2010 March at John Mackey's Blog



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  • March 26, 2010

    Austin Rodeo

    We love the fair, and we’ve been to a fair number of rodeos, but we’d never been to one in Texas.  Texas seems tailor made for rodeos (if not, say, history book learnin’), so we were pretty excited to experience a real live rodeo here in Texas.  Ponies!  Livestock!  Funnelcakes!  HEE HAW!  Come on, people — LET’S F-IN’ RODEO!!!

    The first thing we encountered was a huge line to get in. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and if you were wearing green (I was, but AEJ, curiously, doesn’t own any green), your admission was free. This wrinkle in the normal admissions policy was taking a lot of brain power for the people working the gate (is that green, or more of a chartreuse?), and the line to get in was excessively long. Once we were in, though, RODEO!!! WOOO!!!! Hold on a sec while I get a shot of these tractors!

    Our first stop was to see the Okie the SUPER HORSE! The show started with a roping warm-up act.

    Is that him?! Is that actually OKIE the SUPER HORSE?!?! Yes, kids. It is.

    Okie’s owner was quite the showman! He started by telling us about his two previous horses, named “In His Glory 1” and “In His Glory 2.” Praisalujiah, kids! (Do you think I’m kidding? Because I’m not.) Anyway, he loved those horses, but he had to put them down because they got sick. Awesome! Thanks for getting the crowd all excited for the show by telling us about your beloved but now-dead horses! (Don’t worry, kids — Okie isn’t dying here. This is a trick! Look at that — he trained the horse to bow! This is f-ing amazing.)

    For Okie’s next pre-glue-factory trick (sorry, Okie, but clearly there’s a pattern with this guy), they put a hula skirt on the horse and had Okie rock back and forth — like HE WAS DOING THE HULA! OMG, it was incredible!!! This horse and trainer truly were SUPER. It didn’t for a moment seem like some lame-ass yokel who simply owned a horse and was willing to subject his horse to a humiliating 15 minutes of lameness under the label of “magic,” no sir. HEE HAW!!!

    Okay, let’s get a snack! I love fair food. Shall we start with the deep-fried sandwiches?

    Nah, let’s get pizza. But not just ANY pizza — let’s get the super-awesome version of pizza that you can only get at the fair: Pizza on a STICK!

    Two pizzas-on-a-stick and a single soda only cost $17. That’s totally reasonable!

    Here, let me pay with this cash… What? What’s that, you say? You don’t accept cash? You only accept tokens? So I have to take my $20 bill, which is (slightly) more than I need to spend on this lunch, and I need to break it over there at the Change Booth, where there’s a full-time person sitting just for this very reason, and then I need to take my $17 over to that token machine, where I’ll feed each dollar into the machine, getting a $1 token in exchange, and then I can use the $1 token as if it were a dollar bill? Okay! That doesn’t sound even remotely retarded!

    Okay, so after I ate half of my Pizza-on-a-Stick (stopping only when, after one bite, hot pepperoni grease poured down my hand), we thought — hey, let’s have some REAL fun now! You know what sounds super fun? Watching a machine make pet ID tags!  Really?  Can I watch?  Really?

    Or, we could go see the two-headed cat! I’m sure we wouldn’t have been horrified by that at all!

    No, let’s go to the petting zoo. AEJ likes petting the animals. I think they’re dirty and nasty, so I just took pictures.

    Here’s Wonky the Wonky-Eared Goat. (Not sure if that’s his real name.)

    And here are some deer. You know what deer really love? They love to be chased around a pen by little children! Oh wait — they f-ing HATE that. (This is at least one thing I have in common with the deer. That, and our similar levels of intelligence and general skittishness.)

    That’s okay, because the kids get what’s coming to them at our next stop: Mutton Busting!

    This is where we watch as kids are forced to put on protective gear…

    … and ride sheep…

    … holding on as long as they can…

    … if not longer…

    … until the inevitable, satisfying (for the crowd, at least) spill.

    That was fun. Let’s have a sweet treat!

    There was some livestock, but not much. Just a bunch of cows.

    They looked sad, and made me want to become a vegetarian.

