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: