The McLean Mix: 3 DVDs


Wusik Sound Magazine, 11/09. Review by Warren Burt

McLean Mix Live! - DVD from MLC Publications
The McLeans Mix Three - DVD from MLC Publications
Priscilla McLean - Symphony of Seasons - DVD from MLC Publications Price: US$25 each. Two for US$45. All three for US$60.

For ordering: contact mclmix at

There is a media myth about the history of electronic music, which I've read in many places, which goes something like this: The early pioneers of electronic music, like [Bob Moog, Leon Theremin, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Raymond Scott, Pierre Schaeffer (pick one or any other)] were largely geeks confined to their labs. Then when [Wendy Carlos, Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, Raymond Scott, Hawkwind (pick one or any other)] had a popular success with synthesizers, the "real work" with electronic music began, and the development of electronics in the [Western] pop sphere occurred, and the writers usually then imply (when they don't state it outright) that we no longer need concern ourselves with those poor lab-bound early experimenters. That this viewpoint is demonstrably false in so many ways is obvious, but the damage it does it that it blinds us to the many ways that electronic music is used in many parts of the world, and the wonderful musical traditions and creators that exist just beyond the range of our interests and tastes. To give just one example - the use of electronics in Indian film music is immense, and these days, ubiquitous, but reading the Western press about electronic music, who would know that? And, guess what? Those folks who continue in that "Western experimental music tradition" (the tradition that was the first to call for the development of electronic instruments, by the way) who were scorned as unpopular nerds by the popular press are still there. The music is still being made, and lots of it, and it's of astonishingly high quality, and is full of interest and beauty. In fact, it's a whole world waiting for exploration, and it's happening all around us.

Bart and Priscilla McLean, both now in their 60s, have been performing live electronic music and multi-media concerts since 1974, and since 1983 have done so full time, earning a substantial portion of their living from this activity. Their work consists of live performances on traditional and home-made acoustic instruments (often electronically modified), accompanied by both prerecorded and live electronic music, and these days, more and more incorporating live and prerecorded video as well. They have done hundreds of concerts over the past 3 and 1/2 decades, all over the USA, and in other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Belgium and the Netherlands. Over the years, they have released a host of first LPs, then cassettes, then CDs (more than 8 are currently available), and now DVDs. Their work is refreshing and directly communicative. And now, with the addition of video, it is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. And they are definitely their own people - even within the individualistic field of contemporary art music, they stand out as unique - doing it their own way, in the tradition of their Transcendentalist forebears, such as Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Charles Ives. And this mention of Transcendentalist artists connects to another of their interests - they are both passionate environmentalists, and their work is suffused with their love and concern for the threatened natural environment.

The three DVDs concentrate on different aspects of the McLeans work. McLean Mix Live! is a documentation (with overlaid video effects) of four live performances they gave in 2000 and 2008. McLeans Mix Three contains three collaborative works which originated in museum installations or live performance in non-traditional locations (such as a jungle Longhouse in the Malaysian province of Sarawak, Borneo). Symphony of Seasons is a full-blown multimedia composition for video, with electronic and acoustic sound by Priscilla McLean, over five years in the making. All of the works are engaging to listen to, and to watch, and some of them have an emotional power and sweep that is quite remarkable.

One unusual thing about these DVDs, which some might find disconcerting, is their use of silence. Except when musical pieces are being played, the DVDs are silent. There is no background music when the menus are displayed, and the title sequences of the pieces are silent, even when performing humans are shown. Even when the piece is a documentation of a live performance, as soon as the piece is over, and before applause can be heard, the soundtrack fades to silence. Only those sounds which are part of the pieces as intended by the composers are heard on the DVD - even the context within which the pieces occur (the other sounds of the performance space) is removed. This might seem alienating to some, and might make you wonder if the sound has gone out on your DVD player again, but once you're used to it, it ceases to be a bother. Still, because this approach to DVD making is so unexpected, it does bear mentioning.

All three DVDs are full of delights, but if I had to pick a favorite (hard job!) for myself, it would be McLean Mix Live. In this DVD, based on a series of live performances, the full range of their performing techniques can be seen, as well as a wide range of the video effects and techniques they use. Three of the pieces are also gripping, and two feature Priscilla McLean's extraordinary operatic and extended vocal techniques in full flight. In the Beginning starts with Priscilla, full face, in a blood-curdling scream, followed by whispering, singing, shouting, ululating - a full range of vocal sounds, depicting the origins of the world according to many different creation legends. It's full of great "mad scenes" in which Priscilla's full-on hysterical vocal flights, her face in extreme closeup, is keyed into shots of the ocean. The ocean fills her face! At times, her face is turned into a hollow black space, and the ocean is inserted into that - her face becomes a bottomless pit, through which we glimpse the ocean. Nearly all the sounds in the piece originate in her voice. There is much use of the venerable ASR-10 sampler to extend the voice sounds into large textures of sound that swoop and glide through the audio spectrum, and much live electronic processing of the voice. And although there are occasional extended pulsing rhythms, in this piece, and in all 3 DVDs, there is not a "beat" to be heard. All the considerable rhythmic drive and energy is created by the use of textures and the energy of juxtaposing sounds on top of each other. To use Damian and Kalvos's term, this is as "non-pop" as you can get, and yet it has the energy and engaging nature of the best popular music.

