Two Reviews of Rainforest Images



From Experimental Musical Instruments

Barton and Priscilla McLean: Rainforest Images

On CD (CPS 8817 CD) from Capstone Records.


Barton and Priscilla McLean are two composers whose dedication to nature and ecological causes have guided their work. Over a number of years, they have visited rainforest environments throughout the world, recording sounds and organizing them into pieces which they hope will raise people's awareness of the need to preserve these delicate places. Since 1989 they have been touring the world with their installation "Rainforest," which consists of playback of tapes of rainforest and other sounds, along with invited improvisations from members of the public. By 1990, they had collected a number of tapes of this installation and created, with the assistance from the composer/electronic technician Paniaotis, the lush 48 minute montage presented here.

To say that "Rainforest Images" is romantic is an understatement. The McLeans are consciously developing a very interesting late-20th century hyper-romantic aesthetic. Their dedication to capital N nature is of a piece with their Transcendentalist philosophy, which unashamedly acknowledges its heritage of ideas from Thoreau, Muir, and, musically, Charles Ives. Their rich multi-layered mixes, already charged with highly evocative bird and other animal calls, are made even richer with their accompaniments, mostly consisting of long notes, sustained chords, and ornamental flurries of electronic bell and harp sounds; and also by Panaiotis's digital processing and equalizing. Improvisations by three Australian musicians, on didjeridu and voices, also add to the overall richness of sound.

For me, one of the fascinating things about this piece is how all the types of sound used : electronic sound; acoustic instruments straight, sampled and extended: and digital processing of all of these merge into one sort of "superorchestra." Nothing loses its identity, but everything seems integrated into a kind of all-embracing sound world. Readers of EMI will be particularly interested in Bart McLean's clariflute (Clarinet mouthpiece, recorder body) improvisations that start Section 3 of the piece, which remind me of whalesong (Whales in the rainforest? The metaphor is getting pretty broad here!); and in Panaiotis's impressive digital modifications with his "Expanded Instrument System."

One issue the piece raises is that of exoticism. For most people, the amazing sound of the Australian magpie, a recurring motive in the piece, will probably be incredibly exotic. For Australians, though, this extremely common sound will simply raise a familiar smile. Who is exotic to whom?

Interesting comparisons can also be made as to how different composers use similar material. The Australian composer Ron Nagorcka's work for sampled Australian bird calls, didjeridu and other acoustic instruments, and political environmental poetry, for example, is much leaner, and angrier, than the McLeans' luscious, almost sweet sound mix; while English composer Trevor Wishart's use of animal sounds in his 1977 "Redbird" was for much darker and more sinister purposes. By contrast, the McLeans' approach is optimistic and reverential, "a myriad of voices raised in song to the beauty of

the rainforest," as they themselves describe it. Also on the CD are two solo works, both on related themes. Priscilla McLean's "On Wings of Song" is a hilarious homage to the mosquito; while Barton McLean's "Himalayan Fantasy" takes a recording of a Tibetan folksong and weaves an impressive electronic tapestry around it. -Warren Burt



Journal SEAMUS. Vol. X No. 1. April, 1995.

Rainforest Images: The McLean Mix

A review by Rodney Oakes

Priscilla and Barton McLean are certainly well known to Journal SEAMUS readers. They have been touring as the McLean Mix since 1973. Both Priscilla and Barton have contributed articles for this journal. Their music has been widely available on concerts, recordings, and installations. Their new CD, Rainforest Images, is the result of much labor, enormous thought, and offers a mature work that reflects the McLean Mix at its best.

The McLeans have pioneered electro-acoustic music that involves and engages audiences. They have toured extensively presenting concerts and gathering material. They are also avid lovers of nature and their respect for nature is reflected in their music. They also have a deep respect for human culture and traditions, and they have incorporated indigenous music from many different corners of the world. Rainforest Images is a celebration of nature and human interaction with nature. The McLeans are twentieth century romanticists in the best sense of the term. No, they are not a part of a new tonal movement. Their respect for nature and human cultures is all reflected in their music.

The centerpiece of the CD is the five movement title work, Rainforest Images, composed by both members of this unique husband and wife composition team. Two additional works are included: On Wings of Song by Priscilla, and Himalayan Fantasy by Barton. The result is a CD that represents the team's collaboration and individual efforts.

Rainforest Images is an ambitious work and symphonic in scope. At forty-eight minutes in length and five connected movements, the results are like having one's own personal world symphony in one's living room. It works well for an audience of one.


The basic core consists of material gathered by the McLeans during their many world tours. There is extensive use of bird calls. They also use the talents of Panaiotis, a composer-singer who works with Pauline Oliveros's Deep Listening Band, and Australian vocalists Kerrie Ryan and Ivana Troselji, plus the talents of Brendan Dickie performing on the didgeridoo. Sometimes this information is given to the listener in a natural form. At other times it is heavily processed. usually it is combined with the McLeans' original creations. The McLeans also contribute acoustic performances. Priscilla sings, chants and performs on recorder in a number of movements. Barton performs on the violin and the clariflute, a recorder with a clarinet mouthpiece. According to the liner notes, both contributed to the compositional process.


The work begins and ends with the ancient creation myth of the Wintu Native Americans (more evidence of of,romanticism). The intervening movements develop this creation theme. There are two musical techniques that hold the movements together: drones and bird calls. The imported and original musical ideas are then juxtaposed onto the recurring drones and bird calls. The result is a very satisfying balance of repetition and contrast.

Each movement has its own qualities, and yet each is related to the whole. In addition, there are no distinct separations between the movements, and one simply dissolves onto the next. It is a highly integrated piece.

Rainforest Images makes a powerful aural statement. The McLeans have explored a wide range of timbres that are only available in the electro-acoustic music medium. They have creatively incorporated world music traditions. They have also utilized their own vocal performance and performances on traditional and invented instruments. The results are extremely impressive and I hope the piece finds a wide audience.

Somehow the McLeans were able to squeeze two more works onto this disc. The first of these is Priscilla's 1986 work On Wings of Song, a short homage to the pesky insect. It is scored for soprano voices, amplified bicycle wheel, and recorded bees and flies. The bees and flies were recorded in a glass jar! I can not help but wonder what kinds of microphones were used? On Wings of Song is a short but effective work. The text is from the 1911 book by Stewart Edward White, The Forest. Priscilla's voice is accompanied by the flies, bees, and wheel. It is difficult to identify the sound sources, and the piece recalls many of the drone techniques used in Rainforest Images.


The last work is Barton's 1992 piece, Himalayan Fantasy. Source material comes from his 1985 Hawaiian trip. There he recorded Tibetan singers in their performance of a traditional pastoral song. McLean presents these to the listener initially in an unaltered state. Ultimately, they will become processed.

Himalayan Fantasy moves far away from the other works on this CD. There are very few drones here, and the piece gradually builds in intensity relying on rhythmically intensive passages. The first fourteen to fifteen minutes just keep driving and driving, and driving with no letup. The tension builds as layer upon layer of rhythmic activity is added. An introduction of drones and a thinning of timbres gradually lessens the intensity. The Tibetan singers who introduced the work also end it.

Rainforest Images is a powerful CD. The McLean Mix has spent years developing a distinct style. This CD is a testament to their musicianship, their creativity, and their commitment to mother earth and the human race.

PS The McLean Mix recently announced a USA tour during the 1996 winter-spring season. Information regarding their offerings may be obtained by calling Barton at (518) 658 3595.

Rainforest Images by the McLean Mix is available through Capstone Records, CPS-861 CD, 252 Dekalb Ave., Brooklyn, NY, 11205.