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Category Archives: Mackey-John

John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out more than a dozen new band works, including a symphony, since 2005. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music (and pictures of food). He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.  He is also on Twitter 20 or so times a day.  And he has a Facebook composer page.

Sheltering Sky came into being in 2012, and was premiered on April 21 of that year.  It was a commission from two junior high school bands: Traughber (Rachel Maxwell, director) and Thompson (Daniel Harrison, director), both in Oswego, Illinois.  Mackey thus wrote the piece for players of junior high school ability, ending up somewhere around grade 3.  Somehow, it retains the usual Mackey-isms (functional harmony colored by diatonic clusters, unforced expressive lyricism, occasional unprepared sharp dissonances, harmonies that bloom from a single pitch) without asking too much from individual players.  Jake Wallace provides the usual excellent program note, featured both in the score and on Mackey’s website (links added by me):

The wind band medium has, in the twenty-first century, a host of disparate styles that dominate its texture. At the core of its contemporary development exist a group of composers who dazzle with scintillating and frightening virtuosity. As such, at first listening one might experience John Mackey’s Sheltering Sky as a striking departure. Its serene and simple presentation is a throwback of sorts – a nostalgic portrait of time suspended.

The work itself has a folksong-like quality – intended by the composer – and through this an immediate sense of familiarity emerges. Certainly the repertoire has a long and proud tradition of weaving folk songs into its identity, from the days of Holst and Vaughan Williams to modern treatments by such figures as Donald Grantham and Frank Ticheli. Whereas these composers incorporated extant melodies into their works, however, Mackey takes a play from Percy Grainger. Grainger’s Colonial Song seemingly sets a beautiful folksong melody in an enchanting way (so enchanting, in fact, that he reworked the tune into two other pieces: Australian Up-Country Tune and The Gum-Suckers March). In reality, however, Grainger’s melody was entirely original – his own concoction to express how he felt about his native Australia. Likewise, although the melodies of Sheltering Sky have a recognizable quality (hints of the contours and colors of Danny Boy and Shenandoah are perceptible), the tunes themselves are original to the work, imparting a sense of hazy distance as though they were from a half-remembered dream.

The work unfolds in a sweeping arch structure, with cascading phrases that elide effortlessly. The introduction presents softly articulated harmonies stacking through a surrounding placidity. From there emerge statements of each of the two folksong-like melodies – the call as a sighing descent in solo oboe, and its answer as a hopeful rising line in trumpet. Though the composer’s trademark virtuosity is absent, his harmonic language remains. Mackey avoids traditional triadic sonorities almost exclusively, instead choosing more indistinct chords with diatonic extensions (particularly seventh and ninth chords) that facilitate the hazy sonic world that the piece inhabits. Near cadences, chromatic dissonances fill the narrow spaces in these harmonies, creating an even greater pull toward wistful nostalgia. Each new phrase begins over the resolution of the previous one, creating a sense of motion that never completely stops. The melodies themselves unfold and eventually dissipate until at last the serene introductory material returns – the opening chords finally coming to rest.

The official recording, played by the Texas State University Wind Symphony conducted by Caroline Beatty:

You can read more about Sheltering Sky on Mackey’s website and this question and answer session with the composer.  I also highly recommend reading the glowing comments about the piece on its Soundcloud page.

John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out more than a dozen new band works, including a symphony, since 2005. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.  He is also on Twitter 20 or so times a day.  And he has a Facebook composer page.

Mackey wrote Harvest: Concerto for Trombone in 2009.  It was commissioned by a consortium of bands organized by Chris Wilhjelm of the Ridgewood Concert Band and LTC Timothy Holtan of the West Point Military Academy and their famous band.  It was written as a feature for Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, and premiered by the West Point Band in March, 2010.  Mackey provides his own program notes:

Harvest: Concerto for Trombone is based on the myths and mystery rituals of the Greek god Dionysus. As the Olympian god of the vine, Dionysus is famous for inspiring ecstasy and creativity. But this agricultural, earth-walking god was also subjected each year to a cycle of agonizing death before glorious rebirth, analogous to the harsh pruning and long winter the vines endure before blooming again in the spring. The concerto’s movements attempt to represent this dual nature and the cycle of suffering and return.

