Steven Mackey has been hailed widely as a versatile, innovative composer of orchestral and chamber music, and also for his prowess on the electric guitar. Jason Treuting is best known for his role in the dynamic quartet So Percussion, in which he works as both a player and a composer. Their creative paths have crossed numerous times, in varying ways. Mackey wrote his critically acclaimed It Is Time for So Percussion, who introduced the work at Carnegie Hall and recorded it for Cantaloupe Music. Mackey and Treuting are also bandmates alongside vocalist Rinde Eckert and bassist Lek Darger in the art-rock band Big Farm, which released its self-titled debut CD in 2013 on New Amsterdam.
Now, proving there’s no limit to what these dynamic artists are capable of doing, Mackey and Treuting have collaborated to create an opera—albeit one without words. Orpheus Unsung, an hour-long work for electric guitar and drums, revisits the classic Greek myth of Orpheus in the underworld. Staged by the innovative director Mark DeChiazza, the piece had its premiere in June 2016 as part of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series, at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Mackey and Treuting now have recorded the work for release Oct. 6 on New Amsterdam, and the label has graciously allowed us to share the entire album in advance: right here, right now.
Describing the way this imaginative and unorthodox project came to fruition, Mackey writes:
“Orpheus Unsung arose from the weaving of three threads: an encounter with Mark DeChiazza, an association with Jason Treuting, and my own itch to do something really ambitious for the electric guitar.
“When I first encountered Mark DeChiazza’s work as a director and choreographer in Ojai in 2009 I told him that I would like to do a piece for solo electric guitar and dancer. I had the idea of a guitar opera – music that traces the contours of a dramatic story without text – and he came up with the title Orpheus Unsung and idea to trace the Orpheus Myth. To that original kernel I added Jason and he added two more dancers for a total of three… but it all began in Ojai.
“I have been improvising with Jason Treuting since 2003. We have an array of techniques and characters that we can call upon but, in spite of the fact that I am primarily a composer, we don’t have a repertoire of reliable compositions. The 60 minutes of music that make up Orpheus Unsung is our repertoire that lives a life parallel to the staged version.
For 30 years I have wanted to make something for myself to play that only I could do… or at least aim for that. I am a pretty good guitarist, pretty light on my feet, and a very experienced orchestral composer. I wanted to use my technique, physicality, and technology to realize an orchestral conception of the guitar. I use loopers in a very detailed way to create counterpoint and rich texture, and myriad effects to broaden the sound palette for orchestration. My feet are nearly as active as my fingers and my brain power is on maximum. It is exhilarating to perform!“
You can preorder your own copy of Orpheus Unsung using the link in the Bandcamp player, or make yourself a note to pick it up at your favorite retailer on Oct. 6. Mackey, Treuting, and DiChiazza will present Orpheus Unsung fully staged on Oct. 6 and 7 at 6 and 9pm as part of A Festival of the Arts at Princeton University, in the Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio at 185 Nassau St, Princeton; ticket information here. Mackey and Treuting will also host a record-release concert featuring music from the album and more at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music on Oct. 11 at 8pm; ticket details here.
Last but not least, you can watch a video of “Stalactites,” a portion of Orpheus Unsung, on the NPR website.