The McLean Mix Tours Australia -- First Impressions by Barton and Priscilla McLean
From "Sounds Australian" Journal of Australian Music, Summer, 1990, pp. 32-33.
We started as a husband-wife duo of electroacoustic music back in 1974, and for the past seven years have been surviving as independent composer-performers in the United States, focusing mainly on electroacoustic music and new instrument performance technologies. Having installed the first working Synthi 100 system from Great Britain (while teaching at Indiana University, 1972) and the first Fairlight Computer Music Instrument from Australia (teaching at the University of Texas, 1980), (both firsts in United States universities), we were increasingly aware of the global reach of new technologies, so it was no accident that Australia extended a strong pull for us as a sort of parallel world of exciting new developments in electroacoustic music. With a sense of adventure, we set off to build a tour along the East Coast , with the help of Warren Burt, Jeff Pressing, and David Worrall, and back in America, our neighbor Joel Chadabe who gave us contacts for New Zealand. The places we performed (a more detailed itinerary is given at the end) were in Melbourne: La Trobe University, working with Jeff Pressing whom we referred to affectionately as "The Blur", as he was so busy juggling his several jobs that one only saw him in a running state (but nevertheless gave us fine support for our events), and Jim and Cindy Sosnin who kindly put up with us for a week at their home, Monash University, and ABC Radio with Paul Petran, whom we found to be exacting, patient, and demanding of high quality. In Canberra, David Worrall not only hosted us for a week along with working 12-hour days at Canberra Institute of the Arts (we have noticed that Australian composers in the university work incredibly long hours), but organized one of the most musically interesting installations ("Rainforest") of our tour.
In Queensland, we gave lecture-demo at the university, then stayed on to partake of the incredible Australian birds and animals in the different national parks (enough to justify coming without a tour!), and then flew to Auckland for a series of concerts and installations, and the University of Hawaii, the tour lasting two months, from August 18 to October 16, 1990. It was a pleasure to meet Moya Henderson in Sydney, who is also using bird sounds in her music and is on the same "wavelength" as we are, and Betty Beth in Brisbane who was so helpful for our stay there. Each composer has given us tapes of their music, which will be fascinating listening (if we can waddle them all onto the airplane!). It was intriguing to us that both LaTrobe and Canberra were very adamant on our lecturing on American women's music, as this is not a thing that American universities are interested in at all! In Melbourne we got a chance to see a final rehearsal of the Creatures of Impulse, a festival of improvisation organized by Warren Burt and Ernie Altoff, in an incredibly cold performance space (all the houses in Australia are incredibly cold!), and particularly enjoyed Warren and Jane Refshauge's rolling-on the floor with and occasionally playing their cumbersome accordions, and, later, Simone de Haan's improvisations on trombone with another fellow on baritone horn. The other groups, basically not involved with music, ranged from Monty Pythonesque hilarious to serious, very creative to mundane. We thought it a bit strange that this Australian festival should be run by two Americans, but the global village concept is again reinforced! It should be emphasized that we are by no means well-versed in developments in Australian computer and electroacoustic music.
While touring Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane we have, however, gathered tentative impressions, first of all, of a lively activity similar in intensity and sophistication to that of the U.S. relative to size. Second, an impression is forming that developments in new music technology seem to be highly concentrated in the major universities, perhaps because of the more prohibitive cost of equipment here in Australia, whereas in the U.S. the significant areas of development have shifted from the university to commercial software and hardware companies. Third, that much, but by no means at all, of the university activity in computer music seems to be more theoretical and specialized than in the U.S., where it is more integrated into the new music and performance community at large. Although it is true that the major U.S. centers such as Stamford and M.I.T. are still similarly theoretically-minded, it is also true that the most interesting electroacoustic and computer music is not being done in these places but rather at the larger majority of studios using "off the shelf" hardware and software enabling their composers and performers to concentrate more on the actual composition and performance aspects.
These range from programs at university music departments to community public access studios to private home studios such as our own. The significance of this is that electroacoustic-computer music has finally trickled down from the high priests into the everyday music community, due to the democracy of availability and cheapness of software and hardware in the U.S. And even more significant in the past fifteen years is the way it has trickled up from the depths of the pop, rock, and commercial cultures. It is no exaggeration to say that most teenagers now own some sort of synthesizer(s) readily and cheaply available throughout the U.S. We see this trend also in Australia to some extent, but perhaps no as prevalent as in the U.S. The word "integration" sums up much of what is becoming ubiquitous in both countries. Nowhere is this more evident than in the composer-performer situation. Where seven years ago performing with computer music meant placing a computer on stage and pushing a button, nowadays computers, as a viable, performance instrument, bore audiences, probably because they have become commonplace. Where composer-performers in the early 80's mainly came from music/computer specialties, today the ones who have viable independent careers come often from a performance background and use computers or digital processors as a secondary complement to the main performance activity. People such as Miles Anderson, Joan LaBarbara, Laurie Anderson, Meridith Monk, John Zorn, Elliot Sharp, and Phil Glass come to mind.
