2009 February at John Mackey's Blog



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  • February 28, 2009

    He scores

    I’m orchestrating the piece for Stuart High School, and I’m finding that I’m scoring a little differently than I usually do. Where I’d often use a lot of extremes of registers and extreme dynamics, I’m approaching this one more conservatively. The band that will premiere the piece is a very good high school band, but they aren’t yet the near-pros of the UT Wind Ensemble. Usually when I’m orchestrating something, I’m not considering how awkward something might be to actually play or to balance, as I figure the players will just figure out how to do it. As a result, the players and the conductor have to work that much harder just to make the piece sound good. (The best/worst example of that in my own music is probably Turbine, although maybe Turning is just as tough.)

    When I wrote “Undertow,” since it was for a younger band, I approached the scoring a little more methodically, and as a result, I think “Undertow” usually sounds pretty good. The band doesn’t have to work at fixing balance issues that would have come up had I put instruments in bad ranges or over-scored things. They have to figure out how to count the piece, and play it in the right style, but they’d do that with any piece. What they don’t have to do is spend half the time fixing what were essentially my own errors that originated from trying to be too clever. That’s not to say that the colors can’t be interesting, but it does mean that sometimes, the most obvious voicing for a brass chord happens to be the best-sounding one.

    One thing I always feel about the band music of Frank Ticheli and Donald Grantham is that they simply know how to make a band sound good. If the band sounds good playing the music, then the players get more enjoyment out of playing the music, and the performance comes off better and with more confidence. I once heard H. Robert Reynolds, after what should have been a disastrous but was still somehow a successful reading of a Ticheli piece, describe the music of Frank Ticheli as a “styrofoam boat.” “It takes an awful lot of bullets to sink it.”

    I think I’ve only accomplished that kind of scoring in a few pieces. One is “Undertow,” and the other is the second movement of “Kingfishers Catch Fire,” which, if it’s at tempo, generally sounds good and balances well from the first reading, without any major correction to the written dynamics. (Well, okay, it sounds good when it’s being read by freaky groups like the Texas All-State Band.) Even if the first horn player misses 31 of the 32 high C’s in that piece, it still sounds pretty good, because even those notes, when they’re crucial, are typically covered elsewhere. I’m trying to accomplish that again with this new piece. It makes the orchestration process considerably more difficult and slower, but I think it’ll improve the future of the piece.

    Yesterday, AEJ and I had lunch and my new (maybe) favorite restaurant here in Austin, South Congress Cafe. I started with the soup special — a corn and chile chowder. Holy crapunzle, it was good.

    AEJ had the same pasta dish that she had for dinner the last time we went.

    It looked tasty, but I didn’t have any of hers this time, because my lunch would have clashed with it terribly. I’ve said before that I love carrot cake. Well here’s something I’d never heard of: carrot cake French toast. Ohhh yeah.

    This restaurant rules.


    February 26, 2009

    Stuart High School

    Last night, I finished the draft of the short score of the commission for Stuart High School in Falls Church, Virginia. This means I still have to orchestrate it, but there’s now an 11-minute piece — currently scored for roughly 12 trombones, 7 percussionists, and some saxes. I’ll start the real orchestration later today.

    I’m pretty excited about this piece. There were two ideas I was playing with in this one. First, it’s almost entirely based on a six-note motive that Edge plays in the U2 song, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” That motive bookends the song as an accompaniment figure, but I thought I’d base the entire piece on that motive.

    The other idea was to write something that has pretty much no tune at all. (Newman said if it’s got no tune, but only chords and motives, it’s basically Beethoven. I wish.)  The whole piece is all about chords. It’s almost like a pop song in search of a melody, with chords pretty much entirely ripped from traditional pop progressions — I, IV, V, vi, and the occasional ii.

    This one is happy. Happy, happy, happy. We’re talking Eb major all the way. AEJ thinks it sounds like daybreak. (She also said, moments after hearing the piece for the first time, “oh, schools are going to march that piece like crazy.”) Doug Martin, the Director of Bands at Stuart High School, thinks it sounds like sunshine music. Now we’re working on the title. Steve Bryant already has a piece called “First Light,” and I’m bummed, because that would be a great title for this piece. I’ve stolen titles from Steve before (see RedLine), so I’m considering “Firster Light” for this one.  Or maybe “First Light Tango.”

    Speaking of stealing — the last chord of the piece is, note for note and with identical scoring, the same as the final chord of the first movement of Holst’s Suite in Eb. I have always loved that chord, particularly the way I heard the Dallas Wind Symphony perform it under Junkin at Midwest a few years ago, and I’ve always wanted to match that level of brightness and optimism in one of my own pieces. Thus, I literally stole Holst’s chord, but added glock and crotales. So mine is shinier! Suck on that, Holst!

