Steven Mackey, born in Germany to American parents, might seem typical of his generation of composers, growing from a youthful electric guitarist into a brilliant student at Brandeis into a much-honored professor at Princeton writing commissions for orchestras like Chicago, San Francisco, and the New World Symphony. Yet although that sounds like a march from the fringe to the heart of the establishment, in reality Mackey’s work refuses to settle down. This composer, guitarist, and improviser can always be counted on for the arresting and the thoroughly nonacademic.
Mackey’s string quartet Ars Moriendi (2000), commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation for the Borromeo Quartet, is an unusually personal piece that leaves a deep mark on the listener. He borrows the Renaissance idea of “the art of dying well” to commemorate his own father’s passing in 1993. The quartet’s nine tableaux, played without pause except for a break between the sixth and seventh, approach death in several different ways. The first movement, Mackey tells us, begins “with my rendering of the sounds of the hospital, of my father’s labored breaths and his struggling heart,” while the fifth bears a title taken from a letter of Rilke: “Everywhere, death permeated life like a peculiar spice in life’s powerful flavor.” The second, fourth, and seventh movements refer to the musical genre of the lament from the 16th and 17th centuries. These works were usually based on a recurring, descending bass pattern (or ground bass); Mackey’s first two “lament fragments,” too, tease out such a pattern from elusive and disoriented textures, until the ground-bass melody becomes explicit and recurring in the Third Lament. By the end of this movement, the pattern has been shortened to the same four-note bass line that Monteverdi uses in his madrigal “Lamento della Ninfa.”
The last two movements deal with what Mackey calls “the nitty-gritty of my father’s death: the gravity of the occasion, his pathetic struggle to cling to life, his family’s urging to let go, and the tide of ashen lifelessness flowing up from his toes and leaving through the top of his head. My father loved ‘Londonderry Air’ (aka ‘Danny Boy’) and enjoyed torturing me by plunking it out awkwardly on any piano he came across. It seemed fitting that this piece, written in his memory, frequently drifts through the pentatonic world of that song and culminates in an explicit setting of the melody, harmonized by the lament bass line. Coincidentally, the words of the song – at least in my father’s rendition – are also about saying goodbye: ‘Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling’.”
— Steven Stucky