William Thomas McKinley: searching for transcendence
William Thomas McKinley (Tom to his friends and family) is a protean personality, a composer of more than 300 works of great diversity, who embraces the classical and jazz worlds with equal proficiency and gusto. His is a restless, exploratory mind that ceaselessly seeks to expand the boundaries of musical form and substance without abandoning the essential building blocks of melody, rhythm, and harmony. A passion for colorful orchestration, allied to an explosive monumentality of conception, gives his larger works an elemental force that’s impossible to resist; the same captivating dynamism animates his conversation. Tom McKinley is a man focused on nature’s grand scheme and humanity’s role therein, as much philosopher and psychologist as composer, but a musician who never burdens his audience with convoluted or abstract explanations for his works. Destined for a life in music—in an autobiographical reminiscence he recalls banging endlessly on the pots and pans in his family kitchen at age three, an activity soon followed by piano lessons and early membership in the Musicians’ Union as a pianist, age 12—he grew up to study at Carnegie Tech, win a fellowship to Tanglewood, and teach at the University of Chicago and the New England Conservatory. Long considered to be an exciting and inspirational teacher, he himself studied with some of the most famous names in American music: Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and Gunther Schuller, along with Mel Powell and Nikolai Lopatnikoff. And he’s played jazz with many of the greats in that field, as well. Born in 1938, he’s part of an impressive generation of composers who all first drew breath in that perhaps pivotal year.
“Three summers ago at Tanglewood I was invited back, along with [William] Bolcolm and [Ellen Taaffe] Zwilich and Charles Wourinen, all of us who were born in 1938. John Harbison [also born in that year, along with John Corigliano, Joan Tower, Olly Wilson, Philip Glass, Paul Chihara, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and David Del Tredici, to name a few] had us all there for the summer festival. There was a big picture in The New York Times of all of us. I really liked everybody in that group. We were all there and we all had premieres and it was wonderful, because I’d been to Tanglewood many times before. That was just thrilling to me, because I felt as if I were a major composer of my generation—and then I realized how much we all had in common. Where we were in terms of tonal development, in terms of pushing the rhythmic envelope. Although I think I push it even harder than some of them. But they all seem to be hearing in the same direction, whereas maybe the group that dates from 10 years before, that’s where you find more of the serialism. It’s an amazing cut-off point.”
It makes one believe in a Zeitgeist.
“It would have to be that. And where we are [now]—when I hear European music—once you hear the tonal spectrum as widely as I use it, you kind of know what everybody’s doing, because you can’t go any further. You know, there are limits [laughs]. You see, the human being, the listener, has a biological limit to what they can perceive— both highs, lows, and all of that. There are only so many overtones and things that the ear can really hear. And that limit is what our music is made out of, not anything else. Since that biological limit is fixed, I don’t see us passing that point, unless we create new biologies in the ear. I’d love to be around for that.”
Of course, composers are always using instruments in new ways, and there’s the whole field of electronic and electro-acoustic music to explore.
“Yes, but then you go into worlds of sound that are not symphonic and European traditional and classical. Yes, you can do other things in that area, but I’m not talking about that. Just in the traditional, there’s a boundary that all of us are coming to, which I think is the end of the tonal boundary. It’s like going back to the big bang. I’ve seen it. I know it. I could show you at the piano; it’s fascinating. And my harmonies are all drawn from that world. Every one of them could be called minor or major, from the bottom, from the beginning point. They’re like a galactic connection among points of harmonic light, or harmonic radiance.”
So, even as McKinley contemplates the tonal boundaries confronting contemporary composers, he doesn’t regard the biological limit as a fatal flaw restricting the evolution of Western music?
“I would describe our period as an apex, a high flowering, as in the Baroque, and I have much to do within it. And I think other composers would also feel the same way.”
Although today he’s primarily a tonal composer, he did go through an atonal phase earlier in his career.
“If one goes back to my music of the 1970s, you’d hear that I was coming out of the atonal 1960s that everyone encountered. But you know, I loved that world then and I still do love some of it now, and I haven’t given it all up, so that therefore there’s a balance. I was trying to stretch tonality where it still makes harmonic sense, and yet stretch the bounds in some of the discoveries of that atonal period. I mean, Schoenberg’s music is great. And people don’t really know it or have heard it, but take the Variations for Orchestra . It’s so colorful, I mean—talk about breadth of style, even though one would think of it perhaps as atonal, it really isn’t. It goes beyond tonality; it doesn’t negate it. There’s a whole spectrum of tonal inferences in Webern and Schoenberg. Even in their early music. One has to have a great ear, of course, to work in that world and not just write a music that is simple, or triadic, or purely tonal in a conventional sense. At the boundary, which I call the Tri-ad, the triad is both the devil and the saint; the saint in Mozart and the devil in some contemporary pop stuff that is just triadically enslaved. That’s not good. I can’t imagine anybody being enslaved by a triad [laughs]. I’m certainly not, but I still love to hear major and minor.”