    For the curious, here’s a PDF of the short score.

    On another note, we’ve been watching American Idol, and I have to ask — when did “American Idol” become “American Unwed Teen Mother Idol?” Other than Adam Lambert, this season is a joke.


    February 24, 2009


    I think I have a new favorite restaurant here in Austin: South Congress Cafe. (Don’t worry, Trudy’s; you’re still up in the top two.) We went to South Congress Cafe for lunch a few weeks ago (it’s just a few blocks from where I get my hair cut), and we tried it for dinner on Saturday. It was a mob, but holy smokes, it was delicious. Great food, good service, a full bar (with 3 different flavors of Grey Goose!), good wine… and did I mention the great food? Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera, but the next time we go — and we’ll be going again soon, I’m sure — I’ll take some pictures. But in the meantime…

    A few weeks ago, AEJ and I had dinner with the Junkins at a restaurant here in Austin called Jeffrey’s (not to be confused with the SNL-parodied clothing store in Manhattan, which you can tell is way too cool for school from their all-black-and-white-text-only website). Jeffrey’s — the restaurant — is a much more approachable experience, and considerably tastier.

    AEJ started with this awesome tuna tartare.

    I started with beef carpaccio.

    For her main course, AEJ had a steak with this awesome scalloped potato thing. Man alive, it was a tasty treat. (The steak is hiding behind the potato thing.)

    I opted for the fish, which I have to say was… delicious.

    Deserts, unfortunately, were really ugly. Oh wait – no they weren’t.

    Everything was great. It’s a lot pricier than, say, South Congress Cafe, but it makes for a lovely and tasty evening.

    Now I’m starving. What the hell is for dinner?


    February 19, 2009

    Don’t Flash Me

    I got a new lens yesterday — the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L. I think this is going to be my new all-purpose lens. I enjoyed using the 35mm f/1.4, but I don’t think my copy is very good, as anything shot faster than f/2 is usually out of focus.  I’ll be selling that lens, as well as my Canon 24-105mm f/4 L. The new 24-70 will focus a lot closer than the 24-105 did (making it great for restaurant use), pictures are a lot prettier at f/2.8 than at f/4, and a zoom is more versatile than a 35mm prime.

    When I was playing with the lens last night, I took two pictures — one with the flash, and one without. My one piece of advice to anybody taking a picture with any camera: do not ever use a direct flash. You might get a shot with a flash that you couldn’t get otherwise, but it’s almost always going to look like arse. I would say that I’ll never post a picture on here with a flash (although I did it once to illuminate an otherwise “scary” ride on the Santa Cruz boardwalk), but just to make a point, here’s a picture of Loki with no flash, taken last night:

    And here’s a shot with a flash.

    See? Even Loki can’t withstand the harshness of a flash. Imagine how your sushi would feel.

    Back to work!  Can your middle school band play in syncopated 5/4? If so, the piece I’m writing for Deer Path Middle School will be the perfect piece for you. If not, but you want the band to learn to play in syncopated 5/4, the piece I’m writing for Deer Path Middle School will be the perfect piece for you. And did I mention the cheese grater?

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    Dinner at TMEA

    Last Friday night, Frank Ticheli organized a dinner for a bunch of composers who were at the TMEA convention.  We went to Mi Tierra.  It was a zoo, but it was popular for a reason: it’s a fun place to eat.   Oh, and they put a mustachioed President Obama on the cover of their menu. “Yes We Can — Serve you a tasty enchilada combo.”

    Here, Michael Markowski (left) and Joel Puckett show their respective “Hello, ladies,” greetings.

    Hooray! The mariachi guys are here! Puckett requests his favorite song, “Ramblin’ Man.”  Guitar dude is stumped.

    Puckett later asked why the bass player always has the highest voice. We thought about it, and it’s true. The Police? Highest voice: Sting. The Beatles? Highest voice: Paul. Go ahead. Prove us wrong.

    Finally, the drinks arrived. Steve Bryant was thrilled.

    When the food arrived, we were all pretty psyched, but no one as much as Frank Ticheli.

    Frank told us that he’s going to buy a new car this spring. I suggested that he should be driving a BMW 7-series. Sure, this is a $100K car, but you are Frank Ticheli, I insisted. Frank said he couldn’t afford it, but I insisted that he couldn’t afford not to get it. I told him that he should be living according to this credo: “You can always make more money, Frank. You can’t always make more memories.” I am, I’d like to think, the best shopping enabler alive today. You’re welcome, Economy.