Steve Mackey – 23 November

Heavy Light [European premiere]
Physical Property

Steve Mackey (electric guitar)
Joey Baron (percussion)
Nicholas Kok

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 November, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In an era obsessed with half-baked notions of fusion, Steve Mackey comes as a welcome tonic. Combining the immediacy of rock with a classical sensitivity to sound and a jazz-derived spontaneity, his is music at once thoughtful and irreverent; allied to guitar playing which indirectly evokes Robert Fripp in its precision and fine-honed intensity.

For this portrait concert featuring the Manchester-based new-music ensemble Psappha, Mackey assembled an 80-minute programme of works from the last decade. Physical Property (1992) is the best known of his pieces, thanks to frequent performance with Kronos, and a modern ’gold standard’ in combining electric guitar with string quartet to make an ensemble unique in itself. Virtuosic in its rhythmic intricacy, this is music that plays with expectations while it challenges preconceptions.

As does Micro-Concerto (1999), in which solo percussionist and five instruments discreetly conflate the potential of chamber ensemble and jazz combo. Essentially the ’melody instruments’ harmonically underpin the percussion’s rhythmic continuum, giving the music an asperity that is distinctly – but not derivatively – Stravinskian. The even-numbered of the five movements employ tuned percussion in intense melodic interludes, set in relief by the deft, intimate discourse elsewhere. A percussion concerto malgré lui (and Psappha-founder Tim Williams was everywhere!), or a quintet in search of a medium? Such questions are thrown up in the course of music that chooses not to answer them.

Initially part of a larger ballet score, Heavy Light (2001) draws on elements of Indian raga as well as the jejune display of late ’60s rock music. More a study in electric guitar sonority than a ’solo’ in the virtuoso sense, though the psychedelic connotations of the title (and is that an allusion to the Iron Butterfly song ’Termination’ at one point?) give the piece a definite aesthetic grounding.

And so to Deal (1995). A not-quite ’double concerto’ for electric guitar, percussionist and ensemble which trades on notions of the individual versus society, and extemporised against notated music, the work invites the guitarist to search out meaning from within the ensemble. The percussionist acts as a ’master of ceremonies’, encouraging, chiding and commenting, while sounds drawn from the ’real’ world give the music a context outside of the concert venue. Mackey’s methodical virtuosity was ably complemented by the off-the-wall percussives of Joey Baron, and Nicholas Kok drew scintillating playing from Psappha – whose profile in London is (inevitably?) not what it should be.

A timely and welcome showcase, then, and a more than worthwhile venture for the Contemporary Music Network. Hear Mackey’s orchestral and ensemble music on the CD “Tuck and Roll” [RCA Red Seal 09026 63826 2] and read the in-depth interview, and check tour dates, on CMN’s website. Stimulating and provocative, Steve Mackey is one American import of which we really do need more.

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