Just a quick breather… at John Mackey's Blog

February 22, 2008

Just a quick breather…

I’m home after two solid weeks on the road, having attended countless rehearsals and six performances of four different pieces in four cities in two states. I’ve been home since Sunday, but I’ve spent the week catching up on orders (everything is on the way, I promise!), catching up on emails, and most importantly, writing music. It’s been a while since I’ve written a new piece, and this one — the piece for Cheryl Floyd’s band at Hill Country Middle School in Austin — is hard work. I’ve never written for young band before, and it’s a real challenge. I have about 90 seconds completely done, and the whole piece will be a hair over five minutes total. It’s due in about four weeks, so I’ve canceled several trips I had planned to take in March.  (No trip to Baylor, no trip to the CBDNA convention in Omaha, and Reno is up in the air.)

There’s one big trip I can’t cancel, and I’m leaving town one last time at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning. That trip will take me to the University of Georgia for a residency and performance of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” with the always-excellent John Lynch. From there, I fly to Kansas City for a performance of a fairly new piece, “Clocking,” with the University of Oklahoma Wind Ensemble, conducted by William Wakefield, at their regional CBDNA convention. After that, I fly back to the University of Georgia for a recording session of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” (on the Naxos label, no less! I’m in good company on that CD) before flying home Sunday night.

I’ll have to be sort of brief with the recap from the recent trip, but I did take a few pictures.

That picture is from a rehearsal at UT-Austin. I was there for nearly a week, working with Jerry Junkin, the legendary Harvey Pittel, and the UT Wind Ensemble on their premiere of my Concerto for Soprano Sax and Wind Ensemble.

The performance was great. Holy hell — that band is just insanely good. I think it’ll be a long time before I hear the accompaniment that crisp again. Harvey was a pleasure to work with — and he has the biggest sound I’ve ever heard out of a sax! I had worried that maybe I needed to re-score the first and last movements to fix the balance, but not so. There were places where I actually had to ask the entire band to play louder because I couldn’t hear them over Harvey. It was astonishing. The slow movement, I think, was the most beautiful I’ve ever heard it, with Harvey circular-breathing to hold the last note for an eternity. Bravo, Harvey — and as always, a sincere thanks to Jerry Junkin for that UT hospitality that nobody can top.

After the concert, we had a tasty dinner — one of several that week. Jerry’s wife, Stephanie, ordered the same dessert that I did, but hers was prettier (of course), so she let me take a picture of hers.

Can I just say how much I love Austin? Maybe my visits there have been a little unreasonably pleasant, but I have to say, if I ever leave LA, I may have to move to Austin.

That UT concert was on Sunday evening. Early the next morning, I flew to Dallas to work with the Poteet High School Wind Ensemble — the 2008 4A TMEA Honor Band. (That means they were judged to be the best 4A-size high school band in all of Texas this year. These guys don’t mess around.) I was there for a rehearsal and concert with Scott Coulson (Poteet’s Director of Bands) on “Strange Humors.”

The band sounded sick on “Strange Humors.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard it sound so good live. It was so damn good, their performance is now the reference recording of the work on this site. They performed the piece both in Dallas on Monday night, and again at their TMEA Honor Band concert in San Antonio on Friday night that week. Both performances were great.
Tuesday morning, I flew to Tucson, Arizona, home of the University of Arizona, to rehearse with Gregg Hanson (UA’s Director of Bands) and Timothy McAllister (UA’s sax professor — and among the greatest soprano sax players in the world) on my Sax Concerto. While waiting for rehearsal to start, I hung out in Dr. Hanson’s office. I don’t have a photo of Dr. Hanson, but I did take this photo of his portrait.   I need a portrait.

Tim McAllister is… I don’t even know what to say about him. When I heard him play the first movement of the concerto with the band, I was speechless — and that’s just the little two-minute prelude. Good lord, you should hear what he did with the nearly-impossible second movement of the concerto. In fact, go ahead. I just posted it. (Either go to that page and click for the audio for “Felt,” or click this direct link to the streaming MP3.) You won’t believe his control. Every dynamic on the page is there, every alternate fingering request is met, every pitch bend is spot on and ends precisely back in tune. He somehow moves seamlessly from the most lyrical moments to the most aggressive honks. The concert on Sunday was simply stunning.