    Okay, so this is all super fun, right?! Next, let’s go to the carnival part of the rodeo! When we’re there, we can… I don’t know, try to win a fish. You can’t keep the crowds away from stuff like this!

    All we really wanted to do was play Skee Ball. We LOVE Skee Ball! What’s that you say? The Austin Rodeo DOESN’T HAVE SKEE BALL? In fact, the Austin Rodeo has the lamest carnival I’ve ever seen? Are you sure? But doesn’t this look FUN AS HELL???

    Okay, so there’s no Skee Ball. But this is Austin, right, so there must be a KICK ASS CONCERT series at the fair, right? RIGHT! SEE? (Seriously. There’s a band on the stage, and they’re playing.) The crowd goes wild!!!

    Okay, so the concerts are lame, the food is bad and overpriced and requires tokens, the super horse does nothing more than rock back and forth in nervous anticipation of being put down by its owner, but come on. There must be something really cool. WAIT! There it is! What’s cooler than CHEWING TOBACCO?! I’m sure the Dip Station is really, really nice inside. I think I’ve found my new habit, ladies!

    And when I’m not chewing my tobacco, I really want to smoke it. I’m all about cigarettes, so I was of course really interested in this spittoon. Cigarette’s only WHAT? I have to know!

    HEE-HAW! It’s the Austin Rodeo! WOO! I hope I’ve effectively conveyed how super fun it was. If nothing else, I hope that you consider naming one of your children after that guy’s horse: “In His Glory 2 (Electric Boogaloo).”



    March 19, 2010

    Rules for composers

    An old friend of AEJ’s family is a writer named Richard Ford.  The Guardian (UK) recently asked a bunch of writers for their “rules” for writing fiction.  The rules below are Mr. Ford’s, and I think if you substitute “composer” for “writer,” the rules are just as sound.  (This is quoted completely without permission, but hopefully AEJ can prevent Mr. Ford from suing me.)

    1 Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.

    2 Don’t have children.

    3 Don’t read your reviews.

    4 Don’t write reviews. (Your judgment’s always tainted.)

    5 Don’t have arguments with your wife in the morning, or late at night.

    6 Don’t drink and write at the same time.

    7 Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)

    8 Don’t wish ill on your colleagues.

    9 Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.

    10 Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.

    Lots of great writers gave their lists, and there were so many excellent (and, not surprisingly, wordy on occasion) responses that they split the results into two stories. Here is part one (which includes rule #8 from Jonathan Franzen : “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”), and here is part two (which includes the gem from Hilary Mantel, “Are you serious about this?  Then get an accountant.”).  It’s a great read, whether or not you substitute “composer” for “writer” (but you should).


    March 18, 2010

    Harvest: Trombone Concerto recording sneak-peak

    Yesterday afternoon, I received a recording of the premiere performance of my new Harvest: Concerto for Trombone. I won’t be posting the complete piece yet because we made a “studio” (actually, in a hall) recording before the premiere, and I’ll eventually be releasing that studio recording as a free download here on the website.

    That recording isn’t coming until summer, but Joe Alessi gave me the go-ahead to post the middle movement of the concerto now. This is live, so it isn’t perfect, but damn, it ain’t bad.  (Just wait until you hear the studio recording… Woot.)

    This is the four minute central movement of the concerto, and this immediately follows the brutal sacrifice of Dionysus (the trombone soloist). The idea with this middle movement is to represent Dionysus in death, or the stillness of winter after the pruning of the vines. (In case you’re just joining, Dionysus was the Greek god of the vine.)

    The sound quality is weirdly hissy, as if this had been recorded using my old Radio Shack cassette recorder and then played through my childhood Realistic stereo system, but again, this is just a little preview of what’s to come this summer when I post the whole piece. You can find the audio through the “Audio & Score” button on this page.

