2006 November at John Mackey's Blog



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  • November 30, 2006


    Where the hell have I been? Why aren’t I posting pictures of our (already decorated) Christmas tree?!

    I, foolishly, agreed to deliver two completely separate commissions on the same day. That deadline? Tomorrow.

    I was offered these commissions over 18 months ago. Between the Midwest Clinic in December 2004 and the National CBDNA Convention in New York in early 2005, I suddenly received several commission offers — the SEC (which led to “Turbine“), the American Bandmasters Association (“Strange Humors“), a consortium of high schools, led by my high school friend Josh Thompson (“Turning“), plus the two that are due tomorrow — the Central Oklahoma Directors Association (an honors wind ensemble, to premiere the piece in January, conducted by Rick Clary), and a consortium for seven bands in Japan.

    Why would I agree to two commissions with the same deadline? At the time that I received all of these commissions, I had literally just quit my day job, but that wasn’t the motivation. The truth was that until that point in January 2005, I had been writing commission-to-commission. That is, I’d get a commission, write it, deliver it, and then look for more work — returning to my day job while I searched for another project. When I suddenly had multiple commission offers at once, I thought, “Wow, this has never happened, and will never happen again, so I need to not screw this up. If I space these out too much, the people asking for the works will lose interest, and I don’t want that to happen, so I’ll just make it all work. Plus, December 2006 is almost two years away! I will be totally fine.”

    Well, that was… naive. There was one other commission — due in March 2006 — and I had to pull out of that one a few months before it was due, because I knew I couldn’t do it in time and make it any good. I still regret that. (I’ll add that it’s not much fun to write a check back to somebody for the original retainer fee.) Then I had to postpone “Turning,” which was originally to be delivered in March, then April — and ended up delivered in August. “Turning” kicked my butt, and as soon as it was done, I started the fall travel — Arizona State twice, UT at Austin, Texas Tech, LSU and U. Kansas, U. Tennessee, plus rehearsals at USC — all while working on these two new pieces whenever I could.

    Somehow, the scores for both pieces are done, and I’m cautiously optimistic about them both. The parts for the Oklahoma piece won’t be done until Monday or Tuesday (only about 3 days late — that doesn’t even count as late!), but I’ll be able to send the Japanese consortium commission — score and parts — later today.

    It’s fun to clean up the score and finally see it as a finished product, as that’s when it seems like (or at least looks like) “real music.” Here are three pages of the Japanese piece, in PDF format, for those who are curious about such things. Here’s a different single page with a bunch of notes. The French horn parts in this piece are going to be rough…

    The agenda for today: finish the parts for the Japanese consortium and send them. Tomorrow: work all day on parts for the Oklahoma piece. And Saturday: the USC – UCLA football game. That’s right, AEJ and I are going to the big USC-UCLA game, and we’re sitting with the UCLA band. You can bet that photos will follow. For now, though, it’s coffee + lots and lots of Finale part extraction. Woo. Hoo.


    November 27, 2006

    U. Tennessee

    I arrived in Knoxville on Sunday, November 19, after an eight-hour trip (including a 3-hour layover in Dallas). Gary Sousa (no relation — I had somebody ask), the director of bands at the University of Tennessee, picked me up at the airport, swung me by my hotel to check in, and took me to rehearsal.

    First up, I worked with Don Ryder and the UT Symphonic Band on “Strange Humors.”

    I had a one-hour rehearsal with each band on only my two pieces. It was awfully generous of the conductors and the students to do this. (Sometimes I only get a total of 20 minutes with a group — 20 minutes for my entire time on campus. At Tennessee, I ended up working with each band 3 times!) “Strange Humors” is only 5 minutes long, and the band sounded really good from the first playing that I heard, so after about 40 minutes, I had nothing else to fix. It’s a great group. We sent the band home, and the Wind Ensemble started setting up for “Turbine.” The timpanist looks stressed. Dude, you’re great! No worries!

    Turbine” sounded awesome, even in the band room. It was a little weird, because I now have a mental list of things to fix with each group, but this group seemed to have figured everything out in advance, leaving me without a whole lot to say. We still managed to work on it for 45 minutes or so, partially just because I loved hearing them play it. Here, Gary gives them the “thumbs up.”

    One issue with “Turbine” is always the suspended steel plates. At UT, they spared no expense, and had custom plates cut. They sounded sweet — clangy and brash, without being too piercing — but they rang a little too long. This percussionist had the most brilliant solution I’ve seen yet: he attached two bed pillows to the plates with his own belts. Awe. Some. The belt on the left is particularly sweet. This guy wins the Best Problem Solver award. If I had a sticker that said as much, I’d have given it to him.

