Steven Mackey: Memoir

Dover Quartet
arx duo
Natalie Christa, narrator

A theatrical musical work by GRAMMY® Award-winning composer Steven Mackey and director Mark DeChiazza, Memoir explores the tumultuous 20th century as told through the eyes of a first-generation American woman charting her own path in search of the American Dream. Elaine Mackey’s journey—through love and loss, struggles with gender norms and social mores, and a personal battle with alcoholism—is told through music and narrated vignettes from her own memoir and that of her son, the composer. Written for the unusual combination of string quartet, percussion duo, and narrator, the visually and sonically captivating work spans diverse musical landscapes and characters, from witty and playful to rich and profound.


Steve Mackey rehearses a section of Memoir in a workshop held at the Curtis Institute of Music in Summer 2021.


  • Dover Quartet
    Joel Link, violin
    Bryan Lee, violin
    Julianne Lee, viola
    Camden Shaw, cello

    Named one of the greatest string quartets of the last 100 years by BBC Music Magazine, the GRAMMY® nominated Dover Quartet has followed a “practically meteoric” (Strings) trajectory to become one of the most in-demand chamber ensembles in the world. In addition to its faculty role as the Penelope P. Watkins Ensemble in Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Dover Quartet holds residencies with the Kennedy Center, Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, Artosphere, and the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival. The group’s awards include a stunning sweep of all prizes at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, grand and first prizes at the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, and prizes at the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition. Its prestigious honors include the Avery Fisher Career Grant, Chamber Music America’s Cleveland Quartet Award, and Lincoln Center’s Hunt Family Award.

    The Dover Quartet’s 2022–23 season includes collaborations with Edgar Meyer, Joseph Conyers, and Haochen Zhang. The group tours Europe twice, including a return to London’s renowned Wigmore Hall and a debut performance in Copenhagen. The quartet recently premiered Steven Mackey’s theatrical-musical work Memoir, alongside arx duo and actor-narrator Natalie Christa. Other recent and upcoming artist collaborations include Emanuel Ax, Inon Barnaton, Ray Chen, the Escher String Quartet, Bridget Kibbey, Anthony McGill, the Pavel Haas Quartet, Roomful of Teeth, the late Peter Serkin, and Davóne Tines. In addition to two previous albums for the label, Cedille Records releases the third volume of the Dover Quartet’s Beethoven Complete String Quartets recording in October 2022. The quartet’s recording of The Schumann Quartets for Azica Records was nominated for a GRAMMY® Award in 2020. The Dover Quartet was formed in 2008 at the Curtis Institute of Music.

  • Mari Yoshinaga and Garrett Arney are the artistic force behind arx duo. Their mission is to forge new connections and artistic pathways, or “arcs,” through percussion chamber music. They are dedicated to expanding percussion chamber music by commissioning new creative works, educating and inspiring young artists, and inviting audiences across the globe to engage with new and vibrant musical experiences.

    Arx duo thrives on collaborative artistic experiences. They have worked with countless composers, chamber music ensembles, community ensembles, and symphony orchestras to bring new percussion music to life. They have premiered, performed, or taught new pieces for percussion instruments across the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Ghana.

    Arx duo is committed to inspiring the next generation of creative artists. Their non-profit, Arx Music Association, seeks to provide musical opportunities for early career, student, and avocational musicians. They have served as guest teachers or artists in residence at universities and conservatories across the U.S., including the Young Artists Summer Program at Curtis Summerfest. They believe in strengthening communities through collaboration and engagement in the arts.

  • Natalie Christa is a Pennsylvania native (like Elaine, the alter ego she portrays in Memoir). She received early training as a classical and music theater vocalist with coach Susan Rheingans (Los Angeles Music Center Opera, New York Opera Forum) into her late teen years. Driven by the Philadelphia music scene, she sang and played bass guitar, keyboards, and tambourines in local bands, and began her acting career in many musical theater performances including as the lead in Annie.

    A new adventure to Los Angeles led her to join a band called the Midnight Shakes. Ms. Christa and the Shakes were featured in a reality television show on Fuse TV called Rock Bottom. She next embarked on a career as a singer/songwriter working with noted LA producers. This period produced many songs including “Queen Bee,” which topped the European dance charts at #1. Ms. Christa’s other songs have appeared in television shows such as American Horror Story and The Real ‘L’ Word.

    With Memoir, Ms. Christa ventures into the contemporary concert music world, bringing her intriguing voice, innate musicality, and theatrical instincts to bear in the role of Elaine: an ordinary woman leading an extraordinary life in the 20th century.

Creative Team

  • Steven Mackey—a GRAMMY® Award-winner lauded by Gramophone for his “explosive and ethereal imagination”—is regarded as one of the leading composers of his generation, with compositions ranging from orchestral and chamber music to dance and opera.

    Highlights from recent seasons include performances of Mr. Mackey’s violin concerto, Beautiful Passing,by Jennifer Koh and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and his string quartet Ars Moriendi by members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; and the premieres of Blue Notes and Other Clashes by the PRISM Quartet and S Percussion at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, his wordless electric guitar opera, Orpheus Unsung, with S Percussion member Jason Treuting at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and Through Your Fingers by Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan at Carnegie Hall. Notable commissions include a trumpet concerto for Håkan Hardenberger, commissioned by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra; and One Red Rose for the Brentano String Quartet, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and Yellow Barn for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK.

    Mr. Mackey’s orchestral music has been performed by major orchestras around the world, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, New World Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. As a guitarist, he has performed his chamber music with the Kronos Quartet, Arditti Quartet, London Sinfonietta, Nextime Ensemble, Psappha, and Joey Baron.

    Mr. Mackey’s numerous honors and awards include a GRAMMY®, several awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. He has also been the composer in residence at major music festivals such as Tanglewood, Aspen, and the Holland Festival.

