Barton McLean

Appearing in SEAMUS Journal, Fall, 1999

It was on one of our long touring drives, I think between Tulsa and Kansas City during April of 1997, that our (my wife Priscilla McLean and myself) conversation turned toward the millennium, and how as composers and media artists involved with technology, we might use this as a springboard toward a new audience-interactive event. What was most significant about the year 2000 to us? That it was a milestone in the history of 2000 years of music and the other arts. As electroacoustic composers focusing on ways to involve audiences directly in our interactive events over the past 20 years, it then followed that, now finally possessing the technical tools, what more fitting outcome than experiencing all 2000 years of music (and the other arts) at once in a grand celebratory collage composition. One of the driving rationale, then, behind our choice of the Ultimate Symphonius 2000 as our grand millennium project was to develop a vehicle that would, by its very nature, afford an opportunity to integrate the traditional academic music and other arts programs with the all-to-frequently isolated computer music/technology areas.


The Ultimate Symphonius 2000 is a combination of original, evocative and powerful live synthesizer music under audience-interactive software control, and a collage of pre-existing material from the history of the last 2000 years of music, as well as art, literature, dance, and history. But the primary thrust is sound, as participants mix, activate, and create live and pre-recorded excerpts, all resulting in a wash of simultaneous sounds of all ages.

Besides music, special virtual reality video and multiple slide interactive stations (being created by Priscilla McLean) are also present. Imagine, for example, walking into a lighted space and seeing yourself projected on a huge screen walking through a 1600's landscape, or a Roman temple, while the video processor produces intriguing distortions of your image. At another station, Priscilla is also developing a video collage, entitled "Earth, Fire, Air and Water: The Performing Arts, the Last 2000 Years," which subsumes all the arts in historical contexts using experimental video techniques being explored in our new video studio. As this is written she is just now developing a section where the dancer of the Stravinsky's Firebird is seen emerging from actual fire. But I am getting ahead of myself.


Funding and support for the US 2000 came about as we contacted several of our most supportive venues -- universities in which we and the individuals have developed a mutual respect over the years of working together. This matured into a consortium commission, with the lead agency becoming the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. MCLA has a newly formed mission to involve students in the liberal arts and disciplines. Fortunately for us, it is also close to home, and has developed a relationship with an even newer entity housed in North Adams, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), which, originally springing from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and with the largest gallery space in the world (with its premiere opening featuring a quarter-mile-long painting by Robert Rauschenberg) and a first-class performing and experimental arts complex, recently opening its doors to critical acclaim in a summer performing season not unlike the offerings at BAM. Other generous financial support was forthcoming from Hamilton College and Missouri Western State College, with nearby Williams College placing its prodigious library facilities at our complete disposal. The US 2000 will, then, be premiered at MASS MoCA in February of 2000 under the sponsorship of the Massachusets College of Liberal Arts, and will subsequently be performed at the other supportive colleges during the spring of 2000, and will be taken on tour then, as well as in the year 2001.


Immediately upon entering the space, which is darkened with subtle lighting defining each individual station, the participant will hear a soft, continuous complex of background sound, which will change slowly, but will involve a basic rich background harmony-ostinato-sound mass, in which ghostly shards of past musics are often evoked while forming part of the texture. This continuous sound event is designed to be neutral enough to encompass and absorb a multitude of differing historical styles and sounds activated by the visitors resulting in a collage. Being live and software-generated, its character will change with the mix of participants. The visitor can either participate creatively at any of the 8 stations, or can passively wander and absorb the rich and constantly changing surrounding textures.










Two modes of active participation are envisioned. These can occur simultaneously, or either mode can occur separately. The second mode is optional, and to date has not been scheduled at any of the venues.

