Sky Macklay: The Process & Joy of Subversive Humor

ManyManyCadencesOver the summer we found some time to connect over Skype with composer, oboist, installation artist and professor Sky Macklay, who was in the middle of what sounded like a truly magnificent residency at Civitella Ranieri in Umbertide, Italy. Macklay’s work, especially her chamber music and intermedia pieces, has been receiving more and more attention recently, especially in light of her 2017 Grammy nomination for “Many Many Cadences,” a chamber piece written for Spektral Quartet and appearing on their 2016 album, Serious Business.

The measured but sincerely eager thoughtfulness that Macklay employs in conversation about her art is also a key component of her work, which simultaneously revels in playfulness and freedom. The themes and concepts covered by her oeuvre, whether sociopolitical or linguistic or purely sonic, are almost as expansive as the tools she employs to explore them and convey her perspective on them. Her curiosity seems to be matched only by her omnivorous gravitational pull on the world around her: everything is on the table to explore via every means she can get her hands on. And the results are surprising, head-turning, eye-opening — and continuously exciting.

Leonard Bernstein, in his February 1959 Young People’s Concert titled “Humor in Music,” deemed surprise and shock to be the crucial element in all humor, including musical humor. This allows humor to strip the daunting sacred pillars of society and culture of their power and bring them back to reality. This sort of humor is at the heart of Macklay’s work, which simultaneously subverts the established traditions and insists on saying something new through her own strong voice.

Macklay’s website is loaded with fantastic videos of her work, and watching those is, of course, a much better introduction to what promises to be an incredible and lauded career than any words we can use to describe it. We have, however, included a transcript of our interview (edited for content) so that you can also get to know her through her own words.


Sky Macklay

Sheet Music Plus (SMP): How would you describe yourself as a composer?

Sky Macklay (SM): I see myself as a composer in the experimental contemporary Western art music tradition. I write music for all kinds of different ensembles — chamber ensembles, orchestras, choirs, theatrical music, and intermedia music that combines different art forms like video and electronics. More often I write chamber music because I enjoy working with individuals who are my friends. We can have deep collaborations and try new things.

Some of the topics that my music often touches on or the musical interest that my music deals with are oftentimes process. I’m a very process-oriented composer. I want the listener to hear transparently — hear what’s going on the piece, that is, hear a sound go through a transformation that they can follow over the course of the piece. I often use tonality in more experimental or surreal ways combining different tonal systems or blurring tonal harmony in a way that is reminiscent but yet new. I often incorporate humor and theatricality and extremes into my music.

SMP: You’re talking about chamber music and what sounds like almost a collaborative process between you as a composer and the instrumentalists. How does your experience as an instrumentalist inform that, and what do you find productive about the dialogic element?

SM: Being a performer myself is, of course, insightful. I just finished a piece for saxophone and electronics. It’s actually for sopranino sex and bari sax (but with only one sax player who starts on sopranino and switches to bari) and with electronics. It’s for my friend and collaborator, Ryan Muncy, who’s a saxophonist with International Contemporary Ensemble. We’ve known each other for several years, so I’ve heard him play a lot and heard him improvise and heard the intense and extreme sounds that he is gravitating towards. That gives me inspiration and opens up new ideas that maybe I wouldn’t have thought of entirely on my own.

In that particular case, I was exploring a psychoacoustic phenomenon called difference tones. If you have one frequency that is 2000Hz coming from one sound source and another one that’s, say, 1500Hz coming from a different sound source, theoretically you’ll hear another tone that’s 500Hz (the difference between the two frequencies). If you use certain conditions that are really good for hearing difference tones, it sounds very localized in the ear. I wanted to create these particular patterns with difference tones, but I needed to test it and see if it actually worked. I tested it with my oboe and with the electronics. With an oboe, I could get a similar range to the sopranino saxophone, and from doing that it just evolved. I ended up like playing it on the oboe so much that I realized I could also make an oboe version of the piece. I actually think that’s what I’m going to do because through the experimentation process I realized it works really well.

Another example is a piece I recently wrote for andPlay, which is a violin/viola duo. It was very connected to the biographies of the particular individuals and to their friendship. It has a video part on YouTube that has little avatars for each of them, and they go around on maps to different parts of New York City. It’s based on the places that they really go in real life, but if you zoom out, it’s also about the bigger picture, talking about public transportation, in general, and how we measure time, and how it feels different based on whether you’re stuck in traffic or on the subway or waiting when the train is delayed. It’s a very individual story, a very specific personal story, but hopefully with resonance to anyone because there are bigger themes involved.

SMP: I’m interested in how you approach music as a medium. It seems like it’s just a piece of the puzzle for you. For instance, with the “Harmonibots” installation, the entire piece is interactive: the music is a piece of it, but then there is a physical interaction with the installation, as well as a visual-spatial-architectural element. Then with the piece you describe earlier, there’s the personal narrative and the video piece in addition to the music. How do you see music interacting with these other artistic media?