    Mr. Mackey serves as professor of music and was formerly chair of the department of music at Princeton University. A member of the faculty since 1985, he was the recipient of the university’s first Distinguished Teaching Award in 1991. His music is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

  • Mark DeChiazza is a director, filmmaker, designer, and choreographer. Many of his projects explore interactions between music performance and media to discover new expressive possibilities. His work can bring together composers, ensembles, and musicians with visual artists, dancers, music ensembles, and makers of all types.

    Recent projects include direction and design of Olagón by Dan Trueman with words by Paul Muldoon, featuring Iarla Ó Lionáird, and Eighth Blackbird; co-creation of Quixote with Amy Beth Kirsten in a two-year development at Peak Performances at MSU; direction and design for rock song-cycle Black Inscription, in collaboration with Carla Kihlstedt; co-creation of Orpheus Unsung with composer Steven Mackey; direction, video projection, and set design for My Lai, an opera monodrama by Jonathan Berger, featuring Kronos Quartet, traditional Vietnamese instrumentalist Van-Ahn Voh, and actor/tenor Rinde Eckert; direction and editing of the film Hireath, which partners with performance of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s 35-minute orchestral work of the same name, commissioned by North Carolina Symphony and Princeton Symphony Orchestra; choreography and design for Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams’ Sila, a massive site-determined piece for 80 musicians commissioned by Lincoln Center; and design and staging of SS15 and AW15 NYC fashion week installation/events for Japanese fashion label pas de calais.

    Mr. DeChiazza’s film, Colloquy with God, for New York Polyphony and his interpretive concert video of So Percussion performing Steven Mackey’s It Is Time have been featured on NPR Music. The American Composers Orchestra and The Crossing premiered his film installation for Amy Beth Kirsten’s strange pilgrims, which was premiered at Carnegie Hall in February 2014.

    Mr. DeChiazza studied film at Dartmouth College and Rhode Island School of Design and set design and contemporary dance at North Carolina School of the Arts. He worked as a scenic artist for theater, before moving to New York City to begin a performing career in contemporary dance and dance-theater that spanned nearly two decades. Investigating the body and its relationships to space, time, and experience remain vital to his process across all disciplines.

From the Composer

(April 2020)

Memoir is a 75-minute music-theater work for narrator, string quartet, and percussion duo. It is also a 40-minute purely instrumental chamber work. In terms of the flexibility of scope and the interplay of score and script, a good comparison would be A Soldier’s Tale by Stravinsky/Ramuz. Like that work, Memoir can be staged simply with a narrator and the musical ensemble, performed without any narration as an excerpted suite of instrumental music, or have a fully staged production with sets, costumes and video projections.

Unlike the abstracted allegory of A Solider’s Tale which is based on a well-known Russian Folk Tale, Memoir is an adaptation of my own mother’s memoir which gives the process and the product a heightened personal connection. The script is a series of short vignettes which trace Elaine Mackey’s life as a first-generation American, born in Steel Town USA, coming of age in the Great Depression, escaping an ill-fated Hollywood marriage to work for the Department of Defense in post-war Europe and raising a family in Northern California in the volatile 60’s.

Against the backdrop of the events of the 20th century, a la Forrest Gump, there is a touching candor and vulnerability to my mom’s stories revealing the tension between her shy nature and her longing for adventure; her “nice-girl” upbringing and her openness to experience. Familiar themes of love, loss, gender roles, and social mores ensconced in her intense personal struggle with alcoholism and its stigma.

A vignette from her teens clearly embodies her essential struggle:

“I went to the swimming pool with my boyfriend Jim McHugh and a group of friends. Everyone except me, I guess, knew how to swim and headed for the deep end of the pool and jumped in. I was too embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t swim and I didn’t want to be a party pooper so I jumped in too.”

Composing Memoir was exhilarating! The stories are so musically suggestive that at times I felt like I couldn’t keep up with the task of writing down the music that sprang out of them. As Director Mark DeChiazza pointed out, singing and dancing were huge in my mother’s life (she appeared several times as a vocal soloist on a local TV station and was an excellent jitterbugger). Music is ubiquitous in her stories. My own compositional language is surely influenced by listening to her sing constantly around the house before my evolution through decades of my own experimentation. Also, Memoir more directly references “her” music including her signature song—“Night and Day”—and the lullaby medley she sang to me as a child. Overall, the musical language of Memoir is a bit simpler and more direct than I would do if I were writing a piece without connection to this text. Her voice, ringing through these stories, asked for something more innocent.

The combination of the Dover Quartet and arx duo (percussion) is ideally suited for Memoir. There are plenty of opportunities to employ the grave expressivity idiomatic to the string quartet as well as the playful spirit, witt and irony made possible by the surprising variety of sounds available to a percussion duo. the string quartet has a particular knack for warm, emotional and profound musical expression and the diverse, often surprising timbral possibilities of the percussion duo brings witt, irony, and a playful spirit to the stage. Rich and complex experiences result from the multi-valent combinations of the two elements. Many of my mother’s stories ask me to combine two contrasting musical characters in order to spark a fresh, more particular musical alchemy. For example, the pickle she is in when she finds herself simultaneously engaged to Jim (her high school sweetheart) and Jerry (the tall, dark and handsome musician she met in Los Angeles while on a trip to visit relatives) inspires a counterpoint between the gentle warmth of Jim’s music and Jerry’s dark groove—a merge that I would not have thought of in the absence of her vignette.

The final vignette is not from my mother’s memoir but from my own. It is me telling of the story of her passing. She told me and all those close to her that “today will be my last day.” In the end she overcame alcoholism and crippling shyness in order to be fully in charge of her own destiny.

—Steven Mackey