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By David Finkelstein | October 22, 2011

“Cries and Echoes” is an ambitious collection of four substantial works for solo instruments and electronics, composed by Priscilla McLean and performed by several accomplished musicians. The works are all accompanied by her original video collages. Her compositions eschew traditional harmony and rhythmic relationships, in favor of creating a sequence of textures and moods. Electronics and taped sounds are used to extend and modify the music, so it has a much richer, more multilayered texture than a normal instrumental solo.

The haunting “Desert Voices” uses the electronically altered sounds of the Midi Violin to create aural landscapes. The composition has an open ended structure in which layered motifs come and go at regular intervals, in the same way that the sounds of birds, wind, and water recur in a natural landscape. Clusters of high notes are layered over sounds that resemble Tibetan throat singing, and a poignant repeated melody suggests a bird cry. At one point, a complex melody is built up entirely from the harmonics of a single note. These sounds are mixed with a collage of desert wildlife sounds, wind, an Australian didgeridoo, and whispered poems in Navajo. The rhythmically free, graphic notation employed by McLean allows some personal interpretation from the player, and Jonathan Aceto dramatically realizes the sense of stark, elemental drama of a desert landscape.

The images accompanying the music are slides of the desert: bizarre rock formations, gorgeous cacti and agaves, and dramatically lit banks of clouds. The images slowly cross fade, in a sequence which makes intelligent use of similar shapes and colors. These beautiful images make a perfect accompaniment for the music. The non-developmental, cyclical nature of the music might cause one to get lost if one listened to it on its own, but combined with the images, it creates a powerful sense of the haunting spirituality of a desert.

Xakaalawe (Flowing) is another landscape piece, also quite beautiful. Charlie Tokarz plays a variety of woodwinds, augmented by McLean on voice and electronics. Long, sustained chords create a sense of spaciousness and expectation. On top, we hear textures of sparkling, discordant tones and lonely outcries. We hear a lot of flowing water. The use of whispering and the open, textural feeling will remind some listeners of George Crumb, but more with a more lush feeling. Woodwind ostinatos contribute to the overall feeling of a never-ending flow.

The images are a collage of scenes from the Rocky Mountains, showing waterfalls, pools, and grazing elk. The images are layered on top of one another in a very awkward, technically unsophisticated video montage. Despite this, the images themselves are so beautiful, and so completely at one with the mood and structure of the music, that they create an awe-inspiring sense of the power of a particular landscape.

The ‘cello solo “Cries and Echoes,” ably realized by Ronald Feldman, spends a lot of time in a mood of anxiety, with long, sliding notes layered on top of edgy tremolos of indeterminate pitch. There are also spooky arpeggios of discordant plucked notes. Occasional bowed passages create a lyrical mood of plangent longing, quoting obliquely from a Bach suite. The accompanying images are an awkwardly composed montage of Feldman playing the ‘cello, and travelling shots of the trunk of a tree. These images did not particularly enhance the music.

“Caverns of Darkness, Rings of Light” for solo tuba, expertly played by James Gourlay, was less to my personal taste. To my ear, it sounded as if McLean’s primary intention here is to explore the different kinds of sounds which a tuba is capable of making, both through “extended playing” techniques, and through electronic manipulation of sounds. I am one of those listeners who prefers music to have some kind of expressive element to it: some way in which the music seems to refer to feelings, movement, images, or some other type of human experience. Certainly the sounds in this piece are interesting, and the fact that a tubist is able to produce them is also interesting. As a listener, however, I need more than interesting sounds. I want the music to make me feel something.

The images in the video are all of the tuba itself, in an awkward and primitive style of video collage. While these images reinforce the idea that the point of the piece is to explore the tuba itself, I didn’t find that they added appreciably to my experience of the sound.

Priscilla McLean is a skilled, original composer with considerable musical gifts. As a filmmaker, however, she is clearly just beginning to find her voice. If McLean could learn to manipulate and juxtapose images with the same precision and expressiveness with which she amasses layers of sonic textures, she could create audio/visual works of great force.

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  1. Mark Bell says:

    I’ve gone through and corrected the spellings for you.

  2. Priscilla McLean says:


    I enjoyed your review (sort-of), but must correct the many misspellings of my name. It is PRISCILLA McLEAN, not Priscilla MClean or Patricia MClean. But thanks for your honest comments!

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