    I think conducting “Turbine” would be hard. Even when it’s not changing meters, the rhythms are all over the place, and it’s non-stop at quarter=190 for over eight minutes. I don’t know where Gary gets the energy.

    It wasn’t all music, of course. Being in the south, I had some good food, too. At all but one meal, I drank sweet tea, or as they say it there, “swaayt taaaay.” The TAs kept trying to get me to order it with the Eastern Tennessee accent, but I was afraid I’d get my ass kicked.

    On Tuesday afternoon, I did a little composer chat. I’ve done these at some schools, and literally had one person show up. I can’t figure out why so many people showed up at UT. Maybe they thought there’d be a raffle or something. (Everybody loves a raffle.) I just wish I’d had something interesting to say.

    They put me up at a nice hotel. I went for runs on the treadmill in the hotel gym each day, which helps me deal with my jet lag. (If I can’t fall asleep for a nap, running several miles seems to wake me up just as effectively, if only for a few hours.) The gym was pretty nice, but all of the TV’s were tuned to…

    It was fine. It made me run faster, and kept me fair and balanced.

    The percussionists in the Symphonic Band used two beautiful drums in “Strange Humors.” The smaller drum is a djembe, as the score calls for. The bigger drum is unknown, but presumably of African origin as well. I ask for a “bass drum” in the score, but allow for anything with a good bass tone. Some schools use muted concert bass drums. UT had the most interesting solution yet.

    This is a real action shot. Okay, maybe it’s posed. (This “spontaneous action shot of djembe playing” has happened before.) Regardless, these guys were great, and their groove for the concert was awesome.

    I don’t have any pictures from the concert, but both groups (plus the Concert Band) were fantastic. Everybody at UT showed me a great time, from their performance to their attempts to teach me the Eastern Tennessee accent. Aaaaaay laaayk yuuuuuu.


    November 26, 2006


    One of AEJ’s endearing traits is her fear of bacteria. I kid her about it, but really, I can’t complain, as so far, her attention to cleanliness has kept me relatively salmonella-free.

    Take Thanksgiving day, for example. I got our presumably fresh turkey out of the fridge Thanksgiving morning, unwrapped it, and found that the inside was partially frozen. To thaw it, I filled the sink with water, and gave the turkey a good, long soaking. When AEJ learned that there had been a raw, dead bird in the sink for an hour, she promptly busted out some soap and went a little nuts decorating the sink with disinfectant.

    I was going to post a picture of our turkey, but a shot of a soapy sink really says everything you need to know about Thanksgiving: beware of disease.


    November 18, 2006

    Scary, scary win

    To my tremendous relief, Ohio State hung on to beat Michigan today, 42-39, to earn a spot in the B.C.S. National Championship. The game was awfully tense — so much so that when it was over, there was more a sense of relief than a sense of excitement.

    The Ohio State – Michigan rivalry runs deep. Having grown up in Columbus, I’ll always be a Buckeye fan.

    Just before the game, in an effort to talk trash to a Michigan fan, I sent a text message to H. Robert Reynolds, who served as Director of Bands at the University of Michigan for 26 years. I texted (yes, Bob Reynolds, over the age of 70, not only receives, but sends text messages — how cool is that?!) : “It’s Mackey, about to watch The Big Game. I just have to say — Go Buckeyes!”

    H. Bob’s retort, a few minutes later: “I am never playing your music ever again.”

    Now I need to pack. I’m flying to Knoxville, Tennessee tomorrow for a performance at the University of Tennessee. I’m looking forward to it. I’m not even dreading the flight, thanks to a brand new prescription for Xanax. Go Drugs!


    November 12, 2006

    Kansas and LSU

    Upon my arrival to Lawrence, I checked into the hotel to find this gift from the band: A fruit basket and a (very, very large) sweatshirt.

    I’m wearing the sweatshirt as I type this. It’s huge, and, well, I’m not the biggest guy. It reminds me of a performance I had several years ago. The (now-defunct) Eos Orchestra performed “Strange Humors” at their gala one year, and after the performance, I stood up from my table and did the “bow-and-royal-wave-to-the-crowd” thing. A woman across the table leaned towards me and said something to the effect of, “you wrote that? Your music makes you sound much taller than you are.” Ummm, thanks?

    My trip to KU was part of their first annual “NeXt Festival,” a concert packed with the music of living composers, 80% of whom were in attendance. (The loser in this case: Schwantner.) Who was there? Jonathan Newman, Joel Puckett, Carter Pann, and I. It was a lot of fun, including, on the first night, with a bit-too-much drinking.

