In Conversation with Priscilla McLean



Priscilla McLean

  • READ an excerpt from Hanging Off the Edge: Revelations of a Modern Troubadour by Priscilla McLean.

    Molly Sheridan: Much of Hanging Off the Edge actually takes the form of journal entries from your touring life. Have you always kept diaries?

    Priscilla McLean: Yes, actually, my mother kept diaries and she started me when I was nine. Throughout my life until about 1980 I would do it sporadically, one year here, one year there. Then, in about 1980, I started keeping them every year. Once we got touring, it was a way to remember who we met on tour and what they played and where we were. This became a sort of memory bank for me.

    The book was written over a span of 12 years. The first section was done in 1993 right after the tour ended, the tour that I write about in the beginning. I wrote that whole section, on my background and so on, and then I just stopped writing for a few years.

    MS: Why?

    PM: Why? Because I’m not a writer, I’m a composer, and we tour for a living so we have to keep writing [music]. Also, I lacked the self-confidence that anyone would care what I thought or that I could write well enough to make anybody interested. And actually, I didn’t know it at the time, but also because I hadn’t lived enough to write a good book yet. That came after we moved to New York and had toured all over the world, then there were more experiences to write about.

    MS: What finally gave you the self-confidence you needed?

    PM: When I got to the second section, I just worked at it and finished it, and then I applied to the MacDowell Colony. I’ve been there five times—[my husband] Bart and I usually go together—but this time I applied not as a composer but as a writer, so I could work on the part of the book about my pieces which I really needed total concentration for, and they accepted me! And because I was competing with all the other writers that was like, wow, they think I’m a writer. While I was there, I had 20 journals all over the piano, and without the journals I would have never made it. I think that’s why composers don’t write autobiographies, or why most people don’t—you can’t remember clearly what happened. Your mind, after 20 years or so, it gets hazier and hazier.

    MS: Who did you write this book for? What are you hoping readers take away from it?

    PM: It took me a long time to decide that and [my husband] Bart kept asking me, “Who are you writing this for? Are you writing it for the bookstore people, the library people, the musicians?” For a long time I wasn’t sure; I was just writing it. I felt I just had to get it down on paper the way I felt it, my point of view, which ran under heavy opposition from friends and family who said, “You’re not writing like a learned professor.” I was a professor, but I’m this whole human being and I need to write about the whole person, not just the composer or the video artist or the performer. I’m this whole person who’s had a whole life, and that’s the way I approached it. So after I wrote it all I got a couple of readers locally and one of the women said, “This book does not have any direction. Who are you writing it for? You need to describe yourself and point everything to why this made you do what you do. Why are you describing this event?—Because it formed a kind of character that made you into a composer or performer.” So I went through the entire book, and I looked at it from that point of view and eliminated a lot of material. Hopefully it’s now a much more directed book and the people who would be interested can grasp hold of it and see why things are written the way they are.

    MS: You also point out in your introduction that there aren’t many autobiographies of women composers.

    PM: Yes, well, it’s a problem. How do you find the time to write a book—it’s out of your field, no one is probably going to pay you for it, and who’s going to be interested? It’s hard enough just to be a composer and face those problems. And everybody feels like they’re an expert on books because they all read books, whereas music, it just dazzles them to think you’re writing music. Music?! That’s usually as far as it goes, but a book, people actually read books. And I’ve actually had people read the book and get interested in the music. That’s why I put links to the music that’s in there so they could hear it, and they thanked me for it because they’ve said they’ve learned a lot this way.

    MS: And I thought it was also very telling that there just weren’t many women for you to look to when you were becoming a composer.

    PM: That’s true, especially when I was younger. It’s an isolated life, and there’re very few women. It’s a rare circumstance when I actually get to be familiar with another woman composer. Back when I was 20, the history books had no women composers in them—hardly any contemporary composers, and they would all be male. For a long time you didn’t even know any women who did it—you thought you were a freak. But you felt kind if proud of it, like wow, look at me, I’m a freak. But it didn’t do a whole lot for your self-confidence.

    MS: Even in the opening of the book, you talk about how you came from probably one of the worst cultural and educational backgrounds of any classical composer. Can you outline a little of what you meant by that?

    PM: From my vast experience traveling around, most composers who commit to writing classical music, new music, whatever you want to call it, have some sort of background in the arts and in education. So their parents may be professors or they have a mentor in their background who wants them to go into the arts. Today it’s crazy, you’ve got the computer and videos and television. I had nothing—none of those things. We were nomads, one year here, one year there. We didn’t even have furniture; we just moved into a furnished apartment and used whatever was there. Usually a person who comes out of that kind of background goes into popular music or folk music, because classical music takes so much time and money. It takes a lot of money to become educated and become a classical music composer beyond what you can do yourself. I think that’s the main reason that the field spons people who already have some kind of educational background.

