John Mackey Named Drum Corps International 'Composer-in-Residence'

Chris Martin 'toon fix.jpeg

Okay, so John Mackey has not actually been named DCI's newest, and first ever, Composer-in-Residence. That position doesn't actually exist. Sorry! But if you read on, there IS actually a lot in this post that includes Mackey, his brand new concerto (including a way to support it), famous conductors, harpsichords, and British pop stars.

If you're a brass player, particularly a trumpet player, and have not yet heard about the new concerto for trumpet by John Mackey, then you absolutely need to keep reading. If you have heard of it but still haven't heard it, then you too need to keep reading. John and I are good friends, so I might've told him to his face I liked the concerto but then told you fine people something different so as to not hurt his feelings, if it wasn't one of the better pieces of music written for the trumpet in the last 75 years. Seriously. 

**BUT BEFORE YOU KEEP READING, you MUST go here to support the Kickstarter to get this piece recorded with the venerable Jerry Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony. Seriously, go now. They are SO CLOSE to their goal, don't miss out on being a part of what promises to be a truly historic project.**

Okay, now, about the piece for those of you that are interested.

The Mackey Formula, as anyone familiar with his music knows, is to create music that is at once compelling for the listener, challenging for the players, and rewarding for everyone involved. I've played my fair share of horrible contemporary music (and non-contemporary music), but the worst of it is the music that is dishonest with itself: snobby and intellectual without the fundamentals that give all great things depth. Or sometimes even less bearable: new music that is sappy and emotional, again, without weight, or patience, or effect. Mackey routinely walks the line between the two genres, offering just enough polyrhythmic and polytonal meat to satisfy seasoned ears while energizing young ones. His new trumpet concerto, Antique Violences (so titled by his spouse, Abby, who names all of his pieces), is no exception.

Co-commissioned by Michigan State University (Kevin Sedatole, Director of Bands) and the American Bandmasters Association, Mackey composed the concerto with two trumpet players in mind: Justin Emerich and my brother, Chris Martin. I can annihilate either of these guys on the golf course or in a gym, but when it comes to virtuosity and innate musicianship, the three of us solidly tie. You won't hear better piccolo playing than you will in front of Justin's bell (and there is more than plenty of it in Antique Violences), and Chris's cantabile is unmatched, in my opinion, by any player or instrument on the planet. He's my brother so I can say that, but he's also a multi-platinum British pop star so you know it's true.

Separated into four movements representing different eras or styles of violence (1. The blooded lines; 2. Secrets' Teeth; 3. Sorrow is a blade; 4. The curtain calls), Mackey says of the piece, "have you ever noticed that whenever something violent or disturbing is happening, there always seems to be a trumpet involved?". Off we go. Warning: the piece calls for five different trumpets. So...all of them.

The first movement, "The blooded lines", harkens back to Revolutionary War-era fife and drums signaling the coming of war, with open fifths in the bass voices giving the piece an instant air of that Mackey thing. For awhile though, that's kind of the end of what you'd come to expect of a concerto written by John Mackey. The piece is for wind ensemble and a brass soloist, but until the last movement, that's kind of where the "John Mackey Thing" gets put on the back burner. I mean there's harpsichord for God's sake. A LOT of harpsichord. Piccolo and C trumpets here.

The second movement, "Secrets' teeth", depicts social violence. Imagine a Victorian parlo(u)r with bourgeois ladies in hoop dresses fanning themselves while trading back-handed compliments, or just picture an orchestral audition waiting room and you'll get the vibe. Harpsichord and Piccolo throughout, but treated in a way that sounds like a gritted smile. Dirge-like in the opening, giving way to quicker pomp-and-circumstance, all the while maintaining that air of "I hate you and hope you get run over by a carriage."

"Sorrow is a blade" is where, for me, Mackey really departs from his normal formula to create something extremely nostalgic, heartfelt, and sad. Recalling military violence and nearly a fantasia on Taps, this movement nods obviously and respectfully to Copland and Williams, but without ever feeling trite or borrowed. Flugelhorn, B-flat and C trumpets, each horn with its own extended lyrical passage, are utilized.

Finally, "The curtain calls". At this point you've enjoyed yourself, but sh*t man, we came to hear John Mackey! And this movement delivers. Finally, violence as entertainment takes center stage, the solo part wildly violent, the accompaniment relentlessly entertaining (and at least equally as violent), with each theme from the previous movements taking its turn in the tempestuous spotlight. It's a race to the finish, but mostly for the soloist's face. In all of this incredible music, the rest for the solo trumpet is thoughtful, but is also just barely enough. The effect of this pacing manifests itself in the performance of the piece, giving it a constant and frenetic energy that leaps off the stage as brilliantly as the final solo note (a fortissimo sustained high concert E-flat followed by a double Knob Creek). If that phrase tour de force means what I think it does, then this piece fits that bill. It's for trumpet and winds, sure, but it's destined to become one of the seminal works in our repertoire as trumpet players, regardless of your chosen ensemble discipline. 

I encourage - no, CHALLENGE you to seek out this piece and give it a try. I know I'm going to. After all: whatever doesn't kill you...?


[Artwork: Jeffrey Curnow]