Through His Fingers
From champion skier to acclaimed composer, Steven Mackey has never lost his rhythm.
Steven Mackey is an innovative composer and musician known for incorporating electric guitar into classical compositions.
Born to American parents in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1956, Mackey was raised in northern California. A keen guitarist and competitive skier in high school, he entered the University of California, Davis, intending to complete a degree in physics. Mackey switched his major to music composition his junior year, going on to further studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Brandeis. By age 30, he was a professor of music at Princeton University, where he still teaches.
At Princeton, Mackey picked up the electric guitar again after putting it aside for years. It became a signature presence in his music, featuring in “Physical Property” (1992) for guitar and string quartet and “Tuck and Roll” (2000) for guitar and orchestra. Pushing stylistic boundaries and sonic conventions, his musical adventurousness and rock influence extends far beyond instrumentation.
His accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Stoeger Prize for Chamber Music, and one of Princeton’s first-ever President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching.
Steven Mackey was just 19 when an injury forced him to give up professional skiing, a path he had been pursuing for much of his life. He didn’t step on the slopes again for 25 years. But when he did, the same drive that had propelled his early training took over.
Steven Mackey: I start skiing and I see this gate, you know, it says caution, experts only, three black diamonds, warning. I don’t know what possessed me. So I just went over, made two turns, fell, my skis come off. I tumbled down, you know, 500 feet, you know, “Who are you Stephen? You gotta reign it in here.”
It was a foolish moment of hubris, but only a temporary setback. After a while his muscle memory returned.
Mackey: It came back to me. The reason I fell on that first run was my weight got too far back and my quadriceps were not strong enough to pull me back up. And so I lost it. But then, you know, it began a whole renewed passion for the sport.
Mackey is on the bounds between hard work and audacity, failure and success, for much of his life. He’s guided as much by emotion as reason. And he knows that both are vital. Around the time his teenage injury pushed him to give up skiing, another chance encounter set him on a new path.
Mackey: I remember driving around with my older brother and he had an eight track cassette, eight track tape deck. You know, we were always putting in music and he put in Beethoven’s last string quartet, Opus 135, and the scherzo movement of that has this sing-songy tune, and then it hits this—it’s in F major, and then it hits this E-flat. It hits this note that’s the wrongest note, the bluest note I’d ever heard. It was like, wow, these people are writing music for people to listen to. And they’re trying to distill all of life into a listening experience.
At the time, Mackey was also playing guitar in a rock band.
Mackey: I was also beginning to tire of, you know, “Play the Doobie Brothers!”, you know, as my band was playing our aspirational originals, you know? And so it just felt like we were playing music to get drunk by, to dance to, to seduce by, to do the laundry to, to do, you know, all reasonable things. But here was music that was meant to illuminate the human soul. And it just, I just like, that’s what I wanna do.
In the years since that car ride with Beethoven, Mackey has channeled that moment of revelation into a lifelong determination to understand music and explore its limits as a composer. Now a professor at Princeton with a happy home life and a worthy house band consisting of his wife and fellow composer, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and their two kids, Dylan and Jasper. Mackey has won a Grammy award and his compositions are much performed, but as expected, it wasn’t a straight shot from rock and roll skier to internationally recognized Ivy League composer. Mackey decided to venture into classical music at an age when most musicians already have years of experience. Still, what he lacked in time, he made up for with verve.
Mackey: Yeah, I was very naive. I went to the head of the music department at the University of California where I was a student and said, I decided I want to be a composer and I’m going to be a music major. And he said, well, that sounds good. We’ll have you audition. What instrument do you play? I say, I play the guitar. He said, well, we’ll have you sight read some things and play some prepared pieces. And I said, well, I don’t know how to read music. And he said, he just laughed. He said, you know, you seem like a nice kid, but there’s just no way at your age that you can do this. You can’t catch up. I walked out of his office, looked in the newspaper for classical guitar teachers and figured that would be the way to do it. I’ll study classical guitar. I have the left hand. I was, you know, I was a dedicated guitarist. I mean, I practiced as much as any violinist practiced. I practiced six, you know, in the summer when I didn’t have to go to school, I practiced six, eight hours a day.
The commitment paid off. Mackey graduated Summa Cum Laude, and continued to dive deeper into the underpinnings of music, eventually earning a PhD from Brandeis University, But academic accolades were never the goal. Just like that blue note in the Beethoven string quartet, he was chasing powerful musical moments and willing to endure whatever it took to get there. Like the reaction he got when an orchestra finished playing one of his early pieces, “Eating Greens” at a European music festival.
Mackey: The piece ends…dead silence, then “Boo! Hiss! Boo!” And a couple of people, “Bravo!” And then a little, I mean, just like you could hear the individual applause. I mean, there was no kind of ambient applause and that—it hurt.
But Mackey didn’t dwell on this discouraging response. On the contrary, it drove him.
