Touring the South Pacific: Images of Faraway Places

By Barton McLean

(Journal Seamus, Vol. V, #2, Nov. 1990)

What made the McLean Mix (Priscilla and Barton McLean electro-acoustic music duo) decide to tour Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and the Philippines, and how did we set it up? Answering the first part, the Australian venues were the result of an aborted Fulbright application, after which our initial sponsors still seemed to want us even after it was clear they would finance the trip themselves. This nucleus in hand, we asked Joel Chadabe for further contacts in New Zealand, resulting in a successful Queen Elizabeth II Foundation Grant submitted through the Auckland downtown gallery "Artspace" (Phil Dadson and Priscilla Pitts) for our appearance there. Finally, we relied on our own personal contacts with venues in Hawaii and the Philippines. As it turned out, we had three agencies in the Philippines lined up to support a major residency when the political situation and earthquake pulled the plug on that leg of the journey -- a not uncommon occurrence particularly when dealing with third-world and second-world countries. Presenters in Hawaii are always looking for groups passing through on their way from Asia to the mainland, and this was a natural stop for us.


In a nutshell, the McLean Mix tour encompassed eight weeks involving three full concerts, three extended audio installations, five lecture/performances, and four radio broadcasts, one of which was a paid live concert recording over Australian Broadcasting Corporation and broadcast throughout the country. A number of these events were performed as part of extended residencies at LaTrobe University (Melbourne), Canberra Institute of the Arts, and Artspace (Auckland). As a result of our tour, two extended articles appeared about our tour in the Australian Music Centre's SOUNDS AUSTRALIAN and in MUSIC IN NEW ZEALAND. In addition, eight expeditions into subtropical and tropical rainforests were undertaken in order to gather 35mm slides and field recordings for the continuing development of our audiovisual installation RAINFOREST (we managed to research the sand density of a number of tropical beaches as well, but that's another story!). Everywhere we traveled we were lodged and often fed by our generous hosts.


Considering the extended scope of the trip, counterbalanced by the financial considerations and weight limitations of our economy flight, certain strategies needed to be employed at the outset. For the equipment component, we confined ourselves to that which can be carried in (1.) a custom 55-inch flight case with 1-inch foam in which a homemade wooden rack box as inserted, (2) a 60 - inch medium hardcover suitcase lined with 1-inch foam, and (3), a small portastudio-mixer taken as onboard luggage. Although the weight of (1) exceeded U.S. airline specs by 1 lb., and domestic Australian specs by 11 lbs., we had no problems except in Sydney where they made us take one piece of equipment out of the rack and put it in our carry-on bag with the portastudio. We found that it helps to engage the ticket agent in a passionate discussion about the weather just as she is weighing the heavy item. These rather common equipment considerations forced us to rely on our hosts for two keyboard controllers, mic stands, a 220-110 voltage converter which is standard in Australia and New Zealand, basic stereo system, and slide projectors. We had no trouble at all with any of this equipment except the projectors. A curse on Kodak for managing to make it virtually impossible to interchange U.S. and overseas models to work with U.S. fade and dissolve units. Also, and very unfortunately, we were forced to eliminate the one piece of equipment that is the flagship of our tour, the "Sparkling Light Console" recently designed by myself with RPI engineers. This is a huge panel of hundreds of flashing and blinking lights, controlled via an IBM computer with MIDI keyboard, that produce varying geometric, linear, textural explosions of colored patterns to the accompaniment of my FIREFLIES computer music work. Although designed to fit into auto with domestic tours, overseas transport was impossible. This forced us to compromise, as many of us do when flying, by substituting a tape of FIREFLIES and another work. It was difficult to accept this at first, since in all of our concerts our goal is to combine live performance with new technology, utilizing audio and visual elements through often virtuosic and experimental techniques. But reality always wins out in one way or the other.


