Audiophile Audition reviews Steven Mackey: Dreamhouse

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Audiophile Audition
Daniel Coombs
January 24, 2011

First, I will clarify what I went straight to the booklet notes to find out. Rinde Eckert is the co-author of the libretto and sound design for this very unusual, not unpleasant – just kind of weird - project. In this sense, then, he does deserve credit and kudos for the project; a kind of "architect" in the sense of the piece as well as the figurative "architect" of the "dream house" of the title.

I entered listening to this work with a fairly accurate picture of Steven Mackey's music. Mackey is a guitarist by early avocation and training and spent many years performing in very cutting edge bands and writing music that walked the lines between the worlds of alternative rock, avant garde jazz and very progressive concert hall repertoire. He is presently chair of the music department at Princeton University. What little I have heard of Mackey's music, Tuck and Roll, I have found it to be complex, not easy to absorb in one listening and abstract but not hard on the ears (or at least not mine.)

Therefore, I did approach this new work realizing the ballpark it would occupy. I do think, though, that – as a concept with some meaning and symbolism behind it – it is a pretty difficult piece to get through and to understand, even reading the notes and the text while listening. In short, the Dreamhouse referred to is Eckert's idea to use the metaphor of building a house to constructing music whose "architecture" is derived from certain words and imagery. In other words, if a libretto talks about a fireplace smoldering or smoke billowing, that – for Mackey – evokes particular sound painting. Additionally, the concept of a "dream house" as an ideal for pleasure and security is used metaphorically (according to the booklet notes) by Eckert in contrast (and in text) to feelings of the absence of security and safety – a possible "post-911 era" observation according to annotator Frank Oteri.

I found that for me the best way to approach this piece is purely as a listening experience. Dreamhouse was composed in 2003 for the Holland Festival for new music, in which the theme that year was developing pieces that used electric guitars. On the performance level only, the performances are stunning. Synergy Vocals specializes in new music and performs this score with energy, responding well to the need for extended ranges, fast, not all together convenient, text phrasing and exaggerated timbres with ease. Similarly, the Catch guitar quartet does not have too many moments to really show off but their playing presence is felt and they perform tightly. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, has established a well deserved reputation for playing difficult new scores with passion and aplomb. I found the work’s last section, Dreamhouse, the most enjoyable with sections of beauty, intrigue; even eerie in places. Some of the earlier movements, such as "Fireplace", I did not quite gravitate toward. I do appreciate the creativity and tried hard to figure out the symbolism.

I think that Mackey's work, in general, requires a listening perspective that is very used to the very unusual; a much experienced ear and open mind. This is exactly how I approached this work. I enjoyed and appreciated the creativity and the quality of the finished product; just did not enjoy the piece that much. Perhaps someone else would like it more than I did.

--- Daniel Coombs