John Mackey's Blog

March 10, 2014

Wine-Dark Sea – the video

And here is the video of the preview performance of “Wine-Dark Sea: Symphony for Band.” Jerry Junkin’s conducting of the slow movement is a master class on lyrical wind conducting.


February 24, 2014

Wine-Dark Sea – recording and score

I just posted the score and recording of the preview performance of “Wine-Dark Sea: Symphony for Band.” You can find it via this link.


January 30, 2014

“Wine-Dark Sea” – the program note

The world premiere of “Wine-Dark Sea : Symphony for Band” is two weeks from today, with The University of Texas Wind Ensemble, conducted by Jerry Junkin. It all happens on Thursday, February 13, at the Texas Music Educators Association convention.

It’s a big piece – a little over 30 minutes. Even two weeks out, I continue to tweak little things. Add the trombones here, remove the triangle there. Make this a little faster. Stick a slur between these notes. It seems to never end. It’s not surprising that there are things to polish. According to Finale’s “count items” plugin, the piece has 122,980 notes.

While you pass the time waiting for the big premiere, maybe you’d like to read the program note. Here you go.
For the past 10 years, I’ve written all of my music in collaboration with my wife, Abby. She titles nearly all of my pieces, a process that usually involves my writing the music, then playing it for her, after which she tells me what the piece is about. Without her help, “Aurora Awakes” would be “Slow Music Then Fast Music #7 in E-flat.” Sometimes she’ll hear a piece halfway through my writing process and tell me what the music evokes to her, and that can take the piece in a different (and better) direction than I had originally intended. I’ve learned that the earlier she is involved in the process, the better the piece turns out. So with “Wine-Dark Sea,” my symphony for band, I asked for her help months before I ever wrote a note of music.

The commission, from Jerry Junkin and The University of Texas Wind Ensemble, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music, was for a piece lasting approximately 30 minutes. How could I put together a piece that large? Abby had an idea. Why not write something programmatic, and let the story determine the structure? We had taken a similar approach with “Harvest,” my trombone concerto about Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Why not return to the Greek myths for this symphony? And since this story needed to be big (epic, even), I’d use the original, truly epic tale of Odysseus, as told thousands of years ago by Homer in The Odyssey.

The full Odyssey, it turned out, was too large, so Abby picked some of the “greatest hits” from the epic poem. She wrote a truncated version of the story, and I attempted to set her telling to music. Here is the story the way Abby outlined it (in three movements), and I set it:

After ten years of bloody siege, the Trojan War was won because of Odysseus’ gambit: A horse full of soldiers, disguised as an offering. The people of Troy took it in as a trophy, and were slaughtered.

Odysseus gave the Greeks victory, and they left the alien shores for home. But Odysseus’ journey would take as long as the war itself. Homer called the ocean on which Odysseus sailed a wine-dark sea, and for the Greek king it was as murky and disorienting as its name; he would not find his way across it without first losing himself.

I. Hubris
Odysseus filled his ship with the spoils of war, but he carried another, more dangerous, cargo: Pride. This movement opens with his triumphal march, and continues as he and his crew maraud through every port of call on their way home.

But the arrogance of a conquering mortal has one sure consequence in this world: a demonstration of that mortal’s insignificance, courtesy of the gods. Odysseus offends; Zeus strikes down his ship. The sailors drown. Odysseus is shipwrecked. The sea takes them all.

II. Immortal thread, so weak
This movement is the song of the beautiful and immortal nymph Kalypso, who finds Odysseus near death, washed up on the shore of the island where she lives all alone. She nurses him back to health, and sings as she moves back and forth with a golden shuttle at her loom. Odysseus shares her bed; seven years pass. The tapestry she began when she nursed him becomes a record of their love.

But one day Odysseus remembers his home. He tells Kalypso he wants to leave her, to return to his wife and son. He scoffs at all she has given him. Kalypso is heartbroken.

And yet, that night, Kalypso again paces at her loom. She unravels her tapestry and weaves it into a sail for Odysseus. In the morning, she shows Odysseus a raft, equipped with the sail she has made and stocked with bread and wine, and calls up a gentle and steady wind to carry him home. Shattered, she watches him go; he does not look back.

III. The attentions of souls
But other immortals are not finished with Odysseus yet. Before he can reach his home, he must sail to the end of the earth, and make a sacrifice to the dead. And so, this movement takes place at the gates of the underworld, where it is always night.

When Odysseus cuts the throats of the sacrificial animals, the spirits of the dead swarm up. They cajole him, begging for blood. They accuse him, indicting him for his sins. They taunt him, mocking his inability to get home. The spirit of his own mother does not recognize him; he tries to touch her, but she is immaterial. He sees the ghosts of the great and the humble, all hungry, all grasping.

Finally, the prophet Teiresias tells Odysseus what he must do to get home. And so Odysseus passes through a gauntlet beyond the edge of the world, beset by the surging, shrieking souls of the dead. But in the darkness he can at last see the light of home ahead.

