Review of 3 Capstone McLean CDs:

20th CENTURY MUSIC, Feb. 1999

Mixing it up with the McLeans


Priscilla and Barton McLean. The Electric Performer, Gods, Demons and the Earth, Rainforest Images


Priscilla and Barton McLean are uncompromising performer-composers with their own personal musical vision. Often this vision is directly related to actual images, as in the case of Priscilla's The Inner Universe, a work in five movements that opens their Capstone release, The Electric Performer. This composition for amplified piano using "soft" preparation (superballs, piano wedges, coffee mugs, covered metal washers, light chains, books, guitar picks) buzzes, perks, and glissandos along in response to electronic-microscope slides of David Sharf -- at times Cageian and Crumbian. Priscilla's Where the Wild Geese Go is another busy bee in its samples of wild animal calls (Canadian geese, bald eagles, American bittern, loons, owls, honeybees, and bumblebees), clarinet (Gerald Farmer) bottle drum and tabla.

Barton checks in with Dimensions II, a piano and tape composition excitedly performed by the well-known David Burge, who no doubt found his experiences recording the Makrokosmos cycle of George Crumb able preparation for this varied essay. Barton's neoprimitive, haunting and spacious Dawn Chorus finds the composer as performer on soprano recorder and clariflute (a hybrid clarinet/recorder) through the sophisticated machinations of digital processing, enriched by stereo tape. The album comes to a shrieking and ominous conclusion in Dimensions III, with alto saxophonist Albert Regni.

Priscilla and Barton bill themselves as The McLean Mix on two other Capstone releases, and indeed their compositional voices are more thoroughly entwined. Barton's Earth Music, the first selection on Gods, Demons and the Earth, finds the composer on keyboards, clariflute, digital synthesizers, samplers, and digital processors, complimented by Priscilla as vocalist, ocarinist, and percussionist on ancient glacial rocks struck with mallets. Wilderness flips the responsibilities with composer Priscilla as extended vocalist to Barton's flexatone percussion supplemented with animal (one assumes this to mean "mammal") bird, insect, and surreal instrumental sounds (using digital sampling and synthesis) on stereo tape. The two more discrete compositions on this disc are the Visions of a Summer Night (Barton) featuring the mysterious wolfish "Sparkling Light Console" on the third movement "Fireflies," and Dance of Shiva (Priscilla), which adds sampled Buddhist Chant, music of Hildegard von Bingen, and precipitous glissandoing instrumentals to the mix.

The duo's continuing interest in natural and high-tech sounds is well shown by a third CD Rainforest Images. The jointly-composed title work, in five continuous movements, features voices, violins, wooden recorders, clariflute (here characterized as clarinet mouthpiece with recorder body), didgeridoo, wolf howls, monkey cries, birdsong, and ominous sustained vocals. Priscilla's vocals are allied with Barton's amplified bicycle wheel and insect (mosquitoes and bees) in On Wings of Song, and Barton closes with a studio solo Himalayan Fantasy, a wonderful assemblage of recordings of Tibetan singers and instrumentalists, organized into a large composition featuring synthesizers, sona, and harp-like sounds. This is one of the more convincing East-West syntheses since Philip Glass's music for Kundun.

Today Weekender in Metro Manila, Philippines

Review by Lourd Ernest H. De Veyra, Feb. 2, 1997

Mindscapes and Soundscapes: The McLean Mix; Barton and Priscilla McLean

(Beginning portion of this lengthy article, which focused on Barton and Priscilla McLean's general approach, output, and activities, is omitted. The remainder, featuring the two CDs, is presented intact.)

From their home studio in new York, the McLean Mix has recorded two recent CDs under Capstone records, Rainforest Images (1993) and Gods, Demons and the Earth (1995), both startling showcases of powerful, nature-inspired electrosoundscapes. In Rainforest Images, the almost 50-minute long title track, which contains five movements, utilizes processed vocals and birdcalls, strings, wooden recorders, clariflute, the aboriginal Australian instrument didgeridoo, interspersed with ghostly chanted texts from native American Wintu myth. On Wings of Song is a remarkable piece mixing Priscilla's solo soprano with bowed bicycle wheel spokes run through an amplifier, and recorded samples of drones from mosquitoes and bees inside a jar. Barton's composing comes close to the traditional notion of harmony and rhythm in Himalayan Fantasy, which integrates Tibetan melodies with 20th-century symphonic forms.

