SEATTLE — “Slipping into sepia” is Steven Mackey’s phrase for a composer’s process of signaling an act of memory. “Ostensibly odd musical grammar in the present tense can be understood as an artifact of the past tense when it accompanies a remembered event, like a film’s sepia hue telling us that the scene is meant to be a recollection,” he writes in his commentary on Mnemosyne’s Pool (2014), a symphonic saga that is paired with his violin concerto Beautiful Passing (2008) on the most recent recording of Mackey’s music.
Memoir, which received its Pacific Northwest premiere Feb. 2 at the Seattle Symphony’s Octave 9 Raisbeck Music Center, is Mackey’s 2022 addition to this constellation of works exploring the intersections between memory and music. It also continues a thread of deeply felt tributes to the composer’s parents. The string quartet Ars Moriendi (“The Art of Dying”) from 2000 comes to terms with the death of Mackey’s father, while both Beautiful Passing and Memoir respond to the loss of his mother in 2007.
Ars Moriendi and Beautiful Passing reimagine well-traveled instrumental genres, but Memoir reflects Mackey’s fascination with the untapped potential of experimental music theater (as seen in such hybrid works as the Grammy Award-winning Slide from 2009). Initially intending to set a children’s book (the rights proved inaccessible), Mackey decided he was finally ready to confront the vulnerability of a source he had been contemplating for some time: the unpublished memoir left behind by his mother, Elaine Mackey.
Memoir’s unusual scoring calls for narrator, string quartet, and percussion duo. The antecedent that springs to mind is Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, but Mackey points out that Memoir’s intensely personal and subjective content sets it apart from the Russian composer’s use of “abstracted allegory” and familiar folk tale; by virtue of his close connection to the protagonist and the events she narrates, Mackey isn’t able to hide behind cleverly stylized characters but in fact becomes increasingly present as his mother’s story unfolds, eventually completing it with his own words as the epitaph Elaine speaks.
Another fundamental difference, as the composer explains in an in-depth interview with Seattle-based contemporary music expert Michael Schell, is that Stravinsky often pauses the music for passages of narration. Mackey designed Memoir, in contrast, as a unified “rhythmic texture” of narration and music comprising a “gestalt.” Even though there is no actual singing, you might say that Mackey “through-composes” the text.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the score is precisely this collusion between the prosaic, unpretentious, down-to-earth character of the narration and the multilayered fabric of illustration, commentary, and reminiscence woven by the six musicians. The seemingly random march of events in Elaine’s life acquires recognizable patterns through musical echoes and cross-references, at times provoking unexpected emotional responses.
Memoir is a story of origins and accountings but at the same time becomes an ode to new beginnings as Elaine, a first-generation immigrant born to Swedish parents, enthusiastically embraces the opportunities for change that punctuate her life. Personal misfortunes and misalliances play out against the backdrop of epochal 20th-century events, but the complete absence of self-pity or bitter recrimination gives her account a refreshing sense of wonder at the miracle of everyday life — “an extraordinary story of an ordinary life,” as Mackey puts it.
The music is correspondingly direct in its gestures, alluding to the vernacular Elaine knew: her signature song “Night and Day,” her love of dancing the jitterbug, the lullabies Mackey recalls her singing to him, her sole biological child. The two percussionists draw on an endlessly shifting palette of sonic images — including the vibrations of wine bottles, an especially poignant touch in the final soundscape, after we’ve experienced Elaine’s successful journey of recovery from alcoholism. But the string quartet frequently adopts a “percussive” persona as well, alongside its lush, neo-Romantic gestures, while the percussion duo is adept at conjuring lyrical atmospheres.
Elaine’s first words — introducing herself and her family names — hint at a Steve Reichian direction of speech-shaped rhythmicization. But Mackey soon steps aside from this approach and resorts to conventionally theatrical narration. He playfully alludes to the diegetic music we associate with silent film accompaniment or the golden days of radio: train whistles and roaring wheels for cross-country journeys, the clackity tap dance of an old typewriter, a Ford Model T being cranked up by Elaine’s patient father. But the score’s humor and invention are complicated by an undertow of understated melancholy — an introspective counterpoint to the pulsating rhythmic mottos and exuberant energy that elsewhere carry the story forward.
This performance was something of a homecoming for Mackey, who was in attendance. He spent part of his peripatetic youth in nearby Tacoma, making the trip to Seattle to hear the rock bands he emulated early in his career as an electric guitarist.
Natalie Christa Rakes, who created the part of Elaine/the narrator at the world premiere in May 2022 in Fayetteville, Ark., found just the right balance of unfeigned charm and barely disguised vulnerability. The result was deeply touching. In this fully staged version of Memoir, which is directed by Mark DeChiazza, Elaine also had to casually execute a series of costume changes and is accompanied by film projections — more “slipping into sepia” — at various points in the narration. (Memoir can be performed without staging — just the narrator and ensemble — or as an instrumental suite roughly half as long as the 75-minute stage show.)
The Seattle-based arx duo — percussionists Mari Yoshinaga and Garrett Arney — had also performed in the original staging of Memoir and seamlessly navigated the orchestra’s worth of instruments occupying much of the performance space. The string quartet, comprising musicians from the Seattle Symphony (violinists Eduardo Rios and Andy Liang, violist Olivia Chew, and cellist Nathan Chan), played with theatrical verve and keen attention to detail.
The intimate Octave 9 space was well-suited to this presentation, though sightlines were obstructed — most problematically, of the screen projections behind the performers, which lessened the impact of Mackey’s entrance in the final third of Memoir. The composer’s own memories of his mother as he becomes more conscious of her struggles with social anxiety and alcoholism are gently overlaid on the narrative, like annotations of a favorite text. The resonance of Elaine’s story, as it unfolds, becomes increasingly universal — yet, the true paradox of Mackey’s art acquires an even more endearingly quirky individuality.