It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there was one note that changed Steven Mackey’s life: E-flat.
The E-flat in question occurs in the scherzo of Beethoven’s last string quartet, which begins with an easy, skipping tune in F major. Out of nowhere comes that E-flat — loud, insistent, and in unison across all four instruments. The note isn’t in the key of F major, and it knocks askew the harmony, rhythm, and trajectory of the pleasant little melody that preceded it.
Mackey remembers hearing that E-flat on the tape deck in his brother’s car when he was in college. A rock guitarist growing up, his heroes were Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Duane Allman, and he was getting his first exposure to classical music through a music appreciation course at the University of California Davis. The effect of that alien moment in Beethoven was decisive.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I want to be able to do that,’” Mackey said during a recent phone interview from his home in Princeton. “It was the most psychedelic rock music I’d ever heard.”
So great was the effect of that Beethoven moment, and the rest of the music he was hearing in his course, that Mackey decided to switch his major from physics to music and become a composer — this despite the fact that at the time, he couldn’t even read music. He just knew he wanted to create it.
It was a pretty extraordinary act of idealism — and, he admits, naiveté — whose success can be gauged by the fact that Mackey has become an inventive and in-demand composer. (Two orchestral works — “Tonic” and a marimba concerto, “Time Release” — are on an Oct. 19 Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert.) If you care to measure prominence by academic success, note that he has been on the Princeton University faculty since 1985. That, Mackey said, was when he figured, “I guess I’ve caught up now.”
In order to become a composer, Mackey put down the electric guitar and made himself into a lutenist and classical guitarist. When he began playing electric guitar again, after graduate school, there was “this new language in my head. It was like a natural amalgam of the earliest DNA as a blues-rock guitar player had fused with this formal training. And I suddenly had a voice.”
Some of Mackey’s earliest scores of note were written for electric guitar and “traditional” classical instruments — in particular, two composed for himself to play with the Kronos Quartet: “Troubadour Songs” and “Physical Property.” This was still a controversial idea when he wrote these pieces, in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Mackey can still remember one review he got after a performance, which he paraphrased as: “Combining electric guitar and string quartet is a bad idea, and Mackey does it terribly. The only good thing about being at this concert was knowing that this mix would never happen again.”
Today, those pieces are well known, and the fact that a composer plays electric guitar hardly rates a mention. That made Mackey something of a pioneer, which reinforced an important lesson. By simply following his instincts, “I stood for something that the world was just on the cusp of being ready for, so I got credit for leading a charge where, in fact, I was just doing what came naturally.”
The electric guitar is still a crucial part of Mackey’s composing. He often begins a new piece by improvising riffs on it, creating a wealth of small ideas that he can tease out into something more substantial — “tendrils,” he calls them. They become characters in an as-yet unwritten drama.
“And then I can look at all those little things and start to think of myself as a novelist — what kind of story can these characters tell?”
One of Mackey’s most ambitious works is “Dreamhouse,” a colossal piece for orchestra, electric guitar quartet, and vocals, of which BMOP gave the American premiere in 2007. It, too, began with one of those tendrils, a sentimental melody to which Mackey would eventually set the words: “I’ll build you a dreamhouse/Where you can live/Where you’ll be safe.” In the final section of the piece, that idea is ratcheted up to such a feverish level that “it collapses under the weight of its own obsession,” he explained. Written in the shadow of 9/11 and the Iraq invasion, “Dreamhouse” stands for the proposition that “something that starts as almost saccharine becomes ironic and monstrous by the end.”
At one point in his career, Mackey used randomly generated sets of pitches as a source of creative inspiration. After “Dreamhouse,” though, he found that he no longer needed the external catalyst. The essential character of his voice had evolved to the point where it had become part of him. “It started to be intuitive,” he said. “I realized, I just hear this way.”
He compared it to the movie “Back to the Future,” in which Doc Brown’s time machine initially requires a rare grade of plutonium for power. By the end of the movie, it runs on banana peels and other detritus. “After ‘Dreamhouse,’ I just woke up and realized, anything I write has this quality now. I can just throw banana peels in there.”
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
At Jordan Hall, Oct. 19, 8 p.m. Tickets $10-$50. 617-585-1260, www.bmop.org