Composer, performer, reviewer, writer, Barton McLean has studied composition with Henry Cowell, performed on double bass in jazz ensembles and the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Orchestra, taught music composition and theory at Indiana University, and directed the Electronic Music Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1974, he began touring as the McLean Mix, performing electro-acoustic music with fellow composer Priscilla Taylor. We caught up with him to ask about his newest piece, which he composed in Kyma using his “Melodic Sculptor” technique.


Thanks for speaking with us, Bart! Your recent work, Illusions, true to its name, sometimes conveys the “illusion” of an acoustic ensemble in a physical space. Yet, on careful listening one hears moments of “physical impossibility” achievable only through synthesis or electronic manipulation. I assume this is at least one of the “Illusions” referred to by the title. But in the notes, you go further to say that “In the larger sense, every time a work of art or a musical composition is created, an illusion of reality accompanies it…” which reminds me of a quote attributed to Einstein that “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Can you comment further on this idea?

I would turn Einstein’s famous quote on its head; an illusion IS reality. For example, Modal realism is the view, notably propounded by David Kellogg Lewis, that all possible worlds are as real as the actual world. In short: the actual world is regarded as merely one among an infinite set of logically possible worlds, some “nearer” to the actual world and some more remote. In music and art we do actually create our own illusion-reality, which, when perceived by others, is a reality to them as well, albeit one tempered by their own experiences. Perhaps that’s why music is such a powerfully emotion-engaging art.

I hear “Illusions” as a kind of sonic ‘curiosity cabinet’ with many doors, each opening into a different space with its own color and atmosphere—some playful, some melancholy, some ominous, and all intriguing! Did you name the individual sections?

I chose the five section titles from Priscilla McLean‘s poem (see below):   (Golden, Dreamy, Colder, Music, Fantasy).

The illusion of summer flashes in the mist
of a golden morning, keeping fantasy alive
through dark, colder times, evoking the
dream of flowers and music.

One of my objectives was to make each of the five sections as different as possible (which, as it so happens also highlights the scope of multiple possibilities that Kyma has to offer. With the thousands of individual Sounds that I’ve created and collected over seven years of working with Kyma, I had much to choose from).

What is the connection between the music and the visuals in the video?

The visuals were created by my co-collaborator in this work, composer and media artist Stephen Dankner, who generously opened his library of fractal-generated visuals for my choosing. These visuals share my own concept of creating work which engages the emotional response of a live audio or visual experience but yet has its own set of perception parameters which go beyond what can be achieved by merely representational art or live performance. Is it or is it electronic? Hard to tell, but why would anyone care? Just relax and absorb the emotional responses.

Can you talk a little bit more about your “Melodic Sculptor” technique and how you use it to create these hybrid physical/acoustic/imaginary spaces and worlds?

My Melodic Sculptor takes an existing melodic line and scrambles it in an unprecedented variety of controllable ways. For the raw material, I begin with an improvisatory sample — jazz lick or contemporary extemporaneous single line, for instance. In the introduction to my Melodic Sculptor Tutorial (available, along with other tutorials I’ve written for the Insights magazine), I describe it in more detail:

Once sampled and converted into a spectrum sample, this is placed in a SumofSines shell to be manipulated and molded in such ways that the original may no longer be evident, instead migrating into a sea of possibilities of creation constrained only by the composer’s imagination and patience as each stage of the 16-stage StepSequencer affords a unique sound-sculpting opportunity. The basic procedure is to isolate each sequencer stage and develop it using the many parameters available here (sample start, forward or reverse sample and sequence, pitch transposition independent of sample speed, stretching sample stage time or sequence stage time, along with many random features attached to each area).

In other words, the finished melodic result can be extremely different from the original but yet retain its live-generated illusion. You can, for example, take the Star Spangled Banner and convert it into a Messiaen or Coltrane or Arnold Schoenberg-like melodic phrase. My tutorial gives examples and takes the user through each type of transformation.

How would you describe the state of being “in the flow” or in the creative flow? How do you get there? Do you have any tips or tricks that you’ve learned for staying there once you’ve gotten there? Have you set up your studio in a way to achieve or maintain an environment conducive to creative flow?

Because Kyma is so rich in possibilities and complexities, I have three* rules:

  1. I never begin a work with rigid preconceived notions of what the piece will contain. Kyma is set up most amazingly to allow for boundless discovery, and the first step should be, not to begin a Timeline and start inserting Sounds in it, but rather to set up conditions in which I can discover combinations that have never been heard or which I could never imagine. I DO NOT START A COMPOSITION YET.
  2. I first began with the Kyma Sound Library and, as I became more familiar with it, I began to develop my own stock library apart from that. These were all individual Sounds. I would take an existing Sound and try different samples. I would take a spectral Sound (SumofSines) and explore the galleries that appear when I convert an AIFF sample to spectrum, etc. I DO NOT START A COMPOSITION YET.
  3. With the Multigrid, which allows me to instantly realize all sorts of different combinations of Sounds and their relation to each other, I take these Sounds and experiment with different groupings and presets. This further expands my understanding of what works and what doesn’t. When I have developed a rich understanding of capabilities and have collected a library of Sounds and Multigrids, then I use the Multigrid as a prototype, I find combinations that seem most promising…

THEN I CAN BEGIN A COMPOSITION. It could be a Timeline, or perhaps I might want to try an improvisation work using the Multigrid only. Or, on rare occasions, I can compose a work with one Sound only, as I did in my “Dreamy” section in Illusions.