The concerto is set in three connected sections, totaling approximately 18 minutes. The first section begins with a slow introduction, heavy on ritualistic percussion, representing the summoning of Dionysus’s worshippers to the ceremony. The rite itself builds in intensity, with Dionysus (represented, of course, by the solo trombone) engaging in call and response with his followers, some of whom are driven to an ecstatic outcry — almost a “speaking in tongues” –represented by insistent woodwind trills. But when Dionysus transitions to a gentler tone, his frenzied worshippers do not follow. Their fervor overcomes them, and they tear their god to shreds in an act of ritual madness.

This brutal sacrifice by the ecstatic worshippers — the pruning of the vine — is followed without pause by the second section, representing Dionysus in the stillness of death, or winter. The god is distant, the music like a prayer.

The shoots of spring burst forth in the final section, following again without pause. The earth is reborn as Dionysus rises again, bringing the ecstasy and liberation that have been celebrated in his name for centuries.

Harvest: Concerto for Trombone is dedicated to Joseph Alessi.

Mackey scored Harvest for orchestral winds (sorry, saxes), brass (sorry, euphists), and percussion plus harp, piano, and string bass.  While it has been widely played by America’s top wind ensembles, its orchestra-friendly instrumentation has seen it played beyond the wind band sphere in such places as the Cabrillo Festival (which described it as “scored for solo trombone and orchestra without strings”), where legendary maestra Marin Alsop conducted.

You can look at the score and hear a recording of the piece at Mackey’s website.  You can also read about the piece at the Wind Repertory Project.  Mackey also talks in some detail about the piece on his very candid blog, including features on the original concept for the concerto, working with Joe Alessi, and the premiere.

Those who are averse to clicking a link can hear Harvest via YouTube here, as performed by Alessi and the West Point Band:

The rest of the commissioning consortium includes:

The Ridgewood Concert Band, The West Point Military Academy Band, University of Texas at Austin, United States Air Force Academy, Illinois State University, University of Florida, Miami University, University of Georgia, Texas Tech University, Case Western Reserve University, Ithaca College, University of South Carolina, University of Washington, Roxbury High School, University of South Florida, Florida State University, Baylor University, Syracuse University, McNeese State University, Arizona State University, University of Alabama.

John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out more than a dozen new band works, including a symphony, since 2005. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.  He is also on Twitter 20 or so times a day.  And he has a Facebook composer page.

Mackey wrote The Frozen Cathedral in 2012.  Jake Wallace provides the official program notes:

The Koyukon call it “Denali,” meaning “the great one,” and it is great. It stands at more than twenty thousand feet above sea level, a towering mass over the Alaskan wilderness. Measured from its base to its peak, it is the tallest mountain on land in the world—a full two thousand feet taller than Mount Everest. It is Mount McKinley, and it is an awesome spectacle. And it is the inspiration behind John Mackey’s The Frozen Cathedral.

The piece was born of the collaboration between Mackey and John Locke, Director of Bands at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Locke asked Mackey if he would dedicate the piece to the memory of his late son, J.P., who had a particular fascination with Alaska and the scenery of Denali National Park. Mackey agreed—and immediately found himself grappling with two problems.

How does one write a concert closer, making it joyous and exciting and celebratory, while also acknowledging, at least to myself, that this piece is rooted in unimaginable loss: The death of a child?

The other challenge was connecting the piece to Alaska – a place I’d never seen in person. I kept thinking about all of this in literal terms, and I just wasn’t getting anywhere.  My wife, who titles all of my pieces, said I should focus on what it is that draws people to these places. People go to the mountains—these monumental, remote, ethereal and awesome parts of the world—as a kind of pilgrimage. It’s a search for the sublime, for transcendence. A great mountain is like a church. “Call it The Frozen Cathedral,” she said.

I clearly married up.

The most immediately distinct aural feature of the work is the quality (and geographic location) of intriguing instrumental colors. The stark, glacial opening is colored almost exclusively by a crystalline twinkling of metallic percussion that surrounds the audience. Although the percussion orchestration carries a number of traditional sounds, there are a host of unconventional timbres as well, such as crystal glasses, crotales on timpani, tam-tam resonated with superball mallets, and the waterphone, an instrument used by Mackey to great effect on his earlier work Turning. The initial sonic environment is an icy and alien one, a cold and distant landscape whose mystery is only heightened by a longing, modal solo for bass flute—made dissonant by a contrasting key, and more insistent by the eventual addition of alto flute, English horn, and bassoon. This collection expands to encompass more of the winds, slowly and surely, with their chorale building in intensity and rage. Just as it seems their wailing despair can drive no further, however, it shatters like glass, dissipating once again into the timbres of the introductory percussion.

