Mesa State – premiere of Hymn to a Blue Hour

When I look at my photo library and the number of blog entries they should have generated this fall, I’m a little embarrassed. The blog updates have really suffered lately, because this blog seems to be the first thing neglected when I’m busy — and I’ve been busy, with residencies at Florida State, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, the University of Michigan (one of the few events that I managed to blog already), a surround-sound BluRay recording of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” at UT Austin, several rehearsals at Texas A&M, and we gut-remodeled two bathrooms at the house. Oh, and I wrote a piece. That piece, “Foundry” (for concert band with “found” percussion) will be the subject of future blog entries for sure. First, though, let’s go in order of most-recent-first, and talk about last week’s trip out to Mesa State College.  (This is a big ol’ entry, but I promise that there are photos — just not until later in the entry.  I didn’t take pictures at rehearsals, unfortunately, but how effective are pictures of the back of a conductor’s head?)

Mesa State College is a fairly small college in Grand Junction, which is in western Colorado. Although the school is small, the music department has found a way to host a significant band festival each year, called Best of the West. It features two high school honor bands (with kids from as far away as a 9-hour drive in northeastern Colorado!), both conducted by guest conductors, a guest artist (soloist), and a guest composer who is commissioned to write a piece for the college group (which also performs during the festival). How the hell does a small school, outside of any major city, afford such an undertaking?! Donors. Very, very supportive donors. We’ll get to them — or really, one wonderful donor — soon.

First, though, we need to fly to Grand Junction. You can’t fly there direct from Austin, so you need to connect in Denver. During my layover in Denver, I had to get my pointy boots shined, and I struck up a conversation with the shoeshine guy. “Hey, have you ever been to Grand Junction” I asked. “Oh, all the time. My girlfriend lives out there.” “Oh, cool. That’s where I’m heading today.” Long pause.

“Are you a… good flyer?”
“No, I’m a terrible flyer. I’m a composer, and I wrote a piece about my fear of flying. I suck at flying.”
“Oh. Uh… it’s gonna be a rough flight. I’d take a bunch of Dramamine.  It’s a short flight, though. It’s only about 30 minutes. Don’t worry; there are about 3 minutes in the middle there, when you’re leveled off, that it’s not bad. Good luck.”

Good luck?! WTF. Thanks, buddy. (The shoes looked great, though. He used a torch – like, a creme brulee torch — on my shoes. It “opens the pores,” he said. It also made a scary smell, which was disconcerting, and I wondered if they had a fire extinguisher off to the side in case my feet burst into flames, but it all turned out just fine. And shiny.)

The takeoff out of Denver sucked, but flying out of Denver always sucks, since you’re climbing through the foothills at the base of the Rocky Mountains. The rest of the flight, even the landing, was just fine. So, shoe dude scared the shit out of me for nothing.

Grand Junction Airport is… small. No jetway here, my friend.

Calvin Hofer, the Mesa State College Director of Bands, picked me up at the airport, and we checked into my hotel, then met Anna Marie Wytko — the festival’s wonderful guest artist — for lunch.  But more about Anna soon…

From there, it was off to Recital Hour, where a faculty quartet gave a nice performance of my piece, “Breakdown Tango.”  It was fun hearing that piece live in person again.  (For those who don’t know, it’s the original chamber ensemble version of “Redline Tango.”)  Then, after a short break, it was time to rehearse with the band.

The wind ensemble was performing three (THREE!) of my pieces that week: “Sasparilla” (I swear, it’s the year of “Sasparilla.”  It goes, like, four years with maybe three performances a year, and this year – bam, roughly a dozen performances, including with two different bands in Norway.  Weird.), my Concerto for Soprano Sax (with Anna Marie Wytko, soloist), and the world premiere of “Hymn to a Blue Hour.”  “Sasparilla” went great (they’ve been performing it since October, and rehearsing it since long before that).  The concerto is friggin’ difficult, not just for the soloist but for the entire ensemble, but the players were working on it really hard (and Anna was pretty amazing), and it was coming together.  Then there was “Hymn to a Blue Hour.”

