Music for All asked our friends on Facebook and Twitter what they would ask John Mackey if they had the chance – and he graciously answered their questions.

John will work with Concert Band Division students and directors at the MFA Summer Symposium this June at Ball State University. 

We hope you enjoy the Q&A with John Mackey as much as we did. The questions were fantastic and his answers are thoughtful (and sometimes hilarious!) Let us know if you learned anything new in the comments, or if you have another question you would ask. Who knows, maybe we’ll get him to answer some more questions at Symposium!  Enjoy!

Ask John MackeyWhat was your inspiration for Foundry?
Asked by Brian Munoz via Facebook

This was my wife’s idea. She said that if she were a percussionist, it would be fun to play a piece where she could hit stuff with hammers. She also thought it was cool that with percussion, just about anything you strike could be considered a percussion instrument, so she suggested I write a piece that used all kinds of non-traditional percussion, but things that students could find at hardware stores and junk yards – and you’d then strike those things, maybe, with a hammer. Fun, right? So it was her idea to write for “found” percussion. My take on it was to try to write something aggressive in tone, sort of a sibling to my piece “Asphalt Cocktail.” The result – aggressive music with lots of found metal percussion – sounded like a steel factory. So the title is a play on that, because it sounds like a foundry, but the first five letters are “found,” as in “found” percussion.

What inspired Undertow?
Asked by Banon University via Twitter

Tardiness. I was completely stumped about what to write, so I procrastinated. During the time that I should have been writing music, I was playing video games – or one specific video game: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass on the Nintendo DS. In that Zelda game, you sail a ship from island to island (dungeon to dungeon), and while you sail, music plays – and it’s good music. So I spent a great number of hours playing that game – and hearing that music – instead of writing what would become “Undertow.” Eventually, though, I had no choice but to start writing “Undertow,” because it was about to be due, but my brain was conditioned to hear the kind of music you hear in a Zelda video game, and in this case, a swashbuckling sea adventure. So that’s what I wrote: my brain’s idea of new Zelda music. An “undertow” is a spinning current that pulls ships underwater – ships like I sailed in that Zelda game.

With my school, we’ve played Undertow, Foundry, Sheltering Sky and Night on Fire. I love them all…how do you find your inspiration?
Asked by Lindsay Elizabeth Frees via Facebook

Wow, your directors are my favorite people in the world! The thing that helps me to keep each piece fresh is to approach each one differently, whether that’s a unique scoring (“Night on Fire” uses three or more hand drums; and “Foundry” uses 12 percussionists, many of whom play “found” percussion), an unusual rhythmic pattern (“Undertow,” which is mostly in alternating 7/8 and 4/4), or something as seemingly straight forward as the desire to write a lyrical piece that sounds like it contains old folk songs, when in fact the tune is new (“Sheltering Sky”). It’s hard to come up with a new idea for each piece. That’s really the hardest part of writing something – it’s not picking the notes, but deciding ahead of time what the reason is for the piece to exist at all. It takes a long time to figure out those things – time I spend walking, or jogging, or biking. I get my best ideas while exercising, not while staring at the computer monitor.

Aurora Awakes is my favorite of your pieces. What inspired you to incorporate U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name?
Asked by David Bowen via Facebook

The 80s station on Sirius XM radio. We were driving to dinner one night, and that US song came on the radio. It starts and ends with that 6 note riff in the guitar, on top of sustained synth chords. In the middle, the song itself happens, but it’s all bookended by that intro and outro with those six notes on top of those chords, and I think those outer sections are the best part of the song. So my idea was, why not make a whole piece just about those six perfect notes? I changed the key, and I changed the chords, but you’d still recognize them. So I wrote the fast part of the piece, or at least most of it, but then I got stuck. So I asked my wife, Abby, what I should do. She said she thought the fast music sounded like it was getting brighter and brighter, so the piece made her think of sunrise. She suggested that if it’s a piece about sunrise, why not write an opening for it that’s slow and still, like the start of the day right before the sun first peeks above the horizon? So, that’s what I did.