1. WALK-IN OFF THE STREET PARTICIPATION: Most creative stations are set up so that any individual, or group of people, can interact individually with the material provided, either actively, as in Station #2 with written phrases from the history of keyboard music arranged for a controlled random selection, mostly of them easily readable by a visitor with limited keyboard skills, or in Station #3 where they might sing into a mic and their voice be processed and transformed, from similarly arranged vocal music from music history. This station also has the powerful capability of involving solo or small group jazz, new music, or ethnic improvisations. In Station #4, the visitor's visual image is captured by a video camera and distorted via the video processing, to be seen on the screen blended in virtual reality with historical multiple slide images. Along with any walk-in participant, this station has particular potential for involving dancers and dance solo and small group improvisation. In Station #5, the participant selects continuously-varying samples from the history of the last 2000 years, arranged in sets such as a "Timeline", with musics arranged in chronological order from bottom to top from ancient Greek to the 20th Century, or as in "Spiritual Songs and Chants," blending such diverse musics as Gregorian Chant, Hildegard von Bingen, Islamic Chant, South American and Norwegian native chants, etc. In Station #6, the participant has the opportunity to actually change the basic structure of the overall drone and also of its instrumentation, all of which is generated live from powerbook software. Finally, Station #8 (the Millennium Mixer) has 12 sets of musics, each with four separate works, with such content as Dramatic Opera Hits, Scherzo Stew, Impressionism, Quiet Music, American Originals (my own heroes [and one teacher] Ives, Cowell, Partch, Bernstein), South American Indigenous Musics, Fiddle Music, and many more.

Passive walk-in stations would include observing the video in Station #1 (see above description), and generally walking around the space while listening to the ever-changing mixes of material produced by the cumulative effect of participants in all stations. Virtually any individual, trained musician or not, can meaningfully participate in any of these stations.

2. TRAINED MUSICIAN GROUPS AND INDIVIDUALS: Station #7 affords the opportunity for rehearsed groups to participate in performance by singing or playing short or medium extended material from the historical repertoire, chosen, assembled, and arranged by the composers. More than one group (spatially placed throughout the room) could participate at a time. Suitable groups would include any performance group which does not have a sound volume that would overly dominate the whole experience (ruling out some brass and loud percussion). Example of groups would include choir, jazz improvisers, early music ensembles, chamber music groups, new music ensembles, world music ensembles, small chamber orchestra. The composers would work with each school individually to determine which ensembles might be engaged and provide music ahead of time for their rehearsing. The material would be designed and chosen to be prepared quickly. During the "performance" groups would assemble in the space in a random fashion (they could perform alone or could dovetail with other groups). Their respective conductors would be employed to lead each individual group. The total result would be a rich collage of sound emanating from all parts of the space, where each group is significantly contributing. During the day, groups could come and go as their schedules permitted. A special setup diagram for Option #2 is available on our web site, since the one provided here does not reflect this adequately. Option #2 is at present only theoretical, and will involve considerably more effort and cost, but may be just the thing for a really big celebration.


As in John Cage and Lejaren Hiller's HPSCHD, the US 2000 is a celebratory experience. In fact, HPSCHD, in that wonderful University of North Texas ICMC Conference rendition of 1981, was a significant influence on us, serving as a model from which to build. Consequently it is not surprising that both works share some characteristics. Most important, both works are actual media compositions. The US 2000 is not an installation as one would think of that term in the art world, although it shares some characteristics of the installation format. Similarly, both works utilize multiple media, and do so with the idea that one medium is placed adjacent to another achieving a sense of relief, with sound being the principal medium. Finally, both works are grand in concept, enabling a visitor to in effect live inside the work and move freely within it. For example, the US 2000 utilizes four stereo sound systems, 5 CD players, several keyboards and computers, and a host of slide and video projectors, screens, etc., mostly provided by us. It requires a space of at least 2500 square feet, although the disposition of the space is quite flexible. The grandness of concept approaches the Cage/Hiller work also in its joyousness and sense of discovery of how differing sounds and images, in their combination, can be viewed from an infinite number of vantage points.

There are some differences, however. In its audience interactivity on such a complete scale, with the visitors providing most of the sonic and visual material (albeit preconfigured by the composers to make acoustic sense), it goes far beyond a grand spectator event. The individual becomes intimately involved on many different levels, and has many areas and choices to occupy the mind. The individual becomes at once the audience, the performer, and even the composer (or at least the composer's assistant). The challenge here for myself and Priscilla is to make it work to the extent that the visitors perform the macro composition as intended, while achieving significant creative effect within their own spheres.


