PRISCILLA McLEAN'S "HANGING OFF THE EDGE" — "Revelations of a Modern Troubadour"

A New Autobiography from iUniverse, Inc., "Editor's Choice":

 
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"HANGING OFF THE EDGE" — Excerpt from pp. 11-12:


"A wall of snow and wind obliterates the winding narrow dirt road leading from Petersburgh, a 200-year old ancestral Dutch village laid along two main highways, which converge on a weather-beaten out-of-business general store housed in a gray asphalt-shingled, flat roofed round two-story building, which sits daringly in the middle of the road and has been crashed into by several large trucks careening down the steep hill towards Williamstown, Massachusetts, just over the Taconic Mountains to the east of town. Turning left from the store is a small street with leaning ancient narrow houses resembling Yorkshire, England except for their wooden rather than stone exteriors. The road winds over a small stone bridge overhanging a boulder-strewn rushing mountain stream, and continues left up a long steep Hill Hollow Road, which at the present moment looks more like a lost cattle path in Alaska, the surrounding wall of mountains whitely glaring down on the cold huddling New England farmhouses and their centuries-old red barns.

"After two miles the unfortunate traveler will come to a strange sight—two parka clad grim people carrying a parade of gray metal boxes, suitcases, and weirdly shaped objects covered in plastic, and stuffing them into a ridiculously small gray Honda wagon, which sits like a vulture, all wings extended, gathering for flight. The Nor'easter whaps another blinding swirl of zero-degree snow against the carnival, as the two figures frantically scramble to fill the car from floor to ceiling, the seats in the back removed for more space. Words as blue as their faces are ejected as they sweep out the intruding snow, which cares not a whit about electronics, autos, or silly people who dare to plan cross-country tours from this God-forsaken piece of earth deep in the bowels of New York State! The neighbors, who are stoking their wood stoves at this minute and wondering why they have not yet moved to Florida, have given up commiserating about this sad nomadic band, and have long-since congratulated themselves on never having had to feel the poisonous urge to create music and to drag it annually all over the place, sometimes even further into the evil grasp of Winter's fingers...


***

"I have wondered for years why a non-commercial artist does what (s)he does, that is, create a work that does not function in the practical world, and not only entertains but also stirs something in the soul as well as intellect. A composer is even a greater mystery—why compose black dots or wiggles on paper (or on a computer), to be translated into sound by either an acoustic or an electronic instrument (if the composer is fortunate enough to cajole a performer to give up his (her) scarce time to commit such an act), and then listened to. Often there is a solid reason, such as a residency with an orchestra or as musical director with a dance troupe, which involves a salary or commission and has a definite performance as the end result, with paying audience attending. But what about the composer who writes with only a faint hope of a future performance, with no commission or obvious external stimulus? This extends also to the creator of electronic sound, who may have no opportunities for it to be heard past a few friends, quietly-suffering family, and colleagues, and then to have the piece sit unperformed and unheard for several years or forever after? This is not a rare occurrence. Every composer I know has written music like this. But why?

"Several years ago at a music conference, some composers were asked by Ev Grimes, radio announcer at the University of Kansas, why they composed. Karl Korte of Austin, Texas, said, "It seems ridiculous in this mercantile society, but somebody has to do it." The most interesting answer was by Canadian composer Murray Schafer. He stated, "Because if I didn't compose, I would—die." How astounding that is—why die over something that isn't wanted, has no use, gains little money, and is actually shunned by most of society? Why do we compose?

"Answering for myself, I compose to visit a sacred space inside me that opens into a special enchantment, that shares for a few flawed moments the feeling of the original Creation, of something beautiful culled from diffuseness. Carl Sandburg reached his "archangels" through his "invisible chariots", the poems that ride him up to the "tall sky" as he wrote: "I have seen these chariots. So have you, or you have missed something...We are riders of chosen chariots..."

"His poem 'The Isle of Patmos' from which I just quoted, inspired my second large electronic work "Invisible Chariots", as I rode my inner musical ideas, flying in the sky, not knowing where they were going next, but holding on for dear life and relishing the ride! A composer must deeply trust her(his) own inner unexpressed direction, helped along by the intensive training and musical discipline of her lifetime.

"If I did not compose, I would live, but sadly and with little vigor, and eventually I would end my grieving and would be intensely into creating something else—art, poetry, photography, video—because I am a chameleon at heart. The soul can be accessed in many ways, by many mirrors, but my clearest and happiest mirror right now is music."

