Hanging Off the Edge: Revelations of a Modern Troubadour

Excerpts from Hanging Off the Edge, copyright 2006 by Priscilla McLean. Used with permission. Readers may purchase the book through Priscilla McLean, 55 Coon Brook Road, Petersburgh, NY 12138. Hardcover ($31.95), softcover ($21.95), and optional CD ($10). Postage and handling is $5.05. Checks or PayPal will be accepted. The book alone may be purchased through iUniverse.com or Amazon.com, and the listener may register with NewMusicJukebox.org free of charge to hear the excerpts online.

  • READ an interview with author Priscilla McLean.

    ***


    Two roads diverge
    in a yellow wood,
    A branch stems from
    the lesser-traveled one…
    A twig snakes out
    from the tiny branch,
    And hanging off the edge
    Dangle…, I—
    (Apologies to Robert Frost)

    A terrifying wolf howl splits the air in the Alpena, Michigan, high school auditorium. “Oh, Hell!” a man’s voice yells out, followed by suppressed giggling. On stage, I stare into the blackness menacingly, hissing the words of Carl Sandburg: “There is a wolf in me. Fangs pointed for tearing gashes, a red tongue for raw meat, and the hot lapping of blood…” On tape, the growl and frenetic buzz of honeybees plays along with synthesized instruments and strange musical sounds. More audience giggling is heard, and a palpable tension…

    An old memory comes to mind as I dramatize and intone the next line of the graphic Sandburg poem called “Wilderness”—an image of a snowy night in a white-spired New England church—the lit sanctuary bestrewn with Christmas decorations and a tree covered with children’s’ paper strings and balls, the pews full of heavy-coated festive people watching a trembling young school girl attempting to sing “0 Holy Night” while standing in the choir loft—my first vocal solo, my pre-adolescent voice struggling for the high notes, whispery, feathery, the patient sanctuary of parents and children smiling up benevolently, tolerantly, safely…

    The next morning in Alpena, 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…two middle-aged Babes in Toyland, playing our own musical toys, dependent upon the good-will of the world to hire us, to be interested in our strange, exotic music and message…I wonder, “How did I ever arrive at this point, from that safe choir girl of long ago, the comfortable American Dream future I had planned for myself—schoolteacher, mother, Pillar of the Community, owner of a nice suburban ranch house in New Hampshire—none of which ever came to pass?”

    It is hard, when actively creating music and art and touring full-time, to find time to examine one’s life. But perhaps the history of Alzheimer’s disease that runs through my mother’s side of my family has spurred me on to remember as much as I can while I still am able! Lao Tsu, the great Chinese philosopher who wrote The Tao Te Ching once said, “Sanity is a haircloth sheath/With a jewel underneath…”, and that is one’s core, including all those unique happenings played out in one’s life. And I am discovering that it is wonderful fun to visit these thoughts and old memories, because all of one’s moments on this earth, which includes also the pain and agony, are precious jewels that fit only our own personal belt wrapped around us, and are our gifts from life.

    ***

    Although friends and classmates were dismayed to learn that I had enrolled at Fitchburg State College instead of applying for Boston University or New England Conservatory of Music, I made it clear that I had no intention of pursuing a career in music. Indeed, I could not conceive of such an idea, knowing how expensive the tuition and fees in good New England music schools were, and with no music major alternatives offered by Massachusetts state colleges in 1959. At first I felt very disappointed in the sea-change in music programs from my very advanced high school to this college which bred school teachers, but I discovered soon enough that the not-difficult courses and few extra-curricular activities gave me special extra time to develop other skills.

    I began studying organ at the Christ Episcopal Church, which had a magnificent pipe organ and a wonderful teacher, Donald Wilcox, who also conducted the church’s boys choir. I quickly switched churches (from Universalist/Unitarian to Episcopalian), and joined the choir, as altos were needed, regardless of gender. For the next four years I walked to the Main Street church from the college, and often after studies at midnight, as I had my own key. I would unlock the totally dark church, often with Bruce Goyette, a close friend I dated who enjoyed hearing me play, and ring the rafters with the music of J .S. Bach, Mendelssohn, Guillamont, Healey Willan, and many other great composers. I felt like a mix of the Phantom of the Opera and the ghost of Bach as the dark empty church reverberated in the wee hours of the morning! The organ introduced me to a variety of tone colors and the ability to change the timbre of a melody as it was played (the cornerstone to my working with synthesizers later), plus working the pedals. Many electronic music composers-to-be have had their appetites whetted by playing the organ. Perhaps it was the effect from the magical power of the great composers, as I have never written a piece for organ to this day.

