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Concerto for Curved Space, for orchestra

The BSO co-commissioned Mackey's ever-evolving Concerto for Curved Space. Much of the music in the piece was generated from the composer's 2020 series of electric guitar etudes.

Steven Mackey was born on February 14, 1956, in Frankfurt, Germany, to American parents, grew up mostly in California, and lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Concerto for Curved Space was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director, through the generous support of the Arthur P. Contas Fund for the Commissioning of New Works and through the New Works Fund established by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency; and by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons, Gewandhauskapellmeister. Mackey generated some of the musical material of the piece through a series of six guitar etudes written in 2020; he completed the concerto in 2022.

The score of Concerto for Curved Space calls for 3 flutes (2nd doubling alto flute, 3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (4 players: I. xylophone, marimba, cowbell, jawbone, bongos, woodblocks; II. chimes, mark tree, glockenspiel, drum set, tom-toms; III. chimes, crotales, kenong, tubular bell, flexatone, tam-tam, bass drum, drum set; IV. vibraphone, triangle, flexatone, cymbals, jawbone, claves, drum set, bass drum), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Concerto for Curved Space is about 30 minutes long.

“Instead of working on distant, yet-to-be-rescheduled projects that were wiped out by COVID-19, I thought it would be nice to do something more immediate, something I could realize myself.” So Steve Mackey tells us in his introduction to a video demonstrating the first of six electric guitar etudes he began writing in 2020. Musicians will make music, composers compose, and in the absence of direct outside requests and opportunities, Mackey created his own. As musicians often will, he used what he had done as a springboard for another project, his new Concerto for Curved Space. Discussions for this Boston Symphony Orchestra-commissioned work were interrupted in spring 2020 with the onset of the pandemic; it was among the most significant of those “yet-to-be-rescheduled projects,” but clearly Mackey began considering its possibilities, perhaps even involuntarily, even while it remained in limbo.

In the end, Concerto for Curved Space has grown into a work of considerable conceptual and musical dimensionality, incorporating not only immediate sonic and performance-related musical concepts but also ideas about musical tradition, interpersonal communication, and cosmology. It covers a lot of ground—entirely in keeping with Steve Mackey’s multimodal approach to music. He discusses many of the work’s facets in his own comments on the piece, which follow this note.

Growing up in 1960s-70s California, Mackey’s earliest and most important entry point to a life in music was the electric guitar—and note that the “electric” aspect is a critical distinction. His earliest influences and experience were in rock and blues, but in college, studying guitar and lute at the University of California, Davis, he veered definitively toward classical concert music. He abandoned the guitar and rock music and became, he has said, a zealot for Europe-oriented new music. Studying music composition at State University of New York, Stony Brook, for his master’s degree and then with Donald Martino at Brandeis University, where he earned his doctorate, he began to master not only existing compositional tools, but also attained the understanding and the wherewithal to create his own. He has since brought that experience to bear on his teaching at Princeton University, where he was appointed to the faculty in 1985 and has remained ever since, becoming a (very young) full professor there in 1993.

During his graduate school years at Brandeis, just outside of Boston, Mackey was also a Composition Fellow of the BSO’s Tanglewood Music Center in summer 1984, when John Harbison was composer in residence. Two of his pieces were performed there that summer, and he has returned on several occasions as a composer, guitarist, and visiting faculty member, most recently in 2017. His lovely Madrigal was commissioned for the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood in 2015; his Gathering was written for the 65th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center in 2005.

Mackey’s zealotry toward what we’ll call notated music and its rules was relatively short-lived: he felt a strong pull to take what he’d learned in that world and combine it with the immediacy and freedom he had as a rock performer—to, as he put it, take a cue from the jazz great Thelonius Monk and discover how to write the right wrong notes, the blue notes, the seeming accidents, the rule-flouting surprises that emerge from direct experience and from following where expressive needs lead. (One section of his orchestra work Eating Greens is an homage to Monk.)