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EXCERPT from Section ONE, pp. 59-61, Tuesday, March 23, 1993:

Only one week to go on our tour! To wile away the endless hours of driving from Utah to Chicago, I write out a parody of the famous circles of Hell described in Dante's "Inferno", which I label "McDantLean's Touring Inferno Revisited":

First Circle (describing the tortured creatures who inhabit the different circles that ring the cavern to Hell): The Opportunists. Here you see glazed-eyed unshaven touring artists that look suspiciously like Barton McLean, who are driven to insensibility by scheduling tours to please everyone's schedule, so they race across Indiana four times, back and forth to Chicago twice, up to Michigan, down to Indianapolis, up to Ontario (this folly got dropped—it was too much: we call from Oberlin Conservatory of Music to apologize and explain we are having "car trouble", but it is only map trouble), etc. etc. I hope parties are listening...

Second Circle: The Crowds from Hell—snowy reveling New Years First Nighters clutching drinks, or lines of eager & impatient Earth Day Festival-goers, all eager and grasping, all elbowing each other to reach the synths and microphones, hour after raucous hour while we are too busy to find food... We waste away along with our equipment, worn down to nothing (substitute lines of school children from buses when appropriate...)

Third Circle: The Truth. Instead of Wasting Away, we have eaten in so many restaurants and at special lunches and dinners, we are now lumbering flaccid sloths, perpetually smiling (and burping) and bulging, on and on to the next greasy meal and late night munchies...

Fourth Circle: Here lie composers with ground-down teeth and worn-away ears, perpetually having to listen to their own music, forever and ever. John Cage once told us, "The only bad thing about being a composer is having to listen to your own music over and over!" When at the 1982 North American Music Festival in Buffalo, NY, the university had scheduled a five-hour concert of Cage's works, John looked horrified and said plaintively, "Why would anyone want to listen to my music for five hours?"

Of course, next to these composers sulk the ones with over-large underused ears, who wait eternally for someone to perform their music so they can finally enjoy the fruits of so much creative labor. Having been both people, I prefer the worn-out kind, that is, if the music heard over and over is not a piece you wished you had never written...

Fifth Circle: Those very enthusiastic people (and this part is a blessing) who come up to a composer after a heartfelt serious concert of works created in the heat of spiritual and intellectual ecstasy, and expound with great revelation, as if this were the first time anyone had ever thought of this idea, "Have you ever tried film scoring for horror or sci-fi movies? We heard some music the other night on TV that reminded us of your style..."

Sixth Circle: The, usually young and male, Technicians of the Future, who are always lingering nearby, cooing casually: "Oh, are you still using slide projectors? And only two? Why, we have used as many as a dozen in tandem, but that of course was years ago, since it's a terribly old technology...No one uses them anymore! Haven't you tried Video yet? Why, it's much (pick one: smaller, easier, more up-to-date, more elegant, interesting, etc.)

Later, when we include a new video on our concerts, "Oh—video—again? Everyone's doing that, aren't they? Well, here we have a special engineer who has been producing wonderful laser disk images on CDs, with multiple screens"...or "tape music? We never do that anymore. Have you tried the [insert latest invention here] for really fascinating live performance?"

Seventh Circle: Dante declares the beasts of nature to be the lowest circle in the Inferno, but, ah...here is where we disagree...Perhaps this level is the Circle of Mirrors, where we truly see ourselves, inside and out, stripped of all pretense, all illusions taken away, the Artist revealed, like dreams I have had of being out on stage with no music, no tech equipment, and no preparation, standing in front of a paying audience trying to remember a scrap of music to improvise on while the spotlight beats down...

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EXCERPT from Section TWO, p. 81, Sunday, May 3, 1981 at Gottfried-Willem Raes and Moniek Darge's house, Ghent, Belgium:


We meet Moniek Darge, Godfried's tall, willowy wife. The two of them also perform internationally, Moniek playing the violin and contributing poetry while Godfried composes and plays his wonderful instruments. After sharing tea together, it is time to prepare for our performance in the basement of his home, where he has set up about thirty seats around a cleared area where a grand piano sits. He holds over 300 concerts a year in this space, featuring artists from all over the world—a completely unbelievable schedule of almost a performance every night! I wonder who comes to this perpetual flood of concerts, and all new art music— Hmm. That warning bell is ringing again...

