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Awareness is Key: An Interview with Composer John Mackey

Mike Lawson • Archives • August 13, 2010

Peacefully coexisting with musical literature for band and orchestra is a topic that is typically at the core of most directors’ thoughts in both philosophy and planning. After taking a look at two of the more contentious aspects of the subject (programming quality literature for inexperienced musicians and the current fashions of transcribing musical material for the “outdoor” marching band and drum corps), it might be best to seek out someone who has practical current experience in both areas, as well as a willingness to share his accumulated wisdom.

I recently caught up with Mackey by phone at his Austin home; he seemed at once eager and a bit wary to discuss what we have already found to be two volatile subjects. This is likely an appropriate approach for one so in the spotlight of his profession. While talking about pacing and development in recent ensemble works, it came up that, just as with concert pieces, one of the more recent criticisms of “outdoor” music has been the lack of a sense of adequate development or musical “space.” Mackey suggested that problems arise if “the music can’t breathe and there’s no real structural development.” He agreed that the pacing/development issue should not be confused with only frenetic tempos or high energy. “I am often accused of writing music that is purely visceral. They say, ‘It’s really cool, but it’s so loud!’ That’s my personality I like loud and fast!”

We often hear spectators’ complaints directly related to this pacing/development issue. They refer to “a lack of melody,” “higher-faster-louder,” or “too hard to understand,” particularly in regard to contest or festival music. Much of this undoubtedly comes from the common techniques of abridging source material: “Each one (source tune) was probably ten minutes long to begin with, and now it’s maybe three minutes,” offers Mackey. “Everything is all chopped all up, and that’s just the way that all goes.”

The challenge seems to be providing performers an optimal demonstration of skills through the musical score. There’s a lot that can be attempted in a ten-minute contest show, and any number of arrangements seem to include the maximum that or maybe more than can be appreciated by most listeners and viewers. They might also include more elements than can be convincingly and consistently performed by the students.

In 2008, the well-known Marian Catholic High School Band from Chicago Heights, Illinois performed an entire competition program based on the music of John Mackey. The show was a great success, both artistically and competitively, finishing fourth at the Bands of America Grand National Championships in Indianapolis. The creative mind behind the musical and visual orchestration is MCHS Band Director Greg Bimm. Speaking about Bimm’s adaptation of Mackey’s own material, John says: “I was really impressed with Greg’s [transcriptions] mostly because it was not very much changed” from the original concepts. “Part of the pieces he used in that show were originally written for string quartet it had never occurred to me it could work with winds until I heard him do it. That’s like oh my gosh, I should make a band piece out of that! It’s as good as the string quartet version. How does it make any sense that he took a string quartet piece and made a marching band piece out of it and have it sound, I thought, maybe better than the string quartet version?”

Those that know Mr. Bimm understand that he has brought such a high level of musical and visual artistry to the band activity over so many years that the Marian Marching and Symphonic Bands are known for innovation and substance, regardless of venue: indoors or out, concert hall or football field.

It should be noted that John Mackey is not known as a devotee of the marching pageantry world. “I admittedly am not the first person to ask about marching shows, because I don’t watch them. I might enjoy a marching show I’m not part of, but if my music is in them, I tend to avoid them, because when I’m in them I’m like: that’s not how that goes!” He continues, “I spend so much time writing the piece, micromanaging every note of every bar, that if any of that is changed, it’s changed! Even if it’s cool it’s changed.” That statement makes his effusive praise of Greg Bimm’s work even more significant.

While the frenetic pace of marching shows can raise some difficulties for arrangers, performers, and the audience, at times John Mackey invites similar elements into concert programming. “I have been accused of that [higher-faster-louder] in some of my own concert music as well,” Mackey admits. “I have pieces where I try to do it intentionally that really do not get a breath. The entire point of ‘Asphalt Cocktail’ is not to stop. The whole point of that is that it’s an onslaught in your face for five-and-a-half minutes. And basically that’s as close as I can have to having marching band music in the concert hall!” In this case, it’s all by design. He explains, “It’s as loud as marching band music, it has a Kevlar head snare drum in the percussion section it is so intended to be just visceral. There’s nothing artsy about that. It’s never going to win a Pulitzer. I just wanted the audience to go: ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing!'” He further compares the experience to the classic Maxell Audio Tape ads of the ’80s, where the listener was literally blown back in his chair while enjoying the powerful sound blasting from the stereo. Effective imagery!

Mackey has also admitted to sensing a degree of uniformity in regard to the approach of musical design with competitive groups, especially when looking at the bigger picture. When asked for potential solutions, Mackey emphasized one of the most fundamental concepts we have in the arts. “The solution is the same thing that works in concert music, that makes it more exciting. I like loud and fast, but that only works if it’s not all loud and fast! It’s contrast that makes the louds seem louder. When people hear ‘Turbine,’ they think it’s the loudest thing they’ve ever heard. But the fact is that it’s nine minutes long, and six minutes of it is really very quiet. You think it’s crazy loud because it had gotten quiet. If there isn’t enough contrast, then it just become fatiguing.”

What practical lessons have we learned from this encounter with a composer at the height of his art? What can we apply in our ongoing quest to de-mystify the task of choosing and programming works for school instrumental ensembles?

• It takes effort from the composers, directors, and players to assure merit and substance in music through composition, interpretation, and characteristic performing.
• Music composed or arranged for an optimal demonstration of the players’ skills can be written to accommodate characteristic artistry.
• Part of the actual demand of the musical score is the artistic training and sensitivity required to realize the concepts in performance.
• The basic tenets of ensemble music are the same whether on the stage or the field.
• Music composed or arranged for an optimal demonstration of the players’ skills has a logical tendency to be over-saturated and over-stimulated, making it difficult for the audience to understand.
• Music composed or arranged for an optimal demonstration of the players’ skills has a tendency to sacrifice artistic form and structure for superficial impact.

The key to avoiding the pitfalls of the last two bulleted items is a simple one: be aware!

Composer John Mackey’s works for band and orchestra are not only at the forefront of current programming for advanced high school, collegiate, and professional ensembles, they are critically acclaimed, as well. Mackey’s characteristic use of state-of-the-art, high-energy metric and harmonic devices have also made his compositions prime sources of material for “outdoor” ensembles.

John writes for orchestra, wind ensemble, chamber groups, and the theater, focusing of late on music for dance and symphonic winds. Some of his more noteworthy pieces include “Redline Tango” and “Under the Rug” for orchestra, as well as “Turbine” and “Kingfishers Catch Fire” for band. As noted earlier, Mackey’s music currently enjoys frequent programming in the concert hall, and widespread transcription for marching bands and drum corps.

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