Strauss: My greatest fear in a way is not standing for anything, is just being bland, I guess, you know, that’s my greatest fear is just being, yeah, not gonna hurt anybody, you know. If I love that so much, and those people hated it so much, I must therefore stand for something, you know, so I’m gonna soldier on because I really believe in what I’m doing. And I really liked it.
What he was doing was going against everything he had spent the last several years learning. Mackey’s graduate work focused on twelve-tone music, a method of composing that came about in the early 20th century. Typically music is written using a scale with one tone as the focal point that gives us the key of the composition. Twelve-tone music pushes against that. One tone isn’t more important than the other. Instead a work is composed by putting the twelve tones of the chromatic scale—that used by most Western musical instruments—into an order that is the main guide.
Mackey: You would lay the notes out in a row and that order was supposed to be maintained. So you don’t get to number two before you have number one, you could have one and two together as a little chord, and then you can have three, and then you can have four, five, six and seven together as a chord, and then you can have eight. So that was the coin of the realm. When I was in grad school, that was what people were doing. And in college I had been a physics major, you know, before I switched to music. So math, that kind of thing of charts and structures and that kind of thing came easy to me.
But once he finished school and had his degree, easy wasn’t satisfying. When Mackey arrived at Princeton, a colleague, musician and composer Jim Randall, learned he had a background in guitar. He suggested the two of them put together recordings of improvisations, Randall on piano, and Mackey on electric guitar.
Mackey: It struck me that all my favorite bits violate taboos that I learned in grad school, you know, all the things that really oh, yeah, that excites me—those are all things that I had learned not to do in grad school. One of my big influences, the jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk, man, I like the joke of Thelonious finishing the gig, and he’s kind of down in the dumps as his buddy comes in and says, what’s wrong. And he says, ah, I played all the wrong, wrong notes tonight, you know. And I’m really interested in the right wrong notes. In order to have wrong notes, there has to be a context of rightness, you know, at the basis, which is the problem for me of twelve-tone music as a blues guitar player, twelve-tone music that then I was so occupied with, you know, ultimately, you know, I understood why I wanted to move away from that. It’s because there are no wrong notes in twelve-tone music.
As he searched more and more for the right way to be wrong, Mackey’s iconoclasm expanded beyond rebelling against the music theory genre of the day. He wrote a pizza delivery into an orchestral score and incorporated unconventional instruments into his compositions.
Mackey: I wrote a piece for electric guitar and string quartet. And the review said, “Combining the electric guitar and string quartet is a terrible idea and Mackey does it terribly. The only good thing about being present at this concert is the knowledge that this will never happen again.”
But Stephen Mackey doesn’t feel he’s a contrarian rebelling against musical conventions. Instead he sees himself as part of the lineage that developed those conventions.
Mackey: Classical music, when you look at the tradition—Mozart, for example, Mozart is a combination of Austrian folk song, Turkish military music, sacred music, Italian folk song and Italian opera, 18th century counterpoint, all of these things put together. In his day, he was a mutt.
AJC: And he was also a punk.
Mackey: He was, he was a punk, but you know, 40 years after his death his music was called classical music.
Mackey hasn’t had to wait quite as long for similar recognition. In 2015, the magazine Musical America praised his composition “Mnemosyne’s Pool” as the first great American symphony of the 21st century. The piece is about the role of memory in making music. It’s fitting since so much of Mackey’s journey as a musician has been about reconciling and processing the different paths his life has taken as a rock and roll guitarist, a classical composer and academic, and even his years as a skier.
Mackey: There’s a real kind of musical connection. Having been a mogul skier, there’s a certain rhythm, you know, anything went, and so you just were putting on a show. And so I didn’t have to go put-put-put-put-put-put through the moguls, I could go put-put-put-put-poo, put-put-put-pah, and that kind of the physicality of that rhythm is in my music.
But even as he’s carved his own path into music, Mackey still thinks he’s something of an outsider.
Mackey: I still feel like I read music as a second language, right? Unlike, you know, a cellist. You put music, printed music in front of a cellist, and from the beginning, you know, a cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, they’re interpreting, you know, it’s like giving a script to an actor, right? I’m decoding still. I cover it up pretty well. People think that I’m musically literate, but I’m not a native speaker.
Still the aim for Steve Mackey was never to take on the cadence and accent of the native speaker. Instead, he’s finding his own vernacular, creating musical moments that he or we haven’t even imagined yet.
Mackey: There’s times where the music that kind of just, I stumbled into, has some, you know, flavor of some human experience. And I don’t, you know, I don’t know what it is yet, but that’s my job as a curator of my own music is to you know, to find that so that it is as close to being as powerful as possible. Yeah. I can hear some human experience in there. Let me get, let me sharpen that up until then, now, you know, I’m three quarters of the way through with the piece, now I know what this piece is about.
Just as in his music, Steven Mackey embraces the beauty of harmony and dissonance in life. He knows our most uncomfortable moments can also become our most transformative. Sometimes stumbling sometimes soaring, the key, Steven Mackey has learned, is to just keep sliding forward.