2006 February at John Mackey's Blog



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  • February 27, 2006

    Turbine: The Premiere(s)

    I arrived in Lexington, Kentucky, rather delayed last Sunday, thanks to the ice in Dallas. Upon arrival, Cody Birdwell, the conductor of the wind ensemble there, picked me up at the airport, and we (and his lovely wife, Cindy) headed to dinner at a great steak house. My steak was great — but not very pretty. Cindy’s jumbo crab legs were much more fun.

    Although my steak wasn’t so great on “film,” my dessert looked tasty – and tasted even better. It’s a hot chocolate chip cookie, vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, and caramel. Wow, I loved it. (I mean, I enjoy hot brownie a la mode, but why don’t more places offer a hot, thick chocolate chip cookie a la mode?)

    The next day, on the way to rehearsal, Cody and I stopped for Chinese food. This was my fortune.

    I walked into the music offices at the University of Kentucky, and there on the table was a set of parts for Jonathan Newman’s piece, “Avenue X!”

    I already wrote a few days ago about the amazing sectional with the percussion players. Here’s a shot of one of the percussionists rigging up a drill rod to use to scrape the tam-tam. (He’s hanging it from a rope so he can get to it quickly for the scrapes.)

    A shot of one of the percussion setups. Propane tank, thick steel plate, thunder sheet, and two cymbals.

    Another percussion invention — a wooden mallet for the timpani, with a metal wrench taped to the other end (to use to scrape the tam-tam).

    Cody rehearsing the group. Where’s the bass player?!

    Another shot of four of the eight Turbine percussionists.

    Cody and the U. Kentucky Wind Ensemble, giving the premiere of Turbine in Lexington last Wednesday night.

    The concert was smokin’. The hall in Lexington had trouble with the mass of sound — the long reverb time caused the hall itself to audibly distort a few times — but the performance was great, and the crowd response was nice. I headed back to my room post-concert and treated myself to room service: a slice of peanut butter pie.

    The next morning, we all boarded the bus to Nashville.

    In Nashville, Shattinger Music was selling copies of my scores — and they had a section dedicated just to my music! (Thanks, Jim Cochran.) Here, a few people are caught completely candidly on film studying a few of my scores. (I know those guys look like members of the UK percussion ensemble, but I’m sure that’s just coincidence.)

    Just before the official world premiere of Turbine at the CBDNA in Nashville, here’s a shot of the percussion again.

    The crowd was pretty large for a regional CBDNA. I’d asked Robert Ambrose — the conductor at Georgia State — to please bring his band to the Turbine concert. They were playing Redline Tango that night, so they were around, and Robert graciously brought them. So, in addition to my dad, step-mom, and cousin (who all drove 10 hours from Ohio!), and several band directors from the region, we also had the players from Georgia State, East Carolina University, and I think at least one other band. Good crowd.

    The performance was HOT. I warned the audience before “Turbine,” saying, “if you’ve ever suffered from aurally-induced seizures, you may want to leave the hall before this piece.” Fortunately, nobody died during the premiere, and in fact, the crowd couldn’t have been nicer. I’m sure it helped to have so many friends in the audience — people who really wanted to like the piece before they even heard it — and that really showed in their response. And yes, the piece was loud as hell. As Sean Murray described it, Turbine “had the power to reach outer space.” He insisted that was a compliment. I was just thrilled with Cody and his group’s performance.

    After the premiere, Gary Green and his gang from the University of Miami took me out to a great dinner. Here’s a shot of my delicious portobello mushroom and goat cheese salad.

    Gary and I talked about a really exciting potential collaboration, and I hope it works out, as it would be a dream to accomplish what he’s envisioning. This guy’s a thinker.