    After I had been in college for a few months, still living at home, I decided to write my first piano piece, Rhapsody in D Minor, which took me the next six months, laboriously slaving over the keys of the piano on Sundays. I had only the vaguest idea of how to craft a classical piece, and the work evolved into a kind of mélange reminiscent of extremely bad Rachmaninoff and “In a Small Hotel” sung by Frank Sinatra. My listening repertoire was confined to two piano concerto phonograph recordings—Piano Concertos # 1 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Peter Illych Tchaikovsky, and Edvard Grieg—given to me by Tim Krieger, a close friend I dated who lived in Lunenburg, the next town over. These recordings I listened to repeatedly the summer of 1960, while working on my own naive attempt.

    What is important about this episode were the incredible feelings I experienced as I composed. I had never felt such a powerful force as the intensity of creating music, and this first attempt to create a work of complex artistic quality filled me with such passion that I would lie awake nights and pray to God that the desire to compose would never leave me. Those months of writing when I was seventeen were to shape the whole rest of my life, even if I was not aware of it, and when I became aware, a few years later, I fought against this with all my strength.

    The month of June was spent being fired as a waitress at a dying hotel in York Harbor, Maine, then being hired at The Sand Dollar—a Mom and Pop diner-style restaurant directly across from York Beach, which saw me endlessly roaming the cold beach and staring off into the ocean at the rocks of Nubble Lighthouse the hours I was not working. When it mostly rained or drizzled the whole time I was there, I quit and returned home in July to bury myself in music. After the piece was finished, I eagerly showed it to a friend who was an excellent pianist, who had been the choral accompanist my last two years in high school. Susan stared at the Rhapsody distastefully and would say the most chilling words I had heard to date, ones that rang with such truth that they have never been refuted these past forty five years: “Why should I be interested in this? We pianists have enough great literature to last us all our lives. We don’t need or want this music!” I raged bitterly at her at the time, but now I know she was oh, so right…

    A compartmentalization began in my life. There was the college and its studies and social activities, and there was my secret life as a new composer and organist. After the Rhapsody, I had no idea what to do next, and I deeply felt the inadequacy of that work. So I went to the choral director, Dr. Richard Kent, a red-haired mustached man in his early forties, with his thick Iowa accent. Kindly, after looking at my music, he said, “It’s not whether the work is good or not that counts. What is important is that this is how you commune with the Greats, because you are doing the same creative activity they did. Every time you write you become one of the selected visionaries who can feel the passions of the great composers flowing through you.”

    So began the opening up of my secret life, with special private music theory and composition lessons in Dr. Kent’s small office, while he perused work I had created that week, puffing away at his powerful stogy cigar. After a few weeks he said, “Your next assignment is to write a college Alma Mater, to replace the old one we have now. Let’s get started on this right away,” and we racked our brains to plot out the special New England words that would make this a custom-made song just right for this school. This was my first compositional success. Easily sung and in the style of Alma Maters of the day, it was premiered by the college chorus in 1961, and to this day is being sung at FSC’s graduation and other ceremonies, over four decades later.

    A very comfortable life ensued through my junior year. I balanced my hours of study and classes every day with organ practice and writing poetry far into the night. On weekends, when I was not skiing or running off to dances or parties with boyfriends, I was working on my theory or composing, although my compositional efforts declined greatly after the first big piece. Summers I earned money waitressing or working in stores for the ridiculously low tuition, now up to $100 per year. I read literature voraciously. In fact, I did everything but think of the future. I was so content in my coiffured custom-made world that it never dawned on me that soon I would be thrust into a classroom and expected to teach all subjects to runny-nosed noisy little children who cared not a whit about my compositional efforts!

