as giving them logic. I don’t use the twelve-tone system; methods and techniques that I use are more for character. They are ways to put my body into some kind of strange shape so that when I shake, music comes out that tests me a little bit. It teaches me something different about music. As opposed to Milton who really believes that the twelve-tone system imbues the music with an intrinsic logic and beauty, I feel like it’s something to push against to draw a more characterful, resourceful music out of me.

FJO: Well, it’s so funny, a few years ago when I spoke to Babbitt, he was saying that twelve-tone music is not monolithic. He talked about Copland turning to twelve-tone music and using it as a way to find new chords. And Babbitt found that amusing.

SM: [laughs] Milton’s a purist and his music is his music. I regard Milton as a great composer for a couple of reasons. One, he really changed the way I hear music, like hip-hop. When hip-hop first came out, I said, “That’s not music!” And when I first heard Milton’s music, “That’s not music!” Over time, over listening, it is music. It went from not being music in my mind to being music, so that very literally changed the way I heard music.

FJO: You know that’s so funny because when I talked to Milton, he brought up hip-hop and said, “Do you understand this scratching of records?”

SM: There you go! And I just put Milton and hip-hop in the same sentence because I feel the same way about them. They were just out of the reach of what I wanted to acknowledge as music 20 years ago, and in the case of Milton more like 30 years ago, but they both changed the way I hear music to the point that they are now right inside of me, not even close to the edge, so you’ve got to hand it to them. Milton’s purity of thought is what gives his music that character. I think I also have a purity of thought. It has to do with cross-pollination and opening up the gene pool, but I still have a very focused point of view that I hope yields music that is particular in the same way that Milton’s music is particular, like it or not.

FJO: But, when you got here, Milton and company were in charge.

SM: Yeah, and it wasn’t easy. Claudio in particular made my life miserable because I was 28 years old and it was sort of like, “What’s this kid who never went to Princeton doing teaching at Princeton?” It was tough. When I first got the job, a lot of people retired. Milton and Ed Cone both retired the same year. I should say, with the exception of Claudio Spies, the rest of the faculty really reached out to me. In a sense, I was Milton’s replacement so he wasn’t around one way or the other, but he was also supportive. I’d written an article about his music that he thought was smart. I have a funny story to tell you about my decline in Milton’s eyes many years later, but when I first came to Princeton, Milton was very supportive and certainly Paul and Jim Randall and Peter Westergaard were right behind me. But the graduate students adopted Claudio’s point of view and they circulated a petition saying that I should not be hired. Only a couple of students stepped forward and studied with me and would have anything to do with me. And you know what, I’ve now seen that happen many times with new students, because the students we get at Princeton are very proud of the tradition of Princeton and any new faculty we hire, there’s usually some kind of “How could they?”. You see this in professional sports teams’ managers, too. How can this assistant coach be a coach? So that was tough. But after one generation of students I was there and it all worked out.

My story about Milton… I was giving a colloquium at Juilliard and I was playing Ravenshead. This is when Ravenshead was first premiered. Ravenshead has an electric guitar and drum set and non-traditional operatic singing. Milton leaned over to I think it was Bob Beaser and said, “Oh, what a shame. Steve used to be such a talented boy.” [laughs] And he said it so I could hear. I think Milton has a great respect for me and just feels slightly like I took the wrong path because I had the zeal of a convert. When I was first coming to Princeton, I was a composer/theorist. I wrote an article about twelve-tone music. The rock music thing had been behind me and I was still in the final stages of a kind of apprenticeship before I was ready to know what kind of music I was going to write. When I started writing “my” music and music that was very obviously less influenced by his music, he thought I was going astray.

FJO: So, when you first came in the door, you were a card-carrying serialist as it were.

SM: Yeah, although Paul and Jim Randall knew that I was also an electric guitar player. They are mostly responsible for helping me integrate the electric guitar into my work and thereby changing all of my work. Not just the presence of the electric guitar—I mean you could write twelve-tone music for the electric guitar—but I hadn’t played guitar for ten years so getting my hands on the guitar again and my body into the act of composition again, that’s what changed my music. And Jim Randall and I used to improvise. During spring break, we would improvise three times a day for a week, the theory being that in the first couple of days we’ll use up all our licks and then we’ll really be improvising. I remember when he first came to me, he said, “Steve, I’ve got this idea. Let’s improvise for a week, you on the electric guitar, and me on the front end of the piano,” because to him any part of the piano would be fair game. When I first came in the door, I was a card-carrying serialist, but Paul, Jim, and Peter liked the fact that I played an instrument and the fact that it was the electric guitar was fine with them.

FJO: And Paul was never really a serialist.

SM: No. He did a stint with George Perle and the whole twelve-tone tonality thing, but yeah, the idea of aggregate formation of the total twelve was never something that Paul was interested in.

FJO: So you were the outsider. You walked in the door as a good serialist writing articles about Babbitt and all that, but you still weren’t quite accepted by all of Princeton because you didn’t have the pedigree of going to Princeton. You were a guy with a rock and roll past and the Princeton folks brought it back to you, and then you wound up running the department. You wound up taking over the department!

