Creative Collaboration: The Making of Steven Mackey's "It Is Time," part IV

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.

This article focuses on Jason Treuting and the use of drumset in the fourth movement. It appears in the fourth issue of Avue Magazine, a publication of Adams Instruments. The movement runs from 27:00 to the end in the video below.

“I don’t think any arranger should ever write a drum part for a drummer because if a drummer can’t create his own interpretation of the chart and he plays everything that’s written, he becomes mechanical; he has no freedom.” 

– Buddy Rich

I first heard Steve Mackey play electric guitar on a concert of his music as an undergraduate student at the Eastman School of Music. I was a double major at the time, studying classical percussion and “jazz” drum set. My improvisation teacher Ralph Alessi suggested I check it out. Ralph was a very important mentor for me: though a trumpet player, he opened me up to many new ideas about music and styles of playing. When he made a suggestion to see something I took it seriously. I checked out Steve’s show and didn’t quite know what to make of it. It was mostly composed music, but had a feel of discovery and freedom in the moment. So when I met Steve five or so years later at the Yellowbarn Chamber Music Festival, I begged him to improvise with me in the evenings when the long rehearsal days were over. During those sessions, I really got to know him as an electric guitarist and improviser before knowing him as a composer. Looking back on our years of collaboration since then – as a duo that gets together periodically to improvise, as a drummer in his band Big Farm, and most recently through So’s intense collaboration with him on It is Time – I am realizing more and more how important that first connection between drummer and electric guitarist was.

Flash forward … when So hung out on Steve’s deck eating BBQ chicken and grilled asparagus in 2009, he knew I was interested in exploring drum set in his new piece and he already had a great idea of how to write for the instrument and for me specifically. I had been anxious about getting drum set involved in So’s chamber music commissioning because it rarely succeeded for me in other contemporary chamber music settings I had heard. The drum set is essentially a folk instrument where each player is expected to have a unique approach. Attempts to codify it through standard notation tend to squash that uniqueness. And when the drum set is used to obliquely reference the popular styles that it has come to define (jazz, blues, R&B, funk, rock, latin jazz styles, etc), it can go drastically wrong. This is for many reasons, but perhaps most obviously because the drum set is often best played loud while chamber music, even percussion chamber music, is usually much quieter. That is a generalization, but it rings true much of the time.

 I didn’t have these fears with Steve. It didn’t cross my mind to shy away from drum set: we knew each other very well as players and he knows the instrument(s) very well as a composer. In this sense, much of the work was already done. The time needed for a composer and performer to feel each other out and discover what is possible had happened over and over again each time we played together. So, now was the time to feel out which direction to choose from the many we knew were possible. I knew the direction would be challenging. I knew it would involve adding new sounds to the drum set, finding ways to be melodic as well as rhythmic. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the new rhythmic language he would innovate and how fascinating it would be to learn to translate that to the drum set.

As Eric, Josh and Adam have all mentioned in previous articles, each of the four movements in It is Time explores a different way to look at time. In the fourth, steady time is bent and warped. In the many improvisations and little pieces Steve and I made together, we often explored the limits of how malleable groove can be, especially in duo situations. But in the case of a quartet, where a larger group is tasked with bending and warping together, a common reference is needed. Steve chose two angles to explore.

The first looks back to the analog metronome that was so central to the first movement. In this last movement, the steadiness of the metronome is warped by physically tilting it on a block. Steve and Eric discovered that if you set the metronome at just the perfect angle, you can take 2 steady beats and turn them into a longer and shorter beat and thus warp the groove. What groove?

For the second, Steve references common latin patterns from cowbell and clave playing to serve as warp-worthy grooves. In the drum set music that I play, he composes these patterns and their variations in all four limbs – my left foot alternates between a pedal cowbell and hi hat – which shift back and forth between warped and “straight” settings.

I think the end result is incredibly successful for many reasons. From a personal perspective, it just sounds great to my ears. Drum set playing often comes to life because of the player and their unique approach. Many great drummers warp groove and play around with time as an expressive tool in their improvisations. Steve embraces this sensibility, but he mixes it with the craft of a composer who methodically develops musical ideas throughout a piece. When the drum set is incorporated into contemporary chamber and orchestra music, it is usually a more static element for other things to develop against, but in this movement, he gives the drum set the ability to take themes, both rhythmic and melodic, and develop them as the driving force. That is not common and not so easy.

– Jason Treuting






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s