As Tom sought to integrate the tonal and atonal currents in his music, he found himself rebounding in the opposite direction.
“Just for a period, though, I changed radically in the 1980s, and I went the other direction and I wrote really tonal stuff. I mean, when some people heard some of my pieces from that time, they said, ‘why did you go back so far?’ [laughs] You see, I have a great knowledge of that tonal period of music because I grew up playing Beethoven sonatas. A Beethoven sonata is as close to me as a Charlie Parker chart. Yes, it’s the same world, different notes. And I went back really far. And then every now and then I’d get crazy and say, ‘why did I go back to the early period?’ And I thought, ‘Well, I’m really trying to go beyond both.’ Then finally, in the 1990s, I was able to start thinking that what I really want is to stretch those bounds. And that’s it; I can’t think of it in terms of writing something pleasing on purpose, which I can do as well as anybody, but now and then...I just wrote a piece for trumpet and strings which is a simple, beautiful chorale. In other words, every now and then I do something to kind of cleanse the palate.”
Tom is the founder of MMC Records, a company that has compiled a significant archive of contemporary American music. Lately, though, he’s decided to curtail MMC’s output.
“You know, I brought MMC to a kind of a culmination. I did this for 20 years, and I traveled all over the world recording. And when I could be right at the helm it was okay; but then, as I got older I couldn’t do it and I’ve had to bring it down. Our last recording will be with my dear friend Richard Stoltzman and the Seattle Symphony with Gerard Schwartz, featuring only two composers. One is me and the other one, who’s been my closest supporter all through the term of this project, is Roger Davidson. He’s a sweetheart and wonderful—he understands my goals for the label.”
That leads us to BMOP (the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, who was interviewed by James Reel in Fanfare 31:4), which has played and recorded your latest CD.
“I wanted BMOP’s sound, which is superb. And they have a very distinguished roster that I’m proud to be a part of. The whole CD has an enormous amount of music. [The CD is reviewed at the end of this article.] It’s just something spectacular; the sound of it is absolutely spectacular. The marimba, everything, is recorded so beautifully and the orchestra is so powerful. Everything’s in the right place at the right time.”
R.A.P. is a snappy title, and at first glance it suggests something very different from “classical music.”
“R.A.P. stands for Rhythm and Pulse , but there’s all kinds of stuff in it. The players do a rap as an ensemble at the end, using words I wrote. But it really wasn’t meant to be anything imitative of a certain commercial rap, more like the idea of speaking and the word “rap” had a lot of infectious meaning. In other words, I used the “rap” prefix as the basis for other words like rhapsody, etc. R.A.P. is totally different from many other things of mine. First of all, it’s for a jazz orchestra instead of for the standard symphonic contingent. There are 20 players, including Stoltzman and his son Peter on piano. It’s incredibly jazzy—I mean with big band things in there, and the percussionists are great. But the thing is, it still comes out as a contemporary work. The big band gives you a sound that immediately suggests jazz; you understand that. There’s no way around that—I don’t care if you’re Stravinsky. Take his Ebony Concerto; it still sounds like blues. The ending, for example, which is on D7. I’m very influenced by Stravinsky in rhythmic ways, and I’ve tried to expand his language even further, if I may put it that way, in that we’ve had so much contemporary music and jazz since Stravinsky to expand the palette using even more explosive rhythms and even more syncopation, as much as one can possibly imagine [laughs] to kind of tilt the rhythmic pulse. I do this in practically all my works. So R.A.P. would be no exception in that sense, except it has that jazz sound.
“R.A.P. is, incidentally, a multisectional work in which each section gets faster up to a point and then they start getting slower down to a point and the structure forms an upside down V. That’s just an interesting thing to comment on, because in forming a long piece, I wanted to have these sections that change tempo. And then the music would remain the same but it would be played in different tempos. So you had a transformation of the same elements in different speeds. And that is as close as I might come to some kind of a Harvardarian or Princetonian explanation that might interest those who aren’t interested so much in the more emotional aspects of music. And that’s okay, because I can tell you, in my music, without going into more than what I just told you, there are all kinds of counterpoint schemes and things going on underneath that, one day, if one analyzes to that level, they will find.”
