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Steve Mackey - Heavy Light

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Artist: Steve Mackey

Album: Heavy Light

Label: New World

Review date: Sep. 6, 2004

The symphony orchestra is dead. There, I’ve said it. I’m not one of those moaning critics decrying shrinking budgets, smaller audiences, lower sales, etc.; I could care less about the economic death of the symphony orchestra. But no, the symphony orchestra died about 25 years ago with the death of Shostakovich, the last great symphonist. Thus ended the symphonic canon. And the non-canonical symphony died maybe 20 years earlier with Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, a piece for string orchestra that is essentially 10 minutes of strings screaming in massive blocks of sound, and Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, a postmodern cut-up that took snippets of everything that came before in classical music and reassembled them in the shell of Mahler’s 2nd symphony. After these composers, nothing of much compelling worth has been written for the symphony orchestra; most “serious” music written for orchestra since has been largely disappointing attempts at following one of those previously mentioned veins. Perhaps there is a future for a full-scale orchestra, but it would require a rethinking of its purpose and goal. These are generalizations, and there have been a few composers with such vision, but it’s difficult at this point to predict if we are at the beginning of a new age of the symphony or just at the last gasp of a dying institution.

So where does that leave classical music? Pretty much back where it started: in small ensembles. While the orchestra has been in decline, chamber music, small groups of players, have flourished. The best classical music from the past 50 years or so has been for these nimble ensembles. Unlike the orchestra, where each individual player is merely a part of the machine, chamber music allows the individual to truly have a voice, an effect on the sound that is output. It’s easier to communicate, easier to create a dialogue, easier to let ideas flow. And let’s be honest here; big, crunchy, complicated chords just sound better when they’re being played by 10 people instead of 100. It’s easy to see why the minimalists embraced chamber music, beyond just the lack of orchestral availability. Think of it as game of telephone, with the melodic idea as the message. In an orchestra, the message has to pass through 100+ people and will most likely get garbled into something unrecognizable by the time it comes out. But with only a few people playing, the message will emerge closely resembling the original. The point of minimalism is to take a musical idea and gradually permutate it in a very controlled way, and an orchestra has too many ways of losing that control. So not surprisingly, there’s been a lot of good new chamber music, minimalist or otherwise, written in the past few decades.

I’m sure that the sentence that you, the reader, expect here goes something like this: “Steve Mackey is at the forefront of chamber music for the 21st century.” Well, I’m not going to write that, because it’s not a true statement. Having been taught by him at Princeton, I will say that Steve Mackey is a very gifted musician with an interesting approach to writing music and worthwhile new ideas about it, but to make such a gross generalization doesn’t do anything for anyone (except for maybe fanning Mackey’s ego), and misses the point. Mackey’s music is part of the unclassifiable miasma of music after minimalism that isn’t wholly tonal but isn’t just noise, is somewhat repetitive but isn’t based solely around repetition, and is “serious” and “classical” but doesn’t ignore the influence of other styles of music. If this sounds vague, it’s because there’s so much variety out there, and we’re too close to it to really be able to tell any trends. Mackey is always quick to point out that he comes from a rock background, being a guitarist who grew up in the '60s. So if he is an innovator, it’s because he brought the electric guitar into the concert hall as a solo instrument.

A wise man once told me that there’s no such thing as bad effects pedals, just bad people. For most guitarists, this isn’t really a problem; in a rock band you just turn up the volume until it sounds good. But in the rarified realm of “serious” music, guitarists just don’t seem to get it. They use lots of effects - the wrong effects - making the guitar sound overblown and bloated. I won’t speculate as to why such obnoxious guitar tones have become the standard for “serious” music, but I will say that it does much more harm than good. In the one composition here with guitar, the title track, Mackey’s tone and thrashy technique nearly become a problem, but through the miracle of mixing, the guitar is never louder that the cello or flute, making its huge sound a bit more intimate and bearable. The piece itself is a hodgepodge of styles, with a few ensemble passages that sound straight out of Iran, a few guitar solos straight from Joe Satriani, a few fairly straight-forward “new music” moments, and a strange feeling of rock’n’roll hiding just under the surface.

The other two compositions feature the MOSIAC ensemble, a sextet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. This type of group (minus percussion) is known as a Pierrot ensemble, named after a Schoenberg piece, and is perhaps the most popular chamber ensemble of the moment. Micro-Concerto takes full advantage of the versatility of the modern percussionist, embodied here by Daniel Druckman. He spends most of his time clattering between innumerable different percussion instruments, often playing multiple instruments at once. It’s a feat of virtuosity that would be a kick to see live. And Indigenous Instruments is the folk music of an imagined culture that likes to detune its instruments in strange ways. Mackey’s invented world is not an exotic one, predicated more on Aaron Copland than an African tribesman, though there are moments where Mackey explores the nuances of his detuned instruments that sound more exotic. But this piece is ultimately the most satisfying because of the way it reinvents this standard ensemble with extended techniques and unusual sounds, and because ultimately microtones are just more fun than equal temperment.

So is Mackey’s the music of the future? On its own, no. But he is an important part of the next generation of composers, those who view the tradition of “classical music” as less important than finding unique and pleasing ways of combining sound waves. And with the economics of the symphony orchestra being what it is, it will most likely be through chamber music that those waves will reach our ears.

By Dan Ruccia

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