John Mackey’s Strange Humors


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The piece opens with a sultry and passionate English horn solo, a line that dabbles in the Phrygian mode and resembles some African and middle Eastern melodies. The saxophone joins the English horn, adding notes that bend into and out of tune to give the line a more eerie feeling. After the melody is introduced, the most important instrument of the piece, the djembe, takes a solo that leads into the combination of this rhythm and melody. From here, more and more complexities are added as new instruments come in with the melody, pitched percussion joins the djembe on various pitches, and a new melody is developed. The piece is generally at a relatively fast tempo, but there sudden are moments of calm that revive the listener and make the fast and complex sections even more interesting and special. 

Throughout the piece, various special effects are used to make the piece strange and eerie; these include using a string bass bow on crotales, special trumpet mutes, trombone slides, as well as special wind instruments, such as the English horn, contra bassoon, Eb clarinet, contrabass clarinet, and soprano saxophone. Each adds it’s own special timbre that is relatively unusual for wind ensembles and ends up changing the timber of the ensemble to the darker side, also adding to the strange feeling of the piece

This piece combines elements of two musical cultures, including the modal melodies and syncopation of the middle East, and the African drumming on an African style drum. The djembe keeps the pulse and is present throughout, as it would be in ceremonies of West African countries.

The addition of brass and auxiliary percussion to the original orchestration makes for particular impact during the climactic sections of the piece, and the groove of the djembe combined with the rhythmic and groovy throughout leave an impression that lingers in the listener’s mind long after its conclusion. 



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