- Priscilla McLean: Hanging Off the Edge—Revelations of a Modern Troubadour
I don't recall when I first met Barton and Priscilla McLean, but it was probably at a SEAMUS conference or a Bowling Green State University New Music and Art Festival. I do remember my first extensive contact with them, during a visit I arranged for the McLean Mix to Oberlin College in 1992 where their enormous creativity and inventiveness, their professional "street smarts," and their loving, collaborative relationship impressed me greatly. That residency in Oberlin and other trips, as well as life events, tour triumphs and disasters, memories of famous and not-so-famous composers, and most importantly, detailed descriptions of the genesis and completion of thirteen works by Priscilla McLean and/or the McLean Mix all appear in the gloriously jumbled autobiography Hanging Off the Edge. Though she specifically states in her preface that the text is "an attempt to illustrate the struggles of a 21st century woman to overcome probably one of the worst cultural and educational backgrounds of any classical composer," Ms. McLean's memoir is actually particularly effective because it does not just do this. Instead, its message is much more universal, serving as an intimate look into the situations and considerations of a wide swath of the creative community.
Hanging Off the Edge is in many ways comparable to the published diaries of Ned Rorem and the ten autobiographies of Dame Ethel Smyth, and also recalls the essay compilations of John Cage. The book is divided into four parts. The sections "Beginnings and Endings" and "Becoming" relate Ms. McLean's family history, her mostly impoverished girlhood and secondary education, and the roots of her relationship with husband and creative co-conspirator Barton McLean. "The Composing Life," which in this reviewer's opinion is the most valuable and enlightening portion of the book, describes the production of thirteen works for orchestra, tape, stage performance, and video as well as the genesis of the McLean Mix and the group's early history. The final section, "Dangling Thoughts," consists of a series of homages and descriptions of composers and other creative folk that the author has known, along with some thoughts on being an independent composer and a woman composer.
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What is immediately evident in both the writing style and the organization of the book is that the text is written by someone accustomed to composing with notes and not with words and for me this adds to the value of the work; in short, the writing is lyrical and musical in nature. In the [End Page 99] first two sections, Ms. McLean continually skips back and forth between past history and more recent life events, but the effect is melodic rather than disjointed due to her constant illustrations of the connections between yesterday and today. The "composing" of the third section is also lyrical in nature but with a slightly different form. Each discussion of a composition serves as a common thematic line upon which theoretical and self analyses and personal anecdotes attach themselves. The form of the final section is the weakest, a series of somewhat disjointed sections which attempt to create a "coda;" dangling thoughts, indeed.
"The Composing Life" comprises the single most important case for acquiring the text. In my opinion it is invaluable for composers of all ages and stages (from students to masters of the craft) to have insight into another's creative and generative musical process. A student will quickly relate to Ms. McLean's descriptions of her earliest pieces and the tangled web of hard work, desperate deadlines...