The McLean Mix: Three DVDs.

January, 2010 Issue 1, Page 5 , Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States Newsletter

Reviewed by Mark Zaki (Rutgers University)

  • McLean Mix Live!

  • The McLeans Mix Three - Collaborations 2000-2008

  • Priscilla McLean - Symphony of Seasons

(All from MLC Publications)

At an age when most people feel comfortable to rest on their laurels, Barton and Priscilla McLean, the husband and wife team known as the McLean Mix, tirelessly continue to present their unique brand of electroacoustic music and intermedia work to audiences around the world. With a performance career approaching its fifth decade and a substantial catalog of recordings behind them, the McLean Mix has recently released a set of three new DVD's of their work. This collection highlights their work over the last twelve years and demonstrates enormous range and versatility, sensitivity, gentle provocation and an often tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

While each DVD has a specific theme, they cover a considerable amount of ground, consciously spotlighting different aspects of the McLean Mix experience. Several of the works are presented as archival, documenting performances from various McLean Mix tours. A few of the works offer a combination of live performance, live video processing and some preexisting video as well. At the other end of the spectrum, other works are presented directly as visual music. Great care has been taken throughout to present the music and video on an equal footing.

McLean Mix Live!,(see below) is self–described as the epitome of the McLean Mix concert experience. Taken from four performances in 2000 and 2008 in New York City and Holland, Michigan, the disc opens with In the Beginning, a formidable piece that demonstrates Priscilla McLean's considerable range and extended vocal technique. The performance is accompanied by video of processed ocean clips and visual allusions to various creation myths. There is an instinctive sense to the vocalization, sounds often well up from a purely emotional and primeval place. Perhaps the most theatrical piece in the collection is Barton McLean's Happy Days. Here we see the McLeans' pointedly whimsical side. Inspired by Barton's fascination with music boxes, the McLeans perform dressed up in party hats with Priscilla taking on the character of a clown. The piece spins along precariously, propelled by various party favors, toys and household objects almost losing itself among the madcap sounds and texture (if Spike Jones found himself suddenly transported into this performance, he might feel right at home at times). There is an underlying darkness however, and Priscilla's character owes as much to Pierrot as it does to Chaplin. At one point she and the music boxes wind down, only to be rewound and restarted. The music never quite regains its exuberance, perhaps a metaphor for the loss of innocence. The other two pieces on McLean Mix Live! are Priscilla's composition Wilderness, based on text by Carl Sandburg, and Barton's Magic at Xanadu (M.A.X.), inspired by the Coleridge poem. Both of these works are given virtuosic performances here.

The McLeans Mix Three concentrates on three larger-scale collaborations. In MILLing in the ENNIUM the McLeans each provide separate video and audio material to form an extended intermedia collage that pays tribute to two millennia of human musical activity. Jambori Rimba is an adaptation of an installation devoted to the Borneo rainforest. Stunningly evocative of the rainforest and its jungle environment, the McLeans weave incredible trajectories of natural sounds that continually fascinate and firmly pull the viewer into the visual environment. The only collaboration with another artist in the whole set, Malaysian video artist Hasnul Saidon created the video collage in Jambori Rimba. The disk concludes with two presentations of Natural Energy. A wildly joyful homage to movement and dance, the viewer is treated to images of dancers, flames, water movement and scarves that all come together to create an active and energized collage. The second presentation of Natural Energy is a video of a rehearsal that allows a peek into the McLean's working methods and process.

The third DVD, Symphony of Seasons, features Priscilla McLean's video composition. This disc presents four pieces that loosely come together to form a cyclic journey that progresses from the austerity of January winter though the rebirth of spring and celebration of summer to the decay and surrender of autumn. The first three pieces, Jewels of January, The Eye of Spring, and July Dance are short visual music essays which derive much of their meaning from the sounds of nature. One can almost sense the cold ice sizzling, trying to release its energy as it melts. In The Eye of Spring Priscilla's voice is transformed into a fabric that suggests the radiant intensity of springtime flowers bursting forth. The percussive texture of July Dance celebrates life and all its exuberance; even the trees get into the act.

The final work, Autumn Requiem, is an extended performance piece that includes musical- collaboration with Barton. Spanning a larger trajectory than the first three works (it's as long as the other three works put together), Autumn Requiem acts as an effective capstone to the cycle. Elements from the preceding movements come together here, and the overall tone is increasingly weighty and emotional. Adding to this emotional intensity is the first inclusion of text in the cycle. The text includes a reference to the standard Autumn Leaves, excerpts from Thoreau's journals, and Latin phrases from the requiem mass.

Despite the contemporary conventions of today's digitally produced art music and intermedia, the McLean Mix often cuts against the grain, enthusiastically devoted to pursuing their own muse. This individual streak works to their advantage and their creative world has a distinct and unique signature. Many of the sonic textures they create are found from everyday (and sometimes invented) objects – a bowed bicycle wheel, pizza pans, music boxes or a "clariflute" for example. These explorations and their playful, improvisatory approach to uncovering sounds lend a physicality that imbues the music with humanness at a fundamental and visceral level. This tangible quality stands at the center of their work and helps focus the energy and musical direction.

If there is a quibble, the DIY approach to the production of these DVDs sometimes feels at odds with the scope of the work itself. At the same time, this is certainly in keeping with the McLean's individualistic nature. It would be hard to imagine these DVDs presented in a slick high-definition package without losing their personality and charm. Some of the effects seem quaint at times, particularly on the video side of things, and the improvisatory nature of the pieces causes the occasional incoherence between image and sound. These moments are rare however, and when things converge they often do so in a powerful and beautiful manner.

The McLeans always keep the pieces moving along and the senses engaged. If you are new to the McLean Mix experience, this collection is a suitable and well-rounded introduction to their work. If you're a long time fan, these DVDs are definitely worth a look and merit consideration for any serious electroacoustic music collection.