SM: Well, I certainly don’t think of it that way. I got older. Paul and I have been very close from the time I started here and Paul has been in the prime of his career and I’ve come into the prime of my career and I think Paul and I together have really shaped the composition department. Now Paul just turned 60 and he’s given an enormous amount to the department. He was chairman for ten years, and now I sense my three younger composer colleagues, and Paul who’s paid his dues, looking to me and thinking, “Okay, buddy, it’s your turn. Step up.” But all through those years, Paul and I are very simpatico. Our music is very different: he emphasizes computer music, I emphasize acoustic music. But we have shaped the department through our choice of graduate students, through our choice of new faculty appointments. I wouldn’t say in every sense. Even when it comes to teaching, students go to whomever they want, whenever they want. We don’t assign anybody. So the idea that anybody runs the department is sort of against the flavor of what it feels like to be in this department, and that’s the great thing. That’s why I’ve never looked for another job. Paul is one of my best friends and we have a very similar vision of what we think music education should be. So taken together, I think we shaped the department just by making decisions.

FJO: So what is that vision of what music education should be?

SM: A couple of things. I think it has to do with engaging the students where they’re at, listening to the music they’re interested in and not trying to lay on them, “Well, this is how you do it!” which is not how either Paul or I were trained. And there are pros and cons. I don’t want to lay it out like, “Yeah, I was trained by Fascists.” It wasn’t like that. I willingly threw myself into that as a disciple in the old renaissance art kind of mentality, really copying the masters. But I think Paul and I have this sense, because of our backgrounds and because of the tension between our omnivorous musical tastes and Milton’s, who is his elder too, so he has some of those tensions. I think we first and foremost really try to find out where the students are at. But at the same time, the older I get, I also try to lay my honest opinion on people. And my music, there’s a complicated side to it, and so I do tell students, “You know, it seems a little like there’s not enough going on here.” To say things like that goes against the rock and roll purist part.

Part of the vision also, and this goes back to what we were talking about before, is that it’s not so much that there are these different musics. There was this article recently talking to John Harbison—who’s a good friend of mine but I disagree with him on this point—and he was saying something like “popular music is fine, in its place.” I don’t really make distinctions. It’s not fine in its place, I think it just engages a different part of you. It engages the body in a different way. Maybe it’s higher or lower in terms of chakra levels, but I think they all, I don’t even like it when I say all, but all these musics engage as intensely and as completely but just in different proportions in different parts of your body. Paul is very interested in students who write songs as am I. In a composition workshop at Princeton, you’ll have a singer/songwriter and you’ll have some guy writing a string quartet and you’ll have somebody doing performance art; that’s typical here.

FJO: So, someone could come to you and say, what I want to do is dance remixes, and that’s what they do as a composition student at Princeton?

SM: Yeah. They usually have more of a problem with it than we do. We have a student, Nathan Michel, who I think used to work at AMC. (We have a lot of students like this but I mention Nathan because I know you know him.) He came here three years ago, four years ago, and he’s made a couple albums since he’s been here and they’re good albums. I absolutely love them, and I think they have a lot in common with my music. There’s lots of different sounds, kind of an odd, I call it an inert, counterpoint. It’s not like a counterpoint where things are dependent; it’s more like a mobile. These things are just spinning around in their own little orbits and yet it’s on a “pop” label or an “indie-pop” label and he’s always like, “I feel kind of guilty. I haven’t written a Pierrot ensemble piece.” I don’t care. He’s really doing stuff and that’s fine. We have a lot of students that do real-time laptop improv. One thing that I think Paul and I also agree on is that we tend to accept students that really know what they want to do, because we don’t really teach them anything. We try to pick good students and stay out of the way, and so they come here with this focus and we just try to bounce off of them a little bit, help them keep their focus, and they usually have more problems with promiscuity than we do.

FJO: Now, back to you the composer, this obviously takes up a lot of your time. How does it affect you in terms of your work? How do you carve out the time to do your work? Do you get influenced by the teaching?

SM: My students and colleagues are the most influential composers in my life, really. If I list all the influences, there’d be the old guys, Mozart, Monteverdi, and the less old, Stravinsky and Ligeti, and then you get Louis Andriessen and these figures. The biggest influences are the people I come in contact with at Princeton. They challenge me. And I hear more of their music in live performance. The composer’s ensemble at Princeton does twelve concerts a year, twelve times a year I’m listening to their music, so it’s a huge influence. So that’s one thing. The other thing is that Princeton is a research university. They give me a lot of time. I’ve been on sabbatical all year. I teach three years [then] get a sabbatical, so that’s good. I love composing, so it’s also easy for me to get up before I teach. I have a flexible schedule. I don’t ever teach a class before 12:30 p.m. I can get up and get three hours of composing in before the teaching day starts. Once the teaching day starts, it’s hard for me to get back to composing, but I can always put in a good chunk in the beginning. Right now, as September approaches, I’m thinking, how am I possibly going to integrate a fulltime teaching job into my busy life as a performer and a composer? But when the time comes it will happen and it will be fine and I really won’t get that much less work done than I did this year.

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