Steven Mackey: Four Iconoclastic Episodes

Program Note

Steven Mackey (b.1956)
Four Iconoclastic Episodes (2009)

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. 

“In 2003, violinist Anthony Marwood had the idea for a double concerto with strings for he and I to play after we performed Physical Property, my piece for electric guitar and string quartet, at Yellow Barn. Knowing that Physical Property, written in 1992, had brought us together, I began Four Iconoclastic Episodes with the idea to check in again, 17 years later, with the sensibility of the earlier work. Four Iconoclastic Episodes is music driven by energy, motion and the joy of playing. It is not as irrepressibly exuberant as Physical Property and explores, from time to time, some darker affects. But I suppose that is to be expected since instead of being 36, I am 53, have a bad knee, bags under my eyes, have lost several people close to me, and often have an irresistible urge to lie down. Nevertheless, like the earlier work, Four Iconoclastic Episodes is music that lives on stage not on the page.

Four Iconoclastic Episodes is also music that loves music. One of the great benefits of being a composer is the opportunity to interact with interesting music in a more active way than one can as a listener. Like my nine-month old son who consummates his relationship with interesting objects by putting them in his mouth, I like to swallow music that interests me in the hope that it will become part of me. 

Each of the four episodes was written in response to some music that excited me. Like An Animal is an homage to the Jazz/Rock fusion music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra: changing meters, satanic harmonies, and virtuosic interplay between electric guitar and violin.

Salad Days was written in response to some African popular music I heard on the radio one day. (I was in my car and was late for an important meeting so I never heard what or who it was.) The music transformed plucked instruments indigenous to Africa such as the Kora (something like a baroque lute) and Mbira (thumb piano) into exotic electric guitar music. I have in turn tried to transform my recollection (based on one hearing) of the bright staccatos and plucky arpeggios of that music into something consistent with my language.

There is a song by the band Radiohead called Amnesiac that begins with seemingly arrhythmic piano chords. As the other instruments enter, the context is clarified and the seemingly offbeat chords seem to “swing” comfortably in that meter. Lost in Splendor is similarly inscrutable at the outset and then becomes clarified by the context. In this case the same rhythm can be interpreted in a couple of different meters and tempos. Technically speaking, Lost in Splendor is a chaconne in that there is a repeating pattern that runs continuously throughout the episode. However, the subtle shifts and nuances of this multi-valent rhythm slip into the background to become a fragile and restless accompaniment for a tender song without words. I doubt that the obsessive cyclical nature of the chaconne would emerge on a first or second hearing.

Destiny, on the other hand, puts its obsessive pattern front and center, bar by bar throughout. There is something of a big, slow 12/8 Chicago Blues feel to the groove, but the way the harmony moves in a continuous one-way journey through this unchanging rhythm is in response to some of Schubert’s late chamber music that I have encountered in my “day job” teaching at Princeton University.

Each of the four episodes has its own limited material, distinct personality and there is nothing shared between them except of course my sensibility with regard to how music should go. Ultimately they belong together in my mind because the particular characters and energy flows balance and contrast one another to create an odd but intrinsically expressive shape. I must say that throughout my work on the piece I was drawn to the archetype of the four seasons: Winter/Like An Animal—stormy, harsh, merciless; Spring/Salad Days—playful, optimistic, innocent; Summer/Lost in Splendor—warm, lush; and Autumn/Destiny—bittersweet.”

—Steven Mackey