SMTD symphony band presents Steven Mackey’s ‘Ohm’

Thursday, November 17, 2016 - 11:56am

The act of composing music is oftentimes both an act of discovery and of imitation. As a part of his or her process, a composer may sit down and explore new sound-worlds, or perhaps they may mimic the sonic events around them. Frequently, they may do both in the same piece. Once in a while, they may do so with the same sound.

This dualism is no paradox, and the result of such exploration and recollection can be exhilarating. Friday, one such example will be performed by the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance Symphony Band — American composer Steven Mackey’s “Ohm.”

“This is my first [piece for a concert band],” Mackey said in an interview. “I’ve written a lot for orchestra. I realize it’s a very different animal — orchestra and concert band — so it was great. It was a challenge, but it was fun.”

Mackey is one of the most successful and respected composers active today, with works commissioned and performed by some of the leading ensembles in the nation. Well-known for his dramatic works — such as “Lonely Motel,” which was composed for the ensemble Eighth Blackbird and won a Grammy in 2011 — Mackey’s entry into the classical music world was non-traditional.

“I started music when I was about nine or ten,” he said. “But I started just playing guitar, and in my teen years played in bands. I was very serious about the electric guitar, but I didn’t read music until I was 20, and I hadn’t heard any classical music until I was 19. When I did hear classical music, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s what I should be doing,’ and that was in college, at the University of California Davis.”

Mackey went on to continue his education with a Masters degree from State University of New York at Stony Brook and a doctorate from Brandeis University, both in music composition. At present, Mackey teaches as a professor of music at Princeton University. Viewing music as a means to express the eccentricities of human existence, Mackey composes works that are both explicitly and implicitly dramatic.

“I think that I have a predilection that the reason I’ve done dramatic music is because I have an interest in making things happen,” Mackey said. “I’ve always found music to be this wonderful mystery. You know, how can varying frequencies at varying intervals of time mean anything at all, let alone convey all this drama and excitement and expression?

“And so, being in search of that — finding things that really feel like they happen, finding notes that change the destiny of a piece, the little turns of phrase that really make an impact — has been an interest in all my music. I think that’s led me to write dramatic music, music explicitly for the stage, but I think that’s a sort of driving force in all my music.”

Mackey’s piece for concert band, “Ohm,” while not explicitly dramatic in a theatrical sense, is no exception. Throughout, the drama is in some ways found in the contrasts within the music. Taking its germinal idea from two different sources, the music lives out a dichotomy.

“Like a lot of my music, it starts from an accidental discovery or experiment,” he said. “In this case I was thinking about all of these wonderful low instruments at my disposal, — you don’t usually have a contrabass clarinet and bass clarinet and contrabassoon in an orchestra. Meanwhile, I have a son … who is very interested in Star Wars and lightsabers that kind of stuff. The sound of the lightsaber, the vroomv, must have been in the back of my mind, because I ended up kind of creating that at the opening of the piece.”

Taking inspiration from the central sound in the piece, Mackey’s choice of title also reflects a duality, in addition to being a pun.

“It’s a very electric sound, so the title of the piece is a play on words between ohm, o-h-m, which refers to electricity and that kind of lightsaber vroomv — and of course more metaphorically, electricity,” Mackey said.

“I think it’s a pretty exciting piece, it gets rockin’ as it goes, so there’s that kind of electricity. But also, a lot of the piece has this undercurrent of low pedal tones, one note just sort of, ‘om,’ like the meditation phrase o-m, so it’s a play between those two contradictory forces, the o-m of serenity and the o-h-m of electricity.”

In explaining his process of composing “Ohm,” Mackey drew attention to the fact that composition is very much an exploratory process, saying often, musical gestures and ideas are generated unintentionally.

“In this case, it’s not that I set out to make that sound, it’s that I was kind of fooling around with it — I call it ‘digging in the garden,’ when I’m beginning a piece,” Mackey said. “I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going or what I’m looking for sometimes, I’m just seeing what I can unearth. And I unearthed something that had that electric quality, that lightsaber quality, and I recognized it.

“I probably wouldn’t have been drawn to it when I discovered it, as strongly, had I not been living this fascination with my son. Yes I’m inspired by sounds around me, but partly I’m just inspired by what I discover when I’m sketching work.”

In addition to Mackey’s “Ohm,” — which was commissioned by a consortium of bands — Friday’s performance will feature compositions by Robert Beaser, Steven Stucky, Percy Grainger and a David John arrangement of Ginastera.