The most intensive non-commercial electroacoustic music activity in Australia is largely confined to the major university centers of LaTrobe University in Melbourne and the Canberra Institute of the Arts, both of which have highly developed programs in every sense. At LaTrobe, the concert and tech support was as fine as any I have seen in the U.S. Under the able direction of Jeff Pressing (the same who writes a column in KEYBOARD Magazine). LaTrobe has a comprehensive degree in music technology, computer music, software development, and related areas. Of all the Australian and New Zealand universities, LaTrobe is perhaps the best funded in terms of staff, equipment and physical plant. The Canberra Institute of the Arts similarly has comprehensive programs in all areas. The director of its Australian Centre for the Arts and Technology, David Worrall, is a dynamic visionary who is forging a unique centre for experiment in live performance, software development and other related areas. One of his more unusual conceptions is the design, construction, and implementation of a portable, 200-seat traveling auditorium built on the geodesic dome concept. "The Dome," as it is called, can be assembled anywhere and has extremely sophisticated multi-channel playback capability, as well as large screen video in five stations. He and his indefatigable computer music group has toured extensively, and in fact, are planning to tour the U.S. in the near future, at which time they intend to, among other activities, construct The Dome on a barge and tour Hudson River venues floating to New York City. Both Canberra and LaTrobe have complexes which include teaching and professional Mac-based MIDI studios, although Worrall is becoming discouraged with the Macs, as they are presenting difficulties in software development and are "too damned expensive."

Performing our RAINFOREST installation in Canberra was a high point of the tour mainly due to the high quality and unusual nature of the walk-in participants, some of whom came with their native flutes, clack sticks, and digeridoos, performing these Aborigine instruments with style and virtuosity. Another highlight was a radio recording broadcast by the ABC-Melbourne produced by Paul Petran, arranged by a former American composer and now Melbourne resident Warren Burt. In Australia and New Zealand, as in Europe, radio pays well for this activity, unlike the pathetic U.S. Public Radio system. In the Melbourne studios we had hours to set up, and more hours to fine-tune, rehearse, and perform until we were satisfied ... a task particularly gratifying since the two works recorded -- Priscilla McLean's WILDERNESS and my EARTH MUSIC were the first professional recordings made of these brand new works. When it was found that we needed special equipment that the station did not possess, not to worry -- Petran simply hired a taxi to go to the music store and university to pick up the needed items. During our session, we used a microphone that may be the most incredible sounding I have ever worked with -- the Neuman TLM 170 condenser mic, imparting an unusually smooth and natural sheen. The $2000 (Aus.) price tag is well worth it.

Research developments in new music technology seem to be highly concentrated in the major universities and are mainly software-based, stemming from, but not confined to, the older mainframe direct synthesis school, whereas now in the U.S. the significant research breakthroughs relating to meaningful composition and performance of electronic music have been by small commercial companies for some time. In my opinion, this re-inventing the wheel is, to some degree, sapping the creative strength of some of the best electro-acoustic music programs in Australia. But the electro- acoustic music scene in Australia is by no means confined to universities, as we discovered when Warren Burt played his music for us and brought us to a rehearsal of an upcoming improvisation festival in Melbourne. With his energetic music, lively personality, and organizational skills, Warren is a powerful force in the experimental new music scene in Australia. Everywhere we traveled his presence was felt. We ran into another independent composer, Moya Henderson, in Sydney, finding a natural affinity with her work with location recording of Australian birds and their use in her compositions. The birds of Australia possess a most incredible array of natural electro-acoustic sounds ... a national wealth of major proportions. It is a pity that most Australian composers fail to grasp the implications of using rich indigenous sound resources such as these to incorporate into a true national music rather than ever trying to write the perfect European symphony. Ah yes, despite some notable exceptions, the conservatory academy is still firmly entrenched down under, as we found in our lecture/performance at the University of Queensland and radio appearances over QUT radio in Brisbane.


