THE McLEAN MIX MUSES UPON THE ULTIMATE MUSICAL INSTRUMENT
by Priscilla and Barton McLean
(Experimental Musical Instruments, Sept. '94, pp. 20-23)
We came into the invention and extension of instruments as a result of our fascination with nature and wilderness sounds. We both developed from a classical musical training, first as music performers and educators, and gradually as composers of traditional contemporary classical music. During breaks from advanced study at Indiana University we indulged in our second love, hiking and camping in the mountains, canoeing on wilderness lakes, and consequently becoming aware of the vast richness and complexity of the nature sounds all around us. It was during this period in the mid-late 1960's, a season immersed with so many new sonic discoveries on all fronts, that we first realized that the sounds of nature had a creative power and fascination for us equal to sounds of more traditional acoustic and/or electronic media. However beautiful and captivating these new discoveries were for us, the idea of using them as integral parts of composing music came to us only very slowly and painstakingly.
First Influences and First Incorporation of Nature Sounds into Our Music
Two events happened around 1973 crucial to our development along this line; access to a large Synthi 100 Synthesizer and hearing for the first time the recording "Songs of the Humpbacked Whale". The whale songs were a revelation of musical beauty that affected us just as our concern for the degradation of the environment was becoming acute, the early 70's being a very bad time for the entire environmental picture. These two events opened the door for us to use technology to develop the concept of a true nature "instrument".
Then a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota, in July of 1974, during which we were treated to a raging percussive thunderstorm the night long, followed by an astounding loon oratorio on all the surrounding lakes at dawn led Priscilla to create DANCE OF DAWN, her first major quadraphonic electronic work. We were still learning analog synthesizers, which generated all the sounds for the music, including the "loon chorus" at the beginning. The resulting LP album, produced on CRI Recordings, gave rise to extremely positive reviews and was called "one of the ten best contemporary albums" in an article by Alan Kozin in High Fidelity Magazine.
Hostility is Encountered
While at the University of Texas-Austin, in 1976 Priscilla created our first piece using actual recorded animal sounds, with excerpts of whale recordings, taped ocean, and a tuba quartet using very unusual techniques to blend with and play off of the whale sounds to create a symbiotic musical piece favoring the whales, called BENEATH THE HORIZON. A solo tuba version of this was performed by Melvyn Poore, virtuosic tubist, at the Gaudeamus Music Festival, Holland in 1979, to the horror and amazement of the Dutch reviewers and unbelieving audience (it was astonishing to us that the audience would stand any amount of dissonant extended musical techniques, as long as they were human-made, but having an animal - a "Walfisch"! - treated as sophisticated music was unacceptable) This kind of emotionally blatant prejudice against nature sounds as real music was worldwide at the time we soon discovered, and led us to pose some very important basic questions, important particularly in relevance to our leaving the comfortable world of academia in 1983 to pursue full-time composing and performing with our electro-acoustic multimedia duo The McLean Mix.....
1. Why is the audience so hostile toward nature sounds as classical music (not so much a problem with the other musical genres)?
2. What is the basis for all music, why invent new and/or electronic instruments and extend the old ones when there are plenty of "real" instruments available....?
A Solidification of Philosophy
All of the answers boil down to what has become our philosophy of music, which is passionate enough to propel us through the difficulties and dangers involved:
The ultimate musical instrument is nature. Nature was here first, and has produced and inspired all musics predating writing. It will be here long after we and our calligraphic systems have vanished, and if we wish to extend our visit here on Earth we had better learn to play our discovered instruments in harmony with the world (on all levels) and its endless storehouse of fascinating sounds!
