2010 September at John Mackey's Blog



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  • September 27, 2010

    Recording of “Harvest”


    Well, it doesn’t get much better than last night.  (That’s what she said.)

    Back in March, when Joe Alessi premiered “Harvest: Concerto for Trombone” with the West Point Band, I blogged about the concert, and I thought at the time, well, how could that ever be matched?! Let’s put the piece away, ’cause it’s done.

    I, obviously, don’t intend to diminish the West Point performance in any way — that concert was insane — but in the six months since that performance (and recording session), Joe Alessi has gotten to know the piece even better, and when he arrived at UT for his first rehearsal two weeks ago, he had some ideas about things that would make the piece even more effective.

    It all really came down to dynamic shape. As anybody who has performed my music knows, I tend to over-mark dynamics. That’s largely because, in my mind, dynamics say more about “energy level” than actual volume. If I mark something FFF, it doesn’t necessarily mean, “blast your chops off,” it means “this needs to be intense.” But writing everything on the computer, as I do, contributes further to less-than-artistic dynamic markings because computer samples generally sound better either really loud or really soft. (For samples that are really soft, check out the demo of “Hymn to a Blue Hour.”)

    I’m aware, of course, that variation of dynamic intensity is much more interesting musically. I’m fine with loud stuff, but at some point, the piece needs to shut the hell up before getting loud again or it all just becomes a wash of noise. (Even “Asphalt Cocktail,” which is tremendously loud, has moments that are marked PPP, where nobody plays but a single harp. In that piece, those moments are intended almost as a joke — hey!  I can hear the harp! — but it does make the power-chords that follow much more effective.) Something that’s important to keep in mind as a performer, though, is that even if the printed dynamic doesn’t change, you can shape the line dynamically. A phrase marked PP can still contain a large dynamic range and still be considered PP. Dynamics are not a set number, unless you’re MIDI, and if you’re going to play like MIDI, I’d rather just listen to MIDI.

    But back to Alessi. The big thing he wanted to do was make dynamics more extreme in range, not by making the loud parts even louder, but by pulling back from sections that were marked as being loud, saving the biggest volume for the real arrivals. This is something that Jerry Junkin does intuitively while he’s conducting anyway, so the combination of Alessi with Junkin — and these incredible UT players — was inspiring to watch.

    FFF generally stayed at FFF, but sometimes FF would become MF, PP would become PPPP. Even those FFF sections might start FFF, move gradually to MF, and back to FFF by the end of the phrase. With every change, Alessi would ask me in the rehearsal room if it was okay with me, which was an awfully courteous thing to do, but his (and Junkin’s) ideas were always the right choice. No notes or rhythms ever changed, and none of the changes really demand that the parts be revised, but they did go into my rehearsal score so I can try to reproduce these interpretive choices when I work with other ensembles.

    I’d promoted the live webcast here and on Facebook. As many people learned, the combination of Joe Alessi and the UT Wind Ensemble last night managed to break the internets.  It seems those UT servers can only handle so much, and this was beyond that.  The servers crashed, and nobody heard any of the webcast until the servers were restarted in time for the second half.

    No worries.  I’ve (temporarily) posted the recording from last night’s concert, as it would have sounded had the stream not failed.  Just visit the main page for the Trombone Concerto, then click “Score and Audio.”  Alessi, Junkin, and the ensemble played the absolute hell out of this thing.  This was, without exaggeration, arguably the best performance I’ve ever had.

    Backstage, after the performance, Alessi asked me when he could play “Harvest” again, as if it were somehow up to me. Joe, if it were up to me, you’d be playing it again this afternoon, but nooooo, somebody had to go home to play with the New York Philharmonic this morning. Hmph.

    Go check out the recording from last night’s performance — keeping in mind that not a single thing is edited.  It’s astonishing.  Thank you, Joe, Jerry, and everybody in the University of Texas Wind Ensemble.



    September 24, 2010

    Alessi at UT. Sunday! With live webcast!

