Friday Performance Pick – 120

John Mackey, Asphalt Cocktail

Have you ever thought of giving a musical composition to someone as a present? John Mackey’s 2009 Asphalt Cocktail came about in just such a way. An admirer of the Michigan State University Wind Ensemble and its conductor Dr. Kevin Sedatole asked composer John Mackey to write a new piece as a gift. In fact, commissioning compositions this way accounts for the creation of a lot of music throughout history.


Professor Carol, Evgenii Fuk, and John Mackey

But getting a commission to write music and finding the ideas needed are two different things. You may not know the name John Mackey, but he is one of today’s most gifted and successful composers. His following in what we sometime call the “band world” is enormous: he’s like a super-star. Wind ensembles around the world eagerly await his newest pieces.

Mackey’s compositions are infused with an edgy energy, but filled with rich harmonies and soaring melodies. They can also be explosive, bubbling over with electrical energy, complex rhythms, and a fascinating array of percussive colors.

Mackey is conscientious about his titles. He says that titles need to be like invitations to a party. They should tell the listener something about the music to follow. So with great assistance from his wife, who suggests many of his titles, he likes to employ vivid titles such as Frozen Cathedral (a stunning musical depiction of Denali/Mt. McKinley), High Wire (portraying the daring play of acrobats on a tightrope), and Sheltering Sky (rich harmonies, shimmering instrumental colors and folk-like melodies evoking the majesty of the sky).

But what is an Asphalt Cocktail? The phrase itself can mean different things, but primarily it’s used to describe a bad “wipe-out” while skateboarding. Mackey in fact was working in New York City, which put him in the mood to write a highly energetic piece. A fellow composer suggested the phrase as a possible title for his own composition! Mackey, captivated by the idea, asked to take it on and the friend assented.

The resulting piece reflects some of the most dazzling aspects of Mackey’s style. Watch these young performers as they grapple, seemingly effortlessly, with the complex changes in meter and rhythmic intricacy. Split-second accuracy is required in every part. There’s no rest for the players in a piece like this. Playing this piece probably does feel a bit like careening down a hill on a skateboard that’s about to crash.

It’s energizing to experience a new work like Asphalt Jungle. No matter how astonishing the beloved compositions from the past, music was never meant to remain a revered antique. Before recording technology, historical pieces did not have the staying power they do now. Very few popular pieces kept their popularity. New compositions were needed constantly.

Today the situation is all but reversed and composers have a difficult time breaking through the system to bring their works to today’s audiences—except in the world of wind ensembles, where there is almost a thirst for the newest, most exciting pieces. So, enjoy this performance and the young players who bring their skills to Asphalt Jungle.

And if you get interested in Mackey’s music, search out the titles listed above. Also, you might enjoy reading about a Kickstarter campaign that The Dallas Winds has just launched regarding their upcoming recording of many of Mackey’s most popular works. The Dallas Winds even will be live-streaming a good deal of the recording process to people who get involved in the campaign.

Can you imagine what composers of two hundred years ago would have thought about all of this? My guess it that, after their initial shock, they’d be ready to jump right into the excitement.

The Gifts of Travel

carol-bermudaQuite rightly, people say, “It’s incredible what you see and do on your travels.” Especially since beginning to work as a Smithsonian speaker, it has been precisely that: incredible. The panoply of cities and countries I tour, plus the unfathomable experience of gazing upon the open sea . . . well, I never stop pinching myself.

Growing up in Roanoke, Virginia, the likelihood of travel was zero. The world did not extend past my back yard. Admittedly, it was a big backyard that included a field with a garden and a baseball diamond we made ourselves. We had a rickety grape arbor and flourishing chestnut trees too. In those days, kids and dogs roamed freely, and our back yard was a favorite spot for the neighborhood. Things were not dull.

But with all of that, I dreamed of travel. Every day, I gazed out my bedroom window to the hill rising above our street. Named Round Hill, it had older, fancier houses on it. When we drove across it, I could see a good deal of northwest Roanoke stretched out below. Beyond that, in the distance, lay the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. And beyond that lay the world.

Not unusual for the times, our family did not travel. Vacations were something that the characters in my books took. Travel was what Odysseus did. And Captain Ahab. Despite yearning, I never thought I’d get anywhere.

But I did get to travel, beginning with college, and ratcheting up hugely when I was thirty and did doctoral research in the Soviet Union. And since then, I can barely recall all of the opportunities. The child dreaming out of her window could never have fathomed it.

So now, docked at the Bermuda Royal Naval Port, with the Union Jack flapping outside my balcony and a stone fortress stretched almost eye-level in the distance, I continue to be humbled by my life of travel. Grateful, thrilled, excited, and humbled.

And yet, surprising still to me, the best part of it, believe it or not, can be the simple moments when one connects with fellow travelers. Just now, I was in the café on Deck 5, where yogurt, pastries, and fruit linger for those who don’t make official breakfast times. A fellow was standing there, puzzled, before the complex coffee machine. It has all sorts of settings (espresso, cappuccino), plus a button for hot water. Surrounding it all are different-sized cups, multiple racks for tea bags, silver dispensers for cream and milk, little plates of jams, and different sized spoons elegantly covered by linen napkins. Believe it or not, it can be confusing the first time you use it. And men, I’ve noticed, do not enjoy being confused by such things.

The staff was fully engaged in an emergency drill. That means 95% of the 500 plus personnel had donned life jackets and were positioned in the stairwells, at the life boats, and throughout the halls, checking each cabin to make sure their “practice guests” were evacuated. It’s astonishing for those of us still on the ship, going quietly about our business (as we’re told to do) to watch while they scurry through such drills. The trombone player from the band is right there with the pastry chef and the engine room specialists.

But meanwhile, this fellow was trying to figure out his tea. I was happy to help. The little honey jars he was seeking were nowhere to be found. But, hey, I’m an old hand, right? So I know where they keep things on the ships. At least, some things. Especially honey.

I reached under the counter and pulled out a jar. We split it, remarking on the absurdity of us seeking honey while these serious people are practicing to ensure they can save our lives in an emergency. A few more philosophical comments ensued, and we nodded and parted directions.

These are the moments I love best while traveling. I’ll see him on the ship several times while we cross the Atlantic to Barcelona. He and his wife probably will come to the lectures. But that brief moment of multi-layered engagement won’t be repeated. Nor will it be forgotten.

The grand, the astonishing, the historical: these are what I dreamed of as a child. These are the undeniable and priceless gifts that come from travel. But equally significant are the tiny moments—the ones that don’t go in history books or novels. Times when we can grab a door for someone with mobility difficulties, engaging in a a pleasant exchange about life while we our eyes connect. Or the moment we can find someone a spoon of honey for a steaming cup of tea.

Do You Remember Me?

remember-meA man came up to me at the Greenville, South Carolina, Great Homeschool Convention, asking this dreaded question. Actually, he said it more delicately . . . something like, “You probably won’t remember me.”

The fact is, thirty years have passed since I last saw him graduating from SMU with a Masters degree in Music Theory. He had taken a Mozart Opera seminar from me, as well as Music Bibliography—one of those graduate courses designed to take undergraduates and turn them into professional researchers.

I did not recognize him, sorry to say. But the minute he said his name, I was flooded with memories. Oddly enough, I remember students first by recalling their handwriting. Somehow, handwriting stays vivid in my mind. It transfers both identity and intellectual substance in such a way that I can almost see myself mulling over their long-ago tests and quizzes. (Of course, with public schools discarding the critical skill of handwriting, will future generations develop a written identity at all?)

Simultaneously to recalling handwriting, I recall the kind of work a student did, particularly if it was excellent. And his was. After that, I try to remember who was in class with them, as well as important things such as what they performed on their senior recitals.

It’s all great fun. But the greatest pleasure comes from looking at a grown former student and connecting the excellent work done back then with the wonderful things he or she now pursues. These accomplishments may not be in music, or even within the arts. Students take paths that were unimaginable when they sat trapped in desks in a music-history classroom.

This long-ago student certainly has done marvelous things. He happily agreed that I could give his name: Dr Roger O’Neel, now a Professor of Worship at Cedarville University. After completing his Masters in Music Theory (as well as a Masters in Conducting), he earned his Ph.D. in Theory at the University of Texas. Then he worked in many capacities, including in church ministry. A professor now, he’s also raising a big family and, at that conference, was representing Cedarville University (Ohio) as a speaker and a college recruiter.

The following day, I sat in on his absolutely beautiful talk entitled Shepherding Your Child’s Heart. It was based on a clear and (for me) novel reading of the 23rd Psalm. I may not have immediately recognized Roger’s face, but I certainly knew this Roger whose logical, insightful, and persuasive rhetoric illuminated the room.

Much of my life has been devoted to students—college students for decades and, now, high-schoolers who are struggling to take the next step. What these “kids” don’t know (and I didn’t either) is that life will take you on completely unforeseen journeys. These journeys don’t stop when you graduate college, or even when you start your first job. They don’t stop when you marry or your kids grow up, either. If the desire for learning and the receptivity to new experiences stay strong, then the journey will continue to transform you throughout your life.

I began by writing that Roger asked me a dreaded question. It’s also a most blessed question. It’s scary only for those first seconds as one wracks one’s brain trying to figure it out. After that, it’s one of the greatest of all questions. It opens a window through which light pours, filling one’s heart with joy.