The McLean Mix represents a third approach. While our background is in computer music, we utilize an array of approaches that minimizes the technology and maximizes the performance aspect. We do so by using multiple slide projections, inventing instruments such as our "Sparkling Light Console" that produces rapidly-flashing patterns across a matrix of hundreds of colored lights activated by a MIDI keyboard, or modified acoustic instruments such as an "amplified bicycle wheel", amplified autoharp, and a "clariflute" which has a clarinet mouthpiece attached to a recorder. We route these through various digital processors and also use IBM and Macintosh computers, but not in an obvious way. Unfortunately we were not able to freight all of this equipment to Australia due to the high plane fares. We were pleased, however, to experience such a high degree of technical support for our concerns in venues such as LaTrobe University, Canberra Institute for the Arts, and the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in Melbourne, of a level superior to most spaces in the United States.
One startling impression made upon us throughout our tour was the constant presence of the native birds. To electroacoustic composers who extensively use nature sounds in their music, the reader can appreciate how very special and exciting these sounds are. Native Australian composers, I am sure, are aware that they have an incalculable rich storehouse of indigenous material to work with... almost a complete catalogue of electroacoustic sounds and effects! Australia has the most interesting birds in the world! We were excited to see that composers such as Moya Henderson from Sydney are actively engaged in using these sounds in their music.
One seminal event, our "Rainforest" installation at the Canberra Institute of the Arts, was particularly special for us and is relevant since it sheds light on the character of Australians and how they react to creative situations. "Rainforest" involves our setting up an installation with which the audience actively interacts with by performing on instruments (which are then digitally processed), or performing on keyboards which are set to produce various sound complementary to or actual sounds of the rainforest, along with an evocative tape consistently playing, all actively supervised and run by the two of us. During the two days of its running we were amazed by the creative energy and inhibition of the participants, an energy far greater than we had experienced with American participants! These people, who streamed into the room constantly and often stayed for hours, were uninhibited, imaginative,
and fun to work with. It was a two-day high for us! One theory we have is that, due to the constant presence of the native birds (which are incredibly close to electroacoustic sounds) through one's life here in Australia, one becomes infused with an intuitive and unrecognized sound vocabulary that fits well with electroacoustic sounds. Many of the participants had not studied music formally. People frequently came up to us and told us how moved they were by the experience.
Notwithstanding the multitude of similarities between the two countries vis-a-vis the independent composer, the Australian-American scene has one major difference--namely the survival strategies needed to be employed. Where in Australia commissions are an important part of the possibility of income, in the U.S. they are not, due to a rather moribund state of our federal arts agency (the National Endowment for and agencies that would do the commissioning. Australia, we think, is more on the European model where support of the arts is a cultural and institutional obligation (Australian composers may be snickering at this, but believe us, folks, it is far worse in the U.S.). Australia is also, as we found out with our Melbourne ABC recording session, blessed with the ABC and its enlightened producers who will pay to record new and experimental music. We have nothing like this in the U.S. and virtually no ensemble, not even traditional orchestral or chamber ensembles, will be paid for recording on our public radio unless it is part of a special grant. Public television, like commissioning, in the U.S. is supported at a far lower level than in Australia, How, then, can independent composers survive in the U.S? If a U.S. composer is to make a living without teaching and without going commercial (film, television, commercials, school band and chorus, pop, etc.) he/she can survive, not through commissions but by performing his/her own work. And herein lies a strength of the U.S system--the sheer number of universities and other spaces that may be potential venues. In addition, a non-profit organization called "Meet the Composer," funded by a combination of corporate, state, and federal monies, pays composers to be present to perform their work and/or hear it performed. This organization will also fund Australian composers who perform in the U.S. provided they have a U.S. sponsor. Typical grants run from $300-$400 per event U.S.$. Also, public schools, libraries, community centers, etc. fund artists who come in and present their work for short-term durations, all under the auspices of state arts councils. An enormous
arts bureaucracy has spouted to tend this activity and arts advocacy groups are relatively strong. Through all this activity, it is not surprising that a number of composers, especially composers/performers, can make a living apart from university teaching. In our own situation, McLean Mix performances account for c. 1/2 of our income, the rest garnered mainly through royalties from our performance rights organization BMI, and miscellaneous areas such as publishing, grants, etc.
During our stay in Australia we have appreciated the many kindnesses offered us by so many of our Australian colleagues. Due to our having toured in the United States for a number of years, we are in a position to advise potential Australian composer-performers about U.S. venues should they wish to contact us. We would be happy to help with mailing lists and other sorts of advice on particular situations if you would
write to Barton & Priscilla McLean, R.D. #2, Box 33, Petersburgh, N.Y., 12138, U.S.A. Phone is (518) 658 3595.
McLean Mix: Tour Itinerary
August 23: LaTrobe University, lecture on women composers.
August 24: LaTrobe University, evening concert of electroacoustic works. August 27: ABC Radio, Melboune. Live concert and interview broadcast nationally on August 31. Monash University, Melboune.
Sept. 4: Canberra Ins. of the Arts, lecture on women composers.
Sept. 5: Canberra Ins. of the Arts, seminar in composition
Sept. 6,7: C.I.A: Installation "Rainforest."
Sept. 11: University of Queensland, lecture/concert.
Sept. 21: (Afternoon) University of Auckland, lecture/concert.
Sept. 21: (Evening) University of Auckland, concert of electroacoustic works.
Sept. 24-6: Artspace, Auckland: Installation "Rainforest."
Oct. 11: Univ. of Hawaii, Honolulu: evening concert of electroacoustic works.