How does a former competitive free-style skier and rock guitarist from California find success in the rarefied world of modern classical music?

Steven Mackey, a composer who will be featured in the Ojai Music Festival this weekend, gives a lot of credit to the values he absorbed as a teenager growing up in the mountains of Northern California.

“I’ve lived now on the East Coast for 25 years,” he said in an interview from Princeton, N.J. “But I still consider California my home. And if I can say this without being immodest, I think that part of my charm on the East Coast is my California outlook, which includes my enthusiastic personality and my guitar playing.”

Eclecticism is part of that Californian outlook, and Mackey expresses that fully in his music, which one moment can be lush and beautiful, and the next may feature a blazing solo on the electric guitar, or an ethereal vocal without traditional words.

Though his work is impossible to pigeon-hole — or perhaps because it’s impossible to pigeon-hole — he has written for some of the most honored performers in classical music today, including singer Dawn Upshaw and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

This year the festival’s centerpiece, “Slide,” is a Mackey composition that he will premiere on Friday, June 12. Mackey collaborated with singer/actor Rinde Eckert to create a theatrical adaptation of the piece. It is a bold move toward performance art for both the festival and the artists. The 80-minute dramatic performance speaks to the relationship between perception and reality as experienced by a psychiatrist (Eckert) who is troubled by a study he conducted. Eckert describes it as a “poignant tale of love, human frailty, the desire to control and, eventually, the tragic consequences once we have attained it.”

Clearly, Mackey is not a man who’s afraid to take a risk. In his youth, he played in a progressive rock band called Good Day that was a popular attraction at the Squaw Valley ski resort and opened for big 1970s acts the Doobie Brothers and Tower of Power. When he wearied of being a living “social lubricant,” Mackey went on to compete as a free-style skier for a well-known ski manufacturer, specializing in moguls.

“It was great, but I tore my Achilles tendon and missed a season and a half,” he said. “When I left the sport, I was doing a single backflip with a full twist, but by the time I came back, people were doing triple backflips and twists, and I thought maybe I should get into a safer line of work.”

Mackey no longer takes big physical risks, but he continues to take pride in his ability to startle people with unexpected musical twists and turns.

“I think the biggest surprise in my music is the variety of topographies,” he says. “I like to live not just in the valley, and not just in the mountain, but to move through the different altitudes. I want to create a big world with my sound.”

The eclectic Mackey is in like company at this year’s festival, which looks to be a wildly varied program of classical music — even by the traditionally daring standards of the Ojai Music Festival. Most striking of all the programs is the final three-part marathon performance on Sunday, June 14.

Led by the difficult-to-classify modern group known as eighth blackbird, the program will open with Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Double Sextet” and will also include Mackey’s guitar solo, as well as medieval work by Taverner, modernist pieces by Cage and Stravinsky and nine other works by living composers. The risk-taker in Mackey is excited about the program, and not just because he will be performing in it.

“Eighth blackbird have been great to work with,” said Mackey. “They’re musical omnivores, like me; and like a lot of young groups, they’re not worried about artificial distinctions between genres. They can make a cellist sound like part of a prog-rock group, or an electric guitar bend over backwards to sound like part of a classical chamber group. They’re trying to find the music behind the music, and that’s what I like.” 


Ojai Music Festival: Now hear this 

art2Now in its sixth decade, the Ojai Music Festival has, in more recent years, cultivated a reputation for showcasing cutting-edge, off-the-radar contemporary classical musicians in the pastoral environs of the Libbey Bowl. This year, the festival pushes the envelope even further with eighth blackbird as music director. The result is what artistic director Thomas Morris calls “A provocative mix of genre-defying music and electrifying performances.” June 11-14 at Libbey Bowl in Ojai. For audio samples, program information and tickets, please call 646-2094 or visit

Thursday, June 11, 8 p.m.  
The Dark Beauty of Nature
Opening night will feature four darkly beautiful modern compositions on the theme of nature, including revered Japanese composer Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree” and George Crumb’s captivating “Music for a Summer Evening,” as well as up-and-comer John Luther Adams’ “Dark Waves.” Not to be missed.

Friday, June 12, 8 p.m.
The world premiere of Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert’s musical theater piece that explores the relationship between perception and reality. See main story.

Saturday, June 13, 11 a.m.
The Wit of the Piano
The well-known wit and concert pianist Jeremy Denk (who has a must-read blog: will play a recital that he describes as “a monster of a piece,” plus Charles Ives’ “Piano Sonata No.1,” followed by J.S. Bach’s classic “Goldberg Variations.” On his blog, Denk discusses both: “Amused by his teenage fascination with the “orgasm of delay” that Bach included which Denk now sees as having a “consolatory power.” So the teen becomes a man.” 

Sunday, June 14, 11 a.m.
Steve Reich’s Masterpiece
This year, the world-changing composer Steve Reich won a Pulitzer Prize, but the music for which he will always be remembered and loved is his trance-inducing masterpiece “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” which will be performed by the top-notch group eighth blackbird and friends.

Sunday, June 14, 4 p.m.
Modern Marathon
To bring the festival to a fitting close, organizers are pulling out all the stops with Pulitzer award-winning “Double Sextet,” Steve Mackey’s guitar solo version of “Heavy Light,” medieval works by Taverner, modernist works by Cage and Stravinsky, and no fewer than 10 compositions by current composers. Expect it to be unforgettable.