Mackey: Eating Greens

Steven Mackey was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on February 14, 1956, and now lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Eating Greens, commissioned for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by the Ernst & Young Emerging Composers Fund, was given its world premiere by the Chicago Symphony, with Dennis Russell Davies conducting, on October 27, 1994.  The first and only San Francisco Symphony performances, in April 1999, were led by David Zinman. The score calls for three flutes and two piccolos, three oboes and English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, tenor and baritone saxophones, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, piano, celesta, harmonium, strings, and a percussion battery consisting of marimba, snare drum, bongo drums, bass drum, tam-tam, crash cymbals, sizzle cymbals, suspended cymbals, triangle, wind chimes, harmonica, vibraphone, xylophone, tambourine, cow bell, sand block, glockenspiel, nipple gong, temple block, log drum, mounted castanets, ratchet, bell tree, chimes, tom-tom, guiro, wood block, claves, maracas, flexatone, lion’s roar, hi-hat cymbals, glass bottles, glass jars, prayer stones, referee’s whistle, cardboard party horn, and boom box. The third flute and third oboe are asked to tune their instruments a quarter-tone flat, and the concertmaster is instructed to have an extra violin within easy reach, with its G string tuned down an octave. Performance time: about eighteen minutes.

The composer offers these comments on Eating Greens:

True confession: When I got off the phone after my first conversation withLaura Kidd in the front office of the Chicago Symphony about scheduling the premiere of Eating Greens, the initial excitement quickly gave way to a wave of paranoid self-deprecation: “Why didn’t I write a piece like ‘X’ or a piece like ‘Y’,” where X and Y represent established European avant-garde masterpieces—monoliths of the twentieth century—that I studied in school. This self-esteem crisis passed when it occurred to me that it was not necessarily a bad thing that I couldn’t think of a genre of which my piece was simply another example. Neither is it a bad thing that my work reflects an individual sensibility of which my teachers and musical ancestors might not entirely approve. Of course, this is all psychological projection: I really like Eating Greens but I’m not sure whether I should like it. At any rate, for better or worse, in Eating Greens, I somehow managed to be myself, despite the grand, somewhat intimidating auspices of the occasion—a Chicago Symphony premiere.

The title for Eating Greens was taken from a painting I bought in New Orleans at an African art store in the French Quarter (it makes me sound rather cosmopolitan, doesn’t it?).This was my first purchase of original art. Leafing through a stack of canvases by Margaret Leonard, Eating Greens immediately caught my attention. I really liked it but remember asking myself if I should like it (sound familiar?). The scene was a three-generational African-American family seated at the table for a meal. There is a big iron stove and some shelving in the room, but not much else except wallpaper: giant-strawberry wallpaper . . . strawberries as big as chairs, connected to vines that threaten to take root in my living room. Each plate at the table has a pile of greens and a piece of what I take to be corn bread. The settings are thoroughly furnished with silverware, yet everyone is eating with their fingers. The colors are shamelessly bright Crayola colors. The perspective is wildly askew in different ways, in different parts of the painting: Kandinsky without the angst. My description sounds like a hodge-podge, yet somehow a distinctive personality emerges, which touchingly considers domestic themes: religion, food, and art.

A few months later I went to a Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was familiar with his work through prints and admired the marriage of clear, formal principles and playful spirit, but the originals were a revelation. Up close, you could see the pencil marks intended to guide his cutting in the big cut-out works; he continually missed the lines. I imagined him, a grown man, sitting in his studio with a huge pole pasting construction paper on the wall. In spite of the cultural gulf between Henri Matisse and Margaret Leonard, I see a spiritual similarity between them. I would describe their work as deeply playful.

Speaking of “deeply playful,” Thelonious Monk has been an inspiration to me in recent years. I am tickled when I hear him stumble through some scale that in someone else’s hands would be a cleanly executed, rhetorical gesture. In Monk’s hands, it is the stumbling that is important, not the scale. There is a touching but complex irony hearing a sentimental legato ballad strained through Monk’s quirky, all-thumbs style. The balladtakes on a compelling reality, rather than a practiced, artistic, metaphorical form of abstract expression.

If I were having a party to honor the people who, I would hope, would see something of themselves in Eating Greens,I would invite—in addition to Margaret Leonard, Henri Matisse, and Thelonious Monk—Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, and others who are part of a diverse group of musical personalities that make up what I think of as a tradition of American “crackpot inventors.” Their music swaggers with a spirit of rugged individualism and shows a healthy irreverence for the European masterpiece syndrome which, as recently as a generation ago, haunted American concert-music composers.

I hope the preceding provides a context for the sensibility of Eating Greens. In case you don’t have a chance to ask me questions, I’ll try to anticipate what some of those questions might be:

“What is with all the titles?” [in the listing of movements in the program]

I should declare first that titles, for me, are not descriptions or analyses of the piece but, rather, part of the piece. So, the ring of the words, the references embedded within the words, even the layout of the words onthe page is intended to be part of the experience of the piece. They suggest a mind-set, an attitude for listening. As far as I’m concerned, music occurs when the acoustic signal I invented is processed in your mind/body. Where there are inconsequential, personal anecdotes that laid the groundwork for these titles to occur to me, there is no secret story encoded in the titles and narrated in the music. The piece is not programmatic.

“ . . . and the pizza delivery in Waffling (sic)?”

This movement is a raucous, Dionysian romp. Its attitude reminds me a little of some Beethoven scherzo movements that play too exuberantly. Their momentum launches them into one too many repetitions of the theme. There is a sudden self-awareness and the theme is cut short, yanked off stage by a vaudevillian hook.

In Waffling (sic), when you consider the zany chain of events that brings us from the opening fanfare and the cartoon-like arrangement of “Here we go a wassailing” to the solo bass note three minutes later, I would claim that the pizza delivery, by the time you get there, is a plausible answer to the question, “what next?” The piece gets so derailed and befuddled that it requires a willful breach of concert protocol to get back on track. Enter the pizza; it was the best way I could get the bass player to stop brooding and come back to the party.

“Is there something odd about the tuning in Part II: loose ends?”

The oboe and solo violin are de-tuned in movement four, as is the flute in movement five.

Steven Mackey

More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the New World Symphony (RCA Victor Red Seal)

Online: Steven Mackey’s website is a good resource for information on the composer: