Lost in Steve Mackey's Slippery Slide

Matthew Cmiel on December 5, 2011

Lonely Hotel
Lonely Hotel
Slide, a performance art piece from Rinde Eckert (lyricist/singer) and Steve Mackey (composer/guitarist/narrator) and performed with eighth blackbird, is a true collaboration. I had the opportunity to see it at its premiere at the Ojai Music Festival, and can report that it includes lots of stage movement and even some dancing. The excerpts released on the recent CD Lonely Hotel are a reminder that, exciting as the performance was, the piece doesn’t really work.

Slide tells the story of a lovelorn psychologist, dealing with the concept how our own preconceptions of reality constantly affect what we view and how we think about things. Eckert and Mackey based the piece on an experiment in which subjects were asked to guess what an out-of-focus image was, and then asked to reevaluate it once it was clear. The experiment showed that when you’ve identified an image as one thing, it takes you longer to comprehend that it’s actually something else. The creators take this finding and spin it into a story about not really knowing where your life is going or what it all means.

Listen To The Music

Lonely Motel: Music From Slide - Depending

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Sadly, this may be true in more than one way. Despite listening to the CD several times, I have been unable to get past my first impression of the piece, which I heard roughly three years ago. It lacks focus, and goes nowhere. I tried but couldn’t find any interest in the experiment or fascination with the work’s structure, and I could not develop any feeling for the character.

Mackey’s oeuvre, for me, is characterized by ups and downs. I’ve enjoyed some of his pieces immensely (Grungy and Tuck and Roll come to mind). I like his orchestrations, and I think his process is interesting and engaging.

And yes, there are some enjoyable moments in this piece. The opening of the song “Depending” is a lot of fun, mad gyrations of rhythm popping up and down. The electric guitar harmonics at the beginning of “Ghosts” is fantastic. The ringing high chords in piano and percussion in “Processional” are haunting and riveting, reminiscent of the end of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, and the orchestrations are frequently excellent.

Sometimes, though, artists would be better off if they didn’t try to go for global concepts. Music about the human experience, music about how we all perceive the world — it all seems too grandiose to do, at least more than rarely. A lot of great music is really depicting something much simpler. Beethoven’s Opus 132, the 3rd movement, is his way of saying, “I am grateful for being alive”; the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony develops from a melody that may have been a love song to his wife. Composers should try to tell a simple truth, well.