Early musical instruments arose from observing nature. The Japanese Gagaku ensemble in an outdoor setting performing its 5000-year old Chinese-derived music blends with natural sounds so completely that a passing songbird seems to be part of the ensemble. On the other hand, twentieth century Western classical music, with its increasingly complex notation systems, abstract quasi-mathematical thinking and refined traditional instruments largely divorced itself from the deep well of meaning that is music's origin. As we worked with the natural world we found a need to invent and extend instruments to produce a less predictably tonal quality -- one with "rough edges" that could slide in all the cracks not allowed by the classical thinking but so inherent in nature. This, we hoped, would create a much more meaningful music, yet still be of the high quality and sophistication that classical music has offered for centuries.
What is an instrument? We would define it as a vehicle which produces sounds and has a collection of inherent sound sources that possess an integral commonality. Furthermore, an instrument must be able to be "performed"--that is, from its constituent sounds a performer must be able to elegantly play them in real time to realize an artistic goal. A really broad instrument would be a symphony orchestra, a gamelan ensemble or any invented instrumental ensemble that works together to produce music. And so with nature as our broadest of instruments, from an infinite spectrum of natural sound sources we focus a musical experience around a palette of natural flavors that work together, marrying new technology with invented instruments to complement the natural sounds gathered on tape or sampled through a synthesizer.
Techniques of Composing with Nature Sounds
Although technology would seem on first blush to be yet more divorcement from nature (and it unfortunately too often is just that), it also allows for recording and playing back voices who are understandably reluctant to be with us (such as wolves, whales, etc.) and who we would otherwise only remember in our mind's ear or try to reproduce even more artificially through instruments, as in the past. The actual nature sound has immense emotional power, and we are careful to preserve many of the bird and animal calls as recorded in the wild, manipulating only the ones that are more flexible and abstract, such as some birds and crickets or to use the wilderness quality to produce a more mysterious effect while preserving the feeling of the wild. Musically speaking, some nature sounds such as crickets, frogs, or locusts have a neutral repetitive quality which invites more manipulative techniques such as transposition or employment of pitch envelopes. On the other hand, the sounds of a Loon, Hermit Thrush or Musician Wren (an incredible Peruvian Amazon songster that finds itself singing away in our recent CD Rainforest Images) are so beautiful, so perfect in themselves, that we can best just get out of the way and let them sing. And there is a third category of relevant instruments . These are ones invented by us to fill the gap between traditional acoustic instruments and nature sounds, providing the "glue" which binds these other sonic forces together by contributing elements of gestural, timbral, and pitch control. In short, any sound that contributes to the wilderness musical expression is fair game for us, be it a tape recording of wind through a barn door, a mosquito recorded in a mayonnaise jar used as resonator, an amplified bicycle wheel resonating on a balsam box, a recorded door squeak that reminds of trees in the wind, or a voice using extended vocal techniques.
Music Instrument Inventors by Default
Before we list some of these instruments we "created", it must be emphasized that we do not consider ourselves instrument inventors, and certainly do not pretend to equate our modest attempts with so many of those elegant instruments often featured in this journal. Rather, we seek a certain sound quality, and often the only way we can realize it is to create the instrument--inventors by default as it were. For what it is worth, then, here are some of the instruments we have fashioned to realize our creative ideals:
The Amplified and Processed Bicycle Wheel -- adapted for musical use by Barton McLean. The wheel is simply mounted on a balsam wood box, on which is placed a Frap contact microphone. This instrument was first used at the commissioned premiere of our full-length concert In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World (performed from 1985-1990) in 1985 at the Bowling Green, Ohio University New Sounds Festival, in three of the five pieces. The bicycle wheel's spokes are struck with mallets and bowed with violin bows. The struck sounds are a mellow variant of tubular chimes, with extraordinary (and unchangeable) tunings and irregular overtones. Bowed sounds evoke a throaty version of bowed cymbal. The irregular quality of the timbre blends well with all kinds of nature sounds. It must be amplified to be heard, and the raw sound is fed through digital processors of delay and pitch shift combinations to evoke an entire ensemble of sound or just one note holding on -- many possibilities.
