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In Conversation: Steven Mackey on OHM

(December 2015)

MackeyWebStory2012-CreditJaneRichey.jpg Ahead of the world premiere of OHM on 3 December by the Louisiana State University Wind Ensemble in Baton Rouge, composer and guitarist Steven Mackey fills us in on his new composition for band and the territory he has traversed.

You have been known to write for a number of unorthodox instrumentations. What made you decide to take on a composition for wind band?

I was attracted by a couple of things: first of all, I always regard the performers as my most immediate audience and I was interested in composing for an audience of college-age musicians. That is a time and place where the world is opening up dramatically and I wanted to participate in that.

On a more technical level, the timbre palette is huge. The wind ensemble comes standard with colors that an orchestra would have to extend drastically to incorporate such as contrabass clarinet and a whole family of saxophones.

I also appreciate the time and dedication that a college wind ensemble devoted to the preparation of the new work. It is assumed that they will live with the piece over many weeks if not months.

What has been the most unexpected aspect – or challenge – in writing for wind band?

In an orchestral context, the string section covers over half of the stage, but is governed by only a handful of staves, whereas in wind ensemble every staff represents an individual ... and there are a lot of individuals!

The title of the work is OHM. Is this a reference to the standard unit for electrical resistance? How is this piece representative of its title?

The title does reference the electrical term although not so specifically tied to the unit of resistance. It is more of a reference to electricity in general while simultaneously referencing the ubiquitous meditation syllable – "OM".

The beginning of OHM reminds me a bit of the sound of the surge of electrical hum that happens as you plug in a cable to an electric guitar. Alternatively, it reminds me of the sound of a lightsaber, which is an idea I attribute to the fact that my six-year-old son was Luke Skywalker for Halloween. I remember reading that the sound of a lightsaber was created by processing an electro-magnetic hum so the employment of an electrical term as the title seemed appropriate. A by-product of musicalizing this quasi-electrical sound is that there are long passages with a static bass note as if the piece were chanting "OM".

Regarding the instrumentation and subject matter, were there any interesting requests that came with this commission?

No. I pretty much was allowed to do anything I wanted.

Many people don’t know that you have a background in physics. Would you say this education has influenced OHM? Perhaps some of your other works, as well?

There are two main threads in my recent work: my pieces are either very personal or ponder the vast and ineffable cosmos as I did when I was a student of Physics. OHM is of the latter thread, although the sound effect of my son's toy lightsaber does play a part.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

I’m very excited about the peace I’m immersed in now called Orpheus Unsung. The working premise is that it is a "guitar opera". There are only two musicians, myself on electric guitar and Jason Treuting from So Percussion on drum set. The Orpheus myth is unfolded in an hour-long narrative involving music, dance, and film. The dance and film are made by Mark DeChiazza with whom I have collaborated several times in the past.

The guitar part is turning out to be very "orchestral" ... I'm sure I will have harsh words for the composer part of my psyche when the guitarist part gets serious about practicing.

This project is not only something completely different for me as a composer but the approach to the guitar is also very different in its rendering of influence from the last two decades of my focus on orchestra music.

>  Further information on Work: OHM

Photo: Jane Richey

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