Barton McLean's Happy Days highlights another side of the McLean's performing - their sense of humor. "New music" isn't supposed to be fun, much less goofy, but the McLean's aren't afraid to let their silly side show. This piece started with a collection of music boxes Bart made. Soon, other toy instruments were added. Then homemade instruments were thrown into the mix. Sampled electronics and modified live sounds too. Silly clown-hats and a wacky scenario about one of the performers being a music box herself is then added to the mix. It shouldn't work, but it does. By the end, the piece had me convinced - made of scraps and musical toys it may be, but it packs a punch. At times, I was reminded of Russian composer Shostakovich's description of one of his pieces which was supposedly about celebrating, but it was actually a celebration with a gun pointed at one's head. There's an emotional double-edge to this piece - its almost insane happiness - that for me, at any rate, shows the dark side underneath the clowning.

In Priscilla's Wilderness, a poem by Carl Sandburg about the wilderness that exists in each one of us is recited, sung, screamed, whispered, and shouted to the accompaniment of sampled animal, nature and electronic sounds. Some of the sounds, such as close-up recordings of panthers or bees, are literally hair-raising. Even without the considerable energy of this operatic live performance, it's one of the most effective pieces of contemporary "musique concrete" I know of. One interesting thing about this piece is that unlike most of the other music by the McLeans, here there is no electronic processing of the voice. The electronic soundtrack is rich enough on its own, and the only modification of the voice is when Priscilla occasionally sings into a glass jar, slightly changing the quality of her voice. The recording of this performance was made in 2000, but the piece had been constantly performed since being composed in 1989. The virtuosity of the performance is the result of those years of performing. The video processing of the performance image is also highly effective, creating a highly emotionally moving theatrical and video experience.

Magic at Xanadu (M.A.X.) by Barton McLean is a solo live electronics performance by him, using a set of keyboards, samplers, and the MAX language. I once said to Bart that I thought a lot of his music was orchestral, and that he was a frustrated orchestral composer. He agreed with that, and pointed out that contemporary electronics enabled him to get the thickness of texture, and the large number of simultaneous musical voices that formerly were the exclusive province of the orchestra, but without all the hassles of dealing with 100 human beings, and a large administration, that dealing with the contemporary orchestra involves. This performance is filmed from behind Bart, not the audience's point of view, and this allows us to see him at work on both keyboards, the computer, and even occasionally shows us glimpses of the score he's performing from. No hiding behind the laptop here! The piece opens with a simple ascending riff, and as McLean adds layers and layers of sound, the texture gets more and more elaborate and intricate. When the brass samples come in, about 2/3 of the way through the piece, the orchestral illusion is complete. The combination of the 19th century triumphant emotionality of triumphant brass, combined with the sight of a single 21st century man surrounded by equipment and the sound of his own synthetic orchestra has a real contemporary (science-fiction like?) emotional resonance.

Priscilla McLean's Symphony of Seasons occupies a DVD of its own. It's a four-movement, 50 minute long symphony for video, with electronic, environmental and multitracked instrumental sounds. As the title suggests, there's one movement for each of the seasons: Jewels of January, The Eye of Spring, July Dance, and Autumn Requiem.

Jewels of January features videos of the flickering surface of moving streams with other wintry images keyed in. The score - a virtuoso multitrack sampling composition - is full of sustained sounds, sharp attacks and wavering sounds. The ever-present video juxtaposition and keying that her video work displays is at its most effective here, with a reduced color palette of wintry blacks, whites and grays. The ending sound fade from instrumental sounds to the sound of flowing water is especially effective.

The Eye of Spring opens with silent close-up images of flowers (for me, the inevitable reference was with Georgia O'Keefe's paintings) which are then joined with sampled choral textures, made of Priscilla's remarkable vocabulary of extended vocal sounds. One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the use of focus, from clear and sharp to completely blurred and close-up, to create abstract visual worlds, which reinforce the abstract soundscapes. Again, a very effective mood piece.