    This post is short and sweet, just to let you know that this Sunday, September 26, at 7pm CST (or, as I like to call it, “7PM Elvis Time”), the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Jerry Junkin, will perform my recent piece, “Harvest: Concerto for Trombone” with Joseph Alessi — principal trombonist for the New York Philharmonic.  The concert also includes the premiere of the wind version of Frank Ticheli’s piece, “Playing with Fire,” featuring the Jim Cullum Jazz Band.  The full program:

    Kingfishers Catch Fire — Mackey
    Harvest: Concerto for Trombone (featuring Joseph Alessi, trombone) — Mackey
    Postcard — Ticheli
    Playing with Fire (featuring the Jim Cullum Jazz Band) — Ticheli

    The concert is at Bass Concert Hall here in Austin.  The hall seats nearly 3000, but reports seem to indicate that you should get tickets in advance if possible.  Not anywhere near Austin?  Then you can listen online.  Just follow the link on this page starting a few minutes before concert time (which, again, is at 7pm Central Time on Sunday evening).

    This concert will be, and I can’t stress this enough, epic.


    September 3, 2010

    What’s in a name?

    A composer emailed me via Facebook the other day with the following question:

    How do you go about coming up with such interesting titles for your pieces (i.e. Asphalt Cocktail – I’m not even sure what that means, but it’s a great title)? This is something I’ve struggled with this for many years, and certainly do not want to be that composer that gives forms names to all of his titles (concerto, sonata, etc.).

    Honestly, and I don’t think this is a secret for anybody who reads this blog, but I don’t come up with my own titles. I used to, but I ended up with titles like “Star Rockin’ Dance.” (Seriously, that’s the real title of a piece I wrote at Juilliard for drum set and piano.  Steve Bryant mistakenly called it “Superstar Piano Rockin,” which is even better/worse.) When I worked with choreographers like Robert Battle (Artistic Director Designate of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company — woot!), Robert would come up with the titles for the dance, and that would also become the name of the music.  Rush Hour, Strange Humors, Mass, Damn, and Juba are all pieces that I wrote in collaboration with Robert, and those pieces retained the titles he created.

    The title “Redline Tango” came from a partial rip-off of a title of Steve Bryant’s, “RedLine.”  His work was a piano piece at the time that I wrote my original orchestral version of my piece, but both his piano work and my orchestral work eventually became band pieces, making the title similarity a little more awkward.  (One of my few claims to fame is that composer John Adams once told me that “Redline Tango” was a really good title.  So, um, thanks, Steve.)

    One title, “Asphalt Cocktail,” was of course stolen (well, given, after much coaxing) from composer Jonathan Newman.

    I have come up with my own titles on occasion over the past few years, the last one that I can recall being “Turning.”  (Is that why nobody plays “Turning” — because of the title?  Sigh.)  90% of the time, starting with Sasparilla, the titles have come from my wife, AEJ.

    (Speaking of Sasparilla, a piece that was almost never played up until now, why are there 11 performances scheduled already for this season?  It even has three — THREE! — performances in Norway!  WTF.  Is there some big cowboy cartoon convention happening in Norway this winter?  It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a little surprising that a 5-year old piece would go almost unnoticed until now, and suddenly be all over the place.  Maybe that will happen to Turning next year.  Hint.  Hint.)

    Sometimes, AEJ comes up with the title before I write the piece.  That happened with “Turbine.”  We were looking up at a ceiling fan, and she suggested a piece that would ramp up like a jet turbine.  I took that idea, combined it with my fear of flying, and wrote the piece.

    Usually, though, I write a piece, play it for her, and she tells me what it’s called.  I don’t know how she does this so effectively, but her titles are pretty damn good — perfect, even.  I asked her once what makes a good title, and she said that a good title should be “an invitation.”  It’s like somebody is throwing a party, and they send you an invitation — in this case, an invitation to listen to a piece of music.  If I invite you to come to my “Sonata in Eb” party, I doubt you’d come.  First off, what the hell is that party about?  I mean, it’s in Eb, and it probably goes to Bb or something super damn exciting like that, but I don’t have perfect pitch, so I don’t care about your stupid Sonata in Eb party.  That sounds boring as shit.  I bet that party is dry.  Screw that.

    But if I get an invitation to an “Asphalt Cocktail” party, hell yeah, I’m going to that party, ’cause that party is going to rock.