He began to arrive at his new language in part through returning to the electric guitar, bringing his own instrument, and his own performance sensibilities, into the concert-music environment. Whatever else he arrived at, movement and energy were fundamental to his goals.

Early on in his career, Mackey’s hybrid approach synced well with an ensemble with similar values, the Kronos Quartet, which since the 1970s has stretched the idea of the chamber music into jazz, rock, world music, and all sorts of stylistic amalgams via collaborations with poet Allen Ginsberg, rock musician Björk, Romanian band Taraf de Haïdouks, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and literally hundreds of contemporary composers from Ástor Piazzolla to Wu Man. Mackey wrote among the vanishing for Kronos and soprano Dawn Upshaw, following that with a triptych for Kronos plus the composer on electric guitar. In his first return to Tanglewood after his fellowship year, Mackey joined the Kronos Quartet to perform the triptych’s Physical Property during the 1992 Festival of Contemporary Music.

Essentially parallel to the Kronos works is a 1989 piece, Indigenous Instruments, for a “normal” chamber ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (the so-called “Pierrot” ensemble based on the instrumentation of Arnold Schoenberg’s seminal work). Mackey describes the piece as an attempt to write “vernacular music from a culture that doesn’t actually exist.” To create this music, he explored re-tunings of several of the instruments to arrive at an undiscovered, unique harmonic world.

That piece showed not only the composer’s deep interest in the impact of sounds themselves but also the organic integrity of his works, from the concept or idea stage all the way through to individual notes. As an electric guitarist, Mackey early on found a need to discover or invent new notational techniques for sounds outside of the classical norm—bent notes, microtones, layered and unsynchronized gestures, non-pitched sounds, levels of distortion or phase or reverb, etc.—and to translate sounds that originated in one sphere, such as rock guitar, to another, such as, say, an orchestral flute section. This led, too, to creating new timbres and colors through experimentation with the virtually infinite combinations available in an ensemble. Since Mackey is always creating new worlds, the notation on the page always aims to bring the performed idea as quickly and clearly as possible to the musician, and he frequently consults players about the capabilities of their instruments. This is crucial in music that strives for the immediacy and impact of lived, performed music that lacks ostentatious stylistic touchpoints. Every work must have its musical integrity, and part of that is its success in getting across the work’s overall affect—its various moods, even if ambiguous and multilayered; its drama, its humor, its familiarities and surprises.

In addition to the Kronos Quartet and the BSO, Steven Mackey’s lifelong search for musical adventure has led him to associations with significant artists and ensembles, around the world, including his collaborator, the writer and vocal performer Rinde Eckert, for Ravenshead and Dreamhouse, the latter a large work for orchestra, guitar quartet, and vocal ensemble commissioned by Dutch Radio. He has worked with Michael Tilson Thomas and both the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the New World Symphony; with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and both Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel; with the BBC Philharmonic and violinist Leila Josefowicz for his violin concerto Beautiful Passing (performed at Tanglewood in 2014); the Albany, Chicago, Dallas, Saint Louis, and New Jersey symphony orchestras, and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, which produced his short opera Moon Tea, another Eckert collaboration. He has written concertos for himself on electric guitar as well as concertos/concerto-like works for cello, piano, organ, saxophone quartet, timpani, and trumpet; solo and chamber music, large-ensemble works, and uncategorizables with electronics, dance, or multimedia, e.g., his Orpheus Unsung, an “electric guitar opera,” which tells the Orpheus myth without words through music, dance, and video imagery.

In his note on Concerto for Curved Space, Steven Mackey refers to the concerto for orchestra genre, in which instrumental sections (e.g., the string sections, woodwinds, brass, percussion) are highlighted and celebrated for their unique qualities. (Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is the most familiar model).