    After dinner, I went to hear Robert Ambrose conduct his group from Georgia State. It was absolutely amazing. I’ve heard Redline Tango countless times now, and although I always hear something new in each performance, Robert’s performance was refreshing in every bar. Things in the scoring were audible for the first time. The tempi were perfect. Robert told me later that he’d adjusted nearly every dynamic in the piece, and whatever he did was magic. Richard Clary from FSU said it was the best performance of Redline Tango he’s ever heard. I was reluctant to say that out loud — can’t let Robert’s head get too big — but I don’t know. It would be a tough performance to top. And his band is not only just undergrads (as far as I know), but the majority of the players are Freshmen and Sophomores! The guy playing first trumpet — the waa-waa part in the tango — was the best who’s ever played the part — and that includes performances at the Minnesota Orchestra and Dallas Symphony. Just way too good. Shattinger Music sold out of Redline Tango scores the next morning, and it’s entirely due to Robert and the Georgia State Wind Ensemble. I went backstage to meet the group after the concert, and the players were so nice, and asked for autographs!

    Here’s a shot of me and Robert Ambrose.

    And here I am with the Georgia State trombones. They were the best that I’ve heard do the piece (and if you know the piece, you know how important the trombones are to me).

    I went with the Georgia State band to dinner after the concert. Here’s a sad part of the story. It seems that Eric Whitacre‘s most recent band piece, “Noisy Mothra Attacks the Sleepy Train,” tanked, and he’s now bussing tables at this restaurant in Nashville. Eric seemed to be dealing with it well — and his service was great. I tipped him 18%.

    So, that’s Lexington and Nashville. It was a blast. I met lots of great people, and had three fantastic performances. Cody and the band at UK recorded “Turbine” today, and as soon as I get hold of it and edit it together, I’ll post it here.

    And now I’m in Waco, Texas, rehearsing the Baylor Wind Ensemble for their Wednesday premiere of my other new piece, “Strange Humors.” Quite a whirlwind tour. The best part is that on Wednesday, AEJ flies to Dallas for the premiere, so I’ll finally get to see her — and show her off to the ABA guys. Then on Saturday,
    we get to go home together. I can’t wait!


    February 24, 2006

    100 minutes to lift-off

    The big premiere of “Turbine” is in less than two hours. I’m almost bouncing off the walls here in the Holiday Inn in anticipation. The dress rehearsal last night here at Vanderbilt was awesome. The hall here is fantastic, and I can finally hear everything that’s happening in the piece. The hall is bright, but fairly dry without being at all “dead.” The hall in Lexington on Wednesday for the “unofficial” premiere was far too wet for the piece, and also too loud, causing the piece to sound acoustically distorted by the third bar. Here at Vanderbilt, though, the piece sounds massive — but not quite distorted. It was loud enough, though, that at last night’s dress rehearsal, Rick Clary (who was the previous director of bands at U. Kentucky) came by to hear his old group, and when he heard the third bar of “Turbine,” he burst into uncontrollable laughter, just from the shock of the massive sound attacking him from the stage. I’m hoping that was a good thing…

    I should have a good idea of the success (or lack thereof) of “Turbine” in just a few hours. If it fails, it’s through no fault of Cody Birdwell and the U. Kentucky players, who are just playing the hell out of the piece. I’m cautiously optimistic, but there’s no way of knowing how the conductors here will react. Will they think it’s exciting — or assaulting?

    After the premiere, I’m going to work with Robert Ambroise’s group from Georgia State. They’re playing “Redline Tango” tonight at 8pm. That’ll be fun — and a whole lot less stressful!

    I’m off! More later…


    February 21, 2006

    Percussion Master

    Rehearsals have been going great on “Turbine.” We had a two-hour percussion sectional on the piece this afternoon, and wow — it was amazing. The percussion studio here at U. Kentucky is first-rate. The director of the studio, James Campbell, is a rock star — at least in my book.

    In the score, I’d specified “brake drums,” but included a note that indicated that brake drum wasn’t really the sound I necessarily wanted; it was more of a last resort. What I didn’t know, though, is what I actually wanted. After hitting a few things with different mallets and beaters, and listening to my reaction, Jim quickly determined that what I really wanted to hear were the UK collection of huge, heavy, 2″ thick, solid steel plates — suspended, and struck with brass beaters. The piece now uses four of those instead of four brake drums (brake drums sounded like a train crossing, rather than the huge and rich metallic “CLANG” that the plates provide), and the biggest one probably weighs 50 pounds. If the bungee cords suspending any of the plates should snap, there will be one hell of a dent in the stage floor.

