John Mackey's Blog

July 22, 2014

New stuff for Fall 2014!

Even though I haven’t written a note of music since February (I’m still on a self-imposed sabbatical, recovering from the seven-months I spent writing “Wine-Dark Sea“), I do have a few pieces that are “new” – or at least newly available for performances this fall. I’ve mentioned all of these at some point on Facebook, but it seemed like maybe there should be a single blog post that covers them all in one tidy, tasty little morsel of a blog post. YUM!

Wine-Dark Sea: Symphony for Band” – a huge piece – 32 minutes! – based on “The Odyssey” by Homer. (That story lasts 20 years, so compressing it to 30 minutes was not so easy.) It was commissioned by the University of Texas for the 100th anniversary of their school of music, and taken on their recent “Around The World” tour. It’s three movements, and a group can do the whole thing (my first choice, obviously), or a single movement. The first movement, “Hubris,” starts out as an arrogant march (check out the horns!), and gets darker from there. The second movement “Immortal thread, so weak,” is about devotion and a broken heart. The final movement, “The attentions of souls,” is loud and raucous, imagined as a ballet of the shrieking souls of the dead. Believe it or not, even with a description like that, people seem to want to clap when it’s done.
Here’s a video of the University of Texas Wind Ensemble’s performance in Tokyo, conducted by Jerry Junkin.

Next up, two very different pieces. In 2013, I wrote “The Soul Has Many Motions,” a four-movement suite in honor of conductor and educator Richard Floyd’s retirement from UIL in Texas. Last fall, I released one movement – “Night on Fire” (featuring multiple hand percussionists – the more the merrier/louder) as a standalone piece. That movement was just added to the Texas Prescribed Music List. This year, two more movements are available as individual pieces.

First up: “Unquiet Spirits,” the third movement of the suite. This is sort of a limping, melancholy waltz. (If you’re a sax player, you might know this tune as being the same as the tune from the second movement of my saxophone quartet, also called “Unquiet Spirits.”) This piece is probably a grade 4 or 4+. You can listen to the Soundcloud audio here, and find the score here.

The other newly-released standalone movement from the suite is the final movement, a circus march called “The Ringmaster’s March.” Imagine if Charles Ives and I got drunk together and re-wrote Henry Fillmore’s “The Circus Bee.” You can see the score here.

But what if you’re looking for a bigger, more serious piece than a circus march – something in the 9-minute range – but “Wine-Dark Sea” is a little much? Do you have a good band with a few really great soloists — on, say, clarinet and flute? Then I give you: “(Redacted).” Think music about the life of a spy – about both the excitement, but also the loneliness. (Did you catch the great Texas State University performance at CBDNA in March, conducted by Caroline Beatty? Hot damn.) The premiere performance – heard in the Soundcloud link below – was put together in only three days, by the Kappa Kappa Psi / Tau Beta Sigma 2013 National Intercollegiate Band, conducted by Anthony Maiello. (You can download the score here.)

And if you want epic, there’s “The Frozen Cathedral.” It’s been around since March 2013, but wasn’t available to non-consortium-members until January.

Lastly, and this one is not quite new, is “High Wire.” Yes, it premiered back in May 2012, but I didn’t have a video performance of it until this February, when Frank Ticheli conducted it with the Texas All-State Symphonic Band. It’s a four-minute opener with – surprise! – lots of trombone (especially in this performance with, what, 16 trombones? I LOVE TROMBONES.). Download the score for “High Wire” here.

And before we go — Happy Birthday to “Redline Tango!” My first band piece turned 10 years old this year. Don’t you wish you were giving a 10th anniversary performance of the piece? Don’t you? The Hoff thinks you should.

I tried to make that picture the preview pic for the Facebook link to this post. Facebook seemed to think that photo was inappropriate. INAPPROPRIATELY TOO AWESOME, I guess.

Please forgive the horribly tacky self-promotional post. Financing the renovation of a 125-year-old house will drive you to do things you aren’t proud of. I promise that our next posts will return to photos of renovations,


travel (the UT Wind Ensemble on the Great Wall of China!),

or, best of all, cats (preferably high on catnip).

Okay, for sticking it out through this whole post, a bonus: video of composer Steven Bryant (in lederhosen!) playing the suspended cymbal part for my piece “Undertow.”