Although the guitar etudes were part of the first ideas for the Concerto for Curved Space, the orchestral work incorporates them organically, not as mere orchestrations or self-contained developments of the originals. By extending the guitar’s practical sonic range via effects pedals (reverb, distortion, etc.), small “prepared” techniques (inserting a guitar pick between the strings), and looping pedals (by which fragments of music can be recorded and layered), Mackey gives himself a big field of jumping-off points for sounds within the orchestra. The Concerto for Curved Space, as its section titles imply, employs the metaphor of increasing dimensionality, from point through line through plane to solid, then more complex shapes and dimensions, using orchestral sound to create representations of each idea. These are illustrated through sound and combinations of instrumental color. One shouldn’t be too locked into the idea that the correspondences will be evident, though the notion of increasing interaction among increasingly rich ideas in an ever-expanding universe should generally hold. Ultimately all of these elements are fundamental ingredients for the work’s dynamic, constantly evolving musical narrative.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.

Steven Mackey on his Concerto for Curved Space

My work over the past 40 years has bounced between two sources of inspiration, the personal and the cosmological; the drama of life, love and loss on the one hand and the awe and wonder of the universe (or more recently, the multiverse) on the other hand. I’ve been inspired by watching my parents die and my children grow and also moved to create by pondering the mysteries of the cosmos.

Concerto For Curved Space is in the latter category. There is something about the orchestra—the power, the variety of color, the potential for multiple threads, the grandeur—that makes it an apt medium for grand musings. The first orchestra piece I ever wrote was called The Big Bang and Beyond.

The title of the present piece was suggested by a book titled Sphereland: a fantasy on curved space and an expanding universe. A central theme of the book is the difficulty in accepting a possible reality that lies outside of our perception. When the citizens of flatland—a two-dimensional kingdom—are visited by a sphere they see a dot which magically expands to a circle as the sphere passes through their two-dimensional plane. The sphere is unable to convince the flatlanders of the simpler reality of that event because they cannot fathom a third dimension. Later, a four-dimensional being visits the Sphere who, in spite of that experience with the flatlanders, is committed to a complicated three-dimensional explanation of the visitor and can’t accept a four-dimensional reality.

Concerto For Curved Space is a fantasy that revels in the space for imagination that lies between our curiosity and perceptual limitations. I have to admit that, pondering space, curved or otherwise, is like being asked a Zen koan like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Concerto For Curved Space is my response, I suppose—a psychedelic and kaleidoscopic journey—a “trip” that attempts to fuse the childhood wonder of lying on my back staring up at the stars, majoring in physics in college, and a lifetime of developing my craft as an orchestra composer. There is nothing scientific about this music; “Curved Space” is merely a prompt to explore non-straight continuities, otherworldly textures and to invent laws of nature that are both palpable and inscrutable. Perhaps there is a sympathy for the flatlanders as I tend toward the magical rather than the logical.

Concerto For Curved Space celebrates the orchestra. In fact, before I had a more specific governing metaphor, the working title was “Concerto for Orchestra.” Speaking of koans and puzzles, that handle is itself a contradiction since the term “concerto” usually refers to a piece featuring a solo or small group set against the backdrop of an orchestra. Most symphonies usually highlight soloists within the orchestra, pit sections against each other, and generally celebrate the orchestra, so what’s the difference?

I don’t know…and I decided not to worry about it. However, I do think my compositional process leaned into the concerto idea. I cultivated material inspired at the outset by the constituent instruments and sections of the orchestra instead of working in abstract musical figures that I would later assign to an instrument. The latter would be a more likely approach in a non-concerto symphonic work.

The piece is in four parts, each more expansive than the preceding—with rough timings of 3’+5’+8’+13’ respectively (the similarity to the Fibonacci series is entirely coincidental). There will be pauses between movements—a chance to reflect and refresh—and the first two parts behave like traditional movements in that they create a single narrative arc created by the conversation between a few characters. The last two parts behave differently, moving ever farther away on a one-way journey. Vivid topographies emerge, loom large, and recede into the past without returning and without leaving fingerprints on what precedes or follows. There is a motivic tightness that delineates each section but then off to something new. The exception, the one batch of material that does return and return frequently, is the music which begins the piece. This music is the most literally “curved” because of the microtonal inflections in and out of a symmetrical harmony. In my mind it is a portal to another (musical) dimension… or maybe it is the hum of the universe.

Steven Mackey