A “blue” note in the Scherzo movement of Beethoven’s last string quartet inspired Grammy®-winning composer Steven Mackey’s choice of career. Beethoven’s gesture was a revelation for this electric guitar player who couldn’t read music.  “They’re writing music for people to listen to, trying to distill all of life into a listening experience. Here was music meant to illuminate the human soul,” he explained to an interviewer. 

Even after getting his PhD in composition, Mackey realized “all my favorite bits violate the rules I learned in grad school.” He developed a “voice” -- a style of composition that integrated elements of improvisation with the formal serious music tradition—a combination, he says of Stravinsky and Led Zeppelin. In fact, many of his compositions incorporate the electric guitar.

Mnemosyne’s Pool is named for the Greek goddess of memory. This NSO co-commission (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and New World Symphony) will be featured in NSO concerts December 1st through the 3rd, under the direction of American conductor David Robertson. The Symphony is also included in Mackey’s new release, Beautiful Passing, on Canary Classics. The title piece, Beautiful Passing, is a violin concerto and a deeply personal recollection of his mother’s dying moments. Both works share the idea of memory: musical memory in Mnemosyne’s Pool and personal memory in Beautiful Passing.  The album will be released December 9th.

Beautiful Passing

What triggers musical memory? Is it a hummable tune? A certain interval? Or even, as Beethoven Scherzo mentioned above, the impact of a single note? I asked Steven Mackey about the concept of musical memory, and how we should approach Mnemosyne’s Pool. His extremely clear explanation reminds us that he has been, since 1985, a professor of music and composition at Princeton University.

Nicole Lacroix: I’ve been thinking that some of my most satisfying musical experiences involve musical memory. Perhaps it’s because you’re using only the one sense of hearing, and when a familiar passage returns, it’s as if you’ve found a roadmap. You’re no longer adrift. That’s quite different from the memories that hearing a favorite piece evokes, or a memory associated with a loved one. All these types of memory are in Mnenosyne’s Pool. Why did you decide to write a piece about musical memory?

Steven Mackey: The idea to foreground memory rose out of the composition process itself. I had sketched two separate ideas, and out of curiosity, wondered if and how they would fit together side-by-side. The resulting juxtaposition going from A to B was harmonically awkward but not altogether unpleasant. It occurred to me that if B had occurred earlier in the piece, its appearance here, after A, would be a recollection rather than a non-sequitur. The listener could both experience the unusual flavor of the harmonic succession and make narrative sense of what might otherwise be a disruption.

Once this idea sank in I started exploring the role of memory in music on a smaller scale. For example what if a melodic phrase arrives and lingers on a prominent note. Then the melody and harmony move on but that note surprisingly returns. In the new context it is a blue note, a klinker, but we can make sense of it as a flashback. Again we get to experience the peculiar flavor which that note gives the line but also “understand” it as a memory. 

Before you know it the piece became explicitly about the significant role memory plays in musical understanding. 

NL: The title Mnemosyne’s Pool gives us a hint, a direction of what to listen for in the symphony. So do the titles of each movement: Variations; Deja vu (medley); Fleeting; In Memoriam; Echoes. What other formal devices do you use to activate the memory?

SM: I think my answer to the first question above addresses this but I could add that, in general, the piece looks for disruptions in the present moment that can be bridged by memory. I liken the oddity of the moment in the present (harmonic or otherwise) to how a film might suddenly go to black and white or sepia to signal the viewer that the event is not the “next” event in the present but rather a viewing of past events. 

I think of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony: as the music approaches the return to the original theme in the original theme, the horn plays the theme but over the wrong harmony. I hear this moment as a distorted recollection of the theme in the past before we actually arrive at the theme in the present. 

Steven Mackey

NL: You have said that you often begin the composition process by noodling on your guitar, recording the result and then searching the recording for good material. Is that how you came to write this 40-minute symphony?

SM: Yes. The guitar occupies the same spot in my process as the piano occupied in the process of composers in the past. At times just a short motive will fall out of an improvisation that will be a germinal idea that I then flesh out away from the guitar. Occasionally I will develop an idea fully on the guitar resulting in a guitar solo that serves as an extended short score to be orchestrated. This is the case in one movement of Mnemosyne’s Pool which also exists as a movement of my extended guitar solo Orpheus Unsung.

NL: You are a professor of composition. It can be difficult to appreciate a piece one has never heard before—of which we have no memory. How should we approach it? Listening to the symphony, I started hearing how the different elements--improvisation, melody, patterns, instrumental color, rhythm, were playing on my consciousness, and I figured you just have to get rid of preconceived “rules” and just experience the music viscerally. Can you teach us to hear better, to guide us to understand the piece better, to help us find the signposts?

SM: Your strategy of being open to how the different elements play on your consciousness to experience the music viscerally is excellent advice! I would ask the first time listener to just take in the colors, textures, and kinds of motion. That in itself can be a thrilling journey. Hopefully there will be shapely contours and a memorable event or two that pique the listeners’ interest to make another pass and notice more of the scenery along the way.

By the way, If a member of the NSO audience wants a second listen, they are in luck! There is a recording of the Mnemosyne’s Pool with David Robertson conducting the Sydney Symphony available for sale in the lobby before and after these performances. 

Steven Mackey discusses a particularly emotional moment in his orchestral piece "Beautiful Passing," written for his mother's passing, that always moves him.

NL: This symphony will be on your new album along with the Violin Concerto, Beautiful Passing, which deals with a different kind of memory. Can you elaborate?

SM: Whereas Mnemosyne’s Pool works with memory as a musical element and foregrounds the role of memory in musical perception. Beautiful Passing renders a memory of my mother’s last day in musical form. There were 3 palpable forces at play: my mother’s calm and serenity, the jangle of the world around her (myself included) and my imagination of the flickering consciousness between life and death that she must have experienced. These forces, these energies, had musical resonance for me as a composer and they were musicalized in Beautiful Passing. I didn’t try to tell the story of the day, instead these musical renderings were set free to be music no longer tethered to a linear narrative. They retain some of the expressive character recalled from that day but the decisions on how these energies would.

David Robertson conducts the National Symphony Orchestra in Steven Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool along with Samuel Barber’s Knoxville—Summer of 1915 and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, December 1-3 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
The album, Beautiful Passing will be released December 9 on Canary Classics.

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