The McLean Mix: Philosophies and Soliloquies
by Barton and Priscilla McLean
Appearing in "Asterisk: A Journal of New Music" May, 1976, pp. 7-9.
A tiny Toyota Corolla 1200 sidles up to the stage door loading dock,laden with a morass of curious and alien things and beings. As the vehicle opens and slowly regurgitates four Interface A loudspeakers, three tape recorders (including one large Sony four- channel), two synthesizers, two power amps, a mixer, suitcases, thousands of patch cords, stands and tables, and a bottle of aspirin, not to mention two accordion-shaped composers, it becomes immediately apparent to the throngs of the curious who have gathered to observe the unusual spectacle that the McLean Mix is about to unleash another performance on the unsuspecting.
What is it that compels two otherwise sane and normal artists to undergo the inconvenience of performing live electronic music? In our particular case, the answer lies in our need as composers to interact with other performers, audiences, and critics. For example we have found the experience of performing with composers David cope, Burt Beerman, and John Eaton during the last two years stimulating and rewarding. Although a special satisfaction is derived from working in a studio where all parameters are carefully controlled, there is much to be said also for the profound suspense and uncertainty inherent in the live performance situation. More fluid techniques are available, and the ability to create works to be performed slightly (or vastly) differently each time is a balance to the more rigid studio compositional technique. During the past two years, which defines the time span of our active performing in duo (up to June, 1976 we will have given concerts in universities and concert halls in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and Maryland), we have devoted a great deal of energy toward expanding the range of our repertoire. There is the constant challenge of composing and performing music that is artistically satisfying to ourselves and yet accessible to relatively inexperienced audiences who are hearing the concert once, as well as the more sophisticated listeners. In countering the often-stated comment that "all electronic music sounds alike" (as much as all-orchestral or all-choral music does, this is perhaps true), we have evolved our repertoire to maximize diversity of styles, degrees of complexity, and variety of instrumental and electronic combinations, resulting in the experiencing of each composition as a more memorable entity in a varied, balanced program of works. Examples of variety can be found between longer, more serious, and shorter, humorous works, live-performed vs. taped compositions, stereo vs. quadraphonic, and some music that incorporates lighting and limited mixed media effects.
If the question were asked. "what are your artistic aims?", I suppose we would include as attempt to seek a certain sound quality, or "beauty of sound" that would otherwise be undefinable, precise control in the performance and compositional domains (which is not to rule out indeterminacy with respect to live performance), subtlety, and some "virtuosity" (so qualified since no one really understands the meaning of "virtuosity" in live electronic performance at this early period of its existence). Also, we try to establish, in whatever ways possible, communication with our hosts and fulfillment of their particular requests. Additional demonstrations apart from the main concert (or part of it, as the lecture-demonstration) are also given.
Two conundrums often associated with live performance electronic music situations have caused not a little reflection on our part. One deals with the advisability of playing works that are already nationally available on recordings. We have several such works, and, far from seeming redundant, we have found them to be an extremely strong component of our programs. Since they all exist only on stereo in the recorded versions, the quad presentation in the hall has been found to be more meaningful, particularly if the listeners have already acquainted themselves with the music via the recording. These works, which are the products of the controlled studio situation, are by their very nature, more sophisticated and better controlled, use more interesting and varied sounds, and in absolute terms are perhaps "better" than the live performed music if from only a pure compositional viewpoint. Practically, we have utilized the technique of alternating live-performed with tape works, thereby allowing us to set up (surreptitiously, if possible) for the next live work while the taped one is playing. This results in a smoother presentation, and eliminates embarrassing moments of fumbling with patch cords while the audience carefully scrutinizes the situation.
The second and related enigma-- what to do while a taped work is playing-- is partially solved in several ways (it will never be completely solved until audiences are trained to react to the sound as the totality
of the experience). We usually try to program only one long complex taped work, and in quad. Additionally, we usually like to work with the local lighting crew to provide further effects. To this end, we supply cue sheets which diagram highlights of the structure in the
compositions, so that the visual effects can enhance the meaning of the music. The best solution to these problems, however, lies in the intrinsic quality of the music itself. If it is sufficient strength and
interest, it can overcome the lack of visual simulation. In combination with live-performed works we have not found this to be much of a problem at all.
Our live repertoire, far from "simple," contributes another vision to the program. Two such works are Ah-Syn, a virtuosic autoharp and synthesizer work by Priscilla McLean which evokes as astounding array of sound and effects from the combination, and Gone Bananas by Barton McLean for Arp 2600 and a banana. The latter will no doubt be of great "historical" significance since it is, to our knowledge, the first work to use a banana as a structural element in a composition (musicologists take note)! The latest work, to go into rehearsal soon, is Barton McLean's Dimensions III for voice, modified piano, and tape, incorporating multiple tape echoes and delays into the live performance, and exploring the evocative quality of the voice (sung by Priscilla). For our season during the academic year 1976-77, we will devote a large amount of effort toward a more improvisatory work, Identity II, which will be produced in the round, with the audience intermingling with and surrounding the performers. Utilizing multiple tape delays,
indeterminate performance notations, many African-type instruments and philosophies, and a somewhat looser formal structure, it will, through interaction with the audience, explore aspects of how man is coming into "identity" with his environment in an interactive sense. The sounds will be long lasting, evocative, and imbued with a sense of timelessness. Looking into the future, we plan to continue to growing conceptually and artistically as a performing ensemble, while still finding time to do the same in our own private compositional worlds.