Backstage with composer Steven Mackey
By Victoria McCabe
This month, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra welcomes pianist Orli Shaham for the East Coast premiere of Princeton University professor and composer Steven Mackey’s Stumble to Grace Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. The NJSO co-commissioned the concerto with the St. Louis Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Recently, Mackey chatted with NJSO: Backstage about the concerto’s creation and the NJSO’s performances of the work in his own state.
NJSO: Stumble to Grace follows your son’s first attempts at walking. How does that sort of personal inspiration affect your writing?
Steven Mackey: I think all of a composer’s life experience has an effect on the music he or she writes; however, in most of my work that experience is ground up into a fine powder and sprinkled over everything I do, and I rarely recognize whole chunks. Unlike a novelist who might recognize a conversation or event in a work of fiction, I tend not to be aware of the influence of specific experiences in a musical work. Stumble to Grace is one of the rare exceptions in that [I made] a conscious decision to use my observations of my son learning to walk as a structuring metaphor in this piece.
NJSO: How does Stumble to Grace musically create that journey of learning to walk?
Mackey: First of all, it is not a one-way trip. It begins with a kind of all-thumbs approach to the piano and ends with consummate virtuosity. In the beginning, the pianist clumsily stabs at the piano, and at the end, she plays an elaborate fugue which requires supreme dexterity. But in between it is more like two steps forward and one step backward. The music traverses segments along the path between stumbling and graceful in different ways. Stage 3 is kind of a new beginning, but instead of the fearless, “kerplunkity” attacks of the pianos first entry, Stage 3 begins with a quiet meditation which is sweeter but no more virtuosic.
The piece plays with this dialectic throughout, exploring in and around the space between awkward and graceful, stumbling and fluent virtuosity.
NJSO: Orli Shaham has already premiered the concerto. What does she bring to it? How did you and she collaborate as the piece was moving towards performance?
Mackey: The idea of taking inspiration from watching a child learn to walk came to me partly because Orli and I have children of similar age and we got to know each other as new parents. It seemed like not only a fitting conceptual connection, but I was also sure that she would understand the various stages of clumsiness and gracefulness delineated throughout.
Orli influenced the piece in many other ways. When I first heard her, I was impressed with her ability to vividly characterize inner voices in an elaborate texture. That suggested to me that the piece could and should culminate in her joyously romping through a multi-voiced fugue. As I got close to the limits of playability, she helped me find the adjustments that would make it playable without diluting the virtuosity.
NJSO: The NJSO co-commissioned your concerto as part of our New Jersey Roots Project, which celebrates the music of composers with New Jersey connections. What makes an initiative like this important in today’s cultural landscape?
Mackey: Art is not just “masterpieces” created by our ancestors to be admired from a distance. It is something we all should have some stake in. I think it is important for people to understand that art is being created right here and right now by friends and neighbors.
NJSO: Since the Orchestra will, appropriately, perform the concerto in Princeton (at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium), will you have students and colleagues in the audience? What does it mean to get to share your work with them in this way?
Mackey: I share smaller works on a fairly regular basis, but to be able to have my friends, students and colleagues hear a large work like this, expertly played by a great orchestra and soloist, is quite rare indeed. I am very excited!
NJSO: Princeton University-connected composers figure prominently in our state’s musical history. Have other New Jersey composers affected your work? How has your relationship with the university affected your own compositional voice?
Mackey: My colleagues and students here at Princeton have had more influence on my work than anything. My current colleagues—Paul Lansky, Barbara White, Dan Trueman and Dmitri Tymozco—are all different from me and each other but their work inspires and challenges me regularly. My students introduce me to new ways of thinking about and hearing music that helps me to continue my growth.
NJSO: You took a rather non-traditional path to composing for classical ensembles, and a hallmark of your work is your incorporation of more rock-oriented sounds and instruments. What unique opportunities does that afford you when you compose for orchestra?
Mackey: That is a tough question, because when I compose I never think in terms of rock music or classical music—it is all just music. I am a musical omnivore and like my life experience, all the music I love is sprinkled like a fine powder that flavors everything I do.
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Last month, Mackey spoke with The New York Times about Stumble to Grace; read more of his thoughts on the concerto at nytimes.com.
Shaham, the pianist for whom Mackey wrote Stumble to Grace, recently discussed the concerto in an interview with PlaybillArts. She says: “I had long wanted to commission a piano concerto, and I was looking for a composer with the right kind of energy. Steve Mackey and I met in Aspen a few years ago—we were featured soloists on the same concert. I was seven months pregnant at the time, and Steve and his wife were also expecting, and we bonded over that.
“I really believe that in order to make any of the music we play relevant, we should be constantly introducing new works into the repertoire.”
Read Shaham’s full Q&A at playbillarts.com.