The second half of the piece begins in a manner that sounds remarkably similar to the first. In reality, it has been transposed into a new key and this time, when the bass flute takes up the long solo again, it resonates with far more compatible consonance. The only momentary clash is a Lydian influence in the melody, which brings a brightness to the tune that will remain until the end. Now, instead of anger and bitter conflict, the melody projects an aura of warmth, nostalgia, and even joy. This bright spirit pervades the ensemble, and the twinkling colors of the metallic percussion inspire a similar percolation through the upper woodwinds as the remaining winds and brass present various fragmented motives based on the bass flute’s melody. This new chorale, led in particular by the trombones, is a statement of catharsis, at once banishing the earlier darkness in a moment of spiritual transcendence and celebrating the grandeur of the surroundings. A triumphant conclusion in E-flat major is made all the more jubilant by the ecstatic clattering of the antiphonal percussion, which ring into the silence like voices across the ice.

One feature that Wallace does not highlight but that is especially important to the overall impression of the piece is Mackey’s use of bimodal chords (both major and minor at the same time) and unprepared half step dissonances throughout the bigger sections of the work.  These add a shocking element to the grandeur and catharsis that Mackey portrays.  Also, Mackey added an organ part to the piece in 2013.  I was lucky enough to be in rehearsals and in the hall for the performance of this version with Arizona State University Wind Orchestra conducted by the amazing Gary Hill on March 4, 2014.

You can look at the score and hear a recording of the piece at Mackey’s website.  You can also read about the piece at the Wind Repertory Project.  Mackey also talks in some detail about the piece on his very candid blog.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear The Frozen Cathedral via YouTube here (it’s the same recording as above, without organ):

John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out more than a dozen new band works, including a symphony in the works, since 2005. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes – more to come on that.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.  He is also on Twitter 20 or so times a day.  And he has a Facebook composer page.

Mackey wrote Aurora Awakes in 2009 on a commission from the Stuart High School Wind Ensemble and their director, Doug Martin.  It soon received great acclaim, in the form of both the ABA/Ostwald Award and the National Band Association Revelli Award for composition in the same year, a rare honor for a new band work.  Jake Wallace provides the official program notes:

Aurora now had left her saffron bed,
And beams of early light the heav’ns o’erspread,
When, from a tow’r, the queen, with wakeful eyes,
Saw day point upward from the rosy skies.

Virgil, The Aeneid, Book IV, Lines 584-587

Aurora – the Roman goddess of the dawn – is a mythological figure frequently associated with beauty and light. Also known as Eos (her Greek analogue), Aurora would rise each morning and stream across the sky, heralding the coming of her brother Sol, the sun. Though she is herself among the lesser deities of Roman and Greek mythologies, her cultural influence has persevered, most notably in the naming of the vibrant flashes of light that occur in Arctic and Antarctic regions – the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis.

John Mackey’s Aurora Awakes is, thus, a piece about the heralding of the coming of light. Built in two substantial sections, the piece moves over the course of eleven minutes from a place of remarkable stillness to an unbridled explosion of energy – from darkness to light, placid grey to startling rainbows of color. The work is almost entirely in the key of E-flat major (a choice made to create a unique effect at the work’s conclusion, as mentioned below), although it journeys through G-flat and F as the work progresses. Despite the harmonic shifts, however, the piece always maintains a – pun intended – bright optimism.

Though Mackey is known to use stylistic imitation, it is less common for him to utilize outright quotation. As such, the presence of two more-or-less direct quotations of other musical compositions is particularly noteworthy in Aurora Awakes. The first, which appears at the beginning of the second section, is an ostinato based on the familiar guitar introduction to U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name.” Though the strains of The Edge’s guitar have been metamorphosed into the insistent repetitions of keyboard percussion, the aesthetic is similar – a distant proclamation that grows steadily in fervor. The difference between U2’s presentation and Mackey’s, however, is that the guitar riff disappears for the majority of the song, while in Aurora Awakes, the motive persists for nearly the entirety of the remainder of the piece:

“When I heard that song on the radio last winter, I thought it was kind of a shame that he only uses that little motive almost as a throwaway bookend.  That’s my favorite part of the song, so why not try to write an entire piece that uses that little hint of minimalism as its basis?”

