for electric string quartet and percussion
Commissioned by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Premiered December 10, 2003. City Center, New York City.
Choreographed by Robert Battle.
Robert wanted something aggressive. His only specific musical request was that the work have a "Rite of Spring" sort of nastiness, with repeated eighth-notes and featuring syncopated accents. Robert also wanted percussion, and although I was initially reluctant to incorporate it - almost all of our works have featured percussion - I relented, and Robert was, as usual, completely right. As you'll hear, this piece wouldn't be the same without the percussion, and specifically, the amazing playing of Damien Bassman. (Yes, these are real, live musicians. No synths here.)
The first movement is full of "power chords," with those repeated eighth-notes that Robert requested. The second movement allows the dancers to catch their breath briefly before the final movement, a rhythmically dense and virtuosic 7-minute crescendo of raw energy.
This piece seems to fall into either the love-it-or-hate-it camp. The New York Times wrote, "Juba is frenetic and electrifying, a terse, powerful explosion of transformative energy." The New York Sun wrote, "The evening included the premiere of Robert Battle's aggressive new work "Juba," which is driven, pushed, and prodded by its music, an original score composed by John Mackey. The variety in the composition is enormous. It is heavy with percussion and tense with electric strings (two violins, viola, and cello) that screech and howl but also hum and whisper. A rock 'n' roll thread makes it a propulsive work - full of power, force, and not a little anger." The San Francisco Gate, on the other hand, wrote, "Juba is a thrill ride with an impulsive John Mackey score and not an ounce of subtlety or shapeliness." Since Robert and I intended the work to be completely "in your face," I guess that's sort of an unintentional compliment!