*I said there were three rules, but there’s actually one more! I DO NOT PUBLISH THE COMPOSITION UNTIL I HAVE COMPLETED RULE 4:

  1. Find someone you can trust to tell you the unvarnished truth about your work, and take to heart any criticism. Personally, my wife and fellow composer and collaborator Priscilla McLean (who also has been a professional reviewer for the Albany Times-Union, Musical America, and other publications) is my tormentor whose criticism is on the mark much of the time, presenting a viewpoint that I perhaps have not considered. By and large, much of the work I have composed since we were married (in 1967) has had to pass the “Priscilla test.” With this in mind, for every two works I finish, I will (roughly) discard one of them as being not up to my standards.

ONLY AFTER THIS REVIEW AND SUBSEQUENT REVISION WILL I PUBLISH MY COMPOSITION. As an aside, before publishing my “Illusions,” I spent a year of chasing after possibilities only to discard them as not fulfilling their initial promise. I’m reminded of the Thomas Edison quote that comes up on the front of the Pacarana — something about how his most productive activities in inventing were his failures.

Was it this one?

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. —Thomas Edison

Right, Illusions is one of my successes. But it was arrived at only after finding and discarding dozens of ways that did not work.

In the past you’ve written that “without Kyma, I probably would have quit composing a few years ago.” Do you recall why it was that you had gotten discouraged with composing at some point? And what it is about Kyma that drew you back in? (I’m reminded of Al Pacino’s famous quote from the Godfather “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”;)

Ha! My discouragement has more to do with my own creative approach, which puts often impossible demands on performers and also the current state and limitations of music notation. During my initial composing career, like most composers I wrote exclusively for traditional performers in orchestral, wind ensemble, vocal and chamber group configurations. Too often the performances just would not produce what I really wanted to say, either due to the notation limits, limits of performers’ time, or limits of the instrument itself. Particularly worrisome to me were the balances in larger ensembles, which, to my taste had to be perfect in order to satisfy my intent. And there are my own quirks as a composer, which dictate that I often need to hear something before I can write it down. And finally, the limitations of my electronic instruments from 1996-2013 increasingly did not keep up with my ideas and aspirations. (Just before switching to Kyma in 2014 my studio consisted of ARP, Ensoniq ASR-10, Yamaha TX81z, Kincaid modules, Macintosh, Alesis keyboards, 2 Korg Wavestations, 2 Prophet 2000s, etc, migrating in 2011 also to MAX/MSP as well, with an 8 track and 4 track and two 2 track decks, and using Studio Vision and other software).

With Kyma, I found that I could not only have exact control over all these limitations (instrument ranges and capabilities, balances, performer issues, and above all new sounds never heard before) but I could custom design each Sound with dozens of parameters that could then be exquisitely controlled in real time using keyframe protocols (as in video). Most remarkably with Kyma 7, the Multigrid provided an authentic way to rearrange, posit, change a group of Sounds as they work together, again speaking to my quirk of having to hear something before I enter it in a composition. For me, a whole new world of possibilities came before me—a world that I will never exhaust. To celebrate this new way of music creation, I wrote two versions of Discoveries  which present the work in video, first with its Timeline, and then with selected Sounds used in the piece diagrammed. To me, if I were forced to produce one word that most encapsulates Kyma, it would be “discoveries”.

You’ve worked as a professional composer both inside and outside of academia. What are some of the advantages and rewards of life as an independent artist? Are there any aspects of university teaching that you miss?

Our freedom from academia resulted in our 39 years of touring and reacting directly with all sort of communities — concert series, university residencies, museums, installations, etc. In all these cases we were able to interact directly with listeners on the spot— a gift unavailable to those composers who limit themselves to performing for academic audiences only, and one which we valued highly (we retired from touring in 2013). There was also the creative freedom, knowing that all we had to do was to compose our best work and the only judge would be our listener communities, not academic committees. Being a free spirit and sort-of vagabond has its drawbacks (see “bad weather”) but also brings forth a kind of kinetic energy — a “not knowing where your income is coming from next year” kind of fear plus excitement — that cannot be reproduced in academia. I did, however miss my composition and some theory students, many of whom have become lifelong friends and colleagues.

What (if any) advice would you give to a composer just starting a career in 2021?

