2009 September at John Mackey's Blog



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  • September 26, 2009

    Corn is as High as an Elephant's…

    I’m leaving early on Monday for my first trip of the school year. First stop: The University of Oklahoma. The band there is playing “Asphalt Cocktail” on October 1 (my birthday), and although I can’t be there for their performance, I’ll be there for their rehearsal on Monday.

    Why can’t I be there for the performance? Because on Tuesday, I head from the University of Oklahoma to Oklahoma State. Is that a big rivalry? A few years ago, I had back-to-back visits at Ohio State and The University of Michigan. I made a point not to mention either school to the other. I should probably do the same next week. I’ll be at Oklahoma State — where they’re performing both Asphalt Cocktail and Aurora Awakes — until early on October 2. Their performance (along with 4 others, weirdly enough) is also on October 1. It seems like I’m traveling almost every year on my birthday.

    I’m excited to hear OSU’s performance of Aurora Awakes, as I haven’t heard it since its premiere in May, and this will be the first time I’ll hear it with a college group. (There will be others. The piece has roughly 30 performances scheduled during this year, and those were programmed almost entirely from people listening to the MIDI file. I hope that when I post a recording of actual humans, all of those bands don’t abruptly cancel their performances because they decide that, yeah, it probably works better as computer music.)

    A few days ago, I sent the first two movements of the Trombone Concerto to Joe Alessi. He said he’d have some free time starting in about a week, and he wanted to spend it learning his solo part, so I gave him the draft. If you’re curious to see the first two movements of the solo part, here is the PDF. On its own, without any of the accompaniment, the second “movement” is especially bare. (It starts at m. 302. It’s all about harmony and length of line, but without chords, about the only thing you’ll get if you play through it is the challenge of making measures 376-381 not sound like… well, ass.) I sent Joe the full score and the MIDI, but I’m not going to post those here. The next time anybody else hears this piece, it’ll be with Joe Alessi, and an ensemble of actual musicians.

    Well, unless he also decides that the piece works better as computer music…


    September 24, 2009

    Dinner with Bach, Beethoven, and Liz

    AEJ and I took our friend Liz Love out to dinner for her birthday last night.  It coincided with Austin Restaurant Week, when lots of nice restaurants in town offer discounted multi-course meals. We considered several places, but by the time we made plans yesterday afternoon, most places were booked. Fortunately, we were able to get into Truluck’s, a place we like a lot.

    I had crab claws.

    Liz Love (with a name like “Liz Love,” you have to call her by both her first and last name all the time) had Proscuitto-wrapped mahi mahi with fava beans.

    AEJ had a delicious Niman Ranch sirloin. It was my favorite thing at dinner, but it didn’t photograph well. Boo, dark restaurant. Instead, here’s a picture of an enormous lizard that lived on our window screen for three days. He was easily 11″ long. (Since I’m a male and I’m claiming something was 11″ long, it was probably only 6″, but didn’t it seem huge? Please tell me it seemed huge.)

    Sometime before dessert, Liz Love busted out her Bach and Beethoven action figures. She keeps these in her purse. She’s had Bach for some time (he even has his own Facebook page), but Beethoven is a new addition. Beethoven appeared to have been pretty ripped. Who knew?

    Here, Bach bows. Or something.

    Oh look! The dessert tray is here! Everybody gets to pick their own dessert. Fun!

    Hey… These are plastic. And here I thought they made fresh demo desserts every night. I felt so misled.

    Uh oh. The composers have discovered the alcohol. This can only end badly.

    Dessert came — non-plastic dessert, that is. I’d ordered the carrot cake — I love carrot cake — and as if it weren’t sweet enough already, they poured butterscotch sauce on top of it at the table.

    Liz Love had some crazy mocha mousse ice cream thing as big as her head.

    The composers, by this time, were pretty liquored up.  (The non-action figure people at the table were of course completely sober.)