After two days rehearsing in Arizona, I flew back to Texas — this time to San Antonio, to attend the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) conference. In a definite sign that my career can only go downhill from here, I had the incredible fortune of having three performances at the convention — Poteet’s performance of “Strange Humors” (as I mentioned), as well as performances with two of the three TMEA All-State Bands. John Lynch was conducting “Turning” with the TMEA 4A Symphonic Band — and they were using my new Waterphone! (Yes, that really is my own Waterphone, a hand-made Richard Waters original. The knock-offs have nothing on the real thing. Anybody wants to rent this thing for a performance of “Turning,” you just shoot me a note…)

It was pretty sweet to hear “Turning” with a 150-piece band. If ever I’d written a piece that benefits from 15 trombones, this was it. (Actually, most of my pieces would benefit from 15 trombones.) Here I am with Maestro Lynch after the concert.

The 5A Symphonic Band was performing my still-new piece, “Kingfishers Catch Fire.” This group — the top all-state band in Texas, and I would feel safe saying it’s the best all-state band in the country — literally sight-read “Kingfishers” at tempo. The tempo of the second movement is quarter note=174. That’s crazy-fast — and they sight-read it that fast. Here is Thomas Lee, Director of Bands at UCLA — and the founder of the UT-Austin Wind Ensemble (now Junkin’s Group) — conducting the ensemble.

The band was one of the best bands I’ve ever heard — all the more impressive with their massive size. (How can this many people play together so cleanly?) I missed their final full rehearsal on my piece (I overslept that morning), but when I heard their last pre-concert run-through, I was literally brought to tears. If you tell anybody that, though, I will kick your ass.

This was one of those performances I’ll never forget. A funny little back story… As I’ve probably mentioned here before, the second movement of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” has 30 high C’s in the French horn part. The highest note on the French horn, in traditional view, is that high C. It’s a silly-high note to ask for once in a piece, so I asked for it 30 times. As a result, some horn teachers in Texas got a little “upset,” concerned that their students would blow their lips off preparing for the audition and the concert. Now, those 30 high C’s are all optional; every one of them is covered in an alternate trumpet part, but I have never had a horn player ask to be relieved of a single one of those high C’s. The Texas 5A Symphonic Band horn section was no different — well, except that they had even less trouble with those C’s than I’ve heard anywhere else.

Tom Lee is a great conductor, and he’s also somewhat of a bad ass, as I learned last week. The final bar of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” has the entire band play a big F major chord, and while they’re holding it, the French horn section — all in unison — plays one last unison rip up to their highest high C. Tom Lee, to make that last moment even more insane, asked the horn section — all 12 players — to stand up to play that last note, in clear view of the entire audience. Every last one of the players nailed that 30th high C, Tom held them on it for an impossibly long time while crescendoing, and when he gave the final cutoff, the crowd… well, they seemed like happy campers. Texas high school horn players are f’ing awesome. It was amazing. Bravo, Tom Lee: Official Bad-Ass.

It was an exhausting two weeks, but it was one of those trips that made me feel humbled and grateful for the incredible fortune I’ve had. The trip also made me hungry. Fortunately, in Texas, they have slices of carrot cake the size of a moose head. (Don’t worry; I think it’s dead.)

Thank you to Tom Lee and the 5A Symphonic Band, John Lynch and the 4A Symphonic Band, Scott Coulson and the Poteet Honor Band, Jerry Junkin and Harvey Pittel and the UT Wind Ensemble, and Gregg Hanson and Timothy McAllister and the UA Wind Ensemble. Life as a composer doesn’t get any better than that.

23 Comments

20 Comments to “Just a quick breather…”  

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  1. At 1:08 pm on February 23, 2008
    Steve from Austin Says:

    John, you’re welcome to come stay here in Austin anytime! Glad to hear your trips to Texas are consistently amazing!

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  3. At 11:41 am on February 24, 2008
    Angel E. Says:

    I’m glad you had a great time in Texas! I was an euphonium player in the 5A Symphonic Band and I just have to tell you how much I enjoyed playing Kingfishers Catch Fire! That was really the cherry on top of a great TMEA All State experience! I look forward to seeing what you have in store for next time!

