The McLean Mix: Inner Tension of the Surrealistic by Priscilla and Barton McLean
From AWC NEWS, a publication of American Women Composers, Inc., Jan. 1982, pp. 8-13.
To draw analogies between art forms has its pitfalls, but it isnevertheless the most meaningful way of communicating the essence of our music. Over a period of several years, we as composers, performers, and an electronic-acoustic music duo called the McLean Mix, have discovered a deep affinity for surrealism and surrealistic painting, which is evident in our musical works. That others have felt this to can be illustrated by this comment from David Ernst: "...it is this blurring of the distinction between the two that creates the illusion of one unified concept." What artist Salvatore Dali brought to surrealism was the subtle combining of subconscious forces that are in seeming opposition. His use of extraordinary combinations of disparate elements against or merged with a natural landscape produces a disorientation, evoking an inner tension, often with nightmarish overtones. Yet, the result is a new orientation, a new "universe," where the elements relate to each other in underlying ways: symbolically, structurally, sharing similarities in shape or texture. A pervading trait in our music that is analogous to surrealism is the use of opposition and juxtaposition of sound events that seem unrelated, but are placed strategically so that one evokes the feeling of the other, often while retaining its own integrity. Opposite qualities of sound are merged as well, as heard for example with the combination of live instruments and synthesizers. the central idea in this method of composition is the creation of an illusion of wholeness from disparate elements through surrealistic means -- in particular, listen to the sound texture of Beneath the Horizon from Volvox for piano and tape by Barton. In Beneath the Horizon the tuba solo and whale ensemble tape, the two forces engage in a continuous fluctuation between merging together on the one hand and stating their individual ideas on the other, which results in a quiet tension. In Dimensions VIII the work begins as a virtuosic "piano-tape concerto" and ends up in a dark forest (bird and forest sounds), although the transition from one to the other is not all apparent.
A unique characteristic about the music of the McLean Mix is a directed and deeply felt technique of probing the listeners" subconscious through the choice of emotionally loaded ideas (primal screams, placid landscapes, various emotionally-charged gestures), combined with attention to fine detail and large structure, as one could also sayabout Dali's process. To give an idea of how the McLean Mix concertizes, one program in the spring of 1981 began with Barton's Mysteries from the Ancient Nahuatl, with him performing prepared piano, recorders, and percussion, while Priscilla narrated and sang poetry from the ancient Pre-Columbian Nahuatl culture, along with performing on the recorder and percussion. Second on the program was a three-movement "electro-symphonic landscape" for tape called Invisible Chariots-- a quadraphonic work by Priscilla, who then premiered four surrealistic tone poems from a set of nine such works for piano, tape, and electron microscope slides (intriguingly biological in origin) entitled The Inner Universe. Last on the program was Barton's premiere of his Dimensions VIII from Volvox. This program was given in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Hilversum, and the international Zagreb Muzicki Biennale.
Although we were also educated as performers (as were most composers), it was not until 1974 that we "fell into" a McLean Mix situation with an invitation to give a concert. We soon discovered that we enjoyed personally reaching out to people in a "live" vs. "canned" experience. Soon the response to our duo was far beyond our expectations, and by 1979 we had toured the midwest, northeast, and southwest performing for diverse audiences at the universities of Illinois, Kansas, Columbia, and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. A spring 1982 U.S. tour is planned, with performances in Seattle, St. Louis, Amherst, Stonybrook, New York City, Hartford, in addition to a fall 1982 tour of Europe billed as "The Surrealistic Landscapes of the McLean Mix."
While touring, we made some interesting observations from our European performances. One thing we noticed was the considerable financial support that many countries in Europe give, especially in the area of commissions, radio concerts and broadcasts, and international and national festivals of new music, during which everyone receives payment. Aside from native European composers, support is also given to American composers who perform abroad. It is unfortunate that this same support is not reciprocated by American organizations sponsoring Europeans, which is one reason for America's insularity in cultural awareness. We also found that just as European classical music has traditionally dominated American concert halls, American pop music and film dominate the European pop and cinema scene, almost to the exclusion of their own versions of these media. Although the serious American music has had much less impact, the music of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earl Brown, Elliot Carter, Steve Reich, and Phil Glass is popular. And Pauline Oliveros was awarded the Bonn Beethoven Prize for outstanding composition. The European contemporary music audience seems to have a longer listening endurance; they will enthusiastically enjoy several hours at a time and return the following day for more. They also enjoy a much larger variety of musical theater than found here.
Although touring and composing take a great deal of time -- Barton is also director of the University of Texas Electronic Music Center and Priscilla is active in freelance composing, criticism and teaching -- we continue to compose for other ensembles and situations. Barton, for instance, has been creating a dramatic, theatrical work for large chorus and chamber ensemble entitled Mysteries from the Ancient Nahuatl, of which the excerpts are in the McLean Mix repertoire. Priscilla foresees her Celebration to the Alaskan Wilderness Act: A Nature Oratorio to be a long work for chorus, audience group participation, tape, sounds of the wolf, eagle, and/or whale, and varied instruments. This is to be a celebration to the foresight and courage of the U.S. leaders for passage of this historic act, and for those who wish to raise their voices and spirits in remembrance.
We are currently preparing new pieces for the fall of 1982 season, one of which will be out first collaboration-improvisation. We are very much looking forward to this first complete collaboration-- both in creation and performance. And perhaps it may be said that the spectre of two independent composers with similar tastes but individual approaches and careers living together in harmony and without competition for 14 years is in itself surrealistic!