The Clariflute --developed by Priscilla McLean -- is a hybrid (or lowbrid, according to the classical woodwind performer!) of a soprano wooden recorder body topped by a clarinet mouthpiece and reed, with short extender of garden hose. This instrument was also created for the In Wilderness... concert, used in two of the five pieces, and has since become a standard instrument of our repertoire. It was designed to sound similar to Australian black swans, as it has a much more raucous tone and capacity for sliding, honking, bleeting sounds. It has no recognizable scale, and so allows for more gestural and timbral performance. Through lessening and increasing lip tension, and by biting the reed, one can produce many and varied melodic trips through various harmonic series.
Glacial rocks described below from the pre-Cambrian age, 500 million years ago, form the basis for our xylophone in “Earth Music.”
Glacial Rocks from the Cambrian Period -- found by both of us near the Burgess Shale formations in Yoho National Park in Alberta, Canada on one of our mountain hikes. As we walked, we noticed that the rocks under our feet were ringing in xylophone-like qualities. We immediately stopped and improvised on several, which we have assembled on foam pads and amplified with an air microphone and occasional processing. Later we developed a piece around them called "Earth Music", during which we also play ocarinas, recorders, clariflute, sampling keyboard of rock and nature sounds plus piano instrumental sounds, and Priscilla sings, speaks, and uses a wide variety of extended vocal techniques with stereo tape of bass drones and ethereal strings. This is one of five pieces in our latest concert entitled GODS, DEMONS, AND THE EARTH, premiered in Melbourne, Australia in June, 1990 and with which we are presently touring.
Sparkling Light Console -- invented by Barton McLean with assistance from Mike Rose and Rodney Peck at the iEAR Program of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This consists of a large panel of hundreds of pulsing colored lights originally designed to simulate and abstract fireflies blinking on a summer evening. A MIDI keyboard sends note and velocity information to a computer program which initiates light patterns stored in a buffer. The computer then drives the light patterns by outputting upper and lower case letters through the printer port, to be decoded by a custom hardware device which translates the letters into X-Y coordinates and steps up the voltage to light the bulbs. The result is an infinite variety of brilliant displays of pulsed, colored lights. Controls include pattern selection (washes, sweeps, linear, random, comet chase patterns), brightness, color, speed, and gating. Although this is not a "musical instrument" par se, it enhances an electronic piece called Fireflies, a staple of our present tour.
Recent Work Incorporating Nature
This illustrates the visual counterpart which has been an important ingredient of all our performances. Other visual elements include multiple slide projections fading and dissolving at different rates, and most recently a video entitled Rainforest Images, in a musical collaboration with Panaiotis and video done by Maylaysian video artist Hasnul J. Saidon at the iEAR Studios from video shot by Barton McLean in a recent Peruvian Amazon expedition. The purpose for the visual elements, then, is to absorb the whole nature-oriented experience as a gestalt.
The best example of this gestalt is our Rainforest hands-on installation, which has been realized at over one hundred colleges, galleries, libraries, conferences, museums, alternate spaces, and schools since its premiere at the University of Wyoming in 1989. The audience is the performer, and five people at a time are invited to experiment at five creative stations, including synthesizers with actual sampled rainforest sounds we recently recorded in the Peruvian Amazon, along with processed microphones and acoustic instruments, all over an ethereal pedal with birds and occasional high suspended strings on stereo tape. A continuous long sequence of moving slides of rainforests photographed by us from around the world frames the darkened installation and provides an atmosphere of primeval wonder. People of all ages perform, often bringing their own instruments to the microphones. Unlike the typical soundscape projects which seek to preserve the integrity of intrinsic sound environments, Rainforest seeks to symbiotically blend natural and human sounds in a composite macrocomposition. By directly involving the participant in imitating and expanding already-existing sounds of nature, this creative involvement is not only an artistic experience in itself, but also reinforces the idea that humans and nature are not separate but exist as one entity.