I wish I could be more optimistic about university teaching careers today. But even in the 1970s when we graduated, the supply-demand situation for university teaching began to turn negative.  It is much worse now. And so, it is my opinion that current graduating composers should turn to other means to gradually open the door. I have written extensively about this topic, and I invite interested readers to take a look at “In Search of an Audience: Outside the Bubble,” as well as “HOW TO SURVIVE AND PROSPER AS REVEALED BY THE “NEWSLETTER NINE,” in which as the Independent Composer Representative on the SCI Executive Committee, I interviewed nine independent composers with insights as to how they started and maintained their careers outside the university.

You’ve chosen to live in an area of great natural beauty which also offers some extreme weather challenges. Have you always enjoyed the woods and the mountains?

We are fortunate to have a small mountain in back of our house, with an entry trail owned by my good friend Jim Dahoney. From my house to the top, it is 3 miles round trip and 650 feet in elevation. I do this every other day, no matter what the weather. My doctor says that it is this, more than anything else, that keeps my medical age “at least ten years younger” than my real age, which is 83. A few times each summer we go mountain hiking in the Lake George Wild Forest. I am an Adirondack 46er, by the way, which I attained mostly in the 1960s. During the early 2000s, Priscilla and I would spend our summers in British Columbia hiking around Jasper, Banff, Glacier, and Revelstoke parks, as well as Vancouver Island.

What is your favorite part of using Kyma? Your least favorite?

My greatest thrill in Kyma is in creating new Sounds. Next is fooling with the Multigrids, which always produce surprises, sometimes ugly, sometimes ho hum, but sometimes sublime. My least favorite activity in Kyma is the actual composing in the Timeline, where I really have to stop having “fun” and get serious. But I guess they say all play and no work makes a composer … ?

I sometimes get the impression that the artists who really take to Kyma also seem to be independent-minded, self-reliant individualists and non-conformists. Do you concur with this observation?

If I have any sort of independent streak it must have been nourished by study with Henry Cowell in 1963-4 at Eastman (I may very well be his last surviving student, as he had a crippling stroke soon after that and could not teach). When you studied with Henry it was an all-consuming affair; you ate dinner with him, you had informal gatherings at a student’s house, you played bridge with him and his lively wife Sidney, and you enjoyed his informal conversations where he assumed the mantle of being at the forefront of virtually every historical development in the early – mid 20th century. His independence from any stale academic trend was legendary, as he happily migrated between atonality, experimentation, Asian influence, polytonality, and at times unabashed tonality and even banality. When the whole composer world zigged into post-Webern serialism, Henry was deeply zagging with Indian ragas. The stodgy Eastman composition faculty endured him, while the students loved him. I hope that some of this has rubbed off on me, but the determination on whether or not I am a “self-reliant individualist and non-comformist”  will, I’m afraid, have to be made by others. I just do what I do, day by day (as Henry would also say), and don’t really think about whether or not I’m that kind of person. I guess I’d like to be, but I really don’t know.

You interact with a lot of Kyma users through your tutorials. Have you noticed any commonalities among the user community?

As I consider my Kyma friends and read the posts, there may be two kinds of Kyma users: The ones who use Kyma as the vehicle for serious composition are the kinds of people who think long-term and can smoothly make the connection between the left and the right brain skills. The other group of Kyma users are what I would call the “process” users who are more interested in the technical challenges Kyma affords, and are not hesitant about pushing the envelope of what is possible, even beyond what might be practically useful or evident in the ultimate result. Kyma is fortunate to have both kinds of users working side by side, and in having a leadership team that nourishes both areas.

Who would have thought that, when I was struggling with algebra in the 8th grade, that I would someday be using it to fashion a spaceship through the universe of sonic possibilities!

In closing, I’d like to come back to Priscilla’s opening lines from Illusions:

The illusion of summer flashes in the mist
of a golden morning, keeping fantasy alive
through dark, colder times, evoking the
dream of flowers and music.

Do you think that music (listening to music, creating music, remembering music) can, in some way, help us get through “dark and colder times”?

Yes, definitely. And music (such as that produced with Kyma) that does not require us to sit shoulder to shoulder in an audience setting is particularly relevant in today’s pandemic world. In our living room, we have an Optomic video projector which projects onto a nine foot screen, with a state-of-the-art stereo sound system. I have noticed that, as each year has passed recently, more interesting music has appeared on YouTube. Every evening just before dinner I take an hour or less to listen to something. This allows me peace, energizes me, excites me, calms me—in fact this listening experience is my most enjoyable activity. Recently on YouTube I have been quite excited by the work of Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth and the Rumanian Horațiu Rădulescu, along with my perennial favorites Berlioz and Sibelius, not to mention (well, the list goes on and on). One of my favorites is Angelo Badalamenti’s Industrial Symphony #1, which we heard decades ago at BAM and happily discovered that same performance recently streamed on YouTube. In other words, the electronic arts which do not require audiences may very well have a more important place to play in our post-pandemic future.

Bart, thank you for taking the time to share your some of your musical philosophy and compositional approaches with us today! It’s all about Discovery!


Composer Barton McLean in his studio seated in front of Kyma

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