John Mackey's Blog



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  • How I Spent My Teen Years
  • New stuff for Fall 2014!
  • UTWE Tour : Shenzhen
  • Wine-Dark Sea – the video
  • Wine-Dark Sea – recording and score
  • “Wine-Dark Sea” – the program note
  • We’re buying a house!
  • Symphony for Band – an update, with audio
  • Xerxes — for metal rock band
  • (Redacted)
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  • Design: The Austin House, part 1
  • Design: The Austin House, pro shots
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  • January 30, 2014

    “Wine-Dark Sea” – the program note

    The world premiere of “Wine-Dark Sea : Symphony for Band” is two weeks from today, with The University of Texas Wind Ensemble, conducted by Jerry Junkin. It all happens on Thursday, February 13, at the Texas Music Educators Association convention.

    It’s a big piece – a little over 30 minutes. Even two weeks out, I continue to tweak little things. Add the trombones here, remove the triangle there. Make this a little faster. Stick a slur between these notes. It seems to never end. It’s not surprising that there are things to polish. According to Finale’s “count items” plugin, the piece has 122,980 notes.

    While you pass the time waiting for the big premiere, maybe you’d like to read the program note. Here you go.

    For the past 10 years, I’ve written all of my music in collaboration with my wife, Abby. She titles nearly all of my pieces, a process that usually involves my writing the music, then playing it for her, after which she tells me what the piece is about. Without her help, “Aurora Awakes” would be “Slow Music Then Fast Music #7 in E-flat.” Sometimes she’ll hear a piece halfway through my writing process and tell me what the music evokes to her, and that can take the piece in a different (and better) direction than I had originally intended. I’ve learned that the earlier she is involved in the process, the better the piece turns out. So with “Wine-Dark Sea,” my symphony for band, I asked for her help months before I ever wrote a note of music.

    The commission, from Jerry Junkin and The University of Texas Wind Ensemble, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music, was for a piece lasting approximately 30 minutes. How could I put together a piece that large? Abby had an idea. Why not write something programmatic, and let the story determine the structure? We had taken a similar approach with “Harvest,” my trombone concerto about Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Why not return to the Greek myths for this symphony? And since this story needed to be big (epic, even), I’d use the original, truly epic tale of Odysseus, as told thousands of years ago by Homer in The Odyssey.

    The full Odyssey, it turned out, was too large, so Abby picked some of the “greatest hits” from the epic poem. She wrote a truncated version of the story, and I attempted to set her telling to music. Here is the story the way Abby outlined it (in three movements), and I set it:

    After ten years of bloody siege, the Trojan War was won because of Odysseus’ gambit: A horse full of soldiers, disguised as an offering. The people of Troy took it in as a trophy, and were slaughtered.

    Odysseus gave the Greeks victory, and they left the alien shores for home. But Odysseus’ journey would take as long as the war itself. Homer called the ocean on which Odysseus sailed a wine-dark sea, and for the Greek king it was as murky and disorienting as its name; he would not find his way across it without first losing himself.

    I. Hubris
    Odysseus filled his ship with the spoils of war, but he carried another, more dangerous, cargo: Pride. This movement opens with his triumphal march, and continues as he and his crew maraud through every port of call on their way home.

    But the arrogance of a conquering mortal has one sure consequence in this world: a demonstration of that mortal’s insignificance, courtesy of the gods. Odysseus offends; Zeus strikes down his ship. The sailors drown. Odysseus is shipwrecked. The sea takes them all.

    II. Immortal thread, so weak
    This movement is the song of the beautiful and immortal nymph Kalypso, who finds Odysseus near death, washed up on the shore of the island where she lives all alone. She nurses him back to health, and sings as she moves back and forth with a golden shuttle at her loom. Odysseus shares her bed; seven years pass. The tapestry she began when she nursed him becomes a record of their love.

    But one day Odysseus remembers his home. He tells Kalypso he wants to leave her, to return to his wife and son. He scoffs at all she has given him. Kalypso is heartbroken.

    And yet, that night, Kalypso again paces at her loom. She unravels her tapestry and weaves it into a sail for Odysseus. In the morning, she shows Odysseus a raft, equipped with the sail she has made and stocked with bread and wine, and calls up a gentle and steady wind to carry him home. Shattered, she watches him go; he does not look back.

    III. The attentions of souls
    But other immortals are not finished with Odysseus yet. Before he can reach his home, he must sail to the end of the earth, and make a sacrifice to the dead. And so, this movement takes place at the gates of the underworld, where it is always night.

    When Odysseus cuts the throats of the sacrificial animals, the spirits of the dead swarm up. They cajole him, begging for blood. They accuse him, indicting him for his sins. They taunt him, mocking his inability to get home. The spirit of his own mother does not recognize him; he tries to touch her, but she is immaterial. He sees the ghosts of the great and the humble, all hungry, all grasping.

    Finally, the prophet Teiresias tells Odysseus what he must do to get home. And so Odysseus passes through a gauntlet beyond the edge of the world, beset by the surging, shrieking souls of the dead. But in the darkness he can at last see the light of home ahead.