Another significant difference is in the way this will attract and involve academic classes, particularly in the music department but also in dance, art history, multicultural studies, and humanities. While studying at Indiana University, I was struck by how efficient and effective art history could be taught as contrasted with music history, simply because art historians had the luxury of showing slide comparisons side by side, unencumbered by the element of playing through time. One learns most profoundly by using one's direct comparison faculties in real time. Up to now, this luxury has not been available to musicians. But with the US 2000 all that has changed. One can develop concepts of music, orchestration, texture, and consonance/dissonance by readily applying the same direct comparison techniques. For example, in the Station #5, with the "Timeline" set of sounds engaged, one can simultaneously or in direct succession initiate, for example, ancient Greek music, early plainchant, St. Martial School, Leonin, Machaut, Dufay, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Locatelli, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Wagner, St. Saens, and Mahler, virtually an encapsulated history of music all at one's fingertips. Furthermore, due to the careful and particular way in which these are chosen (which is perhaps another difference between the US 2000 and HPSCHD), these can be used in a context enabling the participant to actually compose a new collage vignette by combining several of the above samples. Thus, from the teaching perspective of developing a concept of historical styles, one is not only initiating these combinations of composers's works, but also (if one wishes), using these creatively in cementing them to the overall macrocomposition.

In music theory, we all subscribe to the idea that one learns concepts by creating (composing) actual musical material. In the US 2000 we have the same concept in music history/styles, where one can learn styles by creating with stylistic examples in a collage technique. And the subject matter is not relegated to western music history alone. Many examples of indigenous musics from Africa, Australia, Asia, South America, and our own USA are employed, sometime as a group for subtle conceptual awareness, and at other times as a broad potpourri. Incidentally, many of these were recorded by us on location on various field trips taken over the past 15 years. And so, we hope that these techniques will serve to interest a broad range of music faculty including historians, musicologists, theorists, ethnomusicologists, jazz, etc. In fact, the US 2000 is designed to accommodate these and many other special foci of particular disciplines within these areas. During our presentations of the US 2000, we will be inviting classes such as music history/literature, world music, music theory/comp (basic theory, styles, composition, orchestration), jazz studies in for special presentations adapted to their particular disciplines.But please don't mention to students that the US 2000 is educationally good for them, because in reality IT'S ALSO FUN!


The very essence of the concept being the free ability to work with audio and visual samples, we have had to very carefully consider the ramifications of excerpting from existing recordings and other media. Upon exhaustive legal and ethical consultation and research, we have adopted the following guidelines. We will remain within the fair use provisions of the US Copyright Act as it is applied to works of collage which are not permanently fixed. For educational purposes, every attempt will be made to carefully document every excerpt chosen, including when appropriate the company, title, ordering number of the CD.

As with all our other audience-interactive events, we place considerable thought into being able to set up quickly and with a minimum of effort from the host. We have to do this, since most of our venues are only interested in visits of from 2-5 days and can not afford days of hiring staff (or us) to do setup. With the US 2000, a special consideration is placement of the three main audio areas. More than any other of our audience-interactive events, the US 2000 demands more sonic isolation between the three groups of stations. Conceptually, the main driving force sonically are Stations #5 and 6, which controls the stereo drone. These are the "blending" stations -- the ones that need to coexist with all others. And so these are placed near the center. The sonic extremes are occupied by Stations #2 and 3 on one hand, and, at the opposite end of the space, Station #8. Thus, when one is at this station, one will hear its blending with the center stations, but will not hear the two stations at the other extreme of the hall. Ditto for Stations #2 and 3.

And that is why we have provided small (less than one cubic foot) speakers and placed them extremely close to the participant at the stations at the extremes of the space.

Visually, the considerations vary considerably depending on the space. Occasionally we will be placing the Stations #1 and #4 close together, for a mega-concentrated visual effect, probably most effective for smaller spaces. In the mammoth MASS MoCA black box theater premiere, the visual stations will be well isolated.

TOURING (update from original SEAMUS article)

The Ultimate Symphonius 2000 was designed for maximum impact throughout the year 2000 and the year 2001. It premiered at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in Feb. 2000, to rave reviews, and subsequently was installed at Wake Forest University, Missouri Western State University, and Hamilton College.

C 1992 Barton McLean.