June 2, 2014

UTWE Tour : Shenzhen

We’re two weeks into the Around The World tour with the University of Texas Wind Ensemble. I’ve wanted to post blog posts along the way, but the days have been overflowing with activities. Today is our last day in Hong Kong. We’re off to Beijing in the morning, but in the meantime, I have an hour free to write a post – and yesterday was too great of a day to go without a blog.

We’ve been in Hong Kong since last Thursday. There was a runout concert to Macau on Saturday – a 14-hour day with ferry trips, a dinner, and a concert – and after less than eight hours back at the hotel, we were out the door again, this time heading to Shenzhen, China — our first trip into China – and our first trip through Chinese immigration. Even with dozens of instruments going through customs, the trip was remarkably smooth. A student took this picture with his phone before he saw the sign warning of imprisonment if you took a picture.

How was China different from what we’d experienced so far? For starters, the food was different. I mean, they have GREEN CUCUMBER flavored potato chips, as if they don’t seem to realize that CUCUMBERS ARE THE YUCKIEST FOOD THAT EVER WAS. (Other food in Shenzhen, it turned out, was delicious. Stay tuned.)

The concert was at the Xi Xiang Music Valley Cultural Center. It is in the valley of music – in THE TOWN OF WIND MUSIC! Why doesn’t America have a wind music town??? (Jerry Junkin for Mayor!)

So our busses pull up to the cultural center, and there were all of these kids on the stairs, clapping in rhythm and chanting to welcome us. I’m afraid I have no snarky comment about this because it was a lovely moment.

I mean, they were so excited – and so adorable.

A banner in the lobby welcomed the UT Wind Ensemble, recognizing their status as a top-3 concert band. (Who the hell are numbers two and three?)

The afternoon started with masterclasses, where the UT students worked with students from the area bands.

This picture really captures the joy of the entire experience.

I’ll say one thing about southern China in June: it is hot. This kid had the right idea with those shorts. (I also love that he’s smaller than his horn.)

Fun with oboes.

But what brings on smiles more than a bass drum? (The kid on the left was later spotted wearing his tambourine as a hat, which I’m now going to require in my next piece.)

It was almost concert time! China is a culture where smoking is pretty common, so this sign hanging inside the concert hall was actually somewhat necessary. I want this sign for inside of our house.

When concert attendees arrived, they received programs and flags for both China and the US.

The crowd — standing-room by the time the concert started — was pretty excited to see the UT Wind Ensemble. The concert even had two emcees – one speaking Chinese, the other (the woman in the super sparkly gown) translating to English.

There were dozens of people filming the concert with their phones. As one UT musician said after the concert, “if China had YouTube, we’d all be famous!” Here, an audience member films Nathan Williams – the UT clarinet professor – during his wonderful performance of Frank Ticheli’s clarinet concerto.

Some audience members took the concert filming just a LITTLE over-the-top.

The performance of “Wine-Dark Sea” was the most energetic yet. Like, blow the roof off the joint energetic.

The encores followed, and in a first, Nathan Williams joined the clarinet section. (He’s the clarinetist with a beard.)

One of the encores was “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (of course). Jerry Junkin spontaneously — shortly before the “piccolo break” — went out into the audience and invited a kid up on stage to help him conduct. It was an amazing moment – in a day of beautiful moments.

Here, the kid takes his well-deserved bow.

The final encore brought dozens of area young players to the stage for a final joint piece. Here, they all bow together.

Many curtain calls later, it was time for… Dumpling Party!!! The dumplings were delicious. During the meal, we were treated to performances by area musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments.

Vincent Pierce, the UT harpist, takes video notes.

Here, a local woman plays an erhu – an instrument that, before last night, I had only heard played by a 75-year old man on the NYC Times Square subway platform. This was… better.

It was a great post-concert party. The beer didn’t hurt.

Then it was time for karaoke! Here, flutist Meekyoung Lee and clarinetist Nick Councilor sing “I Will Always Love You.”

Nick’s teacher, Nathan Williams, sums up their performance perfectly.

It was a perfect day, from start to finish. I can’t say enough to thank our host, Joseph Cheung. So, we’ll settle for a toast.

Thank you, Shenzhen, for a wonderful experience. And also, for the beer.

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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.

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