    The first semester of my senior year at Fitchburg State was spent in student teaching, split up between two different elementary schools, which were part of the college’s training program. Although I somewhat enjoyed the teaching—consuming all my time—the frustration with this life was building inexorably. I finished the term and received an A, but I knew now that my next step was to graduate and “get thee to a music school!” When I sat down with my parents and with trepidation told them my decision, thinking that they would be aggravated, having seen me through almost four years of college (going in the wrong direction), they both looked relieved. “What took you so long?” was their question in chorus. They had known for years that I needed to pursue music training, but had patiently waited for me to decide for myself. Years later I would feel the pride of having propelled myself forward with no parental pushing, and found that my ambitions were fueled greatly by the wise restraint my parents had shown, letting me grow up and become my own person and make my own way, with their ultimate blessing.

    Perhaps I have given the impression that I was a nose-in-book indefatigable student who basically studied, student-taught, practiced on the organ, and walked to and from the college those four years, but this is of course false. I was having the time of my life socially, and when I was nineteen, my junior year, I danced my way through five proms in three different colleges, with five different men. I had a happy balance between romantic boyfriends and good men friends who occasionally took me out, and at one point, after postponing yet another composition lesson with Dr. Kent, he barked in exasperation, “You know, tranquility is the mother of creativity, not endless running around!”

    But I was preening in the joy of my late-blooming womanhood, and would hear none of it. A little warning bell in my head began tinkling when I began to feel more seriously about a special boyfriend, one of the industrial arts majors. I noticed that whenever I would talk about my budding composing career, he would change the subject. At one point he said that he really wasn’t interested, that he knew he wasn’t as musically inclined as I and didn’t want to be reminded of it. I had begun writing religious music for the college chorus, and Dr. Kent wisely had the chorus “audition” each piece without committing to a performance, and I arranged the new Alma Mater for the fledgling college band. In fact, with organ practice and weekly performances with the Episcopal boys/mens’ choir, I was now spending more time on music than on schoolwork, writing on weekends and late into the night.

    About the time I had decided to continue my studies in music, Dr. Kent decided to introduce me to the Twentieth Century. It is amazing that the entire Twentieth Century has passed, and a new composer still thinks about “classical music” in 18th and 19th Century terms, like a new writer penning in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson! And that the unsuspecting young creator must be forced to address her/his own century, and then be made even more painfully aware that the rest of the society not only looks backward for classical music pleasure, but is wallowing up to the neck in popular commercial music written right up-to-date! What happens is a kind of schizophrenia—the budding composer goes inward and fashions a daydream-fairytale-accepting atmosphere gleaned from films and novels of the last century’s composers, and blinding him/herself to the real situation, feeling that all will change just as soon as enough “mature” good works are created by the new young creator. People will love the music—how can they not?

    I who came from a working class background knew firsthand the indifference of the world, which becomes magnified exponentially by the newness of the classical music. I was not interested in creating something no one wanted, but an opportunity arose that was ideal for trying out some new sounds. The Drama Department was headed by brilliant teacher and optimist Eugene Casassa, who had built one of the first area theatre-in-the-rounds in a barn on his farm on the outskirts of town and staged several plays, including new ones, each summer. Preparing to stage William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the college with the Drama Club, Mr. Casassa decided it would be nice to punctuate in-between the acts with some original music written by a student from the college, and performed by a small student ensemble. Eugene approached Dick Kent, who approached me. I was honored and flattered, and immediately wondered how to write Shakespearean music without knowing anything about music of the 16th Century…Dr. Kent gave me that look. “No, Priscilla, this is the Twentieth Century, and you must write in your own time.” So Dick handed me two books, 20th Century Harmony and 20th Century Orchestration by Vincent Persichetti, told me to read enough of each to get an idea about what and how to write, and hand him the music in a month.

    I decided, after doggedly pawing through the books on the piano, to write the wildest thing I could imagine—I would pay all of them back for this outrage! Clashing dissonances and new effects, like flute flutter tonguing, mingled bitterly with hard high notes, for Bb trumpet, flute, and piano. When I finished and presented my “horror”, Dick laughed and said, “Now you are finally acting like a composer. Welcome to the world!” The piece is still in my pile of early works, and today seems meek and naive, with more fanfare than form, but I was 100 feet tall the evenings when the trio of friends played the music before and between the acts, and my score lay in a lightened vestibule cabinet for playgoers to peruse during intermissions. I am sure the Hamlet production was also good, although I don’t remember any of it!