The other quotation is a sly reference to Gustav Holst’s First Suite in E-flat for Military Band. The brilliant E-flat chord that closes the Chaconne of that work is orchestrated (nearly) identically as the final sonority of Aurora Awakes – producing an unmistakably vibrant timbre that won’t be missed by aficionados of the repertoire. This same effect was, somewhat ironically, suggested by Mackey for the ending of composer Jonathan Newman’s My Hands Are a City. Mackey adds an even brighter element, however, by including instruments not in Holst’s original:

“That has always been one of my favorite chords because it’s just so damn bright.  In a piece that’s about the awaking of the goddess of dawn, you need a damn bright ending — and there was no topping Holst.  Well… except to add crotales.”

You can look at the score and hear a recording of the piece at Mackey’s website.  You can also read about the piece at the Wind Repertory Project.  Mackey also talks in some detail about the piece on his very candid blog, about the recording and winning the awards, as well as the program notes and the premiere.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear Aurora Awakes via YouTube here (it’s the same recording as above):

Here is U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”, which Mackey quotes in the final section of Aurora Awakes.  This video documents an iconic live performance that was nearly shut down.

Finally, here is Holst’s “Chaconne” from the First Suite, whose last chord Mackey borrows:

John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out more than a dozen new band works, including a handful of commissions, in the last 7 years. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.  He is also on Twitter 20 or so times a day.  And he has a Facebook composer page.

Mackey wrote Hymn to a Blue Hour in 2010 on a commission Mesa State College.  As you can read in his very candid blog, most of his music up to this point was of the loud and fast variety.  Several conductors started asking him for a slow piece around the same time.  This was the result.  He wrote it while living in New York City in the summer of 2010, surrounded by the immense noise of the city but liberated from his car and the music he usually listened to while driving everywhere.  Choice quote from the blog:

It was pretty funny, really, with me sitting outside on a beautiful summer morning in New York City, Moleskine music notebook in one hand, and my iPhone Pianist app in the other (so I could find pitches), writing this piece.  As I said on Facebook, I felt like I was in an ad for something.

The “Blue Hour” of the title is supposed to be “the period of twilight where there’s neither full daylight nor complete darkness”.  As is often the case with many a composer’s music, the title came after the music was finished, and in this case was suggested by Mackey’s wife.

Jake Wallace provides even more program notes on this piece on Mackey’s website. I won’t copy it all out here, but this is required reading!  Look especially at the bit about composing at the piano.  You can also look at the score and hear a recording of the piece there.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear Hymn to a Blue Hour via YouTube here:

John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out a dozen new band works, including a handful of commissions, in the last 5 years. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.

Mackey wrote Kingfishers Catch Fire in 2006-2007 on commission from a consortium in schools in Japan.  Says Mackey:

A kingfisher is a bird with stunning, brilliantly colored feathers that appear in sunlight as if they are on fire.  Kingfishers are extremely shy birds and are rarely seen, but when they are seen, they are undeniably beautiful.

The first movement, “Following falls and falls of rain,” is suspended in tone, but with hope, depicting the kingfisher slowly emerging from its nest in the early morning stillness, just after a heavy rain storm.  The second movement, “Kingfishers catch fire,” imagines the bird flying out into the sunlight.  The work ends with a reference to (and a bit of a pun on) Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Mackey himself provides even more program notes on this piece, both on his website and in more colorful detail on his blog. You can also look at the score and hear a recording of the piece (first movement, then second movement) there.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear Kingfishers Catch Fire, or at least the 2nd movement, via YouTube here:

In case you were wondering what bit of Firebird Mackey is referencing, you can find out on my post about that piece.  For the link-challenged among you, here’s the video clip.  It’s one of the greatest conducting videos ever made, so it deserves reposting.  Listen to the very end of both pieces and you’ll hear the reference for sure.

And now a bonus image: a Kingfisher!

Kingfisher!

John Mackey once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out a dozen new band works, including a handful of commissions, in the last 5 years. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new band music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.

Xerxes is his first concert march.  He gives a detailed account of its genesis on his blog. Essentially, he tasked himself with writing a march with an unconventional sound, and out came Xerxes.  The name of the piece came later. Xerxes the man was the king of the Persians from 485-465BC.  He is famous for being a brutal tyrant, and for having fought (and beaten) a force of 300 Spartans at Thermopylae in Greece. This scenario was most recently fictionalized in the film 300.

Mackey himself provides the best program notes on this piece, both on his website and in more colorful detail on his blog. You can also look at the score and hear a recording of the piece there.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear Xerxes via YouTube here:

You also MUST check out this metal version of Xerxes created by a fan:

And now a bonus image: Xerxes as depicted in 300 (and with the attitude of the march):