Teaching the Arts Classically

art-classically-2Parents and tutors who meticulously research their Latin curricula, devise brilliant reading programs, and accumulate terrific materials for math and science may still find themselves floundering when it comes to teaching the Fine Arts.

For reasons that include a lack of confidence and gaps in their own background, many tell me they find teaching the appreciation and history of art, music, architecture, dance, and theater to be a daunting path.

We will address this problem in our Spring conference Teaching the Arts Classically: an Exploration of Beauty, which will convene Saturday, May 13, 2017, right here in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Working together with other speakers, including Dr. Matthew Post of the University of Dallas, we’ll be digging into the rationale, pedagogy, and aesthetics of a classical approach to the Fine Arts.

I’ll begin the day with a plenary address (A Classical Approach to Artistic Literacy) that raises the alarm of artistic illiteracy in our culture. Then we’ll have break-out sessions devoted to architecture, poetry, art history, and the moral connection between beauty and art. After a lively lunch, which will be provided, the afternoon will begin with a musical performance, followed by a workshop on sacred music, and conclude with a panel discussion

We’d love to have you join us for the day. Click here to learn more about the program, speakers, and early-bird registration. Tell your friends, post to your lists, and let’s build an on-going community of educators and lovers of learning who understand that the Fine Arts are not an elective, not a frill, but a cherished treasure of our Western Culture.

Music for Gaming

minecraftEach week brings its challenges, right? Last week, mine was preparing a pre-concert talk I would give for the March 7 Dallas Wind’s Video Games in Concert.

I probably needn’t state that I’m not a “gamer.” Long ago, I dropped a quarter into a Pac-Man arcade. I scored poorly but do remember thinking the “music” was cute.

“Cute,” actually, was a specific stage in video-game music. Think of the now-classic tunes of Super Mario Bros. But now, cute has evolved into lush, lyrical, dynamic music created for an explosive, high-dollar gaming industry. This industry provides lucrative avenues for composers who, otherwise, would be staring at the walls, wishing they had a way to have their music performed.

Case in point. In the early 1990s a marvelous composition student in our SMU program named Guy Whitmore surprised me by moving out to Oregon and joining a start-up company that developed video games. I remember cocking my head and saying, “Huh?”

To this day I cherish the memory of his master’s recital which was staged in different areas of our cavernous Fine Arts’ building: off we tramped jollily through hallways and down staircases, leaving behind one exciting piece in search of another. I presumed he’d be heading off to a doctoral program.

“Video games? Why? What will happen to your career as a composer?”

Well, I wouldn’t ask that question today. His explanations back then foreshadowed what now is patently obvious: gaming music is where the action is today for composers. Writing music for video games involves developing new skills—new compositional strategies—because the musical themes, harmonies, and forms are intertwined with the game’s strategies and outcomes.

Such burgeoning new techniques tempt one to say, “Move over, old-style composition methods.” Except the old-style compositional skills are still needed. Video-game music thrives on the most basic of musical components such as counterpoint, theme and variation, and harmonic sequencing. Increasingly lush instrumentation (both digital and acoustic) soars above contrasting sections based on the most traditional rhythms like the waltz and the march.

Now I express my concern about what I call the “digital dulling” of our children in talks I give around the country. People may finally be waking up to the destructive, addictive power of video exposure in children. Shockingly young children spend vast stretches of time hypnotically engrossed in graphically vivid and, far too often, horrifically violent scenaria.

Yet, while playing these games, they are simultaneously hearing music that could serve as a ballet score in the 19th century. Music where the action shifts between robust waltzes and heroic marches. Music where heroes are characterized by melodies played by bassoon and English horn, piccolos and violas. (Yes, orchestras and wind ensembles are increasingly employed in the world of gaming music.)

Could there be hope here? Kids acknowledge being drawn to the games in part because of the lush, descriptive music. This attraction could lead them to sample other, equally lush Western classical repertoire. Perhaps the bridge from Devil May Cry 4 to Scheherezade will be easier to cross than the exploding bridges that their digital heroes race across.

Chatting with folks after my talk, one parent’s comment struck me. “Maybe I need to stop telling my son to ‘turn that music down’ when he’s playing these games.” I tend to agree. And I’d also encourage parents of teens who will be gaming to explore the new directions being created by the industry: games that employ cutting-edge visual technologies, but non-violent content. Also, encourage the movement towards game sound tracks (CDs, downloads) where the focus lies entirely on the music. You may be surprised how much it will remind you of the music from films in the Golden Era of Hollywood—music created by a previous generation of extraordinary composers who brought their talents to an entirely new medium.

Image: Minecraft, Morgan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Classical Arts/Music: The Magalog


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An Evening with Wendell Berry


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