    Speaking of sneak previews…  The other day, AEJ and I visited the Austin Rodeo.  I took nearly 300 pictures, and I’ll have a blog entry up about that soon, but in the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you…


    March 16, 2010

    Harvest: Trombone Concerto premiere

    Well, it’s done.  The premiere — and recording session! — for my new trombone concerto has come and gone, and it couldn’t have gone better…

    I blogged about my personal trombone master class with Joe Alessi back in June, then blogged about the concept for the concerto back in July, and then set to writing actual notes, which I finished in early November. The Ridgewood Concert Band in New Jersey gave a “preview” performance in early December, but I didn’t hear it. In fact, I’d never heard the piece, straight from start to finish, until I sat in the audience for the official premiere on Friday night. But I need to backtrack a little more.

    The West Point Academy Band was the co-organizer of the consortium to commission the concerto, and from the beginning, they were the ensemble stuck with the “official premiere,” which they were to present with Joe Alessi (principal trombonist with the NY Philharmonic — and generally considered to be the greatest trombonist ever to walk the earth) at the Eastern Division CBDNA (college band directors national association) Convention.  I knew I was writing a concerto for the best trombonist ever, meaning I could write literally anything. If Alessi — for whom Christopher Rouse wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning trombone concerto! — couldn’t play the part, it simply wasn’t playable.  Also, um, Joe f*ckin’ Alessi.  So, uh, no pressure.  (Did I mention that he premiered the Rouse concerto?!)

    Alessi had rehearsed with the West Point Band on Tuesday, March 2, but I was still home in Austin.  I didn’t fly out to West Point until Wednesday, and I worked with the West Point Band on Thursday morning.  (Alessi had rehearsal with the Philharmonic, so he wasn’t there.)  I was wearing shiny driving moccasins and a black zippered cardigan-like sweater, so I fit right in.

    I was relieved that I had these two hours with the band but without Alessi because it gave me the opportunity to find and fix some big errors — like completely wrong notes in the horn parts. (Remember, kids: horns are in F.) The horns, by the way, were incredible. The parts in the piece are extremely demanding, but you’d never know it hearing these players.

    (Speaking of which, in case anybody was wondering, the West Point Band is a professional ensemble — a permanently-stationed Army Band. They’re stationed at the Military Academy, but these aren’t students — they’re pros. And boy howdy, you can tell.)

    The concerto has a prominent double bass part, loaded with percussive “Bartok pizzicato.”  I put snap pizz. in most of my bass parts, but how often is it actually the loudest thing in the entire band? Never. Until SSG Phillip Helm plays the part. I have never heard (and seen!) such a powerful snap pizzicato. I thought he was going to rip the bass in half. I love this guy.

    The next morning, I was up bright and early. Good thing my army housing had coffee (and artwork) in the lobby!

    Why was I up so early? Because that day — Friday, March 5 — was the day of the recording session. On a piece that I had still never heard in person with the soloist.

    I’ve had recording sessions with ensembles prior to their individual performance, but never prior to even hearing the piece — that is, recording the piece before it even premieres. What if something was just awful, or I found that I hated a particular measure? Well, too late to fix it now!

    We started by recording the end of the piece, because it’s probably the most demanding chop-wise for everybody. The last note of the piece, per Joe Alessi’s request, is a gliss-hit off of high F. As in, the F at the top of the treble clef. As in, the note that is the top standard note on a French horn. But this ain’t a horn concerto — it’s a trombone concerto. That F is a ridiculous note. I’d originally written the piece to end on the F an octave lower, but Alessi asked if I’d mind if he took it up an octave. “After 18 minutes of non-stop playing, you want to end with that high F?” I asked. His reply: “Well, if I don’t do it, somebody else will.” Right on.

    So we run and record the last 24 bars or whatever, and Alessi nails the high F (of course), and then says, “I’d like to get a few more takes of that. I think I can do about 10 more, but that’s it.” Dude. 10 more takes — of high F. High “F,” as in, “Joe F-in’ Alessi.” And we’re just starting recording! (The session ran from 10am until 5pm, after which Alessi had to go perform with the New York Phil.  Jeez.  Monster.)

    The session was pretty incredible. I think the CD — which we’re going to release as a free download on my website as soon as it’s ready — will be a stunner. Here I am with Alessi and LTC Timothy Holtan, the director of the band.

    Then I flew home for a few days, and then flew back to the east coast — to West Chester, Pennsylvania, for the premiere of the concerto. West Point’s concert also included the premiere of “Points of Departure” by Roshanne Etezady. Here’s Roshanne during the sound check for her (very fun) piece.

