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.