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  5. At 12:01 pm on February 24, 2008
    Trevor N. Says:

    John, thanks for your visit to Texas…yes the 5A band was huge but that’s because everything is big in Texas…LOL….You should think about writing at least one Choral piece…i would like that….something crazy and fast and exciting…

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  7. At 12:28 pm on February 24, 2008
    Jonathan C. Says:

    Mr. Mackey,

    I was 2nd chair bassoon in the Texas 5A Symphonic Band, I was the soloist in King Fishers. Even though I spoke to you every chance I got and thanked you all the same, I just want to one last time. It was so incredible to work with you and your new piece! I played Strange Humors at the Baylor Band Camp last summer, and it was my favorite piece that we played. When I saw Kingfishers in the audition, I got excited for another Mackey piece. I didn’t think I would have as much with it as I had with Strange Humors, but this piece blew me, and the rest of the bassoon section, away! We loved it!

    It was such a pleasure to have you work with our band! When I found out you were going to help us this week, I’ll be honest, I probably wet myself a little. Ha, ha. Thank you so much for all your help at T.M.E.A! Hopefully I’ll see you there next year!

    -Jonathan.

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  9. At 2:20 pm on February 24, 2008
    Robert P. Says:

    Mr. Mackey,

    I was also in the 5A Texas Symphonic Band, 4th Chair Flute. I just have to say Kingfisher’s is a flute player’s DREAM! Horns may have their high C’s, but so do the flutes :D. I loved playing this piece, it was the best out of the program. I was in the 5A Concert Band, last year, and I enjoyed playing the hell out of Turbine as well. I was ALSO at the Baylor Band Camp when they did Strange Humors. Could you stop writing awesome band literature!? 😛

    Kingfisher’s is just a piece that put a smile on all of our faces. We really enjoyed having you work with us. You need to write a flute solo, and I’ll be all over it 😀

    -Robert

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  11. At 5:38 pm on February 24, 2008
    Mark S. Says:

    I can’t wait to play one of your pieces for Midwest next year ( if we get selected). One of my friends who was in the symphonic band wanted to play Kingfisher’s, but I doubt it.

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  13. At 2:01 pm on February 25, 2008
    Kevin Howlett Says:

    Patton Oswalt said that Austin was one of the few places in America that “existed within this little bubble of sanity” where it would be awesome to live or visit. I’ve never been to Texas but I really want to check out Austin. If you decided to leave LA for Austin, you’d probably do really well.

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  15. At 10:15 pm on February 25, 2008
    Avguste Antonov Says:

    Hey John
    This is Avguste,pianist for the Texas Christian University.We met during the recording of Redline at KU and we saw each other last year at CBDNA.
    Congratulations on TMEA and the performances at Austin

    Here at TCU,on the next concert,we will be performing Turbine. I am so excited,I can’t wait to play the piano part.

    Best

    Avguste Antonov
    http://www.avgusteantonov.com

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  17. At 4:01 pm on February 28, 2008
    John H. Says:

    Hey, I was a clarinet player in the 5A Symphonic Band. Let me say, I’ve listened to all of your band literature, and holy hell is it amazing. Being able to play a piece like Kingfishers after coming from a band that can hardly play to save their lives was *LIFE-CHANGING*. Thank you for being such a fantastic composer, and I look forward to playing more of your pieces in the future!

    – John

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  19. At 4:23 pm on March 2, 2008
    Katie Leander Says:

    I was the xylo/crotale player in the UT Wind Ensemble for your sax concerto (or “sax thing” as my friend called it). I just wanted to say that I loved playing the piece and working with you. Your energy and enthusiasm about music is tangible and infectious. I hope we cross paths again soon!

    -Katie

    P.S. When I got home from TMEA I looked up your blog and spent probably an hour and a half browsing through some of the archived entries. You now have a spot in my bookmarks bar at the top of my browser. I just can’t read your blog when I’m hungry…

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  21. At 4:49 pm on March 2, 2008
    James Crixell Says:

    Hi Mr. Mackey, I was a trombone player in the 5A Symphonic Band with Tom Lee, where we played your Kingfishers song. I was 4th chair, maybe you remember me. I was wondering if you knew where I could purchase the All State CD and DVD because I can’t find it anywhere. Could you help me? I would really appreciate it. My email is included so email me when you get the chance.

    Thank You

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  23. At 10:23 pm on March 3, 2008
    Royford Says:

    Lord Mackey,

    I was another clarinet in the 5A Symphonic Band. And let me say, “Strange Humors” and “Kingfishers Catch Fire” have got to be two of the best pieces of music literature that I have ever and probably will ever play in a wind ensemble.

    Thank you for being such a badass.

    Keep on rockin’,
    Royford

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  25. At 8:10 pm on March 6, 2008
    Arielle C. Says:

    Mr. Mackey,

    I was the trombone soloist on “Strange Humors” from Poteet High School and I just wanted to thank you once again for writing such an amazing piece. In all of my years of playing I have never been so excited to play a song, but I was also a little hesitant on knowing that I could be the one to destroy everything. However, the praise that you gave me after Monday’s rehearsal at the Eisemann Center changed all of that. So I thank you again for not only being an amazing composer and one of the only ones to write such great music for trombones, but also for being just an overall gentle and kind person. Continue on doing what you do because it’s extraordinary music coming from an extraordinary person.

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  27. At 1:14 pm on March 7, 2008
    Tori M. Says:

    Hi Mr. Mackey!! I was a horn player in the 4A Symphonic Band and I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to come give us your opinion on our performance of “Turning”. I know when I saw the excerpts from “Turning” I was like “so cool!!!” I thoroughly enjoyed everytime we rehearsed it. Besides, the B flats definitely threw me into the ocean and forced me to swim on my high range so I thank you.
    I can’t wait to hear the piece you are writing for Joe Alessi!! (You should write something solely for the horn) Thank you again!!

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  29. At 12:03 pm on March 10, 2008
    Kevin Collins Says:

    John, I’ve had the pleasure of playing a lot of your band literature since my sophomore year of high school. With the 4A Band playing Red Line Tango, the 5A Concert Band playing Turning with Gary Hill, with the Friendswood High School Wind Ensemble playing Strange Humors at The Midwest Clinic in Chicago, and Red Line Tango once again. As well as King Fisher’s Catch Fire this year at All State with the 5A Band. You are transforming what the world sees Wind Ensemble as and can bring it back to prominence. Composers like you are essential to this, and I think you are going to do that, I really do. As Dr Thomas Lee would say “Beautiful Music..”

    -Kevin Collins

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  31. At 7:50 am on March 11, 2008
    Veronica Hinojosa Says:

    John, Im glad you had fun in Texas! I was one of the E Flat clarinet players in the 4A symphonic band. I ABSOLUTELY LOVED TURNING! everytime I think back to that concert, I want to cry! That was probably one of the most emotional songs Iv’e ever played. Im trying to talk my band director into playing Red Line Tango, but im not sure if he’ll do it. I hope I can get the opportunity to play some more of your wonderful music in the future. hope to hear back from ya!

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  33. At 6:08 pm on July 8, 2008
    Steven Petruzzellis Says:

    Mr. Mackey,

    For CU Honor Band (Colorado University) 2007, we were directed by Dr. Lynch, and of course, he chose this piece. It made me laugh when we got to the audition day, because everyone from every instrument was freaking out that they didn’t know this song well enough, from the clarinet lines (they all sat down in unison to work through it that day before auditions) and flutes to the french horns (well, 30 high C’s… haha…) and I was on Soprano Sax, which was, in relation, hella easy. It was the coolest thing to sit in the ensemble to play this piece, so I guess I’m just writing to say just how amazing your music truly is.
    Thank you much!

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  35. At 7:05 pm on December 25, 2008
    Johnny Elizondo Says:

    Hey Mr. Mackey I was in the 2008 TX ALLSTATE SYMPHONIC BAND and i was the first trombone. I have to say ive played two of your pieces one of them sasparilla and then the other was king fisher’s catch fire. Your music is really something and i will never forget the memories that came about in the Marriott hotel and that stage. Your trully an inspiration and keep doing what you do best

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  37. At 11:33 am on January 4, 2009
    Gilbert Garza Says:

    OMG! hey! Your piece TURNING was emotionally moving and yet, scary at the same time! : P I was the soprano sax soloist in the 2008 TMEA 4A All-State Band. I loved it and I WILL NEVER forget it!

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  39. At 7:42 am on January 30, 2012
    Nathan Collins Says:

    I’m now a freshman in college, but I was first chair double bassist as a freshman in high school in the 2008 TMEA 4A All-State Band. I finally managed to find this page, but I can’t for the life of me find a recording of Turning! That was an amazing experience playing your music and having you there to work with us. Do you know where I could find a recording of either that performance or any performance at all of Turning? This was one of those, “I wonder if I can find that concert I played a while ago?” moments, but I can’t! Thanks for making my freshman all-state experience so memorable! This is the piece I remembered when I was looking for recordings of that concert!

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