    Here, Alessi and Holtan go over a few things during the sound check.

    The premiere performance that night was the best premiere I’ve ever had, and possibly the best performance I’ve ever had. (It’s tough to judge, being a premiere, where it’s the first time I’m hearing the piece start-to-finish, and the first time I’m hearing it without following a score. My brain is going so crazy trying to process everything I’m hearing that I sort of become mush.)

    Alessi and the West Point Band were flawless. There’s one especially demanding moment in the slow movement where Alessi works his way up to high D — a note so high that I had to create a new sample for it in my MIDI playback, because trombones aren’t supposed to play that high — and he hits this D just perfectly and beautifully, coming at the end of this long legato line. He hits it mezzo-forte, holds it while the ensemble drops out, leaving him alone with this insane note, which he then shapes dynamically down, then back up again, holding it seemingly forever until the band comes back in, and he continues playing — in the same register. It was perfect. The audience audibly gasped when he did it. (That moment was topped only by the end of the first movement — and the movements are all connected, so there was no pause — when Roshanne’s dad let out a “wooo!” from the back of the hall.)

    It was an amazing night. Alessi is coming to UT Austin in September to perform the piece with Jerry Junkin and the UT Wind Ensemble, but that performance can’t come soon enough. I want to hear him play it again now! I’d heard all about how brilliant Alessi is, but I didn’t know what that really meant until Friday. He’d be a brilliant artist on any instrument. I’m just so happy that through some insane bit of fortune on my behalf, he’s the person who was tasked with premiering this concerto and making my little 18 minute doo-dad sound like something important. (Also, if you want to get a whole lot of applause and pretend it had something to do with you, have Joe Alessi play your piece. Holy shit.)


    March 10, 2010

    Aurora Awakes recording

    I just posted the first “officially sanctioned” (whatever the hell that means) recording of “Aurora Awakes,” as performed a few weeks ago by the University of Alabama Wind Ensemble and conducted by Randall Coleman.  As with any performance, there were a few tiny things I wish I could pull from another take, but this is a real, live performance.  I had the privilege of working with Randall, Ken Ozzello (Alabama’s Director of Bands), and the band for several days while they prepared for their CBDNA Southern Division performance, and I sincerely appreciate everybody’s willingness to accommodate all of my little requests.

    I also want to give a special thanks to Brittany Hendricks, principal trumpet on this performance. She played the hell out of the part (I mean, just check out the high C in the first movement!), and she worked with me to figure out the best way to revise a few little measures that never quite worked dynamically before. She also was unusually aware of exactly where her bell was pointing throughout the piece, aiming it more at the audience as the dynamic and color demanded. This seems like a sort of obvious thing, or so I would have thought, but in my experience, trumpets often aim towards the bottom of their stand unless you explicitly ask them not to. (Hell, even when I write “bell up,” it often doesn’t happen.) For example, at the first high C in the first movement, she was aimed towards the audience, but off to the side — like “orchestra right.” Then, a few bars later, where I ask for “bell up, very bright in tone,” she did just that, with the bell straight at the audience. It was little details like that that really made the piece sound incredibly bright, and I really appreciated her work.

    So the piece premiered nearly a year ago, and I’m only just now posting a recording. I’m sorry for the delay, but I think it’s worth it. This Alabama band is damn underrated.

    I’ll also be posting a recording from the TCU Wind Ensemble next week. I meant to get that one up this week, but I have to fly to Philly tomorrow, and things have gotten too busy to get that recording ready. (They were kind enough to provide a few alternate takes, so I can do a little splicing.)

    Speaking of Philly — I’m going up there for the world premiere of Harvest: Concerto for Trombone. Joseph Alessi (principal trombone for the New York Philharmonic) will give the premiere with the West Point Band, conducted by Timothy Holtan. That performance is at 7:30 on Friday night at West Chester University. The following night, the West Chester University Wind Ensemble will perform “Asphalt Cocktail.” Should be a fun couple of days!

    But for now… Check out the Aurora Awakes recording.