This Is the Moment: Steve Mackey on Finding His Voice

This is the moment I found my voice. It was only really after I got out of grad school I had a doctorate, but I didn’t have a voice. Suddenly no one is paid to be interested in your music anymore. When you’re in grad school your music lives on your teacher’s desk. That’s your audience. I learned the lingua franca which was 12-tone atonal music. That’s what everybody was doing. I had an aptitude for that coming from a physics background. All the time repressing my electric guitar background trying to act like a “serious composer” and you know studying all these things set theory and permutation theory, and making elaborate charts for how my music would go. And I got out of grad school, and just there wasn’t anything telling me not to the guitar started to come back into my life. I got a teaching job at Princeton University and still didn’t feel like I was writing my own music but I started improvising with my colleagues and students there. And just the physicality of the guitar some aspects of tonality. I started to realize This is where I live, that finding the blue notes. And I had this revelation that there are no dissonant notes in a 12-tone context where everything is equal. I mean, Schoenberg’s whole idea is everything is equal, everything is democratic. I realized I wanted a hierarchy again, some sort of tonal hierarchy. Again, that all came from the guitar reminding me of what it felt like to bend a note against a chord. So I didn’t reject my training, but they started to the two things — graduate school training and my guitar background kind of started to intertwine. In fact as I make this gesture a good friend of mine and former colleague Paul Lansky used to describe my music as my musical DNA is some combination of Stravinsky and Led Zeppelin those two aspects kind of intertwining. One experiment in particular I think was helpful in me finding my voice. I retuned my guitar in microtones and just started improvising with these funny notes. And you know, it was fresh. It scratched my blues guitar player itch for blue notes but it also was unusual and experimental in a tradition of American crackpot experimental composers Harry Partch and John Cage and the like it satisfied me intellectually and sonically and the result was this piece called “Troubadour Songs” for electric guitar and string quartet. Even that, electric guitar and string quartet really combines these two aspects of my upbringing. It really was at that moment that I felt like, yeah, this is a voice that’s uniquely me and that I really like and I am interested to pursue for however long I live.

1 Response

  1. Boosey & Hawkes says:


    Troubadour Songs for string quartet and electric guitar

    Composed by Steven Mackey

    Performed by the Brentano String Quartet and Steven Mackey

    Courtesy of Albany Records

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