Gods, Demons and the Earth displays the couple's continued allegiance to the avant guarde spirit, beginning with the highly evocative Earth Song which fused electronic drones with sounds of Burgess Shale rocks discovered during an expedition to the Alberta Rockies. Visions of a Summer Night is a five-part suite inspired by a sojourn in the American Northeast. Next is Wilderness, an interpretation of a poem by Carl Sandburg sung by Priscilla with recorded sounds of honeybees, panthers, hyenas, chimpanzees, hawks, among others. The album climaxes in Dance of Shiva, a homage to the various moods of the Hindu god of destruction. Aptly so, the piece conjures a meditative veil of chants of Tibetan monks and medieval European hymns juxtaposed with sitar, autoharp, clariflute and relatively obscure instruments like kazoo and bumblebee.

Indeed, the McLean Mix's music is definitely not for mass public consumption --it is harsh, grating, difficult and dissonant. Perhaps the very same adjectives screamed by first-time audiences of innovators like Stravinsky, Bartok, berg, Schonberg, Webern, Richard Strauss, John Cage, to name a few, who all sought to explore newer paths of musical expression, thus shaping the dimensions of contemporary classical music as we -- or more accurately, just a small group of open-minded and appreciative audiences -- know it today.

Classical Net Reviewed by Raymond Tuttle, Feb. 2001

Priscilla and Barton McLEAN Rainforest Images. Priscilla McLEAN On Wings on Song. Barton McLEAN Himalayan Fantasy

Priscilla and Barton McLean, performers; others --- Capstone CPS-8617 [ADD?] (72:33)

Barton McLEAN Earth Music. Visions of a Summer Night. Priscilla McLEAN Wilderness. Dance of Shiva

Priscilla and Barton McLean, performers --- Capstone CPS-8622 [ADD?] (72:50)

Priscilla McLEAN The Inner Universe. Where the Wild Geese Go. Barton McLEAN Dimensions II and III. Dawn Chorus

Priscilla and Barton McLean, performers; David Burge, piano; others --- Capstone CPS-8637 [ADD?] (73:57)

Priscilla McLEAN Fantasies for Adults and Other Children. In the Beginning. Wilderness. Sage Songs of Life and Thyme

Priscilla and Barton McLean, performers; Nancy Hill, soprano; Mark Saya, Susan Aceto, piano; others

--- Capstone CPS-8663 [ADD?] (66:09)

One might think that composers of electroacoustic music have much in common with nuclear physicists. Plenty of forbidding images arise -- for example, those of "mad scientists" in clinically spotless labcoats speaking a language that only they can understand, and cackling over projects whose merits one needs to be equally brilliant to comprehend. After all, "fun" is not the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of this musical genre.

Then one becomes aware of the work of Barton and Priscilla McLean, a husband and wife team based in Petersburgh, New York, whose electroacoustic music is . . . well, different. Together, they are known as "The McLean Mix," and their literature describes them as an "Electroacoustic Music/Media Duo." Bringing their work to a non-traditional (that is, a non-concert-going) audience is important to them, and they promise "sounds and sights so unusual that you the audience will want to get up and perform and dance and paint . . ." Disney's Epcot Center was never like this. The McLean Mix can recreate a jungle in Borneo, a rainforest, or a desert spring in a small performance space; participants can play acoustic and electronic instruments, sing on a sound processed microphone, immerse themselves in slide and video images, and move their bodies in response to the rich banquet of sights and sounds. As you might have gathered by now, the description "environmentalists" also belongs to Priscilla and Barton McLean, although they might not explicitly identify themselves as such. To "Save The Rainforest" is a noble goal few would argue against, but it is too abstract to mean much to most people. The McLeans' interactive multimedia performances bring rainforests and other vulnerable environments to the audiences, and, if the music alone is anything to go by, it would be very difficult not to become emotionally involved in the spaces that are so vividly evoked. Truly, there are universes in the compound eye of a bee, the McLeans seem to be telling us.

