Hints of Tahoe in Grammy-winning composer’s music
At the time, not even Steven Mackey, 58, knew of the melodic rhythms he could find in skiing, the musical sensations of free-falling through the air and swimming upstream or the compositions of the rock climbing process he could weave into music.
The South Tahoe High School graduate, now a critically-acclaimed, Grammy-winning composer and Music Department Chair at Princeton University, says his year as a professional skier and his time in Tahoe have great influences in certain aspects of his music.
“I imagine that novelists can take actual bits of their lives and transfer them directly and consciously into their work – an overheard conversation, or a personal anecdote,” Mackey stated in an interview. “I think life experience greatly affects the more abstract work of a composer, but in a different way. It feels like my life experience is all ground up into a fine powder that is sprinkled over everything I do.”
Mackey moved to South Lake Tahoe with his parents in 1972 and went to South Tahoe High for his senior year. He later attended University of California, Davis as a physics major while his parents continued to live in Tahoe.
It was during this time that his love for music began to develop, not writing for orchestras and string quartets, but playing electric guitar in rock bands and with friends.
“I remember hanging out at Fallen Leaf Lake with my friend Rob Deyerberg who still lives in Tahoe,” he stated. “We were both in college at U.C. Davis and I was a physics major. He turned to me and said, ‘all you do is play the guitar and think about music. Why are you a physics major?’ He got me there. When I returned to school in the fall I switched to music and the rest is history.”
Aside from the beginning of his music career, there are several aspects of Tahoe that are weaved into Mackey’s music.
“I often think about backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness and the experience of an arduous climb, dusty dry throat, tired legs and back, missing the comforts of home and then turning a corner and suddenly seeing an amazing lake with crystal blue water, embedded in granite but with an odd and exotic look, like Aloha Lake,” he said. “The experience of seeing that gem is enhanced by the journey. It would not be the same to just drive to that lake, if that were possible. I would say all of my music is really about a journey with surprising moments of arrival.”
Mackey also said there are sensations and experiences he incorporates into the music itself.
“I think that is true for me. It is in the act of composing that I have rediscovered the rhythms of skiing, for example.”
Mackey further developed his music in the 1980s and 1990s by including the electric guitar and vernacular music influence into his concert music.
Throughout his career, his orchestral music has been performed by major orchestras around the world, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco and Chicago symphonies, the BBC Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Austrian Radio Symphony, the Sydney Symphony and the Tokyo Philharmonic. As a guitarist, Mackey performed his chamber music with the Kronos Quartet, Arditti Quartet, London Sinfonietta, Nexttime Ensemble in Parma, Italy and the Psappha in Manchester, England.
Mackey’s album “Lonely Motel: Music From Slide” won a Grammy in 2011 and received a total of four nominations. He has received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and a Kennedy Center Friedheim award.
Mackey recently finished a piece that was commissioned by four major orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony in Washington D.C., the New World Symphony in Miami and the Sydney Symphony. The piece premieres in May.
“I pinch myself that I am so lucky to have this job. I get to dream up a musical fantasy and have the finest conductors and orchestras in the world bring it to life,” he said.
Mackey is currently writing a piece for the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger. He is also working on a piece for a concert band that is commissioned by 20 different college wind ensembles.
Still, Mackey remembers Tahoe as part of the beginning of the path in his musical career.
“I was a teenager discovering myself and now I am about to turn 59 with 2 young children and a long career behind me,” he stated.
“Tahoe is all tied up with my coming of age, finding out who I was and who I wanted to be. Testing myself against the mountain on skis in winter and on foot in summer.”
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The entertainment industry, like many has taken a major hit from the impacts of the pandemic and has created a whole new wave of challenges as the industry tries to survive.