2009 October at John Mackey's Blog



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  • October 12, 2009

    Secret is out

    A few weeks ago, I posted the solo part for the in-progress Trombone Concerto, and somebody named Dan commented on the blog what I’m sure others will eventually figure out: that the source material for the concerto is a tiny chamber piece of mine called “Damn.” That original piece, for solo clarinet with percussion quartet, has been changed and expanded, morphing from the first half of a 3-minute-30-second piece for 5 players to what is now 9 minutes of music for 45 players. I thought that germ — with its ritualistic sound, complete with loads of percussion — was a good match for the sound I was after with this Dionysus storyline concept. In order to get the level of aggression that I’m after in the piece, it’s always been necessary to amplify the clarinet in performances of “Damn,” but I doubt we’ll need to amplify the trombone.  (On a side note, I once heard a piece for three amplified trombones with electronic effects, and it was one of the coolest and loudest things I’ve ever heard.)

    I have a little over 14 minutes of music completely done, and I’ve just posted the (printable) new solo part as well as the (not printable) full score. Word back from Joe Alessi was positive, but I think he’s eager for the last of it. So am I. I’m in a weird place right now where I listen to the beginning of the final movement over and over, and I get really excited and can’t sit still, and then the damn thing stops because I don’t know exactly what comes next. It’s like somebody turned off the CD right before the best part, but I don’t know how that “best part” goes. I think I know how I want to end the whole thing, so maybe I should jump ahead to that so I’m at least writing something.

    In unrelated news, I also just posted the audio from Oklahoma State University’s performance of “Asphalt Cocktail.” It was a truly awesome performance — fast, loud, but extraordinarily clean. Somehow, every line was audible. It’s worth checking out, if your ears can handle it.

    In even less-related news,  I was pretty happy last week when I found a praying mantis outside our front door.  I’m not a big fan of bugs (although I was when I was little; I used to have grasshoppers as pets, which are “fun” for about a day, and then they don’t do much), but I do like praying mantises. I think they’re really cool looking, and they wash their faces like cats, and they eat other bugs.  Also, green bugs are somehow less nasty than brown bugs.

    And what’s a blog without pictures of the cat?  Here’s Loki, snuggling with a stuffed ghost that I bought at Target for $1.

    And here they are, singing Halloween carols.

    Have I mentioned how much Loki hates the Trombone Concerto?  Whenever I play it, he bites me.  I hope that’s not a sign of the reaction I should expect from people.

    Alright — back to work!


    October 5, 2009

    Home from OKC

    I had a busy and fun trip out to Oklahoma last week, visiting both the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. Both schools gave me a ton of branded gear, as if I could ever wear an Oklahoma shirt here in Austin without getting shot and mounted on the grille of some dude’s truck. I love all of the gear — it’s a fun thing to collect when I’m on a school visit — but I’ll probably just wear it in the safety of my own home.

    My rehearsal at OU was on Monday morning. I wanted to spend Sunday night at home, but that meant getting up at 4:30am to head to the airport on Monday. Why is there a 4:30am? This is the stupidest time of day I’ve ever seen. When the flight took off at 6:45am, it was still dark — and it was still about two hours before I’d normally get up. (I know, I know — woe is me and my lazy-ass lifestyle. Give me a second while I get down from my cross.)

    The rehearsal went really well, and I hope I had useful things to say, but because of my lack of sleep, I have no idea how it went. I remember the band sounding very good on Asphalt Cocktail — and man alive, it was loud — but what did I tell them? Hopefully something brilliant, but that seems unlikely.

    Monday evening, Bill Wakefield (the Director of Bands at Oklahoma) and his wife Valorie took me out for dinner. Valorie is friends with one of the owners of an Asian fusion restaurant in Norman, and I love Asian food, so we went there. The outside of the restaurant already made me feel at home, since I sincerely love Pizza Hut. (It made me think of this similar picture from an old issue of The Onion.)

    The restaurant, called Asian Fusion, was really nice inside, and the food was very good. They had sushi, which I’d normally fear this far from the coast, but it was actually good.

    The entrees were good, too, and were more Chinese-based.

    Everything was served with love.

    My birthday was last Thursday, and I wasn’t going to be home for it. The thing was, I wasn’t going to be at U. Oklahoma, either, so Valorie made a birthday cake for me on Monday. The manager of the restaurant brought it out to the table after dinner. Look what Valorie did! She made an Asphalt Cocktail-themed birthday cake! How much do I love Valorie Wakefield?!

    The next day, Bill Wakefield took me to lunch at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The museum has a great collection of work by the glass artist Dale Chihuly.

    From lunch, it was off to Stillwater for my three days at Oklahoma State. As soon as I arrived, I had a rehearsal on my piece “Damn,” which was being conducted by conducting student Hunter Lewis. The piece sounded great, and they left me with little to say. The clarinet soloist, Abby Denton, was CRAZY good. She was funny because she seemed so nice when the rehearsal started, and then when she played, she was kind of a monster. I was excited to hear that she was also playing principal clarinet in the wind ensemble, so I’d get to hear her on both Aurora Awakes and Asphalt Cocktail later that day.

    The rehearsal with the band was great. Well, at least the part I could comprehend.  As I just said, they were playing both Asphalt Cocktail — which I’ve now heard a few times — and Aurora Awakes, which I’ve only heard once with one group, and that was before I revised it. So this rehearsal was really the first time I was hearing this “final” version of Aurora Awakes.