I wrote about the creation of this piece during the summer, and it was amazing to hear it for the first time as played by the conductor and ensemble who commissioned it.  The piece demands a somewhat excessive freedom of tempo in order to work well.  I want it to be conducted like the most romantic interpretation of Mahler — and that’s difficult.  Calvin Hofer was doing a beautiful job.

The next day, I had a composition master class with a very talented young composer named Sarah Strong.  I can never imagine how a composer gets the courage to present their work for critique, publicly (in front of probably 40 people), to another composer.  I don’t think I could do it.  Sarah was very brave (and her music was really good!), and I want to thank her for subjecting herself to that.  I had a nice time with Sarah, both in her master class, and in rehearsal, where she sat next to me and watched me frantically scribble on Post-It notes.

That night, Anna Marie Wytko gave a solo recital.  Anna is the Assistant Professor of Saxophone at Kansas State, where she (obviously) runs the sax studio, and teaches things that my brain could never fully understand (like music theory).  Her recital was pretty incredible.  Beautiful tone and musicality, spot-on intonation, and she “feels” like a soloist.  I don’t know quite how to explain what I mean there, but she’s one of those players who, when you watch and hear her perform, you’re like, “yeah, that’s a soloist.”  Her program was varied, with everything from Baroque music to new works.  My favorite piece was “Elegia” by a composer named Maciej Malecki (whom I’d never heard of).  This was my favorite piece on the program in spite of it being for, um, solo saxophone.  I mean no disrespect, but solo works for any solo monophonic instrument often bore me.  (If this blog entry were a Facebook post, I would now expect 75 comments stating, “then you haven’t heard “X” for solo “Y!”  I know, I know; there are exceptions.)  I was riveted throughout Elegia, though, primarily because of Anna’s performance of it, and maybe because I guess it really wasn’t monophonic at all, since it was loaded with saxophone multiphonics.

The best part of the piece was the use of the piano pedals.  See, the accompanist stayed on stage for the piece, and in certain places, would depress the sustain pedal while Anna would play things into the piano, causing the piano to sustain the notes that had been played into it.  It’s an awesome trick, but of course it only works if you’re playing perfectly in tune.  I’d never heard it done with multiphonics, but it was very, very cool.

Oh, and it was Anna’s idea.  She added the piano pedal effects to the piece with the permission of the composer, but it was her idea to ask to do so.  I wonder if Mr. Malecki has since revised his piece to include the effect.  If not, he should; it’s the best part of the piece.

Early Friday morning, I met with the Music Industry class.  This was the first time I’ve ever spoken to a business class — and it was a lot of fun.  I sincerely enjoy the business part of what I do, but that element can rub people the wrong way.  (“It ain’t art if you ain’t broke” is an attitude that drives me crazy.)  It was a nice change to be able to talk just about the business side, which, honestly, is a lot easier for me to talk about than the creative part.

Okay – picture time!

Friday afternoon, I got a tour of the area from Karen Combs, the donor who funds this whole festival.  She and her late husband, Stephen Boelter, started the festival ten years ago.  (“Hymn to a Blue Hour” is dedicated to Stephen.)  Karen is amazing.  She is fun, and funny, and energetic.  And wow, is she fit.  I like to think I’m in reasonably good physical condition, but my hike with Karen made me think otherwise.  (I’m going to blame the 5000 feet of altitude.)  Karen drove me up to Cold Shivers Point, named so because you can walk up to the edge of this crazy cliff, look straight down 1500 feet, and get cold shivers.  It was beautiful up there, but I did get a little vertigo.

I like this crazy dead tree.

Then we drove back down to the bottom and started a hike back up, heading towards something called Devil’s Kitchen.

We probably hiked for 40 minutes, and it became painfully clear why people in Colorado are said to be the most fit people in the country. I loved being out there, in the cool fresh air. When we got up to Devil’s Kitchen, way up high in the rock was this lone, tiny tree. How did that seed find the only patch of soil on this massive span of rock? Good job, little seed.

I’m not being freaky with the color. It really looks like this up there.

