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Writing Music that Speaks to the Human Spirit

A visit with Thomas McKenney, Professor, Composition and Music Theory

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: electronic music composition music

“There’s nothing quite like the high of hearing one of your own pieces played,” MU Professor of Music W. Thomas McKenney admits, “but to me the most important thing is the active, creative process itself.” Having internalized his teacher’s advice that music must be a balance of emotion and intellect, and that if you have too much of either one “things get out of whack,” McKenney focuses on both levels. His goal is to assure that “structurally and formally, a piece is going to work.”

Research for McKenney often takes the shape of score studies, that is, examining what other composers who have created within that genre have done. According to legend, “when Mozart sat down and wrote (in an evening) the overture to Don Giovani,” the ink was still wet when he handed it to the players. We marvel at this kind of genius, yet some contend that “Mozart was really improvising within a tonal system that was already set for him.” Tonality refers to the tendency of music to gravitate toward or around a pitch, McKenney explains, as he plays some chords to illustrate. Because this tonal concept both influences and is defined by western ears, “Mozart didn’t have to be concerned about the harmonic function of his music.” Rather, one chord seemed to lead naturally to another.

“The problem for twentieth-century composers,” he goes on, “is that they must design their own tonal systems.” We might take such freedom to design as a blessing, but McKenney finds that, as far as composing music goes, sometimes freedom isn’t a blessing: “At some point in time, you have to put shackles on yourself and limit yourself; otherwise, it can be chaotic as far as the piece goes.” Bach, for instance, was also very much a tonal composer who tended toward contrapuntal compositions--that is, the texture of his music often derives from counterpoint. The basses may sing the melody at one point, followed by the altos, and so on, creating a linear, “contrapuntal” design. In this respect, researching how such great composers have handled a certain idea, concept, or technique helps inform McKenney’s own creative process.

Beyond intellectual understanding, McKenney speaks of the challenge of communicating musical ideas is to elicit some type of audience response to the piece: “I try to write a piece that’s going to *do* something to the audience; that is, hopefully the audience will be able to grasp some emotional aspect of it.” Consider his electronic composition, “Prelusia #4,” an experimental piece that explores the concepts of tension and release, and you’ll see that the emotion evoked need not be happy. Upon hearing “Other Echoes,” McKenney’s composition for orchestra, a former student once asked, “Did anyone in the audience go running out screaming at anytime during that piece?” McKenney laughs as he recounts the student’s emotional response to the music: “He felt a great deal of intensity at places in the piece. Although I didn’t necessarily want that to happen, at least he was feeling something about it.”

McKenney’s own compositional process depends on the genre for which he is writing and often involves high-tech computer programs. For instance, he just finished a choral piece for a church choir. “Writing for voices is a lot different from writing for instruments,” he comments. “A singer can’t push a button to have a note come out . . . and so writing for voice is, by and large, going to be a lot more limiting than writing for violin or clarinet.” While McKenney nearly always resorts to pencil and paper at some point during the writing process, computer applications called Csound and Finale also enter the picture. Although they can’t reproduce the real instruments faithfully, such programs are helpful in creating electronic sounds, identifying errors, or scoring a composition. McKenney’s recently composed choral piece, “Come Spirit Come,” was rendered via the music software program Finale. Still, “you can’t really know until the live performance whether everything is going to work together the way you think it’s going to be. You hope your ear hasn’t deceived you.”

The nature of McKenney’s work ranges from this beautiful, balanced choral piece--intended to be sung in a church cathedral--to dissonant, angular pieces reminiscent of science-fiction movies. “The vocabulary that I use for a particular composition will depend upon the genre I am writing for,” he says. And he is often commissioned to compose something for particular instrumentation (such as orchestra, symphonic wind ensemble, woodwind quintet, marimba and electronics, choir, or brass and percussion). Consider a piece he wrote recently for marimba and computer-generated sounds, entitled “C:M.” McKenney describes how the marimba part was built on two hexachords that were complements of one another, with no duplication of pitches. He used some twelve-tone techniques, although it wasn’t strictly a twelve-tone piece. Refusing to be constrained by any particular tonal system, McKenney puts things rhetorically: “Is the tail going to wag the dog? The end result has to be the musical composition. It doesn’t necessarily matter to me what technique is used. If the piece works, it works; and that’s what’s important.”

The bottom line for McKenney is that “music has to speak to the human spirit. That’s what it’s really all about.” The violin might be just a wooden box with metal strings, “yet, put in the hands of an artist, the most beautiful things in the world can come out of it.” Ponder as well the human voice. “We could scream and say nasty, horrible things to other human beings,” he points out, “or we could sing and make beautiful sounds. That’s really what the human spirit is all about.” And that’s what motivates McKenney’s musical compositions.