SM: I’m a very conceptual composer, and sometimes that manifests in purely a psych concept, but sometimes it spreads beyond the bounds of sound like in the cases of my installations “Harmonibots” and “MEGA-ORGAN,” my piece with video maps of friendship, and, for example, some pieces include text or are intermedia in that they’re semantically engaging with language. “Lessina Levlin Levite Lavora,” for instance, is about different birth control methods, and it uses reactions from different people online talking about the different side effects.

In the case of “Harmonibots,” it started as a sonic idea, but it’s intimately related with how that sound is produced. With instruments, a composer is always thinking about how the sound is produced physically. With harmonicas the sound is produced by just blowing through the reeds. You don’t need to have a special embouchure. I was inspired for those pieces by seeing the wacky, arm-waving tube people advertising car dealerships, and I was thinking about whether the air blowing through them would be enough to make a harmonica vibrate.

Robotic instruments are also an interesting concept. Is there any advantage to have robots playing an instrument versus humans. For particular musical situations there are advantages if you want an instrument to do something that humans can’t do (like hundreds of harmonicas playing at the same time for an hour straight). I thought of that as creating this instrument doing something that humans can’t do, and it evolved into this interactive space where anyone could come in and improvise and play any instrument by squishing the sculptures instead of how you traditionally play a harmonica.

When I have an idea, sometimes it needs to grow beyond the bounds of only sound and be an intermedia piece, meaning different kinds of media are integral to the whole.

SMP: Between the advertising tube men and experiences with birth control you mentioned earlier, as well as the different sounds of language that you explore in “Alabama Gala,” for instance, it seems like you’re drawing inspiration from all of these different sources around you. How does that process happen for you?

SM: I usually have a moment of inspiration that gives me a tiny, little seed of an idea, and then I have to work it out and think it through and develop it. I think I am lucky that sometimes I do get inspired out of the blue by some idea, and it can come from things I encounter in life or personal experience. No composer or artist is in a vacuum. You have a lot of influences coming at you. But then, of course, turning an idea into a piece is the hard part because it’s all in the craftspersonship and executing it well. To me it’s really important to have a strong concept and a strong execution.

And then if I need to write a piece and I don’t have an idea already, sometimes I’ll write the instruments down on staff paper and meditate on the instruments themselves and whether those particular instruments want to say anything to each other.

Sometimes I have to write proposals for pieces before I’ve even written the pieces, then I’ll go back to it later and have to figure out how to use that in the piece. You come up with ideas, and then you’re not really sure what will end up making it into the piece, but some stuff does make it into the piece.

SMP: How does the proposal process affect your composing? There’s something very natural about sound and how pitch and rhythm are physiologically innate to the human experience, but then putting those concepts into language is tough because it’s already a level of abstraction away from that. And then once a proposal is accepted, you have to return to that language to ensure that you’re fulfilling that proposal with the sounds you create. Does that mediation of language have any effect on your process and the work that results from it?

SM: I’m a very verbal person, and when I’m first brainstorming ideas for a piece, I write down words and sentences describing what I want to do so I don’t forget what I’m thinking of. Those words might mean nothing if someone else read them because I write in my own language so that I know what I’m talking about.

In general, I think that, being a composer, it’s good to be able to describe your music to other people, and I’m very grateful that other people are interested in my music and want to know more about it. I think I’ve become better at talking about it and explaining it in words. Trying to continually find the language to explain my music is helpful because if I can describe it to someone else, I can identify my own habits, values, and musical techniques and also the materials that I’m drawn to that make my music personal. It’s helpful to be self-reflective and know what makes my music me. Then I can build on those things and hopefully further hone my own voice. I think being able to put it into words helps me hone my own voice.

SMP: When you say you’re “process-oriented,” can you define what that means to you?

SM: When I think about process music or process-oriented composers, in general, I think of Arvo Pärt, who goes through a certain number of repetitions, and he has a very clear formula for the way a piece progresses. Maybe the duration of notes is doubled or halved. Steve Reich is another process-oriented composer.

To me the most important thing is setting up rules for the piece and then following through with them in a way that is predictable. Some composers do that in a way that is not necessarily that audible to the listener, but I like to do that in a way that the listener can hopefully hear and follow.


For example, I have a violin and piano piece called “FastLowHighSlow.” The concept of the piece is that it’s four different modules that are each sixty or ninety seconds long, and they’re extremes of the instruments and the extremes in speed. There’s a module that’s high and fast in the piano and high and slow in the violin, and then there’s one that’s low and slow in the piano and low and fast in the violin. So those four modules can all go together, and the process of the piece is that it cycles through all of the possible combinations of those modules to create the different movements. I hope that by the end the listeners realize that they had heard those parts before but in different movements, and now they’re together. That’s what I’m hoping for: a moment of clarity and discovery when the audience hears my process. And I’m hoping that the process also results in beautiful sounds and gestures that work on the micro level but also have this satisfying formal arc because of the process.

