The music of composer, oboist, and installation artist Sky Macklay explores bold contrasts, theatrical elements, humor, and the physics of sound production and perception. Her works have been performed by ensembles such as ICE, Yarn/Wire, Wet Ink Ensemble, and Spektral Quartet. Two of her pieces, including the string quartet “Many Many Cadences” discussed in this interview, have received ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards. Originally from Minnesota, Sky is currently pursuing her DMA in composition at Columbia University in New York, where she studies with Georg Friedrich Haas, George Lewis, and Fred Lerdahl. A practitioner of creative music education, Sky teaches at Columbia and at the Walden School Young Musicians Program in Dublin, New Hampshire—the country’s largest summer school and festival for pre-college composers. Recently, I had the chance to speak with her about poking fun at hierarchies, authorial intent, and exploring politically charged topics as an artist.

VAN: Your music incorporates theatrical elements, humor, and explores the physics of sound production and perception. Could you talk about what that means to you?

Sky Macklay: They’re two sides of the same thing. It’s a broad, spectral concept, studying the physics of sound. The sound creation side—what is vibrating—creates a specific timbre, intensity, volume, but the perception side interests me in that I want to communicate clearly. Not in the sense that there is one “correct” way of interpreting my music. I use sounds to create grammars and arcs that I hope are logical and transparent enough to show not only sonically what’s happening, but for people to be able to get “the point” of a piece.

Sky Macklay, “Many Many Cadences”; Spektral Quartet

Have there been instances of an audience noticeably misinterpreting your work?

In a way, with “Many Many Cadences.” It was recorded by Spektral Quartet on their album “Serious Business,” which a lot of journalists wrote about. One thing that annoyed me was many of them only wrote about the beginning of the piece and not about what, to me, was the most important element of the piece, which is the deconstructive process.

Several writers said, “This is a piece where the quartet plays a lot of tonal cadences in fast succession with jagged rhythms that go from the top of the range to the bottom of the range.” That explains the A section, but that’s not what’s important about the piece.

First, I put the cadences in the context of really fast-changing keys and then made a bunch of the voices drop out. Your brain fills in the rest of the chord! Then I wrote really slow glissandi—even if the sound only stops by the cadential chord for a quarter-second, your brain still recognizes it.

Then we get into the recapitulation and the glissandi increase. Because the rhythm and stopping points are the same as before, your brain remembers and sparks that same material. I’m making fun, I like to be playful with my music. The metaphorical sense of this piece smudges and makes light of all these “great symphonies”—not that I don’t like Classical or Romantic symphonies—it just pokes fun at the idea of the canon and the hierarchy that is implied with tonality.

You also wrote a vocal work called “Sing Their Names,” which calls attention to sociopolitical hierarchy, though in a devastatingly serious way. What was your motivation to compose the piece?

I had a commission from the New York Virtuoso Singers in late 2015, so I searched for a long time for an appropriate text. Then I read one more news story about an unarmed black person being shot by the police and saw a poster that had a bunch of pictures and names of these people. I thought, “That’s what’s in my heart right now, I’m gonna use their names as the text and make a sonic monument.”

Sky Macklay, “Sing Their Names”; New York Virtuoso Singers

Was it difficult to detach yourself from the powerful emotions involved in order to do the abstract work of composition?

I had to just do it. I had a systematic way of working, but it was also emotionally difficult. Especially when the conductor asked me to create a pronunciation guide. That was really the hard part. I had to look up videos of their family members saying their names, on local news or home videos, and obviously they’re grieving. As a personal meditation it was very intense and brought me closer to the humans involved.

What are some reactions you’ve had to “Sing Their Names”?

I talked to the choir and the audience at the premiere. I told them that I felt unsure, because when you write political music it’s sometimes hard to justify why your voice matters about this topic or what it’s actually achieving. Hopefully it’s not about gaining personal accolades because that’s just gross.

The singers were spiritually affected while singing it. This is my sacred music, and the audience similarly felt it’s good to say these names as much as possible to just acknowledge what’s happening and get it out through lots of different media. I’ve gotten good feedback about it.