    Here, left-to-right, are Jake Wallace (grad student in conducting at KU), Carter Pann, Amy Knopps (also a conducting grad student), the top of Joel’s head, Langston (a former KU student), and Maestro John Lynch.

    I was getting over a cold when I arrived, and the excessive drinking on Saturday night didn’t help matters. Carter had insisted that all of the liquor would “kill the cold,” but I’m reasonably sure he was lying. The next morning, this cup of coffee was awfully appealing.

    You know what’s not appealing when you’re sick and a bit hungover? Waffles and a side of shrimp cocktail. It’s no fried chicken & waffles, I tell you.

    After brunch (I, for the record, only ate yogurt), we walked on the main drag of Lawrence, looking for clothes for Joel Puckett, whose luggage was lost on his flight from Baltimore. Along the way, the guys posed for their album cover.

    At the dress rehearsal, Jonathan and Joel followed the score for “Turbine,” while Carter looked completely unconvinced.

    It’s tough to make out the name plate on the door, but it’s “Jonathan Newman.” Newman has a rider in his contract explicitly demanding a private dressing room, a box of Cracker Jacks, and a warm coconut milk bath. That dude is a diva. I questioned the coconut milk bath demand, but I have to admit — for the concert, he was like a Scent of Hawaiian Rain.

    The concert was fantastic. Holy damn that’s a great band. If you want the full break down, check out Newman’s blog. Post-concert, we went out for, yes, food and drinks. Newman agreed to some freaky beer+shot combo thing. I don’t remember what it was called — a Stout Sanchez or something like that. (I might be mixing that up with something else [NSFW].) As the beer/liquor cocktail was presented, Newman looked almost giddy in anticipation.

    Chug it! Chug it! Mmm! This is super tasty!

    Then again, maybe not.

    Louisiana State University…
    The next morning, I flew to Baton Rouge to work with the wind ensemble on both “TurbineandRedline Tango.” Rebecca Phillips, a student of Frank Wickes (to whom “Turbine” is dedicated), is writing her dissertation about me and those two pieces, and she conducted both works while I was there. Dinner on that first night was a catfish po boy. Quite tasty, especially with lots of Tabasco. (Tabasco is made in Louisiana, and it’s everywhere.)

    Frank Wickes took me on the tour of Baton Rouge, including the state house. Built in the 1930’s, it was inspired by the Empire State Building.

    Inside, a wall of photos included this shot of former Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, the composer of “You Are My Sunshine.” Seriously.

    We took the elevator to the top of the state house, and I took this shot from 27 floors up.

    The Louisiana House of Representatives. It was election day, so it was deserted.

    Rebecca’s performance of both pieces was great. Wow, that’s a good band there at LSU. Here, just after the concert, are Frank Wickes, Rebecca Phillips, and a typically-dorky-looking me. Don’t worry — I’m getting my hair fixed this week.

    At the airport the next morning, I saw this sign, directing me to places to both pray and smoke.

    I took the picture because I loved the little symbol for the chapel. I’m totally getting shirts made with that on the front.

    Upon my return home — the flight made infinitely more pleasant by my recent discovery of Xanax — AEJ and I made one of our favorite dishes, Beef Burgundy.

    And last night, I took a picture of Loki. While cleaning it up a little, Loki sat in front of the monitor. So, I give you a picture of Loki in front of a picture of Loki. Dude. Totally blows my mind.

    So, great trips all around. This coming Sunday, I fly to the University of Tennessee. I’m sure that’ll be great.

    Can I just say, in closing, that so far this season, “Lost” has sucked? Anybody notice that they’ve killed off one of the best characters, and besides that, nothing has happened? The Sopranos only got away with that last season because it’s been on for so long, but even with that loyalty, come on, give me something. I ended up resenting The Sopranos, and I’m growing to resent the wasted 6 hours of my life spent this season on Lost. Do the writers not realize that Kate is a lame, boring, empty character? I was a big Party of Five fan (there, I’ve said it), but Charlie — I mean Jack — isn’t the best part of the show, either. Sawyer, cool, but Sawyer is cool because he’s a cold bad-ass with a tiny soft-side — but it has to be slight. They’ve managed to turn Sawyer into a pussy. “I love you, Freckles.” Oh, gag. So, we’ve spent 6 episodes focusing on three characters, two of whom have always been lame, and now, even the third one is a drag. What’s next? Are they going to kill Locke? Go ahead. That would mean one fewer show to watch. They’re on the edge as it is.