2005 March at John Mackey's Blog



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  • March 31, 2005

    LA: It's Sunny Here

    Greetings from downlown Los Angeles. AEJ and I arrived yesterday morning after a long but relatively stress-free flight from JFK.
    Because we got to the airport so early, we managed to catch an earlier flight than we expected. Arriving in LA an hour early, we had time to check in at the hotel and head out on our search for lunch at — you guessed it — In-N-Out Burger.
    I immediately learned that driving anywhere in LA takes a long time. It was noon, but traffic was crazy. In-N-Out was probably 8 miles from our hotel, but it took about 40 minutes to get there. When we did find it, it was mobbed. It seems that we weren’t the only people in LA who wanted a tasty burger for lunch.
    After wolfing down our lunch, we rushed to USC for their rehearsal. Running up to the building with only about a minute to spare, I caught my breath as Sharon Lavery, the wind ensemble’s fantastic resident conductor (and the group’s unsung heroine), finished rehearsing. Bob Reynolds took the podium, briefly introduced me to the group, and explained that he’d do the piece in small segments, get my comments, move on, then run it all once through at the end of the hour.

    So they started playing. And they sounded fantastic.

    I had high hopes, having heard the group at Carnegie Hall in February. This was largely a different set of personnel, though, as players rotate through various groups at USC. As AEJ said, it seems that USC has an awfully deep bench.
    The contrabassoon player, for example, is the best I’ve heard anywhere. Great, big, full sound. He nailed every note. You know — the kind of player a composer dreams about. So, take that guy, and multiply him by 60, and you get the USC Wind Ensemble.
    Dr. Reynolds stopped every couple of minutes to get my comments, and I was left with basically nothing to say. “Um, the trombones sound unbelievable.” “The soprano sax solo is pretty much perfect.” “I can’t believe how good the contrabassoon player is.” I had nothin’.
    The nice thing was that because I had so little to change other than “louder here” or “a little faster there,” we had a lot of extra time in that one-hour rehearsal. This gave me a chance to talk a little with the group. This has never happened before in a large ensemble rehearsal. I usually come to the rehearsal, make my requests, time runs out, and rehearsal ends. Since Dr. Reynolds saw that we had 20 minutes left, I’d given all of my notes, and it was only going to take 9 minutes to run the piece, he took 10 minutes to really introduce me.

    He did the coolest thing. He basically interviewed me in front of the whole wind ensemble. He asked me how I started composing, where I went to school, how I got the commission for the original orchestra version, and lots of other great questions. He took questions from the players themselves — things like, how did I come to write a wind version of the piece? It was great. After 10 minutes of chatting with the group, they ran Redline Tango straight through. And it was damn near perfect. It may have been the best I’ve ever heard it. And they still have another rehearsal tomorrow!
    After rehearsal, I took a 10 minute nap before AEJ and I met Bob Reynolds for dinner. The food was great (who doesn’t love pecan pie for dessert?!), and the company even better. AEJ and I had a wonderful evening, and our thanks to Bob for a perfect dinner.

    Today was Tourist Day. We started by sleeping late, grabbing coffee at the hotel, showering, and heading out to lunch. We drove through Bel Air, and ate lunch in Brentwood. (We even drove down the street where Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered by a still at large killer.) After lunch, we spent a few hours at The Getty Center. I’m not a huge fan of the art in the collection — I prefer more modern works — but the architecture and the gardens were breathtaking. Check it out.
    After the Getty, we spent ages stuck in traffic, and finally made our way back to the hotel. After a short nap, we went out for dinner at a great Mexican restaurant called Alegria. (Thanks to my buddy Teddy for recommending that one.) Although we were stuffed, AEJ and I stopped off and picked up some sweet treats on the way back to the hotel, and enjoyed Twinkies while we watched “Survivor” here at the hotel.
    Can I just say what a difference it makes traveling with AEJ? If I were here in LA alone, it would be awfully sad and lonely. With AEJ here, though, even when I’m working, it feels like vacation.

    Tomorrow, I’m speaking with the Composers’ Forum at USC, followed by a dress rehearsal with the wind ensemble. After that — anything goes! Any recommendations on how AEJ and I should spend our Friday night in LA?


    March 28, 2005

    Minnesota Orchestra

    I just learned that Andrew Litton is going to perform “Redline Tango” with the Minnesota Orchestra this summer. (That’s the original version, of course, not the band version.) Woo hoo!

    Litton’s performances of the piece with the Dallas Symphony last summer were unbelievable. He told me then that if I made the piece look a little simpler on paper — just clarifying notation, not changing the actual music — for example, changing 12/16 bars to 3/4 — that he’d do the piece again. I ended up taking the changes I made when I wrote the wind version and transcribed those back into the orchestra version. So, now the orchestra version is a transcription of the band version which is a transcription of the original orchestra version. It’s like playing that game Telephone. Pretty soon, the piece will sound completely different. (Maybe it’ll end up sounding like this if I’m not careful.) Anyway, the changes made enough of a difference, it seems, as he’s stuck by his word!

    More details to come — as soon as I get ’em! All I know now is that the performance will be at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, sometime in late July. (Will it still be snowing then in Minneapolis?)


    Tax Day & Shakespeare

    I found out last night that Gary Hill is conducting another performance of “Redline Tango” at Arizona State in a few weeks — on April 15, Tax Day. I’m excited that Gary is doing the piece again. ASU played the hell out of it in December (as I wrote in the blog), but through a mix-up, no usable recording was made. This time around, though, they plan to make a good recording. Although I can’t be there for the performance this time — I’ll be at Lamar for the premiere of Sasparilla — I’m excited to hear the recording.

