Steven Mackey: Outsider on the Inside

Steven Mackey

The electric guitar is an automatic glyph for rock just as an image of a saxophone immediate connotes jazz or a pair of turntables screams hip-hop. But now in its second century, the electric guitar is a lot more versatile than its role in any specific musical genre. In the hands of Steve Mackey, it can even be an orchestrational tool.

FJO: I thought it was interesting that you said you hadn’t played the guitar for a decade, and it was your colleagues at Princeton who brought the guitar back into your life and essentially helped you find your sound. So what would you say is the first piece of yours that is your music?

SM: That’s hard to say. Probably Indigenous Instruments was nibbling at it. It wasn’t a quantum leap. Some pieces before that are noble failures. Never Sing Before Breakfast, the woodwind quintet, still has a little of me trying to impress Don Martino maybe. And then there’s a piece, Journey to Ixtlan, that’s also getting close to that. I like these pieces, but the first piece that I think, yeah, that’s me, and then never turned back, was Indigenous Instruments.

FJO: Which is interesting, because it’s a Pierrot piece…

SM: That’s actually part of it. I wanted to write something that doesn’t sound like all these mod music Pierrot pieces that I was hearing at Merkin Hall.

FJO: And you did it by detuning instruments.

SM: And the way I did that was by having had the guitar in my room, because the couple of years leading up to that I’d been improvising with Jim and with students and I think the best composition lessons I ever gave were improv sessions with students where we listened back to the tape and talked about it. But anyway, I had a guitar in my studio and I detuned the electric guitar, which is a great microtonal instrument because you’ve got the frets and you can detune it. I basically composed Indigenous Instruments on the guitar even though there’s no guitar in it. I did actually borrow a cello, and put little pieces of tape where the frets “should” be, and learned the cello part, so Indigenous Instruments is heavily influenced by the guitar even though there’s no guitar there.

FJO: So, what’s the composer/performer balance? You write pieces that have guitar and pieces that don’t. You play your guitar pieces but other people play them too…

SM: I think of myself as a composer most of all and I like the sound of the electric guitar. But all my music, especially the music that doesn’t have electric guitar, is very influenced by my relationship to the electric guitar and the sound of the electric guitar. I think I have a particular orchestrational style that has a lot to do with orchestrating the sound of the electric guitar even if there is no electric guitar, especially if there is no electric guitar. But I’m really a composer and the electric guitar just happens to be my instrument. I started including it in my music in the mid/late ‘80s. I wrote a piece called Troubadour Songs for Kronos back in 1990. That’s when I first came into contact with Bill Frisell. Nonesuch, Kronos’s record label, wanted Bill Frisell to play the guitar part, but Bill Frisell doesn’t read music that well. He’s a great musician and a great improviser, but reading that kind of music and playing off a string quartet in 7/8, he would do instinctively improvising but not in a notated context. And this first concerto I wrote, Deal, I wrote for Bill Frisell. His part is improvised because I didn’t want to tie his hands. I wanted him to do what he does, the orchestra part is written.

Now I’ve developed a niche for myself as somebody who actually plays electric guitar. I’m a composer, and I just noticed in really practical ways, people like having composers perform their own piece and they’ll pay me money to go to Italy and rehearse for a week and play and wow, I’m going to do this. So, I kind of backed into it.

FJO: Now that’s hard to do when you’re teaching all year.

SM: Yeah, but that’s another great thing about Princeton. If I say, “Hey, this group in Italy is doing a concert of my music. I need to go for ten days to rehearse and I’m performing. What do you think?” “Yeah, go!” I’ve got brilliant TAs who work harder because they’re trying to hone their teaching skills anyway, so the undergrads really don’t miss out on much and the grad students get the benefit of my experience when I come back. And I think there are a lot of students who have come through here who have learned something about the composer/performer model by having me shoot the shit with them about what’s involved.

FJO: Now, I know you’ve done co-composition with Paul Lansky, but have you played other people’s electric guitar music?

SM: Sure. Julia Wolfe wrote a piece for me back in the early ‘90s. A lot of times when I go to play DealDeal is for electric guitar, drum set, and 15 players, chamber orchestra—it is often programmed with Zappa. The instrumentation works out well. So, say a gig with the London Sinfonietta. “You’re on the program, Steve, would you be willing to play the guitar part for Black Page or something?” So I do that. Some students have written pieces for me. I keep it down and I’m doing less and less of that. I was up at Tanglewood a couple years ago teaching and something happened to the guitar player they had booked to do some piece and they asked me to do it. It’s hard, and so now I’m backing away a little bit from that. But there was a time when I was saying yes more.

FJO: It was interesting to hear you say Bill Frisell can do all these things but he doesn’t necessarily read a score. But the conventions of the electric guitar are things that happened separate and apart from notated articulations and dynamic levels. It’s not the same game. So, what would be on a score that you write for electric guitar?