In Xerxes, why did you compose such a bold bass line?
Asked by Megan Jofriet via Facebook

I’d always wanted to write a hard, aggressive march. I also listen to a lot of progressive rock, and I think I had that sound in my head when I started “Xerxes,” so the first thing I came up with was that bass line, which sounds to me like it could be in a song by the band Tool. Last year, a guy named Brooks Tarkington made an arrangement of “Xerxes” for metal rock band. It’s incredible, and sounds to me exactly the way the tune sounded in my head when I first thought of it. You can hear Brooks’ version on my Soundcloud page.

Do you read all the stuff people post to you on the many Internet sources?
Asked by Greg Newton via Facebook

I definitely read a lot of it, at least on Twitter and Facebook. Twitter makes it easy to find those things, but Facebook doesn’t, because, at least for my accounts, I can’t search other wall posts. I’ve learned not to read YouTube comments about my music, because although most are nice, there’s always one that’s nasty, and that’s the only one I ever remember.

What would you like band directors to know when performing your music?
Asked by Tom Cox via Facebook

That I’m still alive, so you can ask me a question if you need to! Or you can try to schedule a clinic with me so I can work with you and your band in person on my music. I love working in person with students and their conductors.

What is your favorite instrument?
Asked by Megan Jofriet via Facebook

Everybody asks that, and I honestly don’t have a favorite single instrument. I love writing for lots of trombones (the more the better) and a lot of percussion, so if I were to play an instrument, I’d probably play trombone or percussion. (I never formally studied any instrument.) But the colors you can accomplish with a mixture of instruments are what make a large ensemble so exciting. Vibraphone is a great sound, but bowed vibraphone in unison with low-register flute is an INCREDIBLE sound.

What inspires you every day?
Asked by Kristen Popovich via Facebook

Coffee, mostly.

What was your favorite piece to compose?
Asked by Kaytee Parker via Twitter

I have favorite pieces that I HAVE composed, but while actually writing, the process is normally so slow and so difficult that I wouldn’t use the word “favorite.” For example, “Asphalt Cocktail” is one of my favorites to listen to, but writing it was extremely slow and challenging. I think that’s one thing I like about it – that it sounds, to me, sort of effortless, but in reality, it was a real slog to write.

Do you think you’ll write more extensively for middle level groups?
Asked by Michael Filla via Twitter

Absolutely! I have one fairly easy piece, “Foundry,” which is considered a “grade 3” level of piece, but I want to write a “grade 2 – 2.5,” maybe even this spring. Writing for mid-level groups is very challenging – much harder than writing difficult music, because you can’t fall back on flashy performance techniques like fast runs or percussion licks. There are fewer notes, and every note has to be perfect.

Where do you find inspiration? Do you seek it out or let it happen organically?
Asked by Michael Filla via Twitter

Deadlines are inspiring, and I’m not kidding. Writing music is hard work, and I think it gets harder with each new piece, because you don’t want to repeat yourself and do the same thing you did in an earlier piece. I rarely write music just for fun – it’s always for a commission, and if there was no deadline, I’d spend all of my time just playing video games and watching TV.

What parameters do you give yourself in the initial stages of a piece (e.g. grade level, instrumentation, unique features)
Asked by Michael Filla via Twitter

The answer varies depending on the commission. For a university or military band commission, grade level isn’t normally a consideration, but for a middle school commission, it has to be, so that’s the starting point for the piece. Difficulty level also determines instrumentation (to a point), but that challenge can also lead to unique features, like in Foundry, where the normally limited instrumentation challenges of a middle school band could be overcome by asking the percussionists to play non-traditional “found” percussion, so that’s a case of the difficulty level leading to the most interesting element of the piece. For a university-level piece like “The Frozen Cathedral,” I was encouraged by the commissioning organization to add extra players, and I took that to mean “extra instruments” as well, so I included things like alto flute, bass flute, English horn, and 10 percussionists. I figured out the scoring before I started any sketches, and that greatly influenced the overall sound of the piece.