    Wine-Dark Sea is dedicated to Jerry Junkin, without whom the piece would not exist. The second movement, “Immortal thread, so weak,” telling of Kalypso’s broken heart, is dedicated to Abby, without whom none of my music over the past ten years would exist.

    1 Comment

    September 23, 2013

    We’re buying a house!

    As of this afternoon – roughly 2 minutes ago! – we’re in contract on a new house here in Cambridge! Okay, not new. Not new at all. It’s 127 years old. It needs all of the work. ALL of it. But when it’s done, man alive, it’s going to be amazing. Please excuse the resolution of these pictures.  I haven’t been in the house with my camera yet, so these pics are all from the listing.  Here’s the outside:

    Here’s the description from the listing:

    Handsome gabled Victorian with cutaway bays in sought-after Radcliffe neighborhood. This significant house, with (a bunch of) square feet of living space on 3 floors, plus finished space in lower level, has an abundance of uniquely beautiful features: two sets of 8 ft high double doors with beveled glass lead into the foyer with ceilings adorned by acanthus leaves, English oak paneling, built-in seating, built-in hat rack with mirror and umbrella stand; quarter-sawn oak flooring and beautifully turned spindles on the staircase; exquisite detail on the FP mantels, tiles and surrounds; and 3 sets of working pocket doors. There is a large cook’s kitchen with gas stove, vented hood and island, which can be opened to the light-filled adjoining morning room, as well as (a bunch of) bedrooms, (several) baths, several flex rooms, an enclosed porch off the kitchen, and finished rooms in the lower level. Two-car garage, plus double driveway. Near Harvard Square, the Law School, the T and all amenities.

    Doesn’t that sound amazing?! Well, most of it does, at least. I changed the listing’s number of bedrooms and bathrooms because when we’re done, those numbers will be different. (There will be fewer bedrooms. This place used to be owned by a bunch of Jesuit priests, and it currently has more bedrooms than my uncle had fingers after the factory accident.) And do we really need a double driveway? No. We have one car, and we rarely drive that, so we’re going to narrow the driveway and increase the amount of lawn.

    So, what’s the inside look like right now? Here’s the view when you walk through the front door.  The ceilings on this floor are a little over 9 feet.  They’re 10 feet on the second floor, and about 8 feet on the top floor.

    Holy crap! There’s a friggin’ seat by the stairs, so if I’m like “whoa, I am way too tired to make it up the stairs right now,” I can sit down and rest. Or, I could sit there and stare at people as they walk through the front door.  But we’re reupholstering that thing.

    This is one of the parlors. (There’s another one across the foyer, and that’s where I’ll put my piano and studio.) In the negative column: radiators. We’ll be replacing those ducted central air and heat.

    But in the positive column..  Holy hell, look at the detail on this fireplace! 127 years old, and nobody has messed it up yet!

    Here’s the dining room, currently with a table big enough for a dozen Jesuit priests.  (Did I mention that there used to be a chapel in the basement?)  The stained glass in pretty crazy.  I’m all for wainscoting, but there is a bit too much brown in this room right now.

    Here’s the dining room’s fireplace, looking out into the foyer. On the right of the foyer is that little built-in mirror and hat rack. I told AEJ that I was excited to hang all of my baseball hats there.  (GO SOX!!!) She told me that I could only hang top hats there, so I’m currently shopping for top hats.

    This is a detail shot of the dining room fireplace. Look at the happy couple!

    Here are the stairs on the second floor – and more stained glass.  But also: emergency lights.  It’s good the priests were safe if the power went out, but we’ll be removing the emergency lights.

    And this is the master bedroom. It’s not much of a master yet, because there’s no big closet and no attached bathroom, but we’re going to change that.

    Then there’s the kitchen. Sigh. Ugly cabinets that don’t go to the ceiling. An island with seven sides. (Septagons are my favorite shape!)  Purple laminate countertops. An overmount sink. Bummer flooring. An unfortunate chandelier.

    But we started with a worse kitchen at our last house in Austin, and when we were done, it looked like this:

    This place is going to be a project for years. We have to remove asbestos, replace the wiring, install a forced air furnace and central air conditioning (and do it without damaging the original trim woodwork), repair damaged wood on the outside of the house – and that’s before we even start to consider the fun stuff, like the redesign of the kitchen (you would not believe what AEJ has planned – it is INCREDIBLE), new bathrooms, and on, and on. I’ll post pictures throughout the process. We’re excited. But please send money.


    September 2, 2013

    Symphony for Band – an update, with audio

    For several months, I’ve been writing a symphony for band for the University of Texas. The world premiere will be at the Texas Music Educators Convention in February. Two movements are done (as of today). I don’t expect to post any other full demo recordings prior to the premiere, but I’m a little too excited about this one, so…

    Here’s movement three — the scherzo. The title is “The attentions of souls.” You can download the full score here. The audio – created with the Vienna Symphonic Library (including their prepared piano library – yes, there’s piano, prepared with chains, in the piece) – is below.

    It starts slow. It doesn’t stay there.


