Sky Macklay: Why I Love Weird Contemporary Music

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Sky Macklay has been receiving a great deal of attention for her string quartet Many Many Cadences which, as per its title, involves a relentless chain of cadences—some of which are completed and some of which listeners who are acculturated to the canon of Western classical music perceive as such by being able to infer the missing sonic links. This piece fetched Macklay a 2016 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and its premiere recording, by the Spektral Quartet, was nominated for a 2017 Grammy. In September, it will be performed by the Utrecht String Quartet during the Gaudeamus Muziekweek in Utrecht, where it’s in the running for the 2017 Gaudeamus Prize , and in November it will be performed by the Bozzini Quartet during the 2017 ISCM World New Music Days in Vancouver.

Macklay first came to my attention five years ago after receiving New Music USA funding for a quirky orchestral piece she wrote to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Lexington, Massachusetts called Dissolving Bands, a work which earned her the 2013 Leo Kaplan Award, the top honor in the Morton Gould Awards. When I read the then 24-year-old composer’s description of it as a musical rendering of the “tension, instability, and unpredictability of life in colonial America on the cusp of revolution,” I knew I needed to hear it. The music she wrote is sometimes reminiscent of the sound world of the maverick New England composer Charles Ives, but Macklay is a maverick in her own right as I kept discovering the more familiar I became with the rest of her compositional output.

She’s made it very easy to discover her music on her own website, which offers audio recordings—and sometimes video recordings and musical scores—for 17 different compositions which range from a wacky sound installation comprised of industrial fans channeling air into either large heavy duty garbage bags or air mattresses stuffed full of deconstructed harmonicas to a provocative chamber opera whose three characters are two spermatozoa and a uterus. As she acknowledged when we visited her New York City apartment just weeks before her move to Chicago, she usually comes up with a generative concept prior to creating a note of music:

Oftentimes it comes to me like a flash of inspiration. I then figure out the details of how that will work and can bring it to life. That’s the excitement of composing for me. I am a very conceptual composer. I like structuralist ideas that I can flesh out formally; that’s really how I work. It could be a combination of a sonic concept and a formal concept usually. Maybe sometimes also an extra-musical concept.

Macklay’s extra-musical concepts are often highly charged politically. In Lessina, Levlin, Levlite, Levora, a speaking violinist (whom she requires to be male) simultaneous bows various figurations while reciting a list of FDA-approved female contraceptive devices and drugs, pharmaceutical companies’ advertising slogans for them, side effects from taking them, and user reviews.

“I think that’s a really common and traumatic experience in a lot of women’s lives,” she explained. “So making that into music was a way to share that experience mostly with men who don’t understand that experience on a deep level.”

Another work, Sing Their Names for unaccompanied chorus, was created in response to the recent police killings of black people. Its text is simply a list of victims’ names.

“I saw a poster that had a list of just pictures and names of people who had been killed by police, and I thought that I could make a memorial out of it,” Macklay said. “I wanted to be abstract in that most of the time you can’t really understand the names in the piece, but maybe a few of them emerge in the end that you can hear. … The abstracted syllables of the people’s names is a metaphor for erasure and the lack of visibility of the humans involved, and then in the end it’s maybe a little more visible. I think of it as a sacred piece that is supposed to be a requiem-like meditation on the people’s lives.”

Sometimes, however, the concept is purely musical, as in her stunning violin and piano duo FastLowHighSlow, in which fast and slow music are presented simultaneously as are the extreme registers of both instruments. She got so excited by the idea of exploring every possible permutation of those two binaries that after the work’s initial performance she added an additional optional movement which presents every possibility at the same time, although to do so ultimately required a second violinist and a second pianist.

“It’s definitely not the most practical movement, which is why it’s optional,” she acknowledged.

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