Steven Mackey: Heavy Light

Program Note

Steven Mackey (b.1956)
Heavy Light (2001)

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.

Heavy Light started life as a collaboration with choreographer Donald Byrd and the ensemble MOSAIC. The members of MOSAIC and I visited Donald’s New York rehearsal studio and spent several days improvising with the dancers in a variety of scenarios. Heavy Light is entirely notated (with the exception of a couple of improvised guitar solos) and none of the material unearthed in the improv workshops made it into the piece. Yet those improvisations led to the governing metaphor for the piece as a whole. Something about the sound of the electric guitar with the classical virtuosity of the MOSAIC core group and the free-form, pagan athleticism of Donald’s dancers suggested a "psychedelic" aesthetic.

During this workshop, flutist Zizi Mueller brought in The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary. This is Leary’s guide for using LSD to explore new realms of consciousness along the lines of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and it (the book, not LSD) led Donald and me further into the imagery and familiar tropes of sixties psychedelia: ritual; hallucination; spinning patterns; drones; chants; raga-like melodies; exotic percussion grooves; stylized mysticism; vivid contrasts between meditative and ecstatic states, between reflective and expressionistic modes; the sound of one hand clapping; embracing contradictions, (e.g., Heavy Light)...Donald and I wanted to explore the sensibility in which, at the time at least, it seemed that the experimental and avant-garde almost became mainstream; the sonic explorations of Jimi Hendrix counted as "popular" and the aspiration to transcend waking consciousness and achieve some kind of spiritual awakening was "normal".

Of all the music I’ve composed over the past twenty-five years, I think Heavy Light has the most explicit connection to my background as a rock guitarist. I think this is due to the subject matter and the fact that this is something of a "period piece". Composing this piece reminded me that my aesthetic outlook was formed in large part by growing up in the sixties and seventies in Northern California with two older brothers. The "zeitgeist" of that time contributed to a fundamental assumption I have that the purpose of music is to explore new realms of consciousness.

—Steven Mackey