Steve Mackey is, ostensibly, a "classical" composer. But he's also plugged in to the music and feel of his time.
At the moment, Mackey is finishing the mix of his latest recording which will include his piece Tuck and Roll for electric guitar and orchestra. The CD, which will be released early next year, features the New World Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas.
Like many of his pieces, Tuck and Roll, which the NWS premiered in April, is a personal work. The 44-year old Mackey said it had him recalling his carefree days in college, when he was in love with cars and rock 'n' roll.
"It's more just a vibe and images from a certain kind of experience that I associate with driving and cars, nighttime and all that stuff," Mackey said. "The following is true about most of my music. I try to locate things in a kind of particular emotional, expressive landscape, but ultimately it's about the tunes and chords and I think it's fun but it's also scary. It's also a wild ride."
The inspiration for Tuck and Roll was a three-hour drive Mackey used to make from Davis, California, where he was going to college, up to the mountains where his parents lived.
"I usually made that drive late at night, but I've driven across the country many times and have a love/hate relationship with it," Mackey said. "Mostly love. But it's always the kind of thing that's more fun in memories than it is when you really have to go to the bathroom, but you gotta make time and all that kind of stuff,"
A couple of years ago, he retook that route and it got him thinking.
"I left from San Francisco at midnight and was driving up to Lake Tahoe and got there about 4 a.m. in a rented car," Mackey recalled. "And I was just driving that road and the heavy duty nostalgia and reflection on where I am now and where I was then and what that trip's been like.
"It was a spin on a play within a play; it was trip within a trip kind of thing. Just going back and forth between the now moment where I have the CD player going which was the soundtrack of the life at that moment two years ago then just flashing-back on who I was when I used to make this drive every week and my relation to music then.... It definitely comes from a mid-life crisis in a way, reflection and nostalgia and all that stuff."
Mackey's works have been performed around the world and he has received the Guggenheim, Tanglewood and Lieberson fellowships, among others, as well as winning the Kennedy Center Friedheim prize. But he feels his works are just being accepted in the classical world.
"For many the electric guitar is incapable of being serious is not the quite word but incapable of being transcendent somehow," Mackey said. "The electric guitar is only about the life of sex, drugs and rock n' roll and it's not about something transcendent, personal or deep. I get two tiers of resistance.... sometimes it comes just as much from hardcore new music purists, but probably more of the time from your symphonic pearls and mink kind of blue-blood classical music symphony subscriber.
"I think I'm in the tradition of all your classical music composers Stravinsky and on down trying to invent music that says something different, or says it in a different way that hasn't been said before... It has nothing really to do with making a statement about trying to sneak pop music in there, or trying to get success by lightening up my classical music, or something like that, because it really works the opposite way."
While Mackey was in college, he also pursued a career as a professional skier. An injury forced him to give it up, but he said that his approach to music is much the same.
"As a freestyle professional, my ideal run would be to come crashing down, arms and legs flying, snow flying," he said. "Then, magically, I would end up at the end of the mountain, standing upright and uninjured. Kind of a rodeo clown approach to it.
"And I'd say that goes for most of my music. Tuck and Roll is right in there, as is Physical Properties [for electric guitar and string quartet] that I think sort of does that. It's not so much that those pieces are about skiing, but that style, that rhythm, that metabolism is just me and was me in skiing and is me as a composer too."