Wine-Dark Sea is dedicated to Jerry Junkin, without whom the piece would not exist. The second movement, “Immortal thread, so weak,” telling of Kalypso’s broken heart, is dedicated to Abby, without whom none of my music over the past ten years would exist.


September 23, 2013

We’re buying a house!

As of this afternoon – roughly 2 minutes ago! – we’re in contract on a new house here in Cambridge! Okay, not new. Not new at all. It’s 127 years old. It needs all of the work. ALL of it. But when it’s done, man alive, it’s going to be amazing. Please excuse the resolution of these pictures.  I haven’t been in the house with my camera yet, so these pics are all from the listing.  Here’s the outside:

Here’s the description from the listing:

Handsome gabled Victorian with cutaway bays in sought-after Radcliffe neighborhood. This significant house, with (a bunch of) square feet of living space on 3 floors, plus finished space in lower level, has an abundance of uniquely beautiful features: two sets of 8 ft high double doors with beveled glass lead into the foyer with ceilings adorned by acanthus leaves, English oak paneling, built-in seating, built-in hat rack with mirror and umbrella stand; quarter-sawn oak flooring and beautifully turned spindles on the staircase; exquisite detail on the FP mantels, tiles and surrounds; and 3 sets of working pocket doors. There is a large cook’s kitchen with gas stove, vented hood and island, which can be opened to the light-filled adjoining morning room, as well as (a bunch of) bedrooms, (several) baths, several flex rooms, an enclosed porch off the kitchen, and finished rooms in the lower level. Two-car garage, plus double driveway. Near Harvard Square, the Law School, the T and all amenities.

Doesn’t that sound amazing?! Well, most of it does, at least. I changed the listing’s number of bedrooms and bathrooms because when we’re done, those numbers will be different. (There will be fewer bedrooms. This place used to be owned by a bunch of Jesuit priests, and it currently has more bedrooms than my uncle had fingers after the factory accident.) And do we really need a double driveway? No. We have one car, and we rarely drive that, so we’re going to narrow the driveway and increase the amount of lawn.

So, what’s the inside look like right now? Here’s the view when you walk through the front door.  The ceilings on this floor are a little over 9 feet.  They’re 10 feet on the second floor, and about 8 feet on the top floor.

Holy crap! There’s a friggin’ seat by the stairs, so if I’m like “whoa, I am way too tired to make it up the stairs right now,” I can sit down and rest. Or, I could sit there and stare at people as they walk through the front door.  But we’re reupholstering that thing.

This is one of the parlors. (There’s another one across the foyer, and that’s where I’ll put my piano and studio.) In the negative column: radiators. We’ll be replacing those ducted central air and heat.

But in the positive column..  Holy hell, look at the detail on this fireplace! 127 years old, and nobody has messed it up yet!

Here’s the dining room, currently with a table big enough for a dozen Jesuit priests.  (Did I mention that there used to be a chapel in the basement?)  The stained glass in pretty crazy.  I’m all for wainscoting, but there is a bit too much brown in this room right now.

Here’s the dining room’s fireplace, looking out into the foyer. On the right of the foyer is that little built-in mirror and hat rack. I told AEJ that I was excited to hang all of my baseball hats there.  (GO SOX!!!) She told me that I could only hang top hats there, so I’m currently shopping for top hats.

This is a detail shot of the dining room fireplace. Look at the happy couple!

Here are the stairs on the second floor – and more stained glass.  But also: emergency lights.  It’s good the priests were safe if the power went out, but we’ll be removing the emergency lights.

And this is the master bedroom. It’s not much of a master yet, because there’s no big closet and no attached bathroom, but we’re going to change that.

Then there’s the kitchen. Sigh. Ugly cabinets that don’t go to the ceiling. An island with seven sides. (Septagons are my favorite shape!)  Purple laminate countertops. An overmount sink. Bummer flooring. An unfortunate chandelier.

But we started with a worse kitchen at our last house in Austin, and when we were done, it looked like this:

This place is going to be a project for years. We have to remove asbestos, replace the wiring, install a forced air furnace and central air conditioning (and do it without damaging the original trim woodwork), repair damaged wood on the outside of the house – and that’s before we even start to consider the fun stuff, like the redesign of the kitchen (you would not believe what AEJ has planned – it is INCREDIBLE), new bathrooms, and on, and on. I’ll post pictures throughout the process. We’re excited. But please send money.


September 2, 2013

Symphony for Band – an update, with audio

For several months, I’ve been writing a symphony for band for the University of Texas. The world premiere will be at the Texas Music Educators Convention in February. Two movements are done (as of today). I don’t expect to post any other full demo recordings prior to the premiere, but I’m a little too excited about this one, so…

Here’s movement three — the scherzo. The title is “The attentions of souls.” You can download the full score here. The audio – created with the Vienna Symphonic Library (including their prepared piano library – yes, there’s piano, prepared with chains, in the piece) – is below.

It starts slow. It doesn’t stay there.