We dress, warm up, and enter the stage to see... six people, including Godfried and Moniek, all of whom are smoking in this small, airless basement room. I sing the first piece, "Mysteries from the Ancient Nahuatl", and find myself gagging on the dense smoke, the audience only five feet away and puffing merrily. At the end of the last piece, Bart's "Dimensions 8 for Piano and Tape", it begins to pour outside, and the sound of the pounding rain on the metal roof tiles blends in with the taped bird calls, creating a rainforest-like atmosphere and an enchanting end to Bart's impressionistic nature piece. We are all thrilled, and try to forget that there are only four people in the audience who came voluntarily... Soon we are returning to Antwerp on the train, having been to one of the most famous cities in Europe, which houses the famous Ghent Altarpiece in the Gothic Cathedral, and not having seen it or the church... Ah, the life of the roving musician!

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EXCERPT from Section FOUR, P. 258, "To Borneo With Love", Kubah National Park, Sarawak:


The first night there, just before the next day's hike just described, we were strolling in the jungle not too far from the guest houses, where there were several giant virgin dipterocarp trees, and many birds singing. It was turning to dusk, and just as we were wrapping up our recording of the birds and getting ready to pick up our equipment before total darkness, an incredible, totally unexpected event occurred.

From far in the jungle, marching towards us, was a sound like a heavenly choir singing. We stood in the now total darkness mesmerized as the voices came closer and closer. The nearer the sounds, the more strident they became, but all were simultaneously singing the same phrase, on the same pitch, as if with a conductor! Within a few minutes, the mysterious voices were on every tree throughout the forest, and the sound was overwhelming, the jungle singing as if its heart would break (did it know how rare these virgin stands of giant trees are anymore?). I could hardly keep from weeping myself, being completely emotionally overwhelmed.

After a while another group of voices entered with different "music", and another, until a symphony of rich singers, singing in harmony, filled the fetid night air. It was the single-most profound nature music experience of my life, and we recorded it as best we could, in the vast amphitheater that is the jungle. Later when we returned to our lodgings, we were told that these singers were special black mountain cicadas, only found in the highland virgin dipterocarp jungle. When we were back at the university, I read that the tribal people greatly fear these voices, which they believe are the calls of their dead ancestors who are on the prowl to snatch living souls to carry to the (dreaded) afterworld, and the tribes-people will run away terrified from these sounds. However, times have changed since this book was written...

When we finally presented our finished composition to the university, a Kayan tribal woman, Dianne, who was a graduate student, came up and thanked us for a "wonderful experience" with the cicadas, reminding her of coming home from playing in the rice fields near her working parents, when the tribe walked through the twilight to the cicadas' music. The old fears are now only ancient pre-Christian myths, but I wonder, remembering that incredible spiritual power I felt in that jungle that very special evening in 1996...

Nature has been a very important companion in my music and art. I gave up decades ago trying to deny it and compose only "pure" music. I realized that the voices of the natural world and ours are in harmony, and we need to stop shutting out the rest of ourselves, who live outside of our little human abodes. When we finally accept who we are, we will become whole, and our music and all our arts will be immeasurably richer.

"The next morning in Alpena, Michigan, lying exhausted in bed in yet another strange (but oh so familiar) motel room, I think about my life—our lives, Bart's and mine. Touring from town to town—no health insurance, no steady jobs, no children, no insurance of any kind against the dark forces in the world..."

Hanging Off the Edge is an extraordinary journey into the mind and life of one of America's most creative women, Priscilla McLean. McLean shares her precarious cliff-edge existence as a classical avant-garde troubadour and the day-by-day tour of the world through Europe, Asia, and Australia. She also writes of her touching story, from growing up in a middle-class family fallen on hard times during World War II to her seemingly settled life as a college professor's wife. McLean's quotes from her extensive journals, kept over a twenty-five-year span of time, give an immediacy and poignancy to "Hanging Off the Edge."
Mingled with these memories are original short poems, philosophical thoughts on the artist's life, and a whole section where McLean explores how, over the span of thirty-five years, thirteen special musical creations were born and placed before the world. Excerpts of these 13 pieces can be listened to on the American Music Center website (enter Priscilla McLean in the search window)  -- or,  a special made-to-order CD can be purchased from Priscilla McLean, 55 Coon Brook Rd., Petersburgh, NY 12138. (Phone- (518) 658 3595).  All versions of the book are available from the author (composer).  The CD is ONLY available from the composer. We accept purchase orders, Paypal (including credit cards through Paypal), and personal checks. Personal checks must be received before the items can be sent out.  All payments must be made in US dollars. For foreign purchases, Paypal is recommended.
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Priscilla was recently featured in the American Music Center's "NewMusic Box"  with an extensive interview and some more excerpts.  

HANGING OFF THE EDGE -- PRICES:

SOFT COVER:  $21.95.  HARDCOVER:  $31.95.  CD: $10.  P & H:  $5 (USA)

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