One of my expected pleasures of being here at the Atlantic Center for the Arts has been the opportunity to learn more about the music of M.C. Maguire. (I’ll introduce you to all my ACA composers presently, but Maguire, older than the rest, deserves his own day.) Mike’s a Canadian composer, used to live in Vancouver, but moved to Toronto four years ago, and makes his living making soundtracks for films, commercials, and the like. His work for hire is rather amazingly sophisticated, and you can hear his imaginative commercials for Nike, Smirnoff, Fruit Loops, and others here. But I first became aware of him via a torrential sound continuum called Seven Years on the 1989 Bang on a Can marathon, and I’ve been trying to figure him out ever since.
Because his music – wild, noisy, intense, relentlessly high-energy – is nearly opposite in style to most of the music I like, but it is nothing at all like most modernist music characterized by those qualities, and I always have to admire fanaticism. Most of his pieces are what he calls “concertos,” by which he means pieces for solo instrument accompanied/obliterated by tape or electronic soundfile layered with from 200 to 400 tracks. The noise periodically parts for pop references and quotations: lightly-altered pop songs, the scherzo from Bruckner’s Eighth, Brazilian pop, heavy metal, all cascading by like someone trying to find his favorite radio station during a hurricane. Two of his pieces, which he analyzed for us – Got That Crazy Latin/Metal Feelin’ for guitar and tape and Short History of Lounge for piano and tape – will be released on the Tzadik label in May, and he had to alter some of the quotations to avoid copyright infringement. He claims that he replaced the vocal parts with vocalists singing software manuals in Portugese, but Mike’s humor is so dry that it’s hard to discern where reality ends and satire begins – probably somewhere within his music.
It turns out, though, that beneath all the wildness runs a detailed sense of proportion and structure as obsessive as that of the Berg Chamber Concerto or the middle studies of Nancarrow. Got That Crazy Latin/Metal Feelin’ is based on 49 tonalities that alternately rise and descend by thirds. As Mike helpfully charted out on a blackboard for us, the piece ascends to chord 7, returns to 1, slogs its way up to 14, returns to 1, and so on until it finally climbs the mountain of 49. The central tonality is the E power chord of the guitar solo, and you can sometimes hear the music dramatically return to it via a circle of fourths – though Maguire’s moments of repose and respite start about where Mahler’s climaxes end. Short History of Lounge, its title notwithstanding, is – at least on paper – a conventional three-movement concerto form, though enlivened by background quotations and sections that greatly accelerate and decelerate. The finale runs through an incredible gradual deceleration from quarter note = 900 to quarter note = 4. The magnitude of such gestures leaves you exhausted. In retrospect, though, I should have figured that his sense of form was knitted together by obsessively detailed structure, because it would be extremely difficult to make music of such rich complexity without a plan to generate all the various moments: the musical analogue of Bruno’s Theater of memory.
I’ve included some Maguire on Postclassic Radio, but I’ve also uploaded Short History of Lounge here on my website, so you can hear it. It’s the easier-listening of the two pieces, if that term can be used in this case, and I’ll take it down when the CD appears in May, and remind you that it’s out. I can see why Zorn likes the music – perhaps a rare point at which our tastes overlap. Maguire’s not completely isolated in Canadian music, for his friend Paul Dolden also makes take pieces of mammothly superimposed hundreds of tracks, and has gained a little more attention for doing so. But with his peculiar blend of postmodern style juxtapositions, pop appropriations, and fanatical intellectual structure, I think Maguire’s the most original Canadian composer since R. Murray Schafer – and I don’t know Schafer’s music well enough to be certain the qualifier is necessary.