Notes on a Collaboration: The Making of Steve Mackey’s It Is Time
This article originally appeared in Avue Magazine, a new publication of Adams Percussion Instruments. They asked us to write about an artistically gratifying and interesting experience. I have been wanting for some time to document the creation of Steve Mackey's fantastic percussion quartet It Is Time, one of the most satisfying artistic collaborations we've ever had.
The series will run in four parts, where each member of So details the process of developing the unique sound world and techniques of this piece: first Eric, then Josh, Adam, and Jason.
Here is a link to the full video of It Is Time online, if you want to see what we're talking about in action.
Time is time…
from Isaac Maliya’s, Time is Time
Several years ago So Percussion had the honor of commissioning Steven Mackey for a new percussion quartet. Steve – Professor of Composition and Chair of the Music Department at Princeton University – is one of the most omnivorous and brilliant composers in America today.
At our first meeting about the project, Steve explained over barbecue chicken that he wanted to try something different for Sō. He told us that although he admires works that demand uniformity of timbre and interpretation like Reich’s Drumming, Xenakis’ Pleiades, or Lang’s the so-called laws of nature, he was interested in doing something different for us.
His first question to each of us was “what instrument do you want to play?” It only makes sense to ask this of a percussionist, because if you are a violinist or a pianist, you’ve already answered it. But the world of a percussionist – even four percussionists who studied in the same program – is diverse, and we each provided our own answer: “drum set, steel drums, marimba, multiple percussion.”
During the course of the next year and a half, we worked closely with Steve to craft a new piece that highlights each of us as performers and interpreters. We found the end result to be astonishing in its innovation and conceptual power.
Over this series of four articles, we’ll dissect each movement through the eyes of the individual members of the group: Eric, Josh, Adam, and Jason. We’ll also talk about working with Steve to unlock the potential in each of these instruments.
This article focuses on Eric Beach and his one-man-band of sounds and timbres.
First, Steve’s own description of It Is Time:
“It Is Time marshals the virtuosity of the individual members of So ̄ Percussion to speed, slow, warp, celebrate and mourn our perceptions of time. Each of the four sections of the piece is a mini-concerto for one of the players. First Eric Beach leads the music in a multi-percussion set up composed of metronome with delay, pump organ, bells, china cymbal on hi-hat stand and a few other assorted toys. Josh Quillen follows on steel drums, Adam Sliwinski on marimba, and Jason Treuting on drumset.
It Is Time was inspired by my young son Jasper (now 30 months old). As an older father (now 664 months old) I felt, for the first time in my life, saddened by the immutability of time and the finite limits to how much of It I will be able to spend with my young family. It Is Time fantasizes that we might have agency with respect to time.”
Now Eric describes his process of working with Mackey:
Working with Steve on It Is Time was a big challenge for me, and it was really helpful that Steve was so cool about being collaborative. I really didn’t have a strong idea going into the project about what specific instrument(s) I wanted to play, and I was worried that he wouldn’t be inspired to do something wonderful if I didn’t already have an idea for him. But the discussion with Steve about what exactly to write for turned into an incredible conversation, and I think it inspired Steve in a different way than would have been possible otherwise.
I still have the list of instruments that I suggested to Steve. For each one I wrote a little description and recorded myself playing it for about a minute. He used almost all of them: glass bottle, china cymbal/hi hat, Estey child’s organ, frame drum, metronome, noah bells, and small bells. I also recorded a little concertina, some other drums, and a stack of poker chips – those three things were the only instruments I sent him that didn’t end up in the piece.
I was really excited about the way that Steve latched on to the metronome as a building block for creating elements of the piece. I had already bought one of those little analog metronomes – tick, tock - for a piece I wrote, because I liked the way it looked, and that it could be started by the performer carefully pushing the weight at just the right moment. When I first got it and took it out of the box, I was amazed at how cool the metronome sounded. I actually wound it up and just let it click for an hour while cooking dinner. The sound was fascinating, so I recorded it and sent it to Steve. I also told him about a Mauricio Kagel piece where the pianist places a metronome on a little stand that can turn on its side so that the metronome ticks unevenly. I had never actually heard the piece at the time (I found out later that it was a piece called ‘MM.51’), but it seemed like an interesting idea. I don’t know whether Steve had already been thinking specifically about ‘warping’ time before that conversation, but something about placing the metronome on its side seemed to strike a nerve. He even bought me an extra metronome so that I could take it apart and dissect the way that the sound was being created. Two big sections of the piece ended up grappling with this idea of defying the inevitability of the metronome.