Our next concert was at the University of Auckland arranged by the high respected electro-acoustic and mainstream composer John Rimmer, who was unfortunately in New York State at the time of our performance. Once again, the level and quality of concert support was excellent. Then we moved to the downtown residency at Artspace, a huge loft complex in which we set up and ran our RAINFOREST installation in four days. The initial shyness of the Aukland participants was eventually overcome as the word got out, and we were literally mobbed the last day. We also met Phil Dadson, the driving force in Auckland's experimental music scene, most notably involved with the internationally-recognized "Scratch" improvisational audio-media ensemble. Another memorable experience was in hearing Keith Ballentyne's somber and rich electronic score to the local experimental theater production "The Holy Sinner" (based on Thomas Mann), a medieval setting performed in an old iron foundry. This highly original and experimental "underground" production had been going on for weeks, and to packed houses every night.


Although the University of Hawaii lacks a specialization in electro-acoustic music, it is an interesting place to play due its own unique cultural ambiance ... in many ways more "foreign" and "exotic" than either Australia or New Zealand. Armand Russell directs the studio and Takeo Kudo, a fine composer and expert shakuhatchi player who incorporates this instrument into his compositions sponsored and organized our concert. More than any other western country, performing in Hawaii is a venture into warm personal friendliness, exotic leis (garlands of aromatic flowers around your neck after the concert), oriental faces, and an easygoing spirit. As I learned later, we had just missed Joan LaBarbara's new collaborative work with Judy Chicago, performed at the Honolulu Arts Academy. We also said hello to John Duffy who was delighted with the Honolulu Symphony's performance of his new work "Utah," commissioned by the Sierra Club. Also in Honolulu at the time was our friend Dan Welcher, who was Meet the Composer resident with the Honolulu Symphony. We heard his inaugural new music chamber series stemming from the MTC program and, without diminishing Dan's outstanding talents or the idea of the MTC residency, I was struck by how conservative he felt he had to be on the program, dictated by the corporate symphony board, lack of rehearsal time and the politics of big audiences and "success." And as I was listening to these basically mild, tepid, inoffensive works ( with 1 1/2 notable exceptions) I was thinking how fortunate that we can often circumvent the obstacle of funneling our creative efforts through the lowest common denominator sieve of mainstream performers and chamber - orchestral politics, and how genuinely free we are to make electroacoustic music the creative cutting edge today.


The level of development and sophistication in electroacoustic music of all cities visited is certainly on a par with that in the U.S. The difference, of course, is that there is not the concentration of activity seen on our mainland. When I mentioned to a class in Auckland that there were over 20,000 composers in the U.S., they could only gasp at the thought. This situation presents advantages, since the few local composers and facilities are well-known and supported, and everyone has a direct link to the arts bureaucracies. Being smaller, it is much more possible to reach a more general public through radio, recordings, and print media than it is in the U.S. For example, I remember perusing several copies of "Music in New Zealand," the one and only mainstream music magazine (state funded of course) for the country. In every issue there were, along with items about concert pianists, opera, etc., major articles about their composers' activity -- that of electroacoustic composers John Rimmer, Phil Dadson, and even our own Annea Lockwood, a former resident of New Zealand, for example. How often have we seen this in our commercial trade magazines "Stereo Review" or "Musical America," or even "Keyboard" magazine? On the European model, Australia and New Zealand still tend to stress government support and fairly traditional, classical values, whereas the U.S. electroacoustic composer relies more on a mixture of commercial, state, and other funding, and has more of a trendency (not a misspelling) to be invigorated or polluted, depending on your point of view, by commercial music and popular culture. Experimental composer-performers can occasionally, as we do, survive very well in the U.S. without teaching, etc., whereas in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii there is not a critical mass of venues, experimental centers, and large cities to make this happen. This is a sore point with our overseas colleagues, who need to rely more on traditional commissions, teaching, and other related work. But during the hard times we all face, it is reassuring to know that in places far away there are societies in which the same struggles for funding, time, artistic integrity, societal support are taking place, and that the artists are often meeting these challenges successfully, albeit differently from us. We should all attempt to visit these places, and perhaps try to capture a little of their spirit, if only for the good of our own creative souls.

C 1990 Barton McLean.