Soundtracks. June, 2000

Review of Forgotten Shadows

Just when you thought you heard it all before, there's always something startlingly new that lands on the desk and this month is no different. Jay Cloidt's collection of altered cat and baby sounds and disco-savvy string quartet is a good way to lighten up a potentially cynical morning. Sampler pioneer Barton McLean's Happy Days, included on a new collection of his electronic works on CRI, is also guaranteed to brighten up the room.

Fanfare, September/October 2000.

Review of Barton McLean's Forgotten Shadows

McLean Forgotten Shadows. Happy Days. Ritual of the Dawn. Linda Green (fl); E. Michael Richards (cl); Barbara DeChario (hp); Barton McLean (pn, other instruments); Keith Notrab (perc); The McLean Mix; others. CRI 846 (66:17)

The defining influence on Barton McLean's music would appear to be music boxes. The sounds of patterned notes repeated and superimposed over one another make up the substance of his music. It is most successful in the quite lovely Ritual of the Dawn, for a mixed quintet of flute, clarinet, harp, piano, and percussion. Barton's scoring, particularly in his use of pitches produced inside the body of the piano, brings the music box idea to the fore. The music makes brilliant use of the scoring possibilities within the ensemble. There are the relatively innocuous "music box" sounds, to which are sometimes added the winds. The winds themselves take up the repeated patterns, which, with their more distinctive timbres, give the music another character entirely. There are also outbursts where the music works itself up to a fine frenzy. The piece was originally intended to be the prelude to a much larger theatrical work, written in 1975, that never saw the light of day in its original form. What we have here has been revised by the composer as an independent concert work, and it is a winner.

Happy Days is scored for the duo the composer has formed with his wife, Priscilla. The McLean Mix, as it is known, perform on piano, a variety of percussion instruments, as well as an assortment of music boxes and party horns. McLean associates the piece with New Year's Eve, and it serves as the opener for the duo's current concert entitled Inside the Time Machine. Oddly enough to my ears, far from being the lighthearted piece the composer describes in his notes, I find that the work evokes the rather bittersweet nostalgia I have always associated with "Auld Lang Syne." At several points the music box, playing the famous "Carousel Waltz,' comes to the fore, with the rather pathetic sounds of the party horns in the background. The result is quite poignant. I will take the composer's word for it that in live performance the sight of Ms. McLean attempting to keep the music boxes "behaving themselves" by playing the right places provides good live performance theater.

The work that gives the collection its title, Forgotten Shadows, is a big work for tape evoking the world of rural America from the years 1900 to 1925. It harks back to the heady days of the 1960s when Stockhausen was exploring the combination of electronics, sounds recorded on location, and existing music of instant familiarity. McLean is working with something rather similar here, with the music being the parlor songs and marches of the early years of this century. In this sense the composer's relating the music to Charles Ives is reasonable, but the overall effect is very different from that of Ives. For one thing, sound sources tend to be heard one at a time or only with a fairly minimal overlay of something else, so that the result is much more linear. I don't find that it holds together at present, but I suspect that as I listen to it more and the event become more settled in my mind it will produce exactly the qualities the composer intends to evoke in his listeners.

Performances all involve the composer and are assumed to be what he wants. The recorded sound is fine, and the results are a particularly pleasant journey into what used to be the avant-guarde. -- John Story

Review of Forgotten Shadows on Classical Net

Barton McLean   Electroacoustic Music


Various performers CRI CD846 DDD 66:17

Barton McLean has an international reputation as a pioneer in electroacoustic music, both as a composer and as a performer. While he taught at major American universities, he developed a large- scale, commercially-available sequencer and sampler, and he became a noted academic in his field. However, since 1983, he and his wife, fellow electroacoustic composer/performer Priscilla McLean, have flourished outside of academia. They currently dwell in the village of Petersburgh, NY, where, as individuals and as "McLean Mix," they use their musical talents to explore environmental and cultural issues, and to experiment with the relationship between sound and sight. They seem like "just folks" – possibly the only electroacoustic composer/performers to inspire such a reaction!

The major work on this CD, Forgotten Shadows, is an "electro-surrealistic collage evoking the voices, music, and spirit of early 20th century life in two upstate New York villages," namely Petersburgh and Cincinnatus, Barton McLeanís birthplace. The work began as part of an audiovisual installation that was developed to celebrate Petersburghís history. McLean "extracted the best from the installation material, fusing it into a coherent, quasi-symphonic electroacoustic tape work." In Forgotten Voices, you will hear methods of music-making that were more common at the start of the century than at the end: fiddle, ragtime piano, musical saw, music boxes, women singing parlor songs and children singing game songs. McLean has skillfully shaped these elements into a compelling whole. The voices of older residents frame the work, alluding to disappearing landmarks, loss of community, and the acceleration of lifeís pace. While Forgotten Voices is not a tragic work, it seems regretful. In describing the original installation, McLean writes, "it seemed to evoke in visitors a feeling of communal timelessness, yet it also brought to mind the mortality of oneís own brief existence." Forgotten Voices does this very well without the visual element, and it does it less pretentiously than Gavin Bryarsí Sinking of the Titanic, a work that is not dissimilar. McLeanís work makes us feel like wistful time-travelers.