    August 14, 2013

    Xerxes — for metal rock band

    I’ve heard some crazy arrangements of my music, from “Asphalt Cocktail” arranged for Mario Paint Composer…

    to “Redline Tango” for Electone keyboard and performed by a 10-year-old…

    But this latest one might be the most fun for me. It’s “Xerxes,” arranged by Brooks Tarkington IV for metal rock band. Never have the power chords I imagined in my head sounded so sweet. It is, for lack of any better description, badass. Enjoy.


    July 26, 2013


    Five years ago — five! — I was commissioned to write a piece for the Kappa Kappa Psi / Tau Beta Sigma 2013 National Intercollegiate Band.  Yes, they gave me FIVE YEARS!  And I was still late.  Originally due in January 2013, I finally delivered the piece in May.  Not the end of the world, since this was for an honor band, and they wouldn’t start rehearsing until two days before the concert in July, but still… late.

    Every commission has a challenge, and that’s generally what inspires the material.  With this commission, the biggest challenge was the difficulty level.  The players are all current (or very recent) college students, and they’re music majors, and as individuals, they’re excellent players, so I needed to give them some meat.  I didn’t want them to be bored with their parts.  (I never do.  There’s nothing worse – as a listener or a performer – than music that causes boredom.)  At the same time, though, this was an honor band.  They started rehearsing Sunday night, then rehearsed several hours Monday, then Tuesday, and then the concert was Tuesday night.  That’s basically two days of rehearsal for an ensemble that has never played together as a group, with every section consisting of players from all over the country.  It’s basically an All-State band, but with college students instead of high school students – and national, instead of state-based. So the piece needed interesting individual parts, but without quite as many ensemble-specific challenges as I might normally (unintentionally) put into a piece.

    On top of this, the concert would be conducted by a conductor with whom I’d never collaborated — Anthony Maiello from George Mason University.  So I was writing a piece for an ensemble that would not even exist until two days before the concert, to be conducted by a tremendously respected conductor, but one I didn’t know well personally.

    What’s this Maiello character like?

    That’s an actual shot from rehearsal.  And that exactly captures Anthony Maiello.  It is impossible not to love him. (All photos, by the way, are courtesy of Travis Cross.)

    Tony and I had exchanged several emails about the piece, clearing up questions he had, but we hadn’t spoken in person until a few minutes before the first rehearsal on Sunday night.

    Tony had clearly spent dozens of hours studying the piece. This was going to be just fine.

    I hadn’t made him a MIDI, although I usually would with a new piece.  This piece has so many solos and so much rubato that the MIDI sounded mechanical and terrible. I thought in this rare case, the MIDI would do more harm than good, provided I was working with a musically sensitive conductor. Boy howdy, I sure was.

    The first reading rehearsal was Sunday night. I skipped it. Composers: Do not EVER go to the first rehearsal of your piece, especially in the case of a world premiere, but even if it’s been played dozens of times — you DO NOT WANT TO HEAR THE FIRST REHEARSAL, and THE PLAYERS DO NOT WANT YOU THERE. You’ll only cause yourself actual pain. Hearing your piece played in any way other than what you imagined is physically painful. It hurts. So do yourself, and the players, a favor, and wait until at least the second rehearsal before attending.

    The piece is called (Redacted). To quote Jake Wallace’s program note:

    When a classified document must be revealed to the public, it is redacted: Sensitive passages of the text are blacked out, to preserve the secrets within. So revelation just leads to more questions, and what is exposed is only that the truth remains hidden. Writ large, this is the essence of clandestine work—its task is both to keep and to uncover secrets. This dual nature, and its inherent conflict, provides the basis for John Mackey’s (Redacted), a piece that offers hints of covert action and intrigue while holding the full story just out of reach.

    I showed up at rehearsal on Monday morning. I loved working with Tony, and also with this group.

    Here, I describe to the ensemble’s bass trombonist, Sean DeLong, what I consider to be “ideal bass trombone tone.”

    WTF???  It that a tiny double bass?  Oh.  WTF is a cello doing in the band?

    That’s Adam Pratt from Texas Wesleyan University.  One of the pieces on this program called for cello, so there he was, playing euphonium parts on the other pieces, as is tradition with the US Air Force Band. During rehearsal, I looked over at him and thought it might be nice to  take advantage of the fact that THERE’S A DAMN CELLO IN THE BAND. So, I took two measures of what is scored for solo clarinet, and I made it a cello solo. Thank you to Adam for being so accommodating. (The score, by the way, still has that part for clarinets, but I think I’m going to make an official optional cello part just because it was so effective. You’ll see when you listen. You’re going to listen to the piece, right?)

    The premiere on Tuesday night was sort of astonishing, particularly when you realize that this piece had never been played before, so none of the players had heard a recording or anything, and they did this in 48 hours. You can view the full score via the page for (Redacted), and you can listen to the world premiere recording either via that page, or by just clicking the Soundcloud link below.

    Thank you to Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma for commissioning the piece, and thank you to Tony and the National Intercollegiate Band for playing the bejesus out of it.