American Record Guide
Allen Gimbel
March 1, 2011

Steven Mackey’s Dreamhouse is and odd assemblage dealing with, as the title suggests, the building of a perfect home, with a libretto filled with architectural details improvised on by Mr. Mackey and tenor and fellow librettist Rinde Eckert. In addition to Mr. Eckert, who sings not only as tenor but with falsetto, and functions as speaking actor as well, the work is scored for a small Hilliard Ensemble-type vocal consort, an electric guitar quartet, and large orchestra. The music is varied in its influences, but is unambiguously American in tone and aesthetic stance. There is plenty of syncopation and generous catchy bits, passages of Ivesian intricacy as well as moments of lush dreaminess. Baby boomer culture is represented by the occasional rock beat and indebtedness to Frank Zappa, while the impressive orchestration is colored by modern appliances like electric guitars and E-bows. Much of the music is sustained by pedal points and is unambiguously tonal in spirit. That doesn’t prevent Mackey from popping in another one of his favorite genres, 16th Century vocal music: a brief Sanctus drifts in out of nowhere, as do episodes of hocket and later, to square the circle, a little scat. The extensive concluding section introduces a tune that could easy be heard on Broadway, subjected to numbing repetition until its blistering climax is reached (why was I thinking of Copland’s Third?) Combine all this with echoes of Bernstein and John Adams, and you get a pretty vivid picture of 21st Century American compositional style.

Mackey is chairman of the music department at Princeton, and it amuses me no end to think about what was going on there just a few decades ago and how radically things have changed; don’t let anybody ever tell you that there is no such thing as postmodernism. Performance and production values are first rate, as they always are with these forces.