As mentioned earlier, Tom’s always loved jazz, and plays it regularly.
“In fact, it goes way back to when I was a child—so the two worlds parallel each other entirely, until I went to college and studied composition with Lopatnikoff, who was my first classical teacher at Carnegie Tech back in the 1950s. In my earliest years, I was playing jazz a great deal in Pittsburgh, and I played with a lot of great players. Over my lifetime I’ve played with many, many giants and could have had that as my major world had I chosen to, but I had so much European music in me from the classical side. The two aspects come together, in that I’ve written concertos or other pieces for practically everybody I’ve worked with from the jazz world. Dick Stoltzman and [vibraphonist] Gary Burton performed a piece of mine at Symphony Hall in Boston, for vibes, clarinet, and big orchestra. It was a great experience hearing the two of them performing together. Stan Getz asked me to write a concerto for him, so I wrote two pieces, one of which was called Can You Sing Me a Song, for saxophone, rhythm section, chorus, and orchestra. He did it in Boston in the mid 1980s, right before he died. I wrote a big piece for Miroslav [Vitous, jazz bassist] with two horns—Miroslav, and a huge chamber group. But it was a modern piece. By the way, he had great classical training. As a kid, he was at the Prague Conservatory, and then the Russians took over and he left. He came to New York and played with Miles Davis. What’s interesting about the piece for Miroslav is that, unlike a similar piece I wrote for Eddie Gomez, who is a great jazz player [a bassist famous for his work with pianist Bill Evans], in which everything was written out, Miroslav wanted room to do a lot of improvising, which was his forte. Outside of the concert hall, we played some wild things together in an improvisational setting.”
Tom’s marimba concerto, Childhood Memories, derives its inspiration from childhood, and the title of almost every one of its 12 movements refers to children’s games and fantasies.
“It’s a child’s world. I’ve written a lot of pieces in which I’ve used scenes from childhood, all coming out of Schumann, really; my early days with Schuman’s Scenes from Childhood. The whole idea of that struck me as something that would make a tremendous array of possibilities of mood and character and playfulness and rambunctiousness [ laughs ] and all of that. And she [marimbist Nancy Zeltzman] plays so beautifully and she’s got such a great sound that you hear even in the most quiet tremolos.
“What’s interesting is that every single title, ‘Child’s Play,’ ‘Daydreams,’ they all really do come through in the music. I can hear that. I can say if I were going to do a whole set again with the same titles, I’d write different pieces, but it would still evoke certain things: the daydreams and the moods and the ‘Time Out’ being like a really powerful march, almost stern in telling the child ‘You can’t do anything right now. Time out.’ ‘Bring the Sprinklers’ is a solo movement with the sounds of the water and drops, and then the ‘Reveries.’ The only one that has perhaps an enigmatic title is ‘Old Time Radio,’ which is the last one. And that’s because one doesn’t form an image directly of old time radio, you know. I grew up in that era and I loved that era as a child and the nostalgia of it all and yet it ends up as another march. I’m very fond of marches. Take the march in the Thirteen Dances in the ‘March Boogie.’ Oh, gosh, with the drums. I grew up listening to drum and bugle corps in my high school band and the marching band and all of that. I was fascinated with parades.
“The point is that the titles help you know what the music’s going to be; if someone were to hear the music without the titles, who knows what would come into their mind. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own subjective response, so these titles were more inspirational for me, they made me think of different rhythms and moods and harmonies. And music has the power to evoke moods, particularly when pointing to a universal element. For example, ‘Daydreams,’ that’s universal. Every human in the world daydreams. And so, it could be a child’s dreams, or it could be daydreams of humanity, but it has a universal sense, so therefore, I can go to something in music and evoke that. Whereas in the period in academia when titles of pieces were like ‘Strophe,’ those were stupid, they didn’t have anything to do with the music whatsoever, they were just pretentious. There’s so many of them. But at any rate, to come back to these, this is a much more romantic notion, to go back to the moods.
“And then the Dances, of course, is both classical and romantic in its notion. That’s one of my most recent orchestral works and it’s typical of the sort of orchestral music I’m writing now. The piece has a wide palette because of all the dance moves; there’s a Samba, a Tango, a Slow Dance, Rag Time, a Madcap Valse.
“I’ve also tried to expand my palette in terms of orchestration to create what I call a sonic transcendent orchestra. The transcendence is the Ivesian stuff, the sonic is the brilliant Varese/Stravinsky influence. Yet, even in my quietest things, there’s a little rich, lush something going on. And it’s transcendent, magical, or even dreamy. But it’s kind of transcending the best of what we’ve inherited from the past. And that includes Mahler, who in a sense was doing something similar, taking into account the amazing amount of music from all genres and all times and all periods and ending up with it coming out in a big Romantic way. Because that’s what Mahler was after, kind of a supernova, going beyond...
