Creative Collaboration: The Making of Steve Mackey’s It Is Time
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.
During the course of a 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 Adam Sliwinski and the marimba in the third movement. It appears in the third issue of Avue Magazine, a publication of Adams Instruments. The movement runs from 16:30 to 27:00 in the video below.
“Adam, I hate to tell you this, but you’ve got the slow movement. I was hoping to show you all off, but I need to do something else.”
When the time arrived for Steve Mackey to write the third movement of It Is Time, we had already decided that he’d write marimba music for me. In the previous two installments of this series of articles, Josh and Eric related how simultaneously generous and demanding Steve is as a composer. He invites you in to the process, asks for input, even what instrument(s) you’d like to play…then writes fiendishly difficult music so well that you have no choice but to commit to it.
In So Percussion, everything is equal. We make artistic decisions by consensus, everybody has the same vote, and we do our best not to present the group as having hierarchy. A lot of our repertoire features this same dynamic, even to the point where each of us plays identical instruments in layers of complexity (Reich, Lang, Xenakis).
It Is Time is designed to break the pattern of anonymity within our music, while still setting us all on equal footing. I think initially in Steve’s mind, it meant that each of us would also get to rock out on our instrument, displaying the kind of virtuosity that makes percussion music so exciting and fun.
By the time Eric’s and Josh’s movement were sketched out, Steve realized that the piece was taking on epic proportions, and its story was turning darker. The first time he told me where the marimba movement was going, it was by way of apology. His meditation on the concept of time had lead him to a more melancholic place, where exhilaration at the thought of controlling and harnessing time also revealed its indifference and inevitability.
I was thrilled that Steve would throw this kind of challenge at himself in a percussion piece. To be honest, my favorite moments in So’s work happen when a composer finds these spaces for introspection: sometimes elegiac, often conflicted. Each one seems to take the creator by surprise. I’m thinking especially of the flower pots and teacups in David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature, the final Chorale Prelude in Paul Lansky’s Threads, and the second movement of Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet. Some of Jason’s music from amid the noise is unbearably melancholic to me, precisely because it isn’t meant to be.
Perhaps pensive music breaks the mold of expectation of how percussion usually functions: it seems better suited to a song with acoustic guitar, or an adagio from a great string quartet. I have always craved this pensive, reflective mood, believing since I was in high school that percussion could achieve it. In the best cases, it inspires what Wordsworth called “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” It is not the same thing as being really sad, which can be tiresome and self-centered.
The third movement of Is It Time begins with the simplest gesture: a bouncing ball, releasing its potential energy with a burst of optimism, but always returning to rest. Steve wanted “time” - such as it is here - to come to a screeching halt at the beginning of this section. What had built up into a huge menagerie of instruments and colors is now reduced to the solo marimba: a quiet roll on one note that barely erupts into the first bouncing ball.
For awhile, this single gesture repeats: winding down, restarting, over and over again. While Steve and I were working together, this was straightforward enough, as learning to control the natural bounce of a stick is one of the first things that a percussionist has to do. But he wanted to take it further. How could we create polyphony, the perception of overlapping wind up and release? He wondered if notating gestures with general overlap indications would be effective. Not trusting my own ability to be convincing with that, I told him how much I admire the way composers like Xenakis use precise notation to achieve chaotic results. In the end, he decided upon a way of notating the gesture as an accelerating rhythm, so that an overlapping gesture could be placed anywhere, worked out for performance as a complex polyrhythm. Paradoxically, this kind of detailed execution frees the performer from his own tendencies and limitations. Often as an artist you want to celebrate those personal tendencies, but in this case we needed an impersonal, inevitable force.
My movement is somewhat unique in that Steve already had reams of experience writing for marimba. In the other movements, he actually invented new instruments (or extended them in entirely new ways). Our challenge was to get the sound, mood, and pacing just right for this movement, to expand the reach of the piece into another world, where time is elastic and ill-defined.
His final touch took me completely by surprise, and was even annoying: While I am toiling away at my fateful gestures, the other members of the group rise up from their instruments and start walking around, placing little dinosaur wind up toys all over the stage. It’s chaotic, distracting, and frankly takes a bit of attention away from the soloist. To my mock-dismay, it was also pitch-perfect, exactly what the movement needed. After all, the music that I’m playing is not in any sense about me. Gravity and nature are indifferent to our need for attention, which is why we hold them in awe.
This is ultimately the most profound rumination a pensive moment yields: we are so small compared with the forces that operate upon our lives. Optimism and action are a struggle against, or even a celebration of, the fact that our momentum will always eventually come back to rest.