SM: Well, it does require a lot of verbal descriptions. A heavy metal garage band player would just know that sound, but to describe that I want it on that eighth note at that place, I invent a symbol and say, okay, hold the pick tightly in the thumb and forefinger, it’s like a harp harmonic with the flesh of your thumb, stop the note. There’s a lot of description. That first piece I wrote that Bill Frisell didn’t do also had a heavy scordatura, and that’s another reason why Bill wasn’t the right person for it. The guitar was tuned in a different way, and he wouldn’t be committed enough to retune his guitar and learn where all these new notes were. And I wrote it so you see all these backwards flats. It’s Greek. And I think guitar players, believe it or not, have now done that, but that’s a younger generation that is in school studying classical guitar, that used to play electric guitar, heard a piece of mine and said, “Wow, I want to get back to playing electric guitar.” There, again, it’s when you have time to relearn an instrument. So-called famous guitar players are too busy to really relearn their instrument because I’m retuning it and having all these weird techniques that are imported from classical string playing.

FJO: Now, you said classical guitar. You play classical guitar as well?

SM: Yeah, not so much anymore but I studied it for years.

FJO: The classical guitar and electric guitar are very different instruments and I would think require a different technique.

SM: The left hand technique is fairly similar, although it’s like a viola and a violin. The classical guitar is a little wider; the electric is skinnier. The right hand is completely different. And my electric guitar technique now is sort of an amalgam of classical technique and electric technique. I like the sound I get on certain things with a pick. I use a lot of harmonics and bright sounds that you would really need a pick for, but I use these two fingers left over like a classical guitar player would. I didn’t do that when I was playing rock, I just used a pick, and when I was playing classical, of course, I just used my fingers, so I’ve got a style.

FJO: So, the mutt thing is happening in performance as well.

SM: In most of my music, yeah, I’ve seen people do it just fingers or just pick. Most people look kind of awkward when they do both [at the same time] but I’ve been doing it for years so I’m kind of proud of myself. Wow, I’ve got my own technique. But learning the classical guitar right hand technique was not easy. I came into the classical guitar after being a good electric guitar player and took lessons and I would practice three hours a day. The first 40 minutes were just warm ups on right hand technique every day like a religion, a meditation on my right hand.

FJO: Now in terms of other people playing your music to your satisfaction, what is the ideal background for a performer to play your music?

SM: The ideal demographic is somebody who grew up playing electric guitar and then studied classical guitar in college and went on to get a graduate degree in classical guitar. So they’ve played chamber music and have a score reading facility; they know what it means to listen in a classical music sense, which is very different than a rock sense. A rock sense is keeping the beat, having a good time and really knowing where the pocket is. In the classical music sense, it has to do with having more flexible time and actually listening in more detail to what the people around you are doing. You get that I think in a classical guitar program. This sounds like kind of a specific pedigree, but this is common. Let’s face it: the guitar is an outsider to the classical music establishment, although there are a lot of conservatories that have great master’s programs in classical guitar.

Now, I’ve been in correspondence with this guy, David Tronzo, an electric guitarist who’s interested in playing some of my music and I want to send him some. He sent me some CDs, I sent him some CDs. He’s an electric guitar virtuoso and I think that would work out great, but again, he’s not just a run of the mill electric guitar player.

FJO: Clearly you don’t only write electric guitar music. You’ve written tons of string quartets, probably that’s the idiom you’ve written the most music for. I thought it was interesting that you’ve said it seemed natural to you as a guitarist writing for string quartet. I thought to myself, well, yeah, there were also all these rock records in the late ‘60s that had a string quartet like “Eleanor Rigby.” What is the ideal background of a string quartet player who’s playing your music?

SM: Well, I actually found that the traditional string quartet with classical music training and an openness to new music is actually the best background for my music. I’ll go on record as saying that though I did a lot of work with Kronos, I don’t think we were the best suited, [although] it would seem on paper that we would be. Brentano, coming from Beethoven and Wuorinen, from this hard-core string quartet tradition, actually is a better match. When I first heard them play this piece of mine, On All Fours, I didn’t coach them at all and it was just there. I think Kronos always wanted my music to be more rockin’, more rock and roll, and less contrapuntal basically, and so the counterpoint doesn’t come out as clear and crystal and edgy. There are also other groups that I’ve worked with, like Borromeo and Pacifica. It always works out better to get a traditional quartet rather than a “hip” kind of rock crossover quartet for my music.

FJO: So what about orchestras then?

SM: Yeah, here’s a funny story: The best single performance I’ve ever had of the piece Banana/Dump Truck, which is on this new CD, was two weeks ago by a high school orchestra called the Idyllwild Arts Academy. A professional orchestra, any time they’re doing new music—I don’t think it’s just my music—there’s that odd violinist and the second oboe player that just really don’t like that they’re not doing Brahms; they really don’t like that they’re doing new music. But this high school orchestra did, down to the person. They came from all over the world. They were protégé type kids, so I’m not sacrificing a whole lot in terms of intonation and accuracy. Maybe they cracked a little more than the Chicago Symphony would, but pretty darn good. And just the sort of spirit of the thing. They don’t grow up with these distinctions of classical or rock or pre-Brahms or post-Brahms; they have none of this. They’re swimming in this fabulous sea of music completely unjaded. It was the greatest performance I’ve ever seen. Apart from that, other orchestras have more to do with the conductor.