    The invitation needs to be accurate, though.  If you get an invitation to a costume party, and you dress up like a pimp (and why wouldn’t you?), and you show up to the party and in fact it’s not a costume party but an evangelical family’s bible study party, you’d be surprised and annoyed.

    I bitched on here once before about pieces with titles that aren’t accurate — a piece called “Sparkle” that has no sparkle, and a piece called “Espresso” that is more about the thick goo at the bottom of the cup than the caffeine jolt you get from espresso — and that stuff annoys me.  If I get an invitation, and it says, “Sparkle,” you damn well better show me some crazy-ass sparkling.  That piece needs to be all loaded with crotales and glock and shit like that.  I came here for some damn sparkle.  If I don’t need sunglasses to listen to your piece, then you’re wasting my time and pissing me off.  And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

    So to answer the question, how do I come up with titles? I ask AEJ to do it for me. Wow, that is not remotely helpful for anybody else. The best advice I can give, though, is to make your title an invitation, don’t be too literal or cheesy (“Pretty Flowers” may be your inspiration, but that is one lame-ass literal, cheesy title, and I would kick that title’s ass and steal its milk money if I ever saw it alone in an alley), and make your title accurate. And if all else fails, find yourself an AEJ.



    On one of our last nights in New York — after a seven-week stay — we had dinner at Mario Batali’s restaurant, Babbo. You know it’s fancy when the menu has a leather cover…

    … and the Diet Coke comes with the lemon wedge on a silver tray.

    Here’s Babbo’s amuse bouche — a slice of bread with balsamic-marinated chick peas. I wouldn’t normally think of chick peas at an Italian restaurant, but this was delicious — if not particularly dainty. Dinner at Babbo is not a “light meal,” as you’ll see.

    As she did at any restaurant where it was offered, AEJ started with the tomato special — these fresh, heirloom tomatoes with basil, olive oil, and fresh mozzarella.

    I can never resist a good beet, so I had the roasted beet tartare with chianti vinegar and ricotta salata. You can’t see it in this picture because of the shallow depth of field, but just behind the “tartare” were various garnishes, like coarse sea salt, mustard, chives, and, if I remember correctly, anchovy paste. This was very good, but it looked a little more interesting than it tasted.  (It really needed the sprinkled sea salt.)

    We split a pasta course. This is goat cheese tortelloni with dried orange and wild fennel pollen. The combination of creamy goat cheese with the brightness and acidity of the orange was fantastic.

    For my main course, I had the braised beef. It looked small — it was probably a 2″-square — but lordy, that was plenty when the richness was this far off the charts. Delicious.

    It was mad-tender.

    This fresh roasted corn side dish was incredible. There was a very dry, tart cheese mixed in, but I can’t for the life of me remember what kind of cheese it was. But wow, this was good.

    And this is AEJ’s main course — a grilled pork chop with cherry peppers (oh man, those ruled), cipolline, and aceto manodori. I don’t think the photo truly captures the massive size of this Flintstonesque hunk of pork.  After she finished dinner, I was so inspired by her dish that I hit AEJ over the head with my club and dragged her back to my cave.

    Coffee? Why not — especially when you get this fun sugar box with it!

    I sweetened mine with this raw sugar stick.

    My dessert was the best dessert I had all summer — and I’d had some doozies of delicious. This is blueberry almond cake “Sottosopra” with toasted almond gelato. Good christ, it was amazing.

    AEJ went with the homemade strawberry ice cream. For an upcharge that would make you think they were offering an optional spoonful of liquid gold, you could add this aged balsamic (was it 30 year? 50 year? I don’t remember for sure…). It was like thick chocolate syrup. For the price, I thought he was going to leave that bottle, but all we got was a spoonful. Turned out, as rich as it was, that a spoonful was all we needed.

    The balsamic was insanely great on the strawberry ice cream.  Why have chocolate sauce when you can have balsamic vinegar?

    Whereas WD-50 and Eleven Madison Park had been all about modern innovation, Babbo is straight-up yum. There’s no foam or sous vide or liquid nitrogen — there are just perfect, fresh ingredients and masterful preparation.  I love a frozen tomato lollipop as much as the next guy, but sometimes it’s nice to just have an unadulterated, fresh tomato.  Nom.