“There’s hardly anyone that isn’t in my music somewhere. But at the same time, it comes off. It’s so original, only because I had pushed the rhythmic envelope in a way that hardly anybody has tried. That rhythmic side comes from the explosive propulsion of jazz time and energy, particularly when, like in my own taste, I’ve played with drummers like Roy Haynes, who’s a great jazz drummer. And to work with those people close up, two feet away from you!—the propulsion and the energy, a lot of that comes into my music, and that’s probably not in any other composer because I don’t think there’s another composer in America who’s written that much symphonic music as I have and then at the same time has played with the jazz greats. That’s a rare blend.
“But getting back to the 13 Dances for Orchestra. What’s most important about them is that they each have different characters. They’re short, but there’s an endless palette of possibilities when you range that far over the spectrum of music that comes through dance. I worked with dancers since I was a teenager. I played for dancing schools and ballet, and I worked with people like Paul Taylor in New York. Did an educational video with him back at Yale. Dance has something in common with jazz, in that everything has to have a groove of some kind, whether it’s timeless and slow or totally off-the-wall fast. It’s just so basic to us. You know, without making an ethno-musicological study, you have, oh my God, all the African rhythms and pulse and things like that which I’ve heard and I think all of that influences me. I write a lot for percussion, and all of that comes sometimes out of African drums. I’m writing a music that aims towards a universal understanding of language, syntax, mood, and yet at the same time is challengingly modern and enigmatic; something you’ve got to go back to understand. As you do with Bach. I never want to give that up, that searching aspect.”
Tom was very eager for me to speak with Richard Stoltzman and Gil Rose and they were happy to comply. They provided me with many insights about Tom’s music and particularly about the music on the CD. Although I would have liked to include the complete text of our conversations, space, even in a feature, is always at a premium, and so Fanfare can only print greatly condensed transcripts. Still, their admiration and affection for the man and the composer shines through and adds a personal quality that’s both touching and enlightening.
I’ve known Tom for a long time now, probably 40 years. I was drawn to him initially when we were both students at Yale and he had written a piece called Attitudes for cello, flute, and clarinet, which was something I’d never experienced before, this kind of piece that was almost like improvisation in the sense that all the gestures that each instrument played came out of a feeling of jazz gestures. It had a very natural feeling, very tonal, but also what was amazing was the energy he was able to derive from what I’d guess you’d have to say was a classical musician’s frame. The way Tom wrote this music, it evoked passion in the performers, myself included. He has never stopped writing in script, in manuscript, and so it’s as if you’re looking at a Bach manuscript or a Mozart facsimile, or a Beethoven manuscript—something phoenix-like comes off the page and is reborn. You can see the strokes, the mistakes, the scribbling, the energy, or hand as it’s writing these notes—and I had not experienced that before in terms of a contemporary composer. So it was a revelation for me. And then I just had this tremendous relationship with him for years and years and years and years. First hearing him in jazz clubs around the New Haven area and then, as he started listening to what I was doing on the clarinet, he began to see the possibilities of his gestures and his language suiting the clarinet. Ultimately, he’s written basically a whole repertoire for the clarinet if you can think of it: I’d say five, six concertos, quintets, trios, quartets, duos for two clarinets, double concertos—he’s a volcano! The energy is below the surface and then it just explodes and erupts.
I’ve known Tom a lot of years and the energy level of Tom’s music always sort of astounds me. In some ways I think his music’s getting more energetic than it was. It’s hard to imagine, because his music is always high-powered and because the clarinet piece [R.A.P.] has a big band setup, it really shows the impact of that high energy. Tom composes with a big palette. You know what I call Tom? This is an affectionate term. I call him a maximalist instead of a minimalist. He’s a maximalist. He’s the contradiction to the phrase “less is more.” I always find different layers of foreground and background in Tom’s music that I didn’t perceive the first time I heard it. There are rhythmic things and harmonic things going on that are not immediately perceivable, but after you’ve heard them multiple times they start to come into focus. That’s why it’s sort of fun to work on editing, because you go through it so many times you start to see depth, you get a depth perception that you didn’t have when you originally looked at it. I’m always amazed at Tom’s facility in that sense. With Tom, his music is impactful right away. It hits you on the surface level, and then you start finding the architecture and the scheme. It’s music that works on a lot of levels.
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