A whisper to a scream: ‘Aluminum Flowers’ plays out the guitar’s history

The world premiere by Curtis composer Steven Mackey samples the development of guitar sounds over hundreds of years.

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Composer Steven Mackey and guitarist Jiji Kim

Classical guitarist Jiji Kim runs through her performance of ''Aluminum Flowers'' with composer Steven Mackey during a rehearsal at Curtis Institute of Music. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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The guitar is roughly 600 years old, more or less, and in that time has gone through many changes. Composer Steven Mackey’s “Aluminum Flowers” showcases the many voices the guitar has developed over that time.

“I wanted to paint a picture of not just the guitar, but the guitar player,” said Mackey, who teaches composition at Curtis and Princeton University. “Guitarists tend to be musical omnivores. They have a connection to Spanish music of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. They also have an intimate connection with rock music of the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

“It’s not a linear story,” he said. “More showing the whole blossoming of what a guitarist and the guitar have become.”

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“Aluminum Flowers” has its world premiere this Saturday at Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center.

Classical guitarist Jiji Kim and composer Steven Mackey.
Classical guitarist Jiji Kim and composer Steven Mackey. (Emma Leee/WHYY)

Mackey has spent most of this decades-long career championing the electric guitar in classical music. In “Aluminum Flowers” he makes the soloist — in this case Jiji Kim, or just JIJI, a graduate of Curtis who now teaches at Indiana University at Bloomington  — to take on the many moods of the guitar, from nylon string acoustic inspired by the 16th-century Spanish guitar to the ‘70s classic rock sounds of Santana to the use of electronic looping pedals.

The piece requires JIJI to put down an acoustic guitar and pick up an electric, and back again, over the course of the five movements. She said it’s like switching characters on the fly, and it’s terrifying.

“I’ve been in night terrors for the last four months,” she joked, sort of. “But, no, it’s been really fun. It’s so cool to be going back and forth from the classical and electric guitar, completely different instruments.”

Mackey, an accomplished guitar player himself, admits he would not try to play his own piece because of the technical challenges of moving between acoustic and electric.

Written for the electric guitar and a full orchestra, “Aluminum Flowers” moves from lyrical melody to jarring dissonance, from soft finger-picking to raucous power chords. It starts quietly with a classic acoustic guitar, which Mackey jokes sounds best to the person closest to the guitar: the player herself.

“That’s so true,” JIJI confirmed. “House concerts are the best. Not in a big Verizon Hall kind of place, because we have to amplify it. It’s definitely much quieter. It’s very intimate.”

For the second movement, JIJI moves to an electric guitar and introduces delay pedals, allowing her to accompany herself.

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“She’s plugged into this matrix of things, so that every note she plays has consequence to other things,” Mackey said.

Mackey gave his third movement the Spanish title “Canción” in homage to Carlos Santana: “Great guitar player that I grew up with, who has a very singing, lyrical sound that is more like a viola than anything else.”

The fourth movement takes cues from the avant-garde music of John Cage, who would prepare a piano by putting screws and washers on the strings. JIJI weaves a guitar pick through her bass strings to create a gamelan sound of a rattling gong then plays the high strings with a bottleneck slide.

The fifth and final movement incorporates looping pedals, giving JIJI a more polyphonic range to compete with the rest of the orchestra.

“You’ll see a really wide range of the colors and tones and timbres of the guitar,” JIJI said. “It feels like — I don’t want to say this — like a sampler. But you’re getting a five-course meal.”

Mackey has been putting electric guitars into classic music for so long, he takes both the credit and the blame for the instrument’s prominence in the genre. He can still recall, verbatim, the stinging criticism he received after the 1992 premiere of “Physical Property,” one of the pieces he is best known for.

“Combining the electric guitar with the classical string quartet is a terrible idea, and Mackey does it terribly,” Mackey remembers a critic writing. “The only good thing about being at this performance was the comfort in knowing that this will never happen again.”

In the 25 years since “Physical Property” debuted, the electric guitar has become more accepted in classical ensembles.

“Half of the new music groups — the young twenty-somethings out of conservatories that are starting new music groups — have an electric guitar in the band. So, I think I win,” he said. “Not to mention the fact that I’ve probably performed ‘Physical Property’ 300 times with 50 different string quartets.”

Although decades apart in age, Mackey and JIJI both came up steeped in ‘70s hard rock, Mackey as a guitarist playing blues rock in Northern California clubs in the 1970s and JIJI as an 8-year-old growing up in the 1990s in Seoul, Korea, with her parents pushing her toward classical guitar when she would have preferred to play in bands.

Both say they were inspired to pick up the guitar by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore. While Blackmore was at the forefront of ‘70s rock guitar, he has always claimed that his deepest inspiration comes from early guitar music of the Renaissance, bending “Aluminum Flowers” historical sweep into a full circle.

“Aluminum Flowers” will be performed Saturday, March 9, at Verizon Hall, on a program with the world premiere of James Ta’s “Te Deum” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”).

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