    Apparently when Beethoven drinks, he gets depressed. Bach tried to console him. “No, seriously, the Grosse Fugue is a good fugue, man. I mean, it’s no Toccata and Fugue in d minor — heh, that was a pretty good one, I have to say, and it’s so spooky! — but yours is really good, too.”

    It was a really fun dinner. Great food, company, and lots of tasty cocktails and wine. (Any bottle of wine is 50% off on Wednesdays at Truluck’s!) Of course, the evening ended as any good birthday should. Happy Birthday, Liz Love!


    September 16, 2009

    A few sample pages

    AEJ is out of town for a few days, so I’m putting in 14-hour days just working on the Trombone Concerto.  Somehow, I think I only checked Facebook once today.  I know. It’s crazy.

    The current task is orchestrating the 13 minutes I’ve already written. Part of that includes making the trombone solo part, which only existed as a MIDI mess, start to look like a playable part. I’ve created a PDF of three pages of the solo part, and I’d welcome any thoughts about playability. You’ll see a lot of gliss-looking markings before notes, and those are rips. I need to figure out a good way to differentiate between actual glisses between notes, and simply rips up to a note from the furthest-possible position. As of now, there are only a few true glisses; almost everything else is a rip. There are also a few “gliss hits,” which was something that Joe Alessi showed me a few months ago. These are just lightning-fast glisses down from a note. I’ll have more of those in the last movement.

    You’ll see that the part is very high and very loud. There’s a stretch of rests after the part you’ll see, and then it’s quiet for a minute before going all ape-shit at the end of the first movement. (That’s the part where Dionysus — the trombone — is brutally destroyed, torn to shreds by his own worshippers.)   I’m a little concerned about fatigue with the part I’m posting. It doesn’t really stop, and most of it is at middle-C or higher. The part before this is relatively subdued, though. Still, it’s three minutes of, well, balls-to-the-walls solo trombone.

    I might end up finding a place or two to drop out the soloist for a few bars. Does that seem necessary? I should also point out that this whole stretch is solidly in F. There are some “dirty” notes, but it’s F.  It’s kind of a barn-burner, with a bunch of call-and-response with the band.  (There’s a hint — just a hint — of gospel to it.  In a few minutes, though, this “service” is going to go very wrong.)  I only mention the tonality because on their own, and without the benefit of hearing the accompaniment, these 3 pages feel like a whole lot of F, but it makes it more striking when it goes out of control in a few more minutes.

    Oh, and those 17 measures of rest in the middle of page 2: a great big percussion break for tom-toms, timpani tuned flat and muted, cymbals, bass drum, roto-toms, and djembe.

    Alright – back to it.


    September 10, 2009

    Can there be Yakety without Sax?

    (Great. Now I have Yakety Sax in my head, and I bet you do, too. Sorry.)

    Here’s the latest on the Trombone Concerto. I’ve finished writing the short score through the end of the second movement. The piece will be three movements total, roughly 16-18 minutes long, and I have two movements at roughly 12 minutes so far, so I think we’re in good shape. The piece is due in early November, and I am still just working on the short score (meaning a reduced score without all of the instruments mapped out, with a lot of generic piano and clarinet sounds where other instruments will eventually be). As I’ve been working on this slow movement, though, I’ve been giving a lot more thought to the instrumentation for the complete piece.

    When I first agreed to write the piece (I say “agreed” as if there was every any question, which there wasn’t), I had the idea to score it not for standard full band, but for orchestral winds, brass, and percussion. It would basically be a piece for “band,” in that there would be no strings (except double bass), but there wouldn’t be any saxes or euphonium. Without those instruments, the piece could be programmed not just by professional and college bands, but also by orchestras.

    Admittedly, this is probably just a pipe dream. As I’ve written before, it’s not exactly easy to get a performance with an orchestra. Redline Tango for orchestra: I think we’ll hit the 12th professional orchestra performance this season (thank you, Grand Rapids Symphony). Redline Tango for band: well over 200 performances by now.

    Still, the thinking here is three-fold. First, I’ve written something like 10 back-to-back pieces for band, and the scoring is always the same, give or take the number of percussionists. I think it will be nice to work with a different color this time, and I’ve become pretty dependent on the sax section, so it’s good to mix things up. Second, the euphonium really sounds best in the same range where a tenor trombone sounds especially sweet, and I didn’t want to have any potential balance issues with that, so dropping the euphonium makes sense.

    A huge reason to write the piece for “orchestral winds,” though, is the soloist. The person who will premiere the piece is Joseph Alessi, principal trombone for the New York Philharmonic. Joe solos and records with colleges and orchestras all over the world. If he has the opportunity to solo with an ensemble, whether it be a band or orchestra, I’d like this piece to be in the running when he (or any other soloist) considers repertoire.

    I took an informal poll about the scoring over on Facebook the other day, and there was an awful lot of feedback. (At last count, there were over 30 responses — far more than any blog entry receives here on the site itself.) In a sort of fascinatingly meta moment, writer (and blogger) Pierre Ruhe blogged a good portion of the Facebook conversation — which I encourage you to read, especially if you missed the Facebook thread. It’s wild to have something semi-private like a Facebook thread (viewable only by my “friends”) blogged as a completely public conversation, but it’s an interesting window into the process.

    If you read Pierre’s summary, you’ll see that by the end of the thread, I’d decided to commit to scoring the piece for orchestral winds, brass, and percussion. There are some real challenges with this, primarily in the slow movement, where I’d normally depend on the saxes to provide the most string-like sound available in the band. (I just love writing chords for the full sax section, sustained, and extremely quiet. Nothing else in the band blends like that.) But, as I also said on Facebook, I emailed one of the “big” orchestra conductors in the US, and told this person about the project, and that I was considering scoring it for orchestral winds — like the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. The response back, within minutes, was one of encouragement, expressing interest in the piece if that were the scoring.

    The next step is to set up the score and actually start orchestrating what I’ve written. I need to figure out how many clarinets I can really safely have with an orchestra, and what types of clarinets. Again, the biggest issue is this slow movement. It’s tough to beat a contrabass clarinet in its bottom octave, slow and quiet. Yes, I’ll have a double bass, but I need that contrabass clarinet. How realistic is it to ask for one? Some college bands don’t even have one. Corigliano’s Symphony Number 1 has a contrabass clarinet part, but it’s optional. He cues it in tuba, but that wouldn’t sound nearly as great. Maybe that’s the solution — write a contrabass clarinet part, and just cue it elsewhere.

    And how large of a wind section can I have? The Corigilano has 3 flutes, piccolo/flute 4, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 Bb clarinets, bass clarinet (doubling contrabass), 3 bassoons and contrabassoon. He even writes 4 trombone parts — 2 tenor, 2 bass — 6 (!) horn parts, 5 trumpet parts, and 2 tuba parts. Good lord, it’s a friggin’ concert band! Can I get away with scoring this large and ever hope for an orchestra to touch it? No. I don’t have an Oscar, a Pulitzer, and multiple Grammy awards, and my piece will be 18 minutes, not 45. Unless they’re putting Corigliano on the second half, an orchestra would have to hire extra personnel in order to play the concerto with scoring like that, and that would never happen. The trick is to find the happy medium, where the scoring is as large as I can find, but still with a realistic number of players.

    If you’re curious to see a few pages of the short score, here is the PDF. It’s ugly, of course, but those are the notes. You’ll see a lot of things that are entirely for MIDI playback, like “patch 1,” “rip patch” (the patch that makes the trombone rip upwards into the next note), and a whole lot of measures where there appear to be as many as 4 notes in unison in the trombone line. (I do that to make the sound fuller in the MIDI.) Also, note that the tempo is a completely over-the-top quarter=196. You’ll see that the solo part is pretty high, with lots of high C’s. The slow movement manages to go up to a high D, sustained, and quiet. Ouch.