    The first bar of “Turbine” now just screams “listen to me or I will kick your ass.” Or maybe it’s screaming, “you can plug your ears, but you’re not hiding from the ass-kicking to come.” Whatever it’s saying, it is unbelievably loud — at least in the rehearsal room we were in. It’s no Circus Maximus, but it’s the loudest thing I’ve ever written. I was ecstatic.

    Jim also had this great trick to get the bowed vibe notes to work reliably (and loudly). He instructed the player to hit the vibe note with a mallet attack, while bowing it at the same time. This gets the mallet vibrating, gives it a louder and more precise attack, and allows the bowed sound to resonate through the rest of the note. They’re now consistent and quite prominent — even better than the samples on the MIDI (and those were some great samples).

    For the scraped tam-tam, Jim brought plastic cups, found caps from paint cans in a box in the rehearsal room, tried a huge metal spoon — anything to get the sound I wanted. He eventually determined in a stroke of brilliance that the best thing was a 4′-long threaded drill rod — like you’d get in a hardware store to, well, drill a 4′ hole. It’s like a double bass bow — only it’s a friggin’ drill rod.

    Bass drum? No bass drum beaters here. No, both bass drums are playing with great big hard felt mallets.

    Jim thought the splash cymbals were too small, so he’s bringing some tomorrow from his home stash. And I can’t even describe his solution to all of the initially problematic tam-tam secco hits that I’d requested. (He found some crazy suspended gong-like cymbal, and the player now hits it and immediately lowers it to a padded table to choke it.)

    And all of this was just for the first measure of the piece.

    I don’t have any idea how good or successful this piece is, but thanks to Jim Campbell and the UK percussion studio, the first bar is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard that has my name on it. These guys are making me look really, really good. If I could, I’d insist on having Campbell coach the percussion on all of my pieces wherever I go.

    The premiere is less than 24 hours away, right here at the University of Kentucky in the Singletary Center for the Performing Arts. Wish us all luck! And then, on Friday, the official premiere at the CBDNA convention in Nashville. Pics and the update to come soon!

    P.S. If anybody wants to chip in money so I can fly AEJ to the premiere in Nashville, that would be just fine.


    February 20, 2006

    TMEA : Year 2

    San Antonio was great. Here’s how it went down…

    I arrived there on Wednesday afternoon, just in time for rehearsal of “Redline Tango” with the Texas A&M Kingsville band, conducted by Fred Velez. Wow, what a nice group — and they play really, really well. I worked with them for about an hour coaching the piece, and I had a blast. I hope they did, too!

    Here, from left to right, is Joseph Spaniola, composer of Escapade, which opened the concert; Fred Velez; and, well, some dork.

    After rehearsal, I met up with Mr. East Texas himself, Danny Prado. We started the evening, as expected, with a few beers at the hotel bar.

    Then it was off to Johnnie’s (I think that’s how it was spelled), a fantastic authentic Mexican place in San Antonio. Danny and I ate there last year, too, and it was great goin’ back. I had a massive plate of food for $5.95. Here’s a shot, not of the food, for a change (Mexican food isn’t especially photogenic), but of Danny and our other dinner companion, Bob Parsons. Good times. (Note the empty beer mugs. Sensing a trend in my time in San Antonio?)

    The next afternoon, A&M Kingsville performed “Redline Tango.” Holy crap, it was really, really good. The rehearsal had gone well and all, but when concert time came, they kicked ass.

    After the concert, Rick Clary and I got a lite bite. I had a bowl of tortilla soup. (It was San Antonio, after all.)

