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Jan. 16, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 6


Composer at work

The critics said electric guitar and string quartet were oil and water. Steven Mackey proved them wrong

By Merrell Noden ’78
Published in the January 16, 2013, issue

Professor Steven Mackey in the recording studio at the Woolworth Music Center.
Professor Steven Mackey in the recording studio at the Woolworth Music Center.

Almost from the moment he first picked up a guitar, in the fifth grade, Steven Mackey could coax ­amazing sounds out of it. By the time he was 13, his two older brothers, then 23 and 28, enlisted him to serve as a sort of magical-­mystery-tour guide during their ­experiments with LSD.

“They would drop acid and I would play the guitar,” writes Mackey in liner notes to his 2001 album Tuck and Roll.

This was northern California in the late ’60s, in the sunny afterglow of the Summer of Love. To Mackey, who did not indulge, it felt safe and wonderful. They would light candles, turn on colored lights, and little bro would begin to play — serving, as he put it, as their “designated driver of sorts.”

The music sent the brothers spinning in circles, dancing, laughing. “For a teenage boy, it was like having a magical power. ... I could improvise for six hours,” Mackey says. “It made me feel I had a talent for it.”

Forty-three years later, Mackey has proved beyond a doubt he has a talent for it. It’s not just that he’s the chairman of Princeton’s music department, who this spring is teaching an Atelier class on musical theater and a graduate composition course. He also is a versatile, highly sought-after composer — one of the leading composers of his generation. Last year Mackey’s piece Lonely Motel: Music from Slide, on which he collaborated with singer and librettist Rinde Eckert and the group eighth blackbird, was nominated for four Grammys and won one, for “best small ensemble performance.” Mackey played guitar on the piece.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a composer at Princeton who’s played so much in the big leagues,” says Mackey’s colleague Paul Lansky *73, a major composer himself, citing Mackey’s collaborations with famed conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony. In August, Mackey completed a piece that is sure to draw attention when it debuts at Carnegie Hall Feb. 12. Commissioned for the Brentano String Quartet, it commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Mackey was 10 when he joined his first band, playing in a fifth-grade ­talent show. He quickly learned the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and was hooked: “The sound of an electric guitar is mother’s milk to me.” He learned guitar licks the way most people did back then: by picking up the needle on his turntable and lowering it again and again, listening over and over until he figured out what his musical heroes were doing. They were the usual suspects: at first, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Page, and Duane Allman; then jazz players like Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin. At age 17, he became the youngest member of a band called Good Day, which played clubs all over northern California. When touring bands came to Sacramento, Good Day was the opening act of choice, playing on the same bill as Tower of Power and Canned Heat, among others.

Still playing in the band, Mackey went to the University of California, Davis, to study physics. He was good at it, and the counterintuitive world of 20th-century physics remains a touchstone, guiding his understanding of sound waves and vibrating strings but also giving him a profound sense of the world’s uncertainty. But he found himself pondering the point of getting a degree in physics. “Was I going to join the military-industrial complex and design nuclear weapons or something?” he wondered. He was, he says, “a long-haired, guitar-playing teenager from northern California in the 1970s.”

A new direction began to appear. Entering an arena for a rock concert in Sacramento, he heard some of the weirdest, most wonderful music he’d ever encountered coming over the ­public-address system. “I thought, ‘Whoa!! What is this?!’” It turned out to be Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. In a survey class at college he was encountering more fantastic music: Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, works by Debussy, and more Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. With the innocence of someone who has not yet been blinkered by a formal education, it did not seem to be all that different from the music he was aiming for. “My first exposure to classical music was like, ‘Wow! This is the most psychedelic rock music I’ve ever heard!’” he recalls. “And that’s what I’m doing now: I’m trying to make the most psychedelic rock music I’ve ever heard.” From physics, he moved to music, earning a Ph.D. at Brandeis University and writing his dissertation on octaves in 12-tone music.

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