    Also on Tax Day, the band at Bowling Green State University will play “Redline Tango.” This is an exciting one because I’m originally from Ohio, but I haven’t had a performance there since I graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music. It’s weird that I’ve had many more performances in, say, Dallas, than in my original home state.

    Speaking of Dallas… I know that most readers of this blog don’t visit much of the rest of this site. Granted, a bunch of people have downloaded Redline Tango — over 1900 people this month alone — but there aren’t a lot of hits to some of the other music, like the songs for the Dallas Theater Center’s production of “Twelfth Night” from a few years ago.

    So here’s my plan. Since the blog is the entry page for a lot of you, I’m going to start linking from the blog to a specific work elsewhere on the site. It’ll be like a “featured work of the week” or something. (Doesn’t this sound exciting?)

    This week’s featured piece is what I just mentioned — the music for “Twelfth Night.” This was the first – and, unfortunately, remains the only – theatrical production for which I’ve written music. I worked on this show in 2001, spending six weeks in Dallas writing the various cues for the show and the music for the songs. (Shakespeare wrote text for the songs in the show, but most productions commission music for those lyrics, as the original music is long lost.) It was a wonderful experience, spending every day watching rehearsals and writing music for each scene.

    It was also eye-opening writing for theater rather than a choreographer (or myself). As in film, in theater the director is The Boss. I learned this the hard way when I wrote one song for the show and watched as the director changed it during tech. Granted, he was right in the context of the play, but at the time, I was pretty upset that the music was changed. (I wanted to pull the song entirely out of protest — I was young(er) and a pain in the ass (believe it or not – ha) — but the assistant director talked some sense into me.)

    That minor blip aside, it was an amazing 6 weeks. I hope that if you’re bored, you’ll take a few minutes to check out the music.

    If you’re curious to see how things changed during the production, follow along with the PDF files of the scores while you listen. Although “The Wind And The Rain” is essentially the same, you’ll notice that a cut was made between the creation of the score and opening night. (The recordings were made just before closing night, so they reflect the “final versions” of the songs.) The changes to “Come Away, Death” were not as major, but you’ll see how Jesse Lenat (who appeared in the original production of “Floyd Collins“) influenced the song after I wrote the original version, with subtle changes to the phrasing, and his own additions to one of the mandolin parts. (Jesse — in the role of Feste — played one of the two mandolin parts that you’ll hear. Jesse could play guitar but couldn’t read music, so I taught the part to him by rote, but we changed it as we worked.)

    The “Top of Show” cue was just that — the music at the very beginning of the show. After the little music that introduces the tune for “Wind and the Rain,” there was a thunder clap, and the lights slowly came up to reveal a dim, foggy stage. The director wanted music to set that tone — mysterious and foggy. What you’ll hear — if you listen to that cue — is my attempt, with high accordion playing clusters, and the guitar playing quotes of the song to come later, “Come Away, Death.”

    This blog entry has been brought to you by The Music for “Twelfth Night.”


    March 27, 2005


    I’m working on the little piece for the Seattle Youth Symphony’s “Endangered Instruments” program. Since all of the instruments, when played together, sound to me like prehistoric animals, I’m going to embrace that and write “Endangered.” It may actually be called “Endangered!” – my first (and forever only) piece with an exclamation point. This piece is intended as a vehicle for the students in the program, and it will be played once (regardless of how “successful” it is). It’s totally a piece just for this one occasion. That’s what I’ll be working on until I leave for LA on Wednesday. (I need to mail the score and parts on Tuesday evening.)

    I’m excited about the trip to USC. I’ve never been to LA, so this should be an adventure. Fortunately, I’ll have AEJ as my guide.

    The ABC Family network is currently broadcasting a show called “The Easter Bunny Is Coming To Town.” It’s from those Rankin/Bass guys who did the old stop motion “Rudolph the Red-Noser Reindeer” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” shows. I can’t bring myself the turn it off, even though it’s absolutely awful. Let’s just say that by the time they did this one — and “Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey” — the well had long since run dry.


    March 24, 2005

    Cleaning House

    That’s literally what I’m doing. It’s not like I’m using “cleaning house” as an expression. I’m literally spending most of today cleaning my house.

    I did spend an hour this morning doing an interview for the newspaper in Beaumont, Texas, about the upcoming premiere of “Sasparilla.” That was fun. I keep thinking back, though, wondering if I said something completely awful. I guess I’ll find out soon enough…

    The rest of the day, though, has been spent cleaning. I had to get some papers down from a box at the top of my closet, but I used that as an excuse to throw a lot of stuff away that was in the closet. For example, some of the eleventy-seven copies I have of the same performance programs from, like, 1998. Three copies will do just fine. There’s also the old manual for my mini DAT recorder, which died about two years ago. I even cleaned my desk, which happens awfully rarely.

    I’ve gotta say — I love my apartment when it’s clean. It smells like homemade stew — because that’s what’s been cooking in the crock pot all day (fortunately, it’s not like my home smells like stew all day every day. That would be weird.) — the cowhide rug is vacuumed and bright white, the TV is dusted, there’s a kitty sleeping on top of the kitchen cabinets, and it just feels cozy. I wish AEJ would hurry home from work, as that would make the day just about perfect.

    Plus, my sister (I have just about the best sister in the world) sent AEJ and I an Easter care package yesterday. It was awfully sweet, with a card for AEJ & I and a separate card for Loki, a few sweet treats, and several little stuffed critters. I took this picture of Loki and said critters last night. (The sheep in the picture is actually Loki’s own Easter basket, which my sister loaded with cat treats. Human beings really don’t come much sweeter than my sister.)

    Can you tell which one is Loki?

    Don’t worry; I’ll return to snarky entries soon. It’s just nice to be home.

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