Tonight, my girlfriend Julia and I get to see our badass cello-playing-fiend-friend Francesca McNeeley play with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. As an added bonus, the orchestra will be playing a piece by one of my old teachers, Steve Mackey—his 2008 violin concerto Beautiful Passing. I’ve never heard the piece before and want to have a fresh experience with it, but have been listening to one of my favorite pieces of his to get pumped up—his electric guitar concerto Tuck and Roll.
Steve is really, really good at writing concertos. What makes these work really exciting for me is how he writes truly virtuosic solo parts without falling into tropes of the grand, Romantic concerto tradition. He reconfigures the relationship between soloist and orchestra in an almost theatrical way, sometimes pitting the two as adversaries, sometimes making them equal partners in shaping the musical form. Mackey’s concertos are full of surprises, wrong turns, and humorous non-sequitirs. In that way, Mackey’s Tuck and Roll is to a classic piece like the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as…
How about Steve Mackey’s Tuck and Roll is to the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as the comic The Far Side is to Tintin. I mean, I’m listening to Tuck and Roll now and am imagining a windmilling Pete Townshend in a tuxedo in front of the NYPhil and you really can’t get any more cartoonish than that.
So let’s first think of this analogy in terms of the general sound world and color palette of each work. Far Side and Tuck and Roll have much wider and brighter color palettes than their predecessors. I hear Mackey’s industrial timbres—from the huge assortment of percussion instruments to the blazing guitar itself—as Gary Larson’s eye-popping Crayola shades in his Sunday panels. The rich, vintage-velvet sounds of the Tchaikovsky are then a proper analogue to the muted colors of Tintin panels, aged by the decaying newsprint.
The analogy holds for the form of each piece as well. Tintin is an adventure novel in graphic form, with single characters sustained through an extended plot line. The Far Side comics are generally single-paneled, pithy non-sequitir observations, with occasional characters and themes popping up here and there. Like Tintin, the Tchaikovsky concerto is structured like an adventure story. The virtuosic hero-soloist is pitted against the grand orchestra. Single themes are stated, transformed, and returned, creating a linear sense of drama. Tuck and Roll on the other hand is made up different, more loosely connected episodes. The musical kernels are generally shorter—like the 7-beat rhythmic ostinato vs. the famous Tchaikovsky tune—and transformed timbrally rather than tonally. While the episodes in Tuck and Roll are certainly related by their sound world and rhythmic definition, they don’t sustain a single dramatic story like the violin line in the Tchaikovsky. There’s just enough disjunction between the sections to know that Mackey is more concerned with single panel images rather than a traditional musical narrative.
Thirdly, the analogy illuminates the relationship between the communicative styles of the pairs of artworks. Both the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and The Adventures of Tintin engage listeners in a very direct way. They seek to bring the audience safely from point A to point B, while creating the illusion of danger. They speak in common languages that are familiar to the audience. They are exciting to experience, but the adventures are contained within the works themselves. They don’t jump out of the medium to challenge the very reality of the audience. The Far Side and Tuck and Roll are much more subversive in that respect. Gary Larson’s surrealist take on the world, with his peculiar images (like God looking at a piano falling on a man on His computer screen) and obsession with anthropomorphism, isn’t that far removed with Mackey’s surrealist take on musical styles. Tuck and Roll isn’t quite darkly comic like many Far Side panels, but it certainly entertains some wild musical possibilities, like using car parts as percussion instruments and combining electric and acoustic sound sources. The sense of playful surrealism in both works cannot be contained by the works themselves, as the works make it clear to their audiences that the world they know may not always be what it seems. In this regard, The Far Side and Tuck and Roll are gleefully mind-bending.
So thinking about concertos in this analogous way certainly creates some tenuous connections between the artworks, but also leads to a more lively set of possible interpretations. In a way, this gets to the heart of writing about music—trying to communicate non-semantic sound in an analogous semantic way. Listening to a piece as an analogy helps with the translation of the music into words, but has the possibility of distorting the meaning: Mackey may not think of Tuck and Roll as humorously surreal, and Tchaikovsky may not think of his violin concerto as an archetypal adventure story.
However, at a concert of music that is all under 35 years old, this kind of curious, analogous thinking is what can make unfamiliar music come alive. When music is more abstract, it suggests fewer direct musical comparisons and more complicated musical emotions. However, it also allows for a wider range of comparisons and experiences, including imagining the pieces as comic strips. Perhaps then at a concert of contemporary music the audience should be encouraged to think creatively and playfully, rather than being told what to think by detailed program notes and on-stage explanations.