The making of Steve Mackey’s It is Time
A VUE MAGAZINE
Several years ago Sõ 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.
Part I Time sits Time stands Time is time… from Isaac Maliya’s, Time is Time
At our first meeting about the project, Steve explained over barbecue chicken that he wanted to try something different for Sõ. He told us that although he admires works that demand uniformity of timbre and interpretation like Reich’s Drumming, Xenakis’ Pleiades, or Lang’s the so-called laws of nature, he was interested in doing something different for us. His first question to each of us was “what instrument do you want to play?” It only makes sense to ask this of a percussionist, because if you are a violinist or a pianist, you’ve already answered it. But the world of a percussionist – even four percussionists who studied in the same program – is diverse, and we each provided our own answer: “drum set, steel drums, marimba, multiple percussion.” During the course of the next 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 Eric Beach and his one-manband of sounds and timbres.
FIRST, STEVE’S OWN DESCRIPTION OF “IT IS TIME”: “It Is Time marshals the virtuosity of the individual members of Sõ Percussion to speed, slow, warp, celebrate and mourn our perceptions of time. Each of the four sections of the piece is a mini-concerto for one of the players. First Eric Beach leads the music in a multi-percussion set up composed of metronome with delay, pump organ, bells, china cymbal on hi-hat stand and a few other assorted toys. Josh Quillen follows on steel drums, Adam Sliwinski on marimba, and Jason Treuting on drumset. It Is Time was inspired by my young son Jasper (now 30 months old). As an older father (now 664 months old) I felt, for the first time in my life, saddened by the immutability of time and the finite limits to how much of It I will be able to spend with my young family. It Is Time fantasizes that we might have agency with respect to time.” NOW ERIC DESCRIBES HIS PROCESS OF WORKING WITH MACKEY: Working with Steve on It Is Time was a big challenge for me, and it was really helpful that Steve was so cool about being collaborative. I really didn’t have a strong idea going into the project about what specific instrument(s) I wanted to play, and I was worried that he wouldn’t be inspired to do so-
A VUE MAGAZINE
mething wonderful if I didn’t already have an idea for him. But the discussion with Steve about what exactly to write for turned into an incredible conversation, and I think it inspired Steve in a different way than would have been possible otherwise. I still have the list of instruments that I suggested to Steve. For each one I wrote a little description and recorded myself playing it for about a minute. He used almost all of them: glass bottle, china cymbal/hi hat, Estey child’s organ, frame drum, metronome, noah bells, and small bells. I also recorded a little concertina, some other drums, and a stack of poker chips – those three things were the only instruments I sent him that didn’t end up in the piece. I was really excited about the way that Steve latched on to the metronome as a building block for creating elements of the piece. I had already bought one of those little analog metronomes – tick, tock - for a piece I wrote, because I liked the way it looked, and that it could be started by the performer carefully pushing the weight at just the right moment. When I first got it and took it out of the box, I was amazed at how cool the metronome sounded. I actually wound it up and just let it click for an hour while cooking dinner. The sound was fascinating, so I recorded it and sent it to Steve. I also told him about a Mauricio Kagel piece where the pianist places a metronome on a little stand that can turn
on its side so that the metronome ticks unevenly. I had never actually heard the piece at the time (I found out later that it was a piece called ‘MM.51’), but it seemed like an interesting idea. I don’t know whether Steve had already been thinking specifically about ‘warping’ time before that conversation, but something about placing the metronome on its side seemed to strike a nerve. He even bought me an extra metronome so that I could take it apart and dissect the way that the sound was being created. Two big sections of the piece ended up grappling with this idea of defying the inevitability of the metronome. Another great part of the collaboration was the China Cymbal/Hi-Hat. I came up with the idea for this instrument while I was studying in Freiburg, Germany and my professor assigned me to write a piece for only two metallic instruments. At the time I wanted to figure out a way to get the greatest number of different sounds from a single instrument, and I came up with the idea to put a china cymbal on a hi-hat stand with a mute underneath in place of a bottom cymbal. I wrote a long, slow “process” piece for this china cymbal and large almglocken. When I was recording the new cymbalcontraption for Steve, I realized that the proximity of the microphone to the cymbal made a huge difference in the sound – the bass frequencies were