    Now I need to figure out the instrumentation — that is, the specific number of wind and brass players. Feel free to weigh in here, or over on Facebook, where I’ll post the link for this entry…

    Oh — pictures! I didn’t post a picture. In lieu of that, I’ll link. Last night on Top Chef: Las Vegas, the chefs cooked at Joel Robuchon’s restaurant in Vegas. AEJ and I had our wedding dinner there. It was the best meal ever, and I took a zillion pictures. If you’ve never seen this blog entry, check out the best food p*rn ever.


    September 2, 2009

    We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Garage

    I’ve been lax about blogging once again because once again, there’s not a whole lot to post. Things that pass for acceptable on my Facebook status (“John Mackey tried to convince somebody to go out for frozen yogurt, but SOMEBODY would rather make baritone sax reeds”) doesn’t quite warrant a full blog entry. (No offense, Ms. Liz Love.)

    The fact is that every day right now consists of getting up at 8:15, going for a run (it’s a relief that it’s in the low 70’s every morning now), then working on this Trombone Concerto until lunch. We have lunch, then I return to attempting to write some music until dinner.

    It is slow, slow going. I’ve been working for a little over three weeks pretty constantly, and I only have six minutes of music so far. What’s there doesn’t really get much longer every day, it just gets (slightly) better. I listen to it, fix a few notes, listen again, fix a few more notes. I had one sort-of breakthrough on Saturday when I decided to add a djembe to the piece. It made a huge difference. I wouldn’t say it made it easier to write a lot of new material, but it took what was already there from “this’ll be fine” to “okay, that’s kind of awesome now.” Adding the djembe was similar to how I felt when I had the idea to add a hi-hat to Redline Tango. The addition of a single percussion instrument can completely transform the flavor of a piece.

    When I’m not staring at Finale, I spend way too much time playing on the Internets. The other day, I visited a drum corps website and saw that a drum corps was going to use “Redline Tango” in their show. I’d never heard of the corps, but I knew they hadn’t licensed the piece, so emailed the person who’d posted the show announcement and asked how I could find this drum corps — you know, to, uh, “thank them.” (As I’ve written before, catching an unlicensed use of my music can be very… rewarding.) So the guy emails me back and tells me that this corps — The Avengers — doesn’t actually exist. It’s a fantasy drum corps. Who knew that not only is there fantasy baseball, but there’s fantasy drum corps? And that a fantasy corps was going to use my piece in their fantasy show? This kind of made my day. If only there were a fantasy license fee.

    Last week, I took delivery of an entire pallet of “Undertow” scores and full sets. 500 sets and 500 scores, or as the trucking company said when they contacted me to schedule delivery, “1500 pounds.” That’s 3/4 ton of band music. It really was shipped on a single shipping pallet, via a trucking service, and when they called me, they asked if I had a loading dock. A friggin’ loading dock. “Um, I have a garage…”

    Turns out the printing company hadn’t paid for “lift gate/ground delivery,” meaning that if I wanted this 1500 pounds of Undertow in my garage, I was going to have to carry each box off of the bed of the truck, down my driveway, and into my garage. Fortunately, the driver was very nice — and I came equipped with a generous tip ready to go — and he agreed to use his pallet mover to place the entire pallet in my garage. It’s a good thing we only have one car.

    In today’s food picture, I give you “Chef Boyardee Pizzascape.” I used to make these all the time when I was a kid — a box of Chef Boyardee pizza crust mix and that unique-tasting Chef Boyardee pizza sauce, topped with “real” ingredients (in this case, black forest ham, red onion, and mozzarella cheese). The combination of delicious and fancy black forest ham plus somewhat trashy Chef Boyardee pizza is like AEJ plus, well, me.

    Back to work. I really need to get something done before cocktail hour, followed by dinner. We’re making chive risotto cakes tonight…