FJO: You mentioned how the pieces you’ve written throw challenges to the orchestra. But with an orchestra, it’s always about how to do this on a tight rehearsal schedule. You have a piece where there’s a pizza delivery. Those things make it harder to navigate with limited preparation time.

SM: One thing, if I do say so myself, I am a really good orchestrator. Part of that has to do with painting within the lines in those terms. The music I have written for orchestra is very carefully conceived in terms of those practicalities. The Chicago Symphony commissioned Eating Greens, and that’s the one that has the pizza delivery. The first rehearsal sounded great, it just jumped off the page. The three orchestra pieces I’d written before that never sounded good and I think it had more to do with the way I’d orchestrated them. So the pizza delivery or if there’s an electric guitar in it, yeah, that throws kinks in the works, but I really think about every contingency and write it all out. This is what you do. You don’t have to talk about it, it’s all written there. The bass player holds this note for this many seconds, then the pizza delivery comes from stage left and delivers to the principal bass; it’s all written out. When the bass player hands the delivery guy the money, that indicates the upbeat to the next bar. So you don’t have to rehearse it. It all works very well within the lines. I’m very happy with the orchestra performances I’ve had on limited rehearsal. Head and shoulders above the rest is Michael Tilson Thomas, because he really gets my idiom, if you will, and also is a musical omnivore. We’ll have a conversation that ranges from Diamanda Galás to Berio to Mozart to Mahler. And he also likes it enough to donate a lot of rehearsal time. When I did this piece Pedal Tones for the San Francisco Symphony, a big piece for orchestra and organ, he put it with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. That was the only other piece. He gave me, I don’t know, six hours of rehearsal. Unheard of! He’s a champion of new music. But in other situations, it always works out. My music is playable on two hours of rehearsal, but it’s nice to have more.

FJO: There are situations where an orchestra might be more open. Have you ever explored Pops concerts? I know most new music types sneer at this sort of thing.

SM: I’ve had a lot of nibbles. Somebody hears, say, Tuck and Roll, a piece for electric guitar and big orchestra, and there’s a really good recording of that, so people will hear that and somebody will really like it, like the assistant to the artistic administrator. But by the time it gets to the real powers that run Pops concerts they realize, and I think appropriately so, that this isn’t really Pops music. The fact is it has an electric guitar, but it’s not Pops music; it’s a complicated concerto.

FJO: But what is Pops music? It can be anything if you bring the audience in. I was even thinking Banana/Dump Truck could work. It’s just so much fun.

SM: You’d think. Yeah, it’s fun. What I think of as a Pops concert is music that works outdoors. There’s a level of detail in most of my music, so unless you have a really good sound system, it’s not going to work outdoors. You’re not going to be able to see the forest for all the little trees. Part of the reason that makes it fun for you, a really experienced listener, is the schtick of the piece. There’s a schtick to playing the electric guitar; when I play Tuck and Roll, I wear leather pants. But the schtick also comes with a lot of little detail in the music. It’s not the theme to Star Wars, which is a great theme, but that theme is homophonic and it works outdoors. You play that in the Hollywood Bowl and everybody hears the tune and that’s it. My music is more about a kaleidoscopic texture.

FJO: We talked about string quartets, orchestras. What are other ideal ensembles for your music? I’ve talked to lots of composers about writing for wind band.

SM: Yeah, I want to do that. For the Michigan Concert Wind Ensemble or something, I want to do that. First of all, I like the sound, I like the intensity of all those clarinets. It sounds like a great thing. I think I could do a piece where I wasn’t selling out at all. I’ve got to write a piece for wind band. I feel like I could really be myself with that ensemble. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t really think so much in terms of the instruments. In terms of answering that question, it would be people. When you asked me about orchestras before, a conductor like Michael Tilson Thomas, like David Zinman, like Dennis Russell Davies, like Gil Rose, like Hugh Wolff (who really gets my music in particular and American music in general), a person that is infectious to the orchestra and they play it great and it doesn’t matter what orchestra they’re playing it with, they can make it work. In terms of dream ensembles, it has to do with people. Rinde [Eckert] and I have talked about a band and when are we going to have time to do that. But me, Rinde, Fred Sherry, Joey Baron, just people that we know. Maybe my ex-wife Nancy Zeltsman on marimba. That happens to be electric guitar, cello, voice, drums and marimba. Rinde also plays accordion. That’s kind of a hip ensemble, but if those people played other instruments, I’d still have the same people and just go with those instruments because an important aspect of music is irony, and rhythm is where it’s at for me. If somebody’s got really good time on the tuba, I would really dig the irony of laying some funky bass line on the tuba more than a slap bass player playing that bass line. So that’s why somebody with feel and time is more important to me than the sound of their instrument.

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