    MS: Right. But you did it anyway.

    PM: I did. [laughs] I know. It was just something I couldn’t stop. As soon as I started learning how to play the piano, I did write a couple of tunes, but I started picking up on any classical music that happened in the high school chorus and was immediately drawn to it and started trying to write it. It gave me much more satisfaction than doing popular music. It was just much more complex, puzzling, exciting, and spiritually satisfying.

    MS: You spend much of the book discussing your experiences touring all over the country. This is a very different perspective from what most composers have. What’s striking to you about how things have changed?

    PM: Well, of course, I was the other type of composer, too, and continued being that type even while I was touring. But I discovered I couldn’t teach and compose at the same time. When I taught in college, that’s all I did. Then, when the summer came, then I became a composer. I really, really didn’t like that because I felt I’m so far behind anyway with my background, I’ll never achieve what I want to achieve if I have to teach in college and then do all this work on the side. I’m not going to be able to do a good job at it.

    Okay, how has it changed over the years? In the early ’70s, the home synthesizers came out on the market, and there was a great interest among people about this kind of music. So, in the early days, and I’m sure Mort Subotnick would tell you this, too, your audiences would be huge—way oversized for what they would be later. They were just curious and they just didn’t have all the stuff they have now to distract them away from going to concerts. When we started touring in 1974, you’d fill the hall even if they didn’t know who you were. They were interested in the idea of electronic music, or using electronics in music. But over the years, everything has gotten more complicated. Everybody’s lives have gotten filled with things to do. This is true whether it’s going to the movies or the theater or concerts. The audiences are getting smaller, and it’s not because of what I’m doing or somebody else, it’s just because people have too many choices of things to do. So I find it frustrating, of course, we all do. The ones who come to the concert are usually very enthusiastic, but sometimes they’re just exhausted. The students seem to be having to work harder and harder, and I’m finding fewer of them in the audience because they’re in night classes right through the concert time.

    What also has changed is the funding, of course. It’s drastically been reduced. So we find ourselves playing at a lot of private colleges, often religious-affiliated colleges, and not so many state schools because they just don’t have the money. We don’t ask a lot, but they just don’t have the money to hire outside groups. So those are the two shifts I’ve seen—less money and people are busier. And you’re hoping the trend will change and get better, but I’m not a particular optimist about things. I think I’m pretty realistic.

    MS: This must have been really something too, to have gone through all these experiences with your husband.

    PM: It’s really wonderful. My husband is a very unusual man. He is a wonderful composer and performer himself, and right from the beginning he’s always been totally accepting and encouraging of me and his students as well. He was in music from when he was a young child, so he’s always been directed towards music. [In the book] I do mention conflicts we have, of course. Especially in collaborations, but generally we get along very well.

    MS: I would imagine there are a lot of pros, but is there ever a moment when you look at him and think, my lord, I wish my husband was an insurance salesman?

    PM: No! Because insurance salesman are not very exciting people. We’ve been married almost 40 years and he’s exciting. How do you find an exciting man in his late 60s?

    MS: But since you’re both composers, is that ever difficult?

    PM: I think it works because we respect each other’s music so much. We only have one electronic studio, but it rarely conflicts because we have different patterns to our writing. He writes early in the morning and I write later, and I think the reason we’re so cooperative is that we both came from such wretched backgrounds. We just allow for compromising times and schedules because we’re just so glad to be able to do this.

    MS: When you were going back over all this material and these experiences, was there anything about it that you would have done differently?

    PM: I don’t think I could have done it differently. I could say I would have liked to have been a successful orchestral writer, but then I would have had to give up the touring part and the electronics and everything because that just doesn’t fit in to being an orchestral writer. And did I want to just sit and write orchestral pieces? No, it was obvious. I was leaning more and more to the touring part, less to writing “immortal” pieces, and I just decided that I had to do what makes me happy. This is the only thing that matters. I have to satisfy myself first, then if there’s an audience, they’ll be satisfied. So there’s really nothing I would have changed. I would not have even changed my background because I learned so much from it.

    I think you just kind of have to accept your life, you know. I’d like to have more money. I’d like to win those prizes that don’t usually go to people who are off the edge like we are. But I don’t think our lives would change all that much. One reason I wrote the book was to show that you don’t need a lot of money and you really don’t even need a great background to do what you want to do. You just need to propel yourself forward and do what’s in your heart. And you don’t need to write a book that is an erudite, professorial expoundation of you and your musical works. What you need to do is to tell people about the human being behind the composing, because that’s what they want to read about, and that shows them where the music is coming from.