    ***

    Dance of Dawn

    A June morning in 1974. I awake at dawn in our South Bend country house, all the windows open, and am enveloped in waves of cardinals singing, then hoards of robins, then finally all the other birds so plentiful here amid the forests and swamps of northern Indiana countryside. The sliver of crescent moon still shines in the sky as the earth fills up with sun, and a poem is born. So began my fascination with natural sounds amid composed music, the poem written after the music.

    I.U.S.B. had just begun an experiment with creating an electronic music studio. Because of Bruce Hemingway, who was an ambitious young recording engineer in the Division of Music, the school ordered from the EMS Studios in London one of only two Synthi-100 Synthesizers in the U.S. at this time, the other one sitting disconnected in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music studio in upper Manhattan. No manual had been written for it, and the engineers at Columbia-Princeton were flummoxed on how to operate the real-time digital Synthi-256 Sequencer, the first of its kind, which would only run round and round in a tight constipated loop. Bruce figured it out, however, and had the synthesizer and sequencer up and running shortly after their arrival. The slight cloud on the horizon of this new studio was that it was not paid for: a down payment of $6,000 had been sent, which bought the sequencer, but the remaining $16,000 was held in promise as soon as the university could afford to pay. The EMS Company in London, eager to set up shop with the Synthi in America, accepted the wait, for at least a time.

    By the autumn of 1971, we were sufficiently caught up in our loan-paying that I could afford to leave full-time public school teaching, and I accepted a two-day a week position at Indiana University at Kokomo, driving the 90 miles south to teach undergraduate theory and sight-singing to about twelve students in the new-born music department. This left five days a week at home, so when the new studio at I.U.S.B. arrived, I was ready to try my hand at electronic music. By 1971 we had begun our own home studio, purchasing from Boston a new Arp 2600 Synthesizer and three reel-to-reel tape recorders: two two-channel half-track Revoxes and a four-channel quarter-track Sony, and borrowing from the college a small Synthi AKS Synthesizer—an update of the EMS Putney, with a ribbon keyboard and 256-note real-time sequencer.

    Just before the I.U.S.B. studio arrived, I went into our little home studio and in a frenzy of complete joy and froth, created a chamber electronic piece, and recorded it, all in one day! I neglected to write down how I had gotten the sounds, however, and the analog synthesizers of the day had no exact settings. This made for an impossible situation, without any diagrams, of reproducing the same sound later or the movement between sounds. So when I went back to the studio, the piece naturally needed fleshing out and revising, and I had no idea how to re-create the sounds. It took two more months to discover how to do this, and a little six-minute piece was born, Night Images. I also wrote a poem for this one:

    What are in the images of the night’s eye?
    some drift by clearly, focused, lucid.
    Others are mere phantoms, vaporous ghosts
    that wander in the half-sensed twilight.
    The night belies and jests with reality—
    a cosmos apart.

    Bart went first to learn the new Synthi-100 at the university, with help from Bruce, and convinced me to try my hand at it. I was very leery of my ability with no manual, but he was adamant that this was an imponant step into the future of new music. Although I had written for various ensembles in the small music department, our performance opportunities were limited, and one had the feeling that another new piece in an old medium was just more unwanted baggage for the performers, involved so deeply with the Past Masters…

    When Bart introduced me to the new studio, I stared unbelievingly—here was a huge synthesizer, along a whole wall, with hundreds of “push-pins” (a matrix setup for connecting sounds, rather than the old patch cords), and twenty-two oscillators! Next to it on the right side stood a four-channel Scully reel-to-reel tape recorder with half-inch-wide tape, and next to that was a gigantic eight-channel Scully tape recorder with one-inch-wide tape. It could almost have been an upright piano! When I compare this monster machine with the tiny DA T (digital audio tape recorder) of today, I am floored—how quickly our tech civilization has evolved! Vastly better and tinier. Astounding.