The concert that night went great. Of my pieces, they started with “Hymn to a Blue Hour,” and I was so proud of the students for what they accomplished with all of the pieces. Karen seemed happy, so I was happy, too.

The next afternoon, the high school honor bands gave their concert, and they performed “Undertow,” with guest conductor Eugene Corporon (Director of Bands at the University of North Texas) conducting. I had a fun time working with Mr. Corporon and the students, and the performance went really well.

With all of the concerts complete, it was PARTY. TIME.

Karen hosted the party at her home, which was designed by Stephen, who had been a successful architect. The house is, simply put, stunning. As should be pretty clear, if you’ve read this blog for long, I love design.  (Just click those “design” links on the left!)  What Stephen accomplished, with Karen’s help, is something that I can’t really describe, nor could I photograph it well.  (I was kicking myself for not bringing my ultra-wide-angle lens.)  Although I never met Stephen, now that I’ve met so many of his friends who loved him, and I had the honor of spending several hours in the home that he designed for himself and his wife, I feel like I do know him, just a little.  Here’s a shot of an architectural model of the house that Stephen initially designed for them.  They didn’t build this (Karen didn’t love it, so Stephen started over, and what they did build is even better), but it’s a pretty picture (and I love architectural models).

The house is loaded with great art, but my favorite piece had to be Clarinet Person. (That’s not the title of the piece, I’m sure, but I choose to call it Clarinet Person.  You can see why.  Stephen was a clarinetist.)

The party was fun, and at the end, Karen brought out her big closer: a bottle of pear brandy.

Yes, that’s a bottle of brandy with a pear in it. It’s like magic! It’s like a ship in a bottle, only eatable, drinkable, and with liquor!

The brandy was tasty (with a definite pear note), but then we had a bottle with a pear stuck in it.

Calvin took the bottle out to the garage, found a hammer, and busted the bottle open.

Okay… now what?

I call this work, “Brandied Pear Still Life.”

Karen assigned Anna the task of slicing the pear. (Anna seemed convinced she was going to cut off a finger. Fortunately, she did not.  I suspect it’s difficult to play the saxophone with missing fingers.)

It turns out that brandy-soaked pear is… not very good. I expected a soft texture, like a canned pear, but it was very hard, not very pear-like, and strongly alcoholic. I’m told that I made a horrible, pained face when eating my piece, but happily there are no pictures of said face.

This was one of the more memorable residencies I’ve had the honor to participate in.  I can’t thank the students enough for all of their hard work on a lot of very difficult music — and I’ve rarely been made to feel so welcome.  Here, left to right, are the people who made it possible: Calvin Hofer, Sara Wynes (who conducted the other high school honor band), Anna Marie Wytko, Karen Combs, Eugene Corporon, and some Euro-looking elf.

Next up: the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, where, among other performances, Texas A&M will perform “Hymn to a Blue Hour” on Friday at 5:30pm.  Karen Combs is flying in for the performance.  No pressure…


Calvin Hofer says

Wow John, after reading your blog, no wonder I was exhausted this past week! Everyone I talk to (my students, our faculty, the high school directors and their students) are still on a high from Best of the West. Thank you for being there, and thank you for being such a wonderful inspiration to all who attended BOTW 2010. And finally, thank you for composing "Hymn to a Blue Hour". It is a most stunning piece of music. Calvin

Karl Boelter says

Hi Mr. Mackey,

I sure enjoyed reading this entry. I’m Stephen’s kid brother. I participated in BOTW several years ago and, of course, have spent many occasions in Grand Junction with Stephen and Karen. Your story took me there, and I am so glad that you found the experience welcoming and successful. Congratulations on the new piece. I’ve heard many good things about it. It’s nice when you can work your tail off and be rewarded by a celebration in great style. (When I was there, though, we didn’t have any lollipops leading to the front door.)

Karl Boelter

Zach Childress says

It was an honour meeting you and working with you, Mr. Mackey. I had a great time at BoTW and loved playing Undertow. I can't wait for the next chance to work with you.

S. Strong says

You know. . . every time I start getting depressed or frustrated with my music I read this blog entry. Just saying.

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