Notes on a Collaboration: Mackey Part II

Creative Collaboration:  The Making of Steve Mackey’s It Is Time
Part II
Time sits
Time stands
Time is time…

from Isaac Maliya’s, Time is Time 

Several years ago So Percussion had the honor of commissioning Steven Mackey for a new percussion quartet.  Steve – Professor of Composition and Chair of the Music Department at Princeton University – is one of the most omnivorous and brilliant composers in America today. 
            During the course of a year and a half, we worked closely with Steve to craft a new piece that highlights each of us as performers and interpreters.  We found the end result to be astonishing in its innovation and conceptual power. 
            Over this series of four articles, we’ll dissect each movement through the eyes of the individual members of the group: Eric, Josh, Adam, and Jason.  We’ll also talk about working with Steve to unlock the potential in each of these instruments. 
            Here is a link to watch the video of the piece.  
            This article focuses on Josh Quillen and several different ways of looking at the steel drums:    
It is Time:  New Ground for the Steel Drum
Our collaboration with Steve Mackey on the 2ndmovement (Steel Drums) of “It is Time” began with BBQ.  This is fitting, given that most things in the steel drum world happen over some sort of communal food experience in Trinidad and Tobago.  What struck me the most about Steve’s way of learning the instrument was his desire to hear me play the way I naturally wanted to play.  He was curious about my idiosyncrasies as a player because this was an instrument he had never written for.  I often wonder: if he had written this for another steel drummer, would it have turned out completely differently?  Maybe it wouldn’t be different at all, but once the music starting arriving via email bit by bit, I found that it challenged me like no other music written for the steel drum, while at the same time, somehow, showing obviously how I should make it my own.  Steve strove to push me as a player to interpret his music the way I would Calypso music, and it meant a lot to me that he was being so thoughtful about tradition while writing incredibly difficult music. 
It’s not to say that I didn’t have to practice or could just sight-read it all–quite the contrary!  His writing for double seconds, for the most part, kept to some version of a whole-tone scale, which allowed me to keep one hand inside each steel drum almost the entire time.  There were exceptions of course, but it allowed for easy flow while playing. 
The most difficult part of the double-second music is a passage that I really feel is a duet for drums and steel drums that alternates between running 16ths and dotted 16ths. The passage often has the feeling of going “over the bar,” even though the entire thing is basically in 5/8 time.  On steel drums, it’s incredibly difficult to play due to running lines passing rapidly from low to high in the range punctuated by high accented “melodic” notes.  Steve described to me that this music was his way of notating out the method of harmonic/melodic “comping” that I employ when playing solo steel drums. (I played an arrangement of “What a Wonderful World” for him early on in the collaboration that uses this technique of arpeggiating chords and plucking out the melody at the same time). 
Along the way, I expected to have to tell Steve that things needed to be re-written so they would flow better, but his thoughtful obsession about what he was writing kept me from having to do that.  He had diagrams of my instruments at home so he could slowly “play” every note he was writing.  If he could play it slow, then in his mind, I could play it fast.  Well, it worked!   It kicked me in the pants, but it worked.
Writing for the steel drums is a difficult beast to tackle, but the two of us broke new ground together, coming across something that I am sure doesn’t exist yet elsewhere in the steel drum world.  I have a new “Invader-style” lead pan that I had been using to extend the high range of my double seconds.  Steve started asking me if I could re-tune metal bowls to have a few of the higher lead pan pitches “detuned” a bit by a quarter tone (ie. microtonally detuned).   I did mess around with a few of the bowls, but the setup started to get a little unwieldy to deal with, and they just didn’t sound as good as the steel drum.  It occurred to me that I had an older “Invader” style lead pan made by Cliff Alexis that was given to me by my high school steel drum teacher, Joan Wenzel.  It was really out of tune and beat up, but on a whim I called the tuner I was using, Darren Dyke, to ask him if he could tune the entire pan back into shape, but just leave the whole thing a quarter tone sharp of A440.  His response was, “well, I’ll just set the strobe tuner a quarter tone sharp and roll with it.”  When I got the pan back, it sounded in tune with itself, but as soon as I put it with the newer lead pan (tuned to A440), a whole new world opened up.  It doubled the amount of notes Steve could write for between middle C and the F above the treble clef staff.
After talking with Steve and playing it a bit for him, he decided to treat the two lead pans in a similar fashion as the double seconds.  Since the layouts of the leads were exactly the same, I could play them with one hand in each drum and linear scalar passages would be a mirror image of each other.  Steve described the microtonal section of the piece as needing to sound “nasally.”  It’s a completely unique sound in the steel drum world that I’m sure will take time to catch on, but not because it’s a bad sound:  It’s a beautiful sound, but once you tune a lead pan a quarter-tone sharp, you can’t use it with any other piece! (Unless the players on the gig you are playing for someone’s cocktail party at a wedding are cool with microtonal stylings on calypso tunes!)
As a player, collaborating with Steve Mackey on “It is Time” pushed me to augment my already existing skills as a steel drummer in ways I would have never dreamed.  He is an endless reservoir of wild ideas that seem to have no filter at first glance, but on second look are masterfully crafted innovations and a thoughtful flushing out of brilliant ideas.
I hope other groups play this piece a million more times than we do.  Every time I open it up, I find new things.  Thanks Steve!
–Josh Quillen






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