    The Synthi-256 Sequencer was a full-sized keyboard, standing alone diagonally to the analog synthesizer, but connected internally. Bart handed me a long sheet he had written, an abbreviated “manual” to get me started, and I was supposed to begin with the first instructions and methodically proceed down the list, learning the techniques of sound-alteration through analog synthesis. So I began with #1. After ten minutes, I grew so fascinated with the sounds I was creating that I abandoned the sheet, and immediately launched into a new piece, using all twenty-two oscillators in a mass-sound event, ala lannis Xenakis, my mentor. I ran around the matrix board, gleefully pushing and pulling the pins, altering the sounds and connections in wonderfully mysterious ways until it built to a huge climax.

    My approach to electronic music has always been this total frenzy of joy. I don’t know why. The computer age has been harder to handle for me, because I am not a calculating-kind of person, but now with the sampling instruments paralleling the old analog days of musique concrete, I am again happily playing. I love creating new sounds and exploring new sound-worlds, and now in my pre-dotage am doing the same with video images and loving that, also.

    Bart was appalled at my unscientific approach, discarding his “manual”! He warned me that I would always lag behind every composer in the field if l didn’t learn the basics of electronic sound production. So whenever we went anywhere he would drill me, “OK. How is ring modulation produced? What happens if you modulate a square wave with a low-frequency sine wave, modifying its amplitude?” Etc. etc. We would be driving to the Chicago Symphony concerts, an hour-and-a-half away, and tears would be blurring my vision of the road as I drove and struggled to visualize these techniques. He was relentless. I was not going to be an ignoramus! I fought him internally. Couldn’t I be excused from all this? After all, I was playing with dolls when I was seven—not taking apart radios!

    So we three—Bruce, Bart, and l—worked all our spare time, alternating with each other, in the I.U.S.B. Studio. Bruce would work all night, and drag home at 5 a.m. to grab a couple of hours sleep before his workday. Bart would arrive at 7, on the days he didn’t work. Two or three days a week I had the studio to myself—there were no classes yet, as there were no interested students yet, and the studio could be whisked away to England any day for lack of payment, thus no courses were scheduled. So I spent whole days there, sometimes 22 hours long, working and working to get just the right sound-combinations and record them.

    In that studio with the giant machines, one raced from one end of the room to another to play and record the sounds, never sitting down, and in removing unwanted noise or editing out a recorded section, the composer had to take a metal splicing block and sharp razor blade, and pressing down very hard, cut through the 1-inch wide acetate tape in two places, remove the unwanted time segment, and rejoin the two remaining ends with special splicing tape. Vladimir Ussachevsky and many earlier composers created whole pieces using hundreds of splices in abrupt collages, using the medium of splicing as its own art form. I was content to use it as sparingly as possible. A few years later saw electronic splicing supplanting this arduous process, and it is used only as a teaching tool in some colleges these days.

    In January of 1974, during a bitter cold below-zero spell, the power supply for the Synthi-100 failed. I desperately wanted to continue working, and brainstormed with Bart and Bruce on how to get the synthesizer up and running again, since the power supply had to be removed and taken to a repair dealer in town, not to return for a few weeks. They came up with an ingenious method: twelve automobile batteries wired in parallel, enough to run the synthesizer at least for a few hours a day. So for the next two weeks, a surrealistic scenario evolved—a late twentieth-century state-of-the-art music synthesizer enveloped in an industrial hum of its twelve car-battery power supply, lying in a great line in back of the instrument, an artistic installation all its own! I would enter the room at midmorning, turn on the batteries and power, busy myself for a half-hour until the power rose to correct pitch-level in the synthesizer, then begin my day’s work. Around noon, I would notice that my oscillator pitches were wavering, and descending in pitch, and shut down the equipment, so the batteries could regenerate and run again for a few more hours in the afternoon. Many mornings I would be so eager to start that I would stand over the huffing batteries, cursing them and making impotent fists in the air.

    The first concert of electronic music ever presented at I.U.S.B. came during the autumn of 1973 and featured Bart’s first major electronic piece, Genesis my short Night Images and Mandala by Bruce Hemingway. Mandala used two sound waves vibrating close together, which produced beautiful lissajous animations on film. The audience and I were thunderstruck by Bart’s piece, played in the dark, with huge dramatic sweeps of sound, with discernible melodies and harmonies. Later played in the municipal auditorium in Akron, Ohio, Genesis was praised by John Von Rhein of the Akron Beacon Journal as a “minor masterpiece” (strange contradiction of terms).