Another great part of the collaboration was the China Cymbal/Hi-Hat. I came up with the idea for this instrument while I was studying in Freiburg, Germany and my professor assigned me to write a piece for only two metallic instruments. At the time I wanted to figure out a way to get the greatest number of different sounds from a single instrument, and I came up with the idea to put a china cymbal on a hi-hat stand with a mute underneath in place of a bottom cymbal. I wrote a long, slow “process” piece for this china cymbal and large almglocken. When I was recording the new cymbal-contraption for Steve, I realized that the proximity of the microphone to the cymbal made a huge difference in the sound – the bass frequencies were only audible if the microphone was right next to the cymbal. I imagined that it could be a functional instrument for big gong-type notes in the piece. I had no idea that Steve would take that instrument and utilize it for one of the fastest and most virtuosic sections! It was one of the best examples of how something new came out of the collaboration at every step, something we never would have achieved independently.
Other instruments yielded interesting moments, too: The frame drum sound turned out radically different with microphone placement, so using close microphones became an important part of the piece. Steve was fascinated by the way that the foot pedals of the Estey organ made the volume swell and fade in a rhythmic way, and that inspired a section of the piece where the organ pumps rhythmically while alternating with the china cymbal. The tuned wine bottle sound I sent him turned into a short gesture based on the Doppler effect - the acoustic phenomenon where a sound changes based on the perspective of the listener, such as the way a siren lowers in pitch as a fire truck goes by on the street.
The “musical saw” was the one complete instrument that Steve asked me to learn how to play from scratch. He toyed with the idea of a Theremin as well, but his first inspiration was the saw and I agreed to learn how to play it. I had never played saw before at all, and when I looked into getting some lessons they were a lot more expensive than I could afford. So I bought a cheap instrument and committed myself to practicing at least 10-15 minutes every day. At first I just tried to get any sound at all, then I started to find pitches, and then I tried playing along with whatever music I was listening to. I distinctly remember that one day I could suddenly play along with a bunch of Beatles songs. That’s when I realized that I was starting to get it. In fact I only had to learn a short melody for the piece, and I’m still far from qualifying as a professional musical saw player. But it was a great experience, and since then I’ve incorporated the instrument into several other projects.
A brief description of the instruments used in my setup:
Estey Organ: This is a bellows reed organ that used to be made by the Estey Organ company in Brattleboro, Vermont. The one I play in It Is Time is actually a children’s version – it’s a miniature that is only three octaves. Before electric keyboards, middle class families in the United States used to buy these organs to teach children music if they couldn’t afford a piano at home. When Sō got one through a project we did in Vermont, we became obsessed with the sound and have included it in all kinds of projects.
China Cymbal / Hi-Hat: This is a simple setup of a hi-hat made up of a china cymbal on top and a mute on the bottom – in this case, the mute is actually a smaller cymbal that I’ve wrapped in a few towels. When the pedal is down, the outer edge of the china cymbal still vibrates and the only way to completely dampen it is with your hand, so there are three playing positions: open, closed, and closed with hand dampening. Steve also asked me to tape a small coin to my pinky finger so that when I dampen the cymbal with my hand it provides an extra click. The cymbal is amplified with a microphone that is placed as close to the cymbal as possible.
Frame Drum: This is a standard frame drum mounted on a snare drum stand so that I can play it with one hand. It is also amplified with a microphone as close as possible to the drumhead, which brings out the huge range of overtones coming off of the head. We experimented with different frame drum skins and found that natural hide had a much richer sound. I play on the head and the rim, and also bend the pitch by pressing on the head.
Metronome: This is an analog Wittner metronome that I amplify with a contact microphone and run through a digital delay pedal. Steve figured out the exact delay setting to get a specific rhythm that much of the opening of the piece is based on. Also, later in the piece I put the metronome on a piece of wood that is set at a specific angle such that when the metronome swings back and forth it clicks in two uneven beats with a 2:3 relationship. So the meter that results is close to 5/16.
Noah Bells: These are simple copper bells that traditionally come from India or Pakistan. I found out about them for the first time while playing Toru Takemitsu’s beautiful piece From Me Flows What You Call Time. I only had two of them, and Steve wrote for them in a way that was very different from what I imagined.
Wine Bottle: This is a wine bottle filled with an amount of water that tunes the bottle to a specific pitch. One of the interesting things I discovered through this process is that the pitch created by the water in the bottle is different depending on whether the bottle is standing upright or turned on its side.
Small Bells: These are traditional celebration bells from India. They come on a string that includes many different sized bells, and I simply lay them out on a table so that they can be played from low to high.