Steven Mackey: On All Fours

Program Note

Steven Mackey (b.1956)
On All Fours (1990)

Composer and guitarist Steven Mackey was born to American parents stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. He is regarded as one of the leading composers of his generation and has composed for orchestra, chamber ensembles, dance, and opera. He has received numerous awards, including a Grammy, several awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. Mackey’s first musical passion was playing the electric guitar in rock bands based in northern California. He blazed a trail in the ’80s and ’90s by including the electric guitar and vernacular music influence in his concert music and he regularly performs his own work, including two electric guitar concertos and numerous solo and chamber works. Mackey is also active as an improvising musician and performs with his band Big Farm. 

Mackey is Professor of Music and former chair of the Department of Music at Princeton University, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1985. He was the recipient of Princeton University’s first Distinguished Teaching Award in 1991. Mackey was Composer in Residence at Yellow Barn in 2003, and in 2013 completed an Artist Residency that led to the composition of One Red Rose for the Brentano Quartet, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and Yellow Barn to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

“The blues arrangements for string quartet I did in the late ’80s had a great impact on On All Fours and subsequent music. I regard the bluesmen of the mid-20th century (Robert Pete Williams, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf et al.), travelling up and down the Mississippi, as the troubadours of our age and the keepers of a rich tradition of storytelling through song. These blues arrangements were an excuse for me to find ways to make the string quartet bark and growl and generally get “low-down-and-dirty” which has not been a central element in the Classical/Romantic tradition. On All Fours benefits directly from these explorations. The piece was written soon after my father had a massive stroke that left him with aphasia—a neurological condition in which the afflicted cannot access their vocabulary but is fully cognizant of their failing. He was also unable to walk, although he could crawl. On All Fours is dedicated to dogs, dolphins and my father after his stroke: creatures with wit, soul and intelligence but with the simultaneously comic and frustrating inability to communicate easily or precisely.”

—Steven Mackey