Barton McLean

One of the great problems with music is that there is so much of it! One can spend a lifetime exploring the type known as ‘rock’, and still not plumb its depths. All the while, other genres plough onward, many heard by little more than a few niche enthusiasts, and yet generating riches beyond one’s wildest dreams. This is why I cannot accept the sometimes postulated opinion that music – whatever ‘music’ may be – is somehow in decline at this time. It is not so.

One of these little-heard genres is the music of the so-called ‘serious’ composer of today, often associated with a university and deriving much of his or her income through a tenured (or not) teaching position. Some compose prolifically, some hardly at all. Some push hard for publication, performance and commercial recording, others less so. But even the most successful and lauded of these composers, such as Milton Babbitt, George Crumb, Charles Wuorinen, Donald Martino and others are scarcely household names and their music has been heard by few compared to those familiar with even a moderately successful rock band or a great composer of earlier times.

These thoughts all struck as I listen to a CD by Barton McLean on the CRI label called “Forgotten Shadows”. The title refers to a tape piece composed using musique concrete, electronic sound generation and manipulation techniques that is the second track on this CD. It is a wholly remarkable work. In spirit in comes close to those works of Charles Ives such as the “Holidays’ symphony or the 4th symphony where popular tunes are woven into a fiendishly complex orchestral polyphony. Here, though, the texture is less dense and the inclusion of sampled sounds gives the work a ‘realism’ that goes beyond Ives. In may ways it reminds me of the work of idiosyncratic pop composers such as Van Dyke Parks who weave complex collages of popular music styles (e.g. “Song Cycle”). But this is coming more from the ‘serious’ side of things, giving it a different feel.

But my real point here is that this work, which is easily as fine and fascinating as the best of the electronic compositions that come out of the world of rock from Pink Floyd through Radiohead and Aphex Twin, is going to be unheard by all but a miniscule fraction of the fans of those particular artists. This is a great shame.

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