SMP: On one hand, you delve into social justice issues, and then on the other hand, there’s a certain playfulness in your work, whether it’s in your installations or in your different explorations of sound. In one way or another, both of those take on the “establishment,” whether you’re confronting it from a social perspective or you’re devising ways to take on and play with the pillars of creation dictated by the institution. It’s a sort of border or outsider perspective because if you are “the institution,” you can’t play with the dictates of the institution. Can you talk about where that comes from, and how you think of these different power dynamics?

SM: I think that’s a keen observation because it’s totally true.

I feel part of a whole community that does outsider critique of more conservative mainstream classical music and the canon of Western art music. I and most of my friends and colleagues love Western art music and classical music, but it also has a lot of baggage in being a hegemonic canon that excludes so much music and new voices and other people. It just doesn’t include so much of humanity. I think I and a lot of my colleagues, by playing very experimental music and very free, expressive things, are expressing what we want to hear and play.

It’s also subversive because it’s putting into action these rebellious practices and sounds. I see myself in that vein being a little rebellious and a little trickstery. It comes very naturally to me.

In my teaching and in my music, I try to expand the world that I’m part of and get more perspectives and more people involved. For me personally in my voice, it oftentimes comes through as juxtaposing humor and serious topics.

SMP: When you say that it comes naturally to you, why do you think that is?

SM: First of all, I’m a very open person. I’m ok with sharing personal stuff with people I don’t know that well. Part of being a composer, I think, is that you’ve got to be comfortable sharing your hard-created ideas with other people and being open to criticism. To me that’s not just notes and sounds. It extends to more broad information and ideas about myself.

One of the ways that I really engage with art and with the world is through humor. I find it very powerful. The art that I’m attracted to is often humorous in a smart way and weirdly humorous. One of my favorite performers I’ve found over the past few years is the comedian Maria Bamford. She tells extremely uncomfortable personal truths about mental illness, but her humor is also very avant-garde and performative. That’s the sort of media that really speaks to me.

SMP: Are there people in the music sphere that inspire you like that?

SM: My musical inspirations are very diverse. Some of the people who also deal with humor, theatricality and intermedia work come to mind like Rick Burkhardt and Kate Soper. And the storytelling songs. I’ve been really gravitating toward Dolly Parton songs lately. I also just heard an orchestra piece by Jay Schwartz that was amazing and mind-blowing but really different from what I do.

SMP: What are some of the most important lessons that you’ve learned from your students?

SM: When I taught at [The] Walden [School, a summer composition camp in New Hampshire], I had some very young students, like 10, 11, 12 years old. One thing I learned from them is to be true to your natural voice. Of course I always would challenge them and have them do new techniques, but letting them be their unvarnished selves in their music was extremely powerful. At that age they’re so raw and creative and unpolished in a beautiful way. That inspired me to, in a more mature, adult-appropriate way, be a little raw and true to my own inner child.

I remember a student who wrote a piece called “The Voice of a Whale” for voice and cello from the perspective of a whale that was adopted by humans. This whale remembered some of her native whale language but not all of it, so when she was speaking English, she put the words out of order because she was applying whale grammar to English words. That sounds like kind of a funny concept, but the piece was very heart-wrenching. Even though it was ten years ago, I can still sing that piece to you now because this composer, Claire, was following her idea. She had a good idea, and she went with it. She committed to it.

I think that’s the biggest takeaway from working with my students. If you have a good idea, just go with it, and don’t think twice about committing to a concept.

SMP: What’s in store in the future for you? What are some projects that you want to tackle or some areas that you’re interested in exploring?

SM: I’m very much in a good place now. I have lots of upcoming pieces. Right now I’m working on a large ensemble piece for the Green Umbrella Series for the LA Phil Chamber Music Series. I’m also working on my second string quartet. Next year I’ll be doing a big women’s choir piece.

I definitely want to do another harmonic installation in the next few years, but I haven’t found the right venue or timeframe yet. I have a different visual aesthetic in mind this time. I want it to have totally clear plastic and much more clean lines and high columns that expand upward very linearly so you can really see the harmonicas vibrating very clearly.

I also want to do some sort of big theatrical project, but I don’t have a super clear vision of that yet. It’ll come into clear focus soon, I’m sure.

3 thoughts on “Sky Macklay: The Process & Joy of Subversive Humor

  1. Shraddharp Kapse

  2. annielaroo

    I didn’t know that this kind of music existed until I stumbled across this piece. I watched the notation and tried to follow the sounds. I write this not knowing what to even say, trying hard not to sound too foolish. I find my mouth still wide open as it was thru-out the performance. That I’ll likely never meet Sky Macklay has now become one of life’s regrets.

  3. […] Walden alumna and longtime faculty member Sky Macklay was interviewed by Sheet Music Plus. The inter...