Overall, I felt a little apprehensive as a white person writing a Black Lives Matter-themed piece. But I decided that you can do it in a way that is tasteful and appropriate, and maybe somebody will hear and empathize more with the people and situation described.

Some people felt that most audience members who would actually hear pieces by contemporary composers were already liberal supporters of Black Lives Matter, so writing music like this would just be part of a futile self-congratulatory feedback loop. Others thought that there was space for sonic memorials to do good.

Sky Macklay • Photo Jessica Holleque
Sky Macklay • Photo Jessica Holleque

You’re currently writing an opera from the perspective of a uterus, entitled “Why We Bleed.” Could you tell me about that?

This past year, I’ve been in a program with the opera company American Opera Projects and through that I met [librettist] Emily Roller and we worked together on this piece. I’m very fascinated by sex from an educational perspective. If I weren’t a composer I’d want to be a sexuality educator. I think the intersection of forces controlling our reproductive lives is fascinating—infertility, desire for pregnancy or not—all these things that are really hard to control.

I found this essay by an evolutionary biologist, Suzanne Sadedin, called “How the Woman Got Her Period.” It showed how the endometrium evolved to vet each individual zygote and decide, using genetic information, whether it would be a good investment for the woman. So there’s this parallel consciousness within the body that’s making decisions, this battle inside. That, to me, was dramatically captivating, and I thought it could have definite political themes about reproductive choice.

I’m similarly curious about your dramatization of issues of birth control in your piece “Lessina Levlen Levlite Levora,” in which the speaker alternates between a radio car salesman affectation and pitches various brands of birth control to listeners and a frantic robot, talking about feeling bloated and how his period lasts a whole month. Where did this idea come from, and why have a man perform all the parts?

I had hemiplegic migraines, which show symptoms like a stroke. The first time you have one it’s really scary. That turned out to be connected to hormonal birth control, so that was a really horrible side effect of just trying to not get pregnant. When I was navigating that problem I had to go through all these layers of the pharmaceutical industry and insurance regulations. Then there’s this other capitalist layer where certain kinds are advertised, but there are so many side effects.

I started with all the names of the FDA-approved contraceptive pills and devices and put them in alphabetical order. Then I added in the advertisements, side effects, and individual reviews of their experiences with side effects. Then came more aggressive sounds—tremolos and more dynamic variation—to create a simulation of what it’s like to be in that situation, navigating all those layers of annoyance, complications, and health problems with the goal of not getting pregnant.

I think pregnancy prevention responsibility is skewed much more towards women. It’s a piece about empathy, and the audience I’m reaching for is men. By saying these things through a male voice, it’s supposed to trigger their empathy more.

Sky Macklay, “Lessina Levlen Levlite Levora”; Josh Modney (Violin and Voice), Sky Macklay (Electronics)

You teach, in addition to composing. How do your worlds of composing and performing and then instructing others in both interact?

They feed each other. Teaching can be as creative as composing, it’s really exciting to me to break a concept down into its foundational parts, create some sort of drill the students can use to master the material and create with it. You can do that with anything—spectral, microtonal, tonal, or set theory [techniques].

Part of what I love about teaching is the social good of it. As a composer, I don’t like to spend too much of my life just by myself composing: it’s vital and very important and satisfying, but you can start to feel too narcissistic.

I remember one student of mine, Clara, I think she was about 12 at the time. She was very interested in linguistics and it was her first time writing a piece for festival week, so she was a little nervous. She ended up writing this amazing, very personal piece, called “The Voice of the Whale.” She wrote a story from the perspective of a girl who was a human but who was raised by whales, then “rescued” by humans. She learned English, but because her first language was Whale, she was applying Whale grammar to English words, so the way that she wrote the text sounded out of order. It used this whale Sprechstimme vocal technique and had beautiful, harmonic glissandi with low, ringy notes in the cello. I may have incorporated inspiration from her piece into my own work, “Fly’s Eyes.” ¶