These four CDs are always surprising and provocative. They contain several types of sound. First, there's straight-ahead acoustic performance, as in the sound of a clarinet, saxophone, or human voice. Sometimes, the instrument will be manipulated during performance; Priscilla McLean "prepares" the piano in the style of John Cage with wedges, washers, credit cards (!), and other timbre-altering objects, and the inside harp may be played as well as the keyboard. A good example of this is in The Inner Universe, a suite inspired by electron micrographs of plants and animals. Fantasies for Adults and Other Children (a set of songs to texts by e.e. cummings) makes even more dramatic use of a prepared piano. Another manipulated instrument is the "clariflute," which is a soprano recorder with a clarinet mouthpiece; it can be heard in Dawn Chorus, Earth Music, and in other works on these four discs. The McLeans don't use electronics gratuitously, then; in Wilderness, Priscilla McLean (who has a fine soprano voice) adds reverberation to her voice with nothing more high-tech than an empty mayonnaise jar. She, it must be said, is a brilliant practitioner of what sometimes is called "extended vocal technique." Her whoops, shrieks, mutters, and palette of noises, guttural and otherwise, will endear her to anyone who loved Cathy Berberian's virtuosic performances of extreme 20th century music (particularly Luciano Berio's). Fans of Meredith Monk will be comfortable here too.

The McLean Mix frequently accompanies "live" instrumentalists or vocalists with pre-recorded stereo tape. In the funny and frightening Where the Wild Geese Go, the tape contains samples of the clarinet soloist's own playing, and so a virtual duet for one is made possible. The tape also contains samples of animal sounds (birds and bees) and percussion samples. In Barton McLean's Dimensions, the pianist (Dimensions II) or saxophonist (Dimensions III) plays along with pre-recorded piano or saxophone samples that have been processed, sometimes - as in the case of the piano in Dimensions II - past the point of recognition. Priscilla McLean's Dance of Shiva incorporates pre-recorded samples of everything from Buddhist chants and Hildegard von Bingen to bumblebees to evoke the Hindu deity Shiva. In concert, multiple slide projections depict "volcanoes, landslides, glaciers, storms, [. . .] peoples and animals appear, flower, and disappear in a continuous lifeflow cycle, on and on forever." (It is time for The McLean Mix to consider a DVD of their work; to a certain extent, perhaps these CDs are already outdated!) Further multicultural ambitions are revealed by In the Beginning. In this work, one of the most recent on these four CDs, Priscilla McLean reads creation texts from Babylonia, Greece, and Chaldea, and also draws upon Hindu, Arunta, Zuni, and Occidental cultures. This work contains some of the most complicated manipulation of live and pre-recorded material. As she sings "live," her husband alters her voice with echo- and delay-processing. The tape that is played simultaneously contains almost nothing but her voice, but extensive manipulation via the ASR-10 synthesizer dramatically alters its range and the timbre, even creating choral textures.

These are not the only unusual sounds to be heard on these discs. In the joint composition Rainforest Images, the McLeans have written for didgeridoo, the wind instrument created by Australia's indigenous peoples. The spokes of a bicycle wheel are bowed and struck with dampers in On Wings of Song, which also gives wonderful prominence to the pre-recorded "voices" of mosquitoes and bees. Even ancient glacial rocks are found to be highly musical; they are struck with mallets in Earth Music.

Lest the impression be given that this is New Age music for softy-eared tree-huggers, I need to say that the McLeans don't seem to feel any obligation to make traditionally pretty noises. This is not music to be lulled by or to fall asleep to. I admit that one afternoon I tried dozing off to one of these CDs, and woke up startled by the challenging sounds that were coming out of my speakers: did my house need an exorcism? Again and again, The McLean Mix comes up with awesome sounds and textures - and I mean "awesome" quite literally. Even though this is modern music that places communication with a non-specialist audience high on its agenda, listeners will get no free rides from it. They'll have to put aside their prejudices and hear it for what it is.

These discs have a refreshingly homemade quality that is in tune with the music that they contain; they are professional but hardly slick. The recordings - some of them in concert settings -- were made over decades and in many different locations. Nevertheless, the four programs hold together, and the engineering is just fine. If I were to pick just one (and I'm glad I don't have to), I would choose Capstone CPS-8637, which bears the title "The Electric Performer." It strikes me as being the most representative of the four.

Raymond Tuttle

Permission for copying and use in normal university class work granted.