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.
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.