In contrast, Ritual of the Dawn was written for a real-time ensemble consisting of flutes, clarinet, harp, electric piano, and percussion. Again, McLean mentions "the transience of our existence on this earth," which will "eventually return, eons from now, to its natural state of equilibrium." The title alludes to the ceremonies of people who lived in a pre-Colombian society more than six centuries ago. Ritual of the Dawn begins and ends with the luminous pulsations of the ensemble. "Groups of performers [play] different rhythmic cells simultaneously without coordinating their beats," explains McLean, an idea that sounds vaguely minimalist, but only the outer sections of the work actually confirm that impression. The score is kaleidoscopically varied; busy but essentially peaceful activity dominates, but there are shattering, cacophonous climaxes that suggest destructive forces at work.

Happy Days was written for "McLean Mix": Barton and Priscilla McLean at their most collaborative. "It depicts the fun and wonder of the ritual New Yearís celebration," Barton McLean writes. Five music boxes, one playing "Happy Days Are Here Again," another playing "You Light Up My Life," play a prominent role, as do traditional seasonal noise-makers. These materials are enhanced with keyboards and a synthesizer. Barton McLean calls the work "lighthearted," but my ears hear something vaguely sinister afoot, particularly in his description of live performances in which his wife, in trying to coordinate the five music-boxes, "finally assumes the guise of a music box herself and ëwinds downí." Maybe I am reading too much into this!

This is a gently provocative CD, and it encourages me to hear more of the McLeans’s work. Thanks, CRI, for giving it this exposure. More about Barton and Priscilla McLean can be found at http://members.aol.com/mclmix2/index.html.

Copyright © 2000 by Raymond Tuttle.

Review of Forgotten Shadows

by International Record Review

Forgotten Shadows

Barton McLean: Ritual of the Dawn, Forgotten Shadows, Happy Days.

Linda Greene (flutes), Michael Richards (clarinet), Barbara DeChario (harp), Barton McLean (piano), Keith Notrab (percussion), Priscilla McLean (soprano), Earl Hewitt (musical Saw), Thomas Elkin (ragtime piano), Richard Blair (music boxes), Mike Eaton (fiddle), Congregational Church Choir and Congregation of Cincinnatus, NY,/Marjorie Wilbur, Fourth of July Marching Band, Cincinnatus/Alton Wilbur, The McLean Mix (Barton McLean, keyboards/party horns/sirens/flexatone; Priscilla McLean, music boxes/slide whistle/siren/party horn/clapper/woodblock/flexatone/happy apple)

CRI Emergency Music CD 846 (full price, 1 hour 6 minutes). Recorded with support from the Virgil Thompson Foundation. Producer/engineer Barton McLean. Date Autumn, 1998. Further information on Barton McLean's music can be found at http://members.aol.com/mclmix2/index.html

Barton McLean is firmly in the tradition of American innovators such as Ives, Cowell and Cage. The results he acheives are so elegantly thought through and complete in themselves that the epithet 'experimental' seems misplaced.

Now in his early sixties, McLean was a pioneer of electronic sequencing and sampling back in the 1970s and 1980s, and has subsequently pursued a successful career in electro-acoustic composition and installation with his wife Priscilla. There's a strong environmental aspect to his work, not least in Ritual of the Dawn, the only realized portion of a series of tableaux inspired by Nahuatl poetry and culture. The free-flowing, rhythmically uncoordinated writing for wind, harp, and tuned percussion briefly interrupted by more aggressive material (10'25"), vividly depicts a ceremony lost in time.

Forgotten Shadows is an ambitious (39 minutes) evocation of lost, but not irrecoverable times. The voices of senior residents from the Petersburgh, NY community frame an assemblage of music, live and recorded, from the first quarter of the twentieth century, skillfully integrated to allay any feeling of mere collage or an arbitrary sequence of aural snapshots. Like Ives, McLean is mindful to arrange his material so that repetition has the function of delayed, and so heightened, recognition in a symphonic structure. The emergence of congregational hymn-singing (17'35" and climactically from 23'53") has an effect similar to the choral outburst in Ives's Thanksgiving and Forefather's Day: a natural culmination of ideas that have shaped the musical discourse in understood, often intangible ways. The whole is a testament to a particular life and times, realized in a way that encourages repeated listening and reflection on what McLean refers to as '...a feeling of communal timelessness, yet also...the mortality of one's own brief existence'.

Happy Days is something else again: an atmospheric seasonal offering from The McLean Mix. A varied collection of instruments with new Year associations is overlaid on a backdrop of music boxes, their interlocking patterns electronically treated so as to provide an ambiance for the spontaneous celebration overhead. It completes a disc which is enjoyably thought-provoking in its explorations of sound and sense, from a musical thinker too little known on this side of the Atlantic.

---Graham Simpson

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


HOME PAGE