    The soup wasn’t too filling — and that’s why I chose it: to save room for dinner out with Jeff Gershman, the conductor at Texas A&M Commerce. (You’d think that all schools in Texas were A&Ms, but I swear they’re not.) I’m going to A&M Commerce in late April to work with Jeff and his group. I’m psyched. Here we all are at dinner, along with Sparky, our waitress (on my right), and Sparky’s friend on the left. Jeff (the “other Jeff” — Jeff Boeckman) is the guy on the very far left — another conductor at A&M Commerce — and don’t take that expression on his face to mean that us guys were up to no good. It was all Boeckman.

    After dinner, I tried to convince the Jeffs to join me for a night out on the San Antonio Riverwalk, but they declined, so I met up with my buddy and fellow composer Daniel Montoya and his girlfriend Sarah. I met lots of really nice people that evening, including several students at Baylor — the school that will premiere “Strange Humors” next week. (A trombone shout-out to Sam.) I tell you — band is a small, small world.

    The next day, I had a most unfortunate lunch at A&W. Meet my hot dog.

    There were many hours of “Sasparilla” rehearsals with Rick Clary and the 5A Concert Band. Here’s one of the shots.

    And here are some of the many players in my favorite section — the TROMBONES! Yeah. I loves me lots of trombone.

    Rick managed to wrangle (so to speak) an accordion player for the performance. Here’s a photo, just to prove it.

    This guy — James Jetton — was one HELL of a contrabassoon player. We were really lucky to have him. (Sasparilla has a long, slow contrabassoon solo.)

    The concert was great, as expected. Here are Rick and I, post-concert.

    Carter Pann, composer of the amazing “Slalom,” performed by the 5A Symphonic Band, was nice enough to come to my concert and take my picture.

    Here are Allan McMurray, conductor of the 5A Symphonic Band; Steve Andre, the TMEA band Vice-President (and soon to be President), the man who somehow keeps the band portion of the convention running smoothly; and Carter Pann.

    There was a wonderful dinner after the concert, just like last year. Here’s a shot of the excellent seafood cakes. (Sorry, AEJ — you couldn’t have eaten these, but they sure were good. Since I couldn’t see you anyway, I decided to drown my sorrows in seafood.)

    And… dessert. I had this crazy stacked brownie / ice cream thing.

    So, two great performances, lots of new friends, and too much tasty food. Here I thought the week couldn’t have been better, and then I found these balloons!

    Then I was off to Lexington, Kentucky. You may know that I hate flying (my new piece, “Turbine,” which is premiering this week — to be performed by the band at University of Kentucky — is about my fear of flying), so it wasn’t too happy of a morning when, at the airport in Dallas, we had to taxi out to some unknown, desolate part of the tarmac so the plane could be de-iced.

    That shot is of the plane next to my plane. Here’s a shot taken from my seat, as they de-iced my plane.

    Yeah, doesn’t that totally put you at ease?! I started thinking, Hey, isn’t that stuff just going to freeze again, killing us during take-off? Then I saw that most of the fluid was pinkish, and that made me feel much better.

    The flight was fine, of course, and now I’m here in Lexington. I heard the band rehearse “Turbine” for the first time this afternoon, and — well, I’m not going to write about that yet. One story at a time!


    February 19, 2006


    Sorry for the lack of postings for a few days. I’ve been in San Antonio for the Texas Music Educators Association conference, and since I was there on my own dime, I was reluctant to pay $15/day for Internets — especially since I was barely in my room, even to sleep. It was a great couple of days — two fantastic performances (Texas A&M Kingsville did a crazy-good job on Redline Tango, and the 5A All-State Concert Band blasted away at Sasparilla — hee haw!), made lots of new friends (many of whom have now found me on MySpace), and had lots of cocktails. I took loads of photos, of course, and will post them in a full debrief entry within the next few days as time allows.

    Right now, though, I’m off to bed. I’m now in Lexington, Kentucky, and tomorrow is my first rehearsal of “Turbine.” I’ve never heard a note of it live, so I’m both incredibly excited and terrified. There’s nothing like hearing a piece for the first time.

    So — more to come soon, I promise!

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