It Would Have Been Easier to Write Sonatas
In the last ten years of full-time composing and touring with a strong focus on nature sounds in our work, we have not starved, and as a matter of fact our fear of audiences' reactions has vanished with the recent exponential turn-around in audience interest and enthusiasm, stemming from a genuine, almost fanatical concern now for rainforests and the environment as a whole. We remember well the earlier days of struggle, as during a concert in Bergen, Norway in 1983 the local paper proclaiming on the front page, with banner headlines and our picture, "All Hell Breaks Loose in El Dorado" (the name of the theater), due to the fact that the press assumed incorrectly that we were sponsored by Greenpeace, which was boycotting their fish products in the USA due to their deplorable sealing and whaling practices. There were police in the hall that evening, ugly protests, and general hostility. And when we premiered the In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World concert in 1985 as the featured guests at the Bowling Green Festival in Ohio, people walked out, refused to sing in the audience- participation section, and were generally hostile and angry. So we have not always had an easy time pursuing our creative ideals. By way of contrast, in 1990, at the last concert of our five-year run of this same work at Ohio University in Athens, the audience almost drowned out the other sounds with their singing and were joyous and enthusiastic. And our current Rainforest installation is eagerly sought after, regularly filling up our calendar each year. It has been heartening for us to see the change occurring.
Perhaps our approach to experimental musical instruments and music-making with nature can be crystalized in a quotation by John Muir, famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, reflecting in his log after a long day's hiking: "The snow on the high mountains is melting fast, and the streams are singing bank-full, swaying softly through the level meadows and bogs, quivering with sun-spangles, swirling in pot-holes, resting in deep pools, leaping, shouting in wild exulting energy over rough boulder dams, joyful, beautiful in all their forms... When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken to everything in the universe. I fancy I can hear a heart beating in every crystal, in every grain of sand and see a wise plan in the making and shaping and placing of every one of them. All seems to be dancing in time to divine music." (from 1869 Journal entry)
The McLean Mix: Selected Discography
• Rainforest Images (1993), Compact Disc. Capstone Recordings 252 DeKalb Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y., 11205. The McLeans' definitive nature-based collaborative work including performers and sound sources from around the world. Duration: 48 minutes. Also contains Barton McLean's Himalayan Fantasy and Priscilla McLean's "On Wings of Song" from In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World.
•"A Little Night Musician" and "Demons of the Night" (1990) from Visions of a Summer Night by Barton McLean, on a CD collection of works from the iEAR Studios at R.P.I. on the CDCM Computer Music Series, Vol. 7. Centaur Records, Inc., 8867 Highland Rd., Suite 206, Baton Rouge, LA., 70808.
Following is a selection from the 14 cassette tapes and out-of-print LP recordings which can be obtained (along with a catalog) from the McLeans at their home address at R.D. #2, Box 33, Petersburg, N.Y., 12138 (518) 658 3595. Those with an * are nature-based. (Update: 1.These are mostly available via streaming on this site, and 2. current address is 55 Coon Brook Road, Petersburgh, NY, 12138)
In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World* (1989). Cassette.
The McLean Mix: Electrosurrealistic Landscapes (1985) LP (Opus One Recordings) Includes Barton's Dimensions VIII for Piano and Tape *, The Electric Sinfonia, and Priscilla's Beneath the Horizon * and "Salt Canyons" from her piano and tape series The Inner Universe.
The Last Ten Minutes and Etunytude by Barton McLean. (1982) on Folkways Computer Music from the Outside In .Includes narrative description by McLean of how the works are composed. Other works by Holmes, Korte.
McLean: Electro-Symphonic Landscapes (1978). LP (Folkways) includes Priscilla's Invisible Chariots and Barton's Song of the Nahuatl.
Dance of Dawn * by Priscilla and Spirals by Barton on a CRI LP album #335 (1974). C 1994 Barton McLean.