    Hearing a piece for the first time is kind of exhausting and overly-stimulating. (That’s not what I meant, perv. Or is it?) For every measure, I’m thinking, Oh, that’s what that sounds like with real people instead of MIDI. I’m spending the whole time trying to decipher what really works and what could be improved, and trying to also listen critically to the playing, since I have to give comments to the musicians as soon as they stop playing. In other words, it’s too much. They finished playing the piece, and my reaction, as I recall, was to stare dumbly and drool as my brain melted. I had a few requests regarding the stretching of tempo in the first movement, and a balance concern here and there, but overall, it was just kind of, “wow, so I guess that’s the piece, and that’s what it sounds like.” There wasn’t the overwhelming “sweet, it totally works,” but there never is on the first hearing, no matter how it’s played — and they were playing the hell out of it.  (By the time they rehearsed again the next night, I was able to digest things a little more easily.)

    “Asphalt Cocktail,” on the other hand, was incredible. It was loud, but I could hear every single line of every part. It was as rhythmically tight as the original MIDI, but it rocked like only real players can. Ms. Denton nailed the solo, making it sound nasty and vulgar like it should, and sounded as if she were making it up as she went, even though she played every single note I’d put on the page.

    I can’t say enough about the low brass at Oklahoma State. The trumpets were great, too, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the French horn effects in “Asphalt Cocktail” sound so huge. The trombones there were among the best I’ve ever heard anywhere, and the tubas… There’s one tuba player, Dave Grounds, who is just ridiculous. They started rehearsal with the Bach Passacaglia & Fugue in c minor, and this guy took a bunch of the C’s down an octave to pedal range (the lowest C on a piano), and they were massive — and perfectly in tune. (As another example, this same guy plays tuba in the OSU marching band, and you can hear him over the entire rest of the band. It made me think of Johnny Elizondo, principal trombone in the Texas All-State Band when they played Kingfishers Catch Fire a few years ago. It’s something special when your sound is that big, and you don’t sound like you’re overplaying.) That’s Dave on the far right.

    They kept me busy at OSU with rehearsals, master classes, and the like, but they also left plenty of time for hanging out with the (of age!) students. We had a good time Tuesday night at The Stonewall Tavern (no, not that Stonewall), a pleasantly divey place on campus. You’re never too old to learn things at college, and that night, I learned not to drink anything with grape schnapps in it. (Fortunately, I figured this out before it was too late.)

    For some reason, I was just thinking about a new piece by Scott McAllister called “PopCopy.” (It came to mind because a LOT of bands are playing this piece this year, and they’re playing it at Oklahoma State soon, so it came up while I was there.) Scott — an extremely nice (and excellent) composer who teaches at Baylor — has this piece called “PopCopy,” and each movement takes its title from a pop reference line from a movie or TV show. One of the movements is called “One Time at Band Camp,” and Scott made this the beautiful, lyrical slow movement of the piece. Musically, it’s beautiful and effective, and just lovely writing, but when I listened to it, I felt like it was a little off the mark when compared to the title. Scott has chosen to treat “One Time at Band Camp” as a story of young love, but as I recall from the movie American Pie, it’s actually a reference to her sticking her flute up her hoo-ha. If I’d written this piece, I think I’d end the movement with a slide whistle solo. But that’s why they don’t let me teach at Baylor.

    Anyway, back to the Oklahoma trip…

    I’ve said a little about the winds and brass at OSU, but what about the percussion? Oh, they’re awesome. The guy who played the tom-tom and Kevlar drum on Asphalt Cocktail — Scott Taylor — was a rock star. I asked him to play a little louder at one rehearsal, and the result was this snapped stick, courtesy of the Kevlar drum.  (He broke another at the concert.)

    Then there was the trash can…

    First, to clarify some confusion about the Asphalt Cocktail trash can part: the part is all about the theatrical visual impact. You will probably never be able to hear the trash can hits, but I want to be able to see them. Initially, Paul Schapker, the percussionist with the trash can part, was slamming the can into the floor. The trumpet players could feel him doing this, but it was inaudible from the audience. He needed to have the can much higher in the air, so they came up with the idea of slamming it into a taller trash can that was sitting upside-down on the floor.

    As you can see, the can was pretty, er, trashed. At the dress rehearsal, Paul want apeshit with the part, as I wanted him to. The problem was that through the rehearsals, the can had become so dented and the metal was starting to tear a little, and Paul sliced his thumb open while playing the part. It was a pretty nasty gash, but there were still 20 seconds or so left in the piece, and Paul needed to finish the piece with the last few huge hits on the tambourine. So Paul grabs the tambourine and plays the end of the piece while his thumb is gushing blood. And you can’t play the end of the piece without punching the hell out of the tambourine, so what do you end up with? A part that is literally splattered with blood.

    I don’t know how you top that. Needless to say, the concert was sweeeeeet. I can’t wait to get hold of the recording. Somebody was filming the concert, too, and I’m hoping to get that video as well.

    After the concert, there was a little get-together and Joe Missal’s house. (Joe is the Director of Bands at Oklahoma State — so he’s the guy that made this whole thing happen.)  Joe is awesome, and he has some adorable cats.

    It was my birthday, and as if that performance hadn’t been enough of a gift, they made me a birthday cake. It was my favorite kind — carrot cake with cream cheese icing. How did they know that was my favorite? Because I’ve mentioned it on my blog so many times. Why would I do that? Just in case this exact moment ever came up. (Sneaky, I know.)

    I had an amazing week, both at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. They’re both so near Austin, I hope I get a chance to head up there again soon. It was sad not to be home for my birthday, but everybody made a big deal about my birthday up there, and I sincerely appreciated it. Still, nothing tops coming home to AEJ, and my favorite dessert of all — banana pudding.  You know, just for future reference.