July Dance is another humorous piece, and like the scherzo in the classical symphony (scherzo means "joke" in Italian), it features humor on many levels, some of them quite subtle. For example, the opening pulse music will probably bewilder those who are used to the machine-like rhythmic precision of techno and house musics. It's played with an incredibly loose rhythmic unison. More like the looseness of a relaxed country gathering than the strictness of an urban dance club. And then some levels of the rhythm lose the pulse completely, going off in their own tempos. And the video of Priscilla playing a driftwood instrument in a field is completely out of sync with the soundtrack! This is clearly not an MTV lip-sync piece! Shots of children at a summer party, shots of summer scenes, and the eventual breakdown of the entire polyrhythmic texture, as the final shots of a madwoman playing a homemade instrument maniacally in the fields make this a most smile-inducing section.

Autumn Requiem the final section, is as long as the first three movements put together. It uses traditional operatic / popular / religious song with sampled textures such as clusters, etc. It begins with a quote from the Catholic funeral service, the Requiem, juxtaposed with video processed and symmetrical images of a bare tree starkly outlined against the sky. It develops this material and moves away from it. At one point a greatly slowed down excerpt from the old pop standard "Autumn Leaves" emerges, along with some absolutely beautiful video combinations of autumn imagery. And, again and again, it returns to the bare trees/ Requiem image before departing on another journey. Korg Wavestation sounds feature here, as well as imaginative use of sampling. On its own, this movement is highly effective, and as a conclusion to the cycle, it's brings the energy of the whole to a satisfying conclusion.

The McLeans Mix Three has three collaborative pieces of theirs, where they both contribute to the elements of each piece. As well, the second piece Jambori Rimba is a collaboration with Malaysian video art pioneer Hasnul Saidon, a close friend of the McLeans for many years. This piece, in fact, was made when the McLeans were in residence at the University of Malaysia, Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, where Saidon teaches. They traveled with Saidon upriver to meet some of his Bornean friends, who still live in the Longhouses that have been the traditional dwellings there for years. While there, the McLeans did a performance for his friends, while Saidon shot video of the life of the village, as well as the villagers' performances for the McLeans. Out of this genial interaction, a most gentle and engaging piece results, one that conveys both their respect for, and enjoyment of, the culture of their hosts, a love for the rainforest environment, and a sense of gentle nostalgia for the good times they had while there. Rainforest sounds, traditional melodies, electronic drone textures, processed instrumental and vocal techniques all feature prominently in the soundtrack. What I found very refreshing about this piece is that, given that this is such a troubled part of the world - politically, environmentally, religiously - it's lovely to see a work that deals just with the people of the region as people, as friends, and lovingly and respectfully conveys the warm feelings of friendship between the artists and their hosts.

MILLing in the ENNIUM is a collage of music and video fragments celebrating 2000 years of music and dance. It was part of a larger museum installation the McLeans did in 2000 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. None of the music fragments are synced with the video. This leads to some odd combinations, such as European medieval choral music on the soundtrack combined with a juxtaposed video of a Japanese koto player and a Western harp player. There are always several layers of quotations juxtaposed here. At another moment, for example, the video is of dancers from the African-American Alvin Ailey dance company, but the music is of an Indian classical singer, juxtaposed with other musics. I found this to be the least effective of all the pieces on these DVDs. In the context of the larger installation, I might have found it invigorating, but as a piece on its own, the questions it continually raised in my head kept me from enjoying its rhythmic sweep.

Natural Energy, the last piece on the DVD exists in two versions. One with a composed video by Priscilla, and the other, showing a live performance of the piece by the McLeans. The piece is billed as a celebration of the energy of the dance - not only human dancers, but the energetic dance of the elements and of nature. Some of the most beautiful video on all the DVDs is here, especially when a natural process, such as fire, is color saturated and slowed down - we clearly see where the image has come from, but at the moment we see it, it's almost completely an abstraction. The soundtrack is made of computer made rhythmic loops with lots of live performance, often on homemade instruments, over the loops. How the sounds were made becomes clear in the 2nd version of the piece, which shows the live performance. Bits of the video are occasionally juxtaposed on the performance video so we can see where we are in the video version. Here you see the performers, and their unorthodox methods of performing both traditional and non-traditional instruments. It also explained to me the nature of the rhythms they were using - and how these were combined with the pulsating computer loops.

In short, these are 3 DVDs that will provide a lot of sonic and visual delight, and at their very best (In the Beginning, Jambori Rimba, Jewels of January, Magic at Xanadu, to list my favorites) are contemporary works of sweep and power which have nothing to do with the models of popular music, but which convey their emotional impact as effectively as anything from the pop sphere.