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Once a physicist: Steven Mackey

Steven Mackey is composer and musician at Princeton University

What sparked your interest in physics?
I went to the University of California, Davis, and at first I was a pre-med major, studying to be a doctor. But that was a lazy decision on my part, because the only careers I knew about were doctor, lawyer and rock star (and I was already an aspiring rock star). Then I took a physics class and really liked it a lot; I liked the problem-solving aspects, I liked the fact that it seemed to be dealing with how the universe really works, and for me it was just an ideal blend of philosophy, cosmology and mathematics.

How did you get into music? 
I'm a terrible singer, so when I was playing in rock bands as I was growing up, I became a sort of virtuoso with the electric guitar in order to make myself indispensable. Then, when I was deep in my physics study, I took a course on music appreciation. At the time, I knew nothing about classical music, but I was incredibly turned on by it. The band that I was playing with at the time was getting a lot of rejections from presenters – we'd get letters saying "Your band is really tight, but your original songs are kinda weird and hard to dance to." Then I heard classical music and I thought, wait, this stuff – you know, Stravinsky ballets and late Beethoven quartets – is also really weird and really hard to dance to! It seemed like the most psychedelic rock music I'd ever heard. And at the same time, I was pretty naive about what a physics career could be. It seemed like, well, gee, I guess I could join the military-industrial complex and design weapons or something. The zeitgeist of northern California in its post-hippy heyday definitely figured in my decision. In a different time and place, who knows what would have happened?

You went on to get your PhD in composition. What was that like? 
It was wonderful in that I've never had more time in my life to just work on composing, but it was also difficult because I felt I was behind everyone else. The other people in my cohort had been composing music since they were eight and playing the piano since they were four, so I felt I needed to completely repress my rock background, put my electric guitar in my parents' basement and try to be someone I wasn't, which was a classical music nerd. But at the same time, I don't regret any of those years because I really developed my technique and knowledge of the repertoire. It was only afterwards that I started to realize that my background as a rock musician had some positive aspects.

How would you describe your composing style? 
I write for traditional classical ensembles, such as string quartets and orchestras, but with the added spin that some of my works include the electric guitar, for example concertos for electric guitar and orchestra. I don't think of myself as being on any kind of mission to mix rock and classical music, though. It's more that I am personally mixed up at the DNA level; fundamentally, those things just inform how I think music should go.

What are you working on right now? 
I'm writing a 35-minute work in several movements that was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony in Washington, DC and Australia's Sydney Symphony. The commissioning contract calls it a symphony, but I haven't written a symphony before and I feel like I'm too old to start with Symphony No 1, so I probably won't call it that. Maybe I will start with Symphony No 5, since I like a lot of fifth symphonies (Beethoven, Sibelius).

How has your background in physics influenced your work? 
When I was first starting to compose, it felt a lot like doing physics. There is something about the focus and immersion and the way you think about it for hours that is similar. Also, there's a certain discipline in the problem-solving aspect of physics, where the first step is to ask yourself what you can do to get closer to the answer. That's the approach I take to composition sometimes: if I imagine some music that's just a little bit out of my grasp – I can't quite bring it into focus to write it down – then I ask myself what activity I can do that will get me closer to this music. And some of my music involves setting up patterns with different periods and then waiting for the moment when those periods align and a big event happens. The calculations for making those things work are either the result of my studying physics or else they're from the same brain that enjoyed physics.

Have you kept up with any physics? 
A little. Brian Greene, the string theorist, is someone I consider a friend, and listening to him talk has definitely rekindled my interest. But to really understand it, I'd have to get back into the mathematics, and that's something I laugh about – it came so easily to me, but 35 years later I couldn't do calculus to save my life. Conceptually it still fascinates me, though.

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