My work over the past 40 years has bounced between two sources of inspiration, the personal and the cosmological; the drama of life, love and loss on the one hand and the awe and wonder of the universe (or more recently, the multiverse) on the other hand. I’ve been inspired by watching my parents die and my children grow and also moved to create by pondering the mysteries of the cosmos.
Concerto For Curved Space is in the latter category. There is something about the orchestra - the power, the variety of color, the potential for multiple threads, the grandeur - that makes it an apt medium for grand musings. The first orchestra piece I ever wrote was called “The Big Bang and Beyond.”
The title was suggested by a book titled “Sphereland: a fantasy on curved space and an expanding universe.” A central theme of the book is the difficulty in accepting a possible reality that lies outside of our perception. When the citizens of flatland – a two-dimensional kingdom – are visited by a sphere they see a dot which magically expands to a circle as the sphere passes through their two-dimensional plane. The sphere is unable to convince the flatlanders of the simpler reality of that event because they cannot fathom a third dimension. Later a four-dimensional being visits the Sphere who, in spite of that experience with the flatlanders, is committed to a complicated three-dimensional explanation of the visitor and can’t accept a four-dimensional reality.
Concerto For Curved Space is a fantasy that revels in the space for imagination that lies between our curiosity and perceptual limitations. I have to admit that, pondering space, curved or otherwise, is like being asked a Zen Koan like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Concerto For Curved Space is my response I suppose – a psychedelic and kaleidoscopic journey — a “trip” which attempts to fuse the childhood wonder of lying on my back staring up at the stars, majoring in physics in college, and a lifetime of developing my craft as an orchestra composer. There is nothing scientific about this music; “Curved Space” is merely a prompt to explore non-straight continuities, other worldly textures and to invent laws of nature that are both palpable and inscrutable. Perhaps there is a sympathy for the flatlanders as I tend toward the magical rather than the logical.
Concerto For Curved Space celebrates the orchestra. In fact, before I had a more specific governing metaphor, the working title was “Concerto For Orchestra.” Speaking of koans and puzzles, that handle is itself a contradiction since the term “concerto” usually refers to a piece featuring a solo or small group set against the backdrop of an orchestra. Most symphonies usually highlight soloists within the orchestra, pit sections against each other, and generally celebrate the orchestra, so what’s the difference?
I don’t know … and I decided not to worry about it. However, I do think my compositional process leaned into the concerto idea. I cultivated material inspired at the outset by the constituent instruments and sections of the orchestra instead of working in abstract musical figures that I would later assign to an instrument. The latter would be a more likely approach in a non-concerto symphonic work.
The piece is in Four parts, each more expansive than the preceding – with rough timings of 3’+5’+8’+13’ respectively, (the similarity to the Fibonacci series is entirely coincidental). There will be pauses between movements – a chance to reflect and refresh – and the first two parts behave like traditional movements in that they create a single narrative arc created by the conversation between a few characters. The last two parts behave differently, moving ever farther away on a one-way journey. Vivid topographies emerge, loom large, and recede into the past without returning and without leaving fingerprints on what precedes or follows. There is a motivic tightness that delineates each section but then continues off to something new. The exception, the one batch of material that does return and return frequently, is the music which begins the piece. This music is the most literally “curved” because of the microtonal inflections in and out of a symmetrical harmony. In my mind it is a portal to another (musical) dimension … or maybe it is the hum of the universe.
- Introduction (Portal/Fanfare)
Duration circa 30 minutes.
“Concerto for Curved Space … is a major accomplishment, one that deserves to be taken up by other orchestras.”
“Mackey’s sonic imagination is coupled with a deep mastery of craft … sinuous string writing, gossamer textures in the woodwinds, bright splashes of percussion, and forcefully etched brass lines”
San Francisco Classical Voice
“Mackey possesses great command over numerous sonic languages... [he] can write a riotous, blues-inflected orchestral moment; inhabit quiet, Arvo Pärt-like spaces full of microtonal harmonies; and establish thorny melodic lines that evoke various idioms of Eurocentric 20th-century art music.”
“The music glistens in a web of gossamer orchestration.”
The Boston Musical Intelligencer
“A bold, ambitious work.”