Interview: Steven Mackey

George Grella

By George Grella

on 10.05.11 in Interviews

Whether you call it indie or alt-classical, there’s a real, lively, expanding movement to combine rock and pop attitudes and accessibility with the compositional techniques and forms of the classical tradition. Shara Worden singing with an orchestra? St. Vincent writing chamber music? It’s happening. There are roots in the minimalism of Steve Reich and others, but the rock element — the direct energy of the music &#8212 can be traced back to a particular figure: guitarist and composer Steven Mackey.

Mackey’s musical path began in rock bands and brought him into classical composition. He never left rock behind, and has been singularly responsible for planting the electric guitar firmly into new music. He’s written for chamber groups, orchestras, dance ensembles and opera performers, with the guitar an important and unselfconscious presence.

eMusic’s George Grella talked with him about his ideas and his new CD, Lonely Motel.


Lonely Motel is a set of songs from a “lovelorn psychologist.” Where did this idea come from?

Rinde [Eckert, the lyricist and singer] heard about an experiment in which a psychologist showed subjects blurry slides. Then the slides were snapped into focus and the time it took subjects to correctly identify the image was measured. Then they were shown blurry slides but asked to guess what was pictured; it took them twice as long to identify the focused slides. In the third phase, there was a shill in the room, someone who the subjects thought was another subject. The shill disagreed with whatever guess the subject made about the slide. It then took them four times longer to identify the focused slide.

This has obvious ramifications for politics and religion but as we started actually writing songs we became more preoccupied with the psychology of the psychologist. Through the words and music a character emerged, who, in spite of — or maybe because of — being in the business of measuring other people’s delusions, chose to live his life in a state of benign denial. We focused on personal perception, self-delusion and the isolation caused by our own fuzzy, personal views of reality.

Is this a classical piece?

We call it “concert theater.” Live performances have used video projections, a narrator (me), voice-overs, costumes, and choreography for eighth blackbird [the ensemble]. That piece is called Slide. The recording, Lonely Motel: Music From Slide, was conceived as a “concept” album, with one track flowing into the next in a precise way. There is an ever deepening sense of the singer’s psyche and a fragmented narrative. I would say pretty much the same as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Schubert’s Die Winterreise.

The plain language of the songs is rare in classical music, where songs usually come from poetry; is this intentional?

It’s a value. We share a delight in the interplay between the mundane and the transcendent, like the wit and gravity I try to seek in my music. The words are crisp and direct but with all the vivid imagery of poetry. And so a description of the interior of a cheap motel can take us to a place of deep reflection and fantasy.

How did you start collaborating with Rinde?

I contacted him in 1995 because I thought he would be the perfect actor/singer for an opera, Ravenshead. I wasn’t aware that he was also an extraordinary writer. I didn’t have a libretto and after reading some of Rinde’s writings I asked him if he would do it. We built the piece by getting into the same room and writing, playing and singing together, a far cry from the classical paradigm of setting text. We have since collaborated on several projects: Ravenshead, Dreamhouse, Lonely Motel and Big Farm.

Tell me about your rock band, Big Farm.

Big Farm is Rinde, Jason Trueting (So Percussion), bassist Mark Haanstra and myself. We have our first CD tracked and it will be released on New Amsterdam records in early 2012. It’s an organic extension of my composing and a serious enterprise. We’re too busy to play out enough, and when I sat down to write for us I was under deadlines and I knew that I couldn’t write something without borrowing from my ‘classical’ self. So the first three songs became three movements from my concerto for electric guitar and violin, Four Iconoclastic Episodes.

All the members have contributed compositions and the music ranges from completely notated pieces to collaborative constructions with improvised details. We came together because we are equally comfortable reading a complex score or improvising, and in between. One thing I appreciate about it is that in most of my life playing my own music for electric guitar I am kind of a novelty. There is always some sense that I’m an interloper into the classical world. In Big Farm I’m not viewed suspiciously!