It’s Gaudeamus Muziekweek, and as part of the festival I’m conducting on-stage ‘meet the composer’ interviews with the five nominees for the Gaudeamus award for young composers. Every day this week (and in alphabetical order) I’m also posting my own short introduction to each composer here. Once they’re published, you’ll be able to find them all under this blog’s Gaudeamus 2017 tag.
Today is the turn of Sky Macklay.
Composer and oboist (and occasional installation artist) Sky Macklay was born in Minnesota in 1988. She has studied at Luther College and the University of Memphis, and is currently working on her DMA at Columbia University with the distinguished teaching trio of George Lewis, Georg Friedrich Haas and Fred Lerdahl. An enthusiastic educator herself, she teaches at Columbia and at the Walden School Young Musicians Program in Dublin, New Hampshire.
Her music is widely performed among US ensembles, including ICE, Dal Niente and Yarn/Wire, and her string quartet Many Many Cadences – her Gaudeamus piece – was recorded by the Spektral Quartet on their Grammy-nominated album Serious Business. She herself plays with Ghost Ensemble, and has also appeared with Ensemble Pamplemousse and Counter)induction, and at the MATA Festival.
Macklay stands out from this shortlist in several ways. She’s the only composer of the five without a significant place for guitars in her output. She’s also the only woman – though the Gaudeamus shortlist is judged anonymously, so all else being equal this low representation is a reflection of the number of women entrants as much as anything else. She’s the composer stylistically closest to what we might call the European new music tradition – someone has to be – and she’s the only composer whose works explicitly evoke extra-aesthetic themes. (Chaz Underriner’s landscape studies I take as artistic transfigurations of Texas, rather than works about Texas, though of course this is a fuzzy distinction.)
Macklay addresses her themes with a commendably unflinching eye. Sing Their Names for chorus – a #blacklivesmatter piece like her teacher Haas’s I can’t breathe – sets the names of 51 people of colour killed by police in the USA. Otherwise unadorned, the text cycles through the names, like a memorial plaque, while the music moves gradually from stabbing outbursts, like kicks or gunshots, through a disorientingly dense babble to what the composer describes as ‘a stoic but unified sonic wall of solidarity and mourning’.
While Macklay’s use of names in a list echoes much contemporary memorial practice, in both music and the visual arts, abstracted systems appear often in her work as source material or scaffolding. Lessina Levlin Levlite Levora, a darkly humorous sort of cabaret turn for male voice, violin and electronics on the emotional and physical seduction and trauma of birth control products, is structured around an alphabetical list of contraceptive pills and devices, alongside extracts of their side effects and online testimonies from their users. Many Many Cadences, her Gaudeamus-nominated work, uses a related structural device, but transplanted into a purely musical context: rapid chains of tonal cadences in every major and minor key, which are gradually deconstructed by glissandi and parts dropping out before being partially restored, the internal echo of these over-familiar gestures filling in the blanks of what we hear.