    Dance of Dawn took a year and a half to create. During the summer of 1973, after working continuously on the piece for months, I took a short vacation with Bart—a ten-day canoe-backpacking trip along the lakes of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. To our happy surprise, we were treated to a volley of loons singing from lake to lake. At sunset I would sit on a rock and sing with them, often getting them started on their nightly jamboree. One dawn, after a tremendous drenching thunderstorm that lasted all night and left us exhausted and sleepless, the noise stopped and in the brief silence started the most sanguine chorus of voices I had ever heard. I knew this had to be the ending of my piece. The “loon” chorus, made up of sine and triangle waves (no musique concrete in this piece) became a focal point of the piece, triggering the beginnings of new sections, and ending the piece after a drum-like rolling section, on four channels of loudspeakers (“thunderstorm”), with a slowly building chorus of “loons” which gradually die away into silence.

    Dance of Dawn is not a programmatic piece. I did not intend to imitate loons or thunder. The thunder-like sounds happened unconsciously, and I was after the ululative quality of the loon singing, using cascading sine waves on the sequencer, controlled by finger pressure on the keyboard.

    To explain my way of creating, I wrote an article entitled Fire & Ice: A Query which describes combining an abstract sound with an imageric one to become “imago-abstract”, a multilayered musical idea possible today with the new technology. Also featured are diagrams of Dance of Dawn. The article appeared in Perspectives of New Music, Fall/Winter Issue, 1977, and later became a chapter in Robin Heifitz’s book “On the Wires of Our Nerves”.

    On the CRI Recording of Dance of Dawn that came out a year after the piece was finished, I wrote these liner notes for those who wanted to understand the piece better (the lead words stem from the poem):

    Lifenoises: An alteration and subtle change of motivic ideas propels the work, beginning with string-like minor seconds, gradually coalescing into a repeated rhythm which then separates itself by silences and slowly widening intervals (the interval of a second is a major cohesive factor throughout the work).

    Thunderous: Rhythmic propulsion, distilled from the early percussive sounds, gains strength by the second half of the work. Highly filtered ‘jew’s harp’ sonorities (beginning 13 minutes into the piece) and marimba-like qualities combine and invade the returned string-like fabric until shattering cross-rhythms and brittle timbres explode into a panning effect of violent drum-like (timpani) rolls.

    Sun Rolling: An evocative melody of undulating character keeps recurring in different guises, usually at or immediately after structural climaxes. This melody, altered, becomes a polyphonic ‘choir’ of sounds approximately one third of the way into the piece, eventually fusing with clanging repeated tones and rhythms in a section of dense polyphony.

    Leers White Light: Emerging from the beginning texture is a static chord-cluster, structured from previous sonorities, which recedes and reappears at key temporal locations. At times this becomes a ring-modulated chord gradually fluctuating and subtly changing, occurring as the antithesis to previous ‘chaotic’ and complex sections. These areas of stasis are the peace, the philosophical reflection, the calm that accepts and sorts the ‘senseful’ experience into a coherent intention; the transparent white light.”

    In June of 1974 I was approaching the end of the piece. Word was sent by Bruce Hemingway that the EMS Company in London was tired of waiting for that next payment of $16,000 from the university for the Synthi-100, and had decided to send over a crew to take out the studio and ship it back to England. They would be here in three weeks. I dropped everything else and virtually lived in the studio day and night to finish the piece, because otherwise I had no way of producing the same sounds, and two years of work would have been aborted!

    The last day, I was recording the final sounds when in walked the men, ready to roll it all away. I begged and pleaded for one more day, to polish up the ending, and they kindly agreed. By midnight I had finished everything, my spirit and body numb to the core. This was the last large synthesizer I ever had the opportunity to work with. Perhaps my style might have been different if I had not been forced to return to found-sounds for the brunt of my material over the years. On the other hand, perhaps it would not have been so original and unusual, or even nature-oriented. One will never know.