By Brandon Cook
The Jacobs School of Music’s New Music Ensemble, under the direction of David Dzubay, performed three modern classical pieces with guest composer and conductor Steven Mackey Thursday in Auer Hall.
“The theme of this concert could be underdog instruments,” Mackey said before the show, referring to the unconventional viola and electric guitar solos featured in the pieces.
Mackey is the chair of the Department of Music at Princeton as well as a recipient of many awards, including a Grammy.
“It’s been amazing,” New Music Ensemble Assistant Director Samuel Wells said. “For every New Music Ensemble, they bring in a world-famous guest composer. They’re exposing their students to almost everything that’s going on in the classical music world today. It helps us figure out how to fit in and what our options are as artists.”
Mackey is renowned amongst musicians for his use of the electric guitar in his chamber music orchestrations.
The combination of the chamber music tradition, which dates back to the 17th century, with modern musical trends is a genre cross that has come to define Mackey’s work.
“People are switching between the two worlds much more quickly,” Wells said. “The boundaries are becoming more blurred. Stephen Mackey was one of the first people to do that with the electric guitar in a very big way, as a performer.”
Thursday’s New Music Ensemble performed two of Mackey’s pieces: “Deal,” a commission from 1995 featuring small chamber orchestra and an extended electric guitar solo, and “Groundswell,” from 2007.
In Mackey’s program notes for “Deal,” he describes the piece in terms of images and movement, shaped around the idea of a soloist “dealing with a whole world that he/she was, paradoxically, prepared for and surprised by.”
“The final layer … is a tape part made up of sounds from the ‘real’ world,” Mackey writes. “It was my idea that these sounds would draw an inclusive perimeter around the electric guitar and orchestra. Compared to a barking dog and a ringing phone the electric guitar and chamber ensemble have more in common than the labels ‘classical music,’ ‘jazz,’ ‘rock,’ and ‘world music’ ordinarily allow.”
Both Wells and New Music Ensemble Director Dzubay believe that “Deal” portrays a convincing uniqueness.
“It’s an interesting hybrid of styles, and very successful,” Dzubay said.
Mackey said he believes his orchestrations are a natural blend of jazz, rock, and classical influences, which he does not view as mutually exclusive genres.
“The music I write is just how I think music should go,” he said. “If you ask me what’s rock and what’s classical — it’s all intertwined.”
Though many modern composers now follow this trend of genre crossing between classical and other musical forms, the style was not practiced until the 1980s and ’90s.
Mackey believes the early “taboo” associated with combining vernacular, or non-classical, influences with traditional music helped strengthen his resolve as a composer.
“I really had something I could push against,” he said. “I had to sort of steel myself and have a healthy thick skin. We’re in a wonderful period of music right now where it’s very open.”
Nevertheless, he believes that this inclusivity might prove a barrier to some musicians in the development of their own styles.
“Composers younger than me — a lot of my students — they just don’t make those distinctions between genres,” he said. “In some ways, it’s harder for young composers to individuate themselves.”
“Deal” featured an extended improvised solo on electric guitar, which Mackey performed himself.
“His skills on the guitar are pretty insane,” said Lydia Umlauf, the New Music Ensemble’s first violin.
While the composer said he does not see a distinction between classical roots and rock music roots, he views himself and his improvisation as rooted in the style of a progressive rock and blues guitarist.
“It comes from the blues,” he said. “Improvisation is sort of back in the flow of the composition process. It’s an important part of my compositional process as a way of getting an idea out there.”
Mackey means this literally.
“There are directions in the score to play ‘as if improvised,’” he said of the piece “Deal.”
He said he prefers to improvise while composing.
“Getting that first idea is often the result of improvisation,” he said. “Once the idea is out here, I chisel it and I whittle it down, and I polish it and I paint it, and I put it in the oven and I take it out, and I break apart and do it again.”
The ensemble opened the performance with the short piece “Nigun II,” a Hassidic tune without words, by composer Sarah Nemtsov.
Audience member and Jacobs student Eli Schille-Hudson said he thought the piece was contemplative.
“I liked the spaciousness of it,” he said.
Mackey’s five-part “Groundswell,” unlike “Deal,” did not feature improvisation. The piece featured Sekyeong Cheon on viola.
“I thought it developed really well,” Schille-Hudson said. “I’ll come back of course.”
The New Music Ensemble will perform again April 17 to premiere three new pieces.