Julia Gaines wanted to play drums in her junior high school band. She sat in the classroom on the first day of band, listening to the director call roll; when he read a student’s name, the student would call back the instrument he or she wanted to play. By the time he called for Julia, not one girl had called back “percussion!” So, lackluster, she responded “clarinet.” Julia resigned herself — her dad had suggested clarinet, and it was a more “girly” instrument, she thought. But then roll call reached the T’s, and a girl named Karen Thompson proudly told the class she wanted to play drums. Hearing that another girl was interested, Julia shot up her hand: “Oh, oh, oh, I want to play percussion, too!”
Julia Gaines introduces us to the marimba and its appeal.
The nature of McKenney’s work ranges from dissonant, angular pieces that could be featured in science-fiction films to beautiful, balanced choral pieces intended to be sung in church. “The vocabulary that I use for a particular composition will depend upon the genre I am writing for.” He is often commissioned to compose something for a particular instrumentation, such as orchestra, symphonic wind ensemble, woodwind quintet, marimba and electronics, choir, or brass and percussion.
McKenney combines pencil and paper composition methods with Finale, a professional musical transcription program. McKenney describes the pros and cons of using computer software to compose music. Mostly he uses such programs for playback (comparable to a word processor)—to check for wrong notes—and to transcribe his writing into a form that other people can read and then perform accurately. “You can’t really know until the live performance whether everything is going to work together the way you think it’s going to. You hope your ear hasn’t deceived you.” In spite of its speech synthesis ability, however, “the computer can’t sing a text.” Lacking the nuances of live performance, the computerized voices “sometimes sound like a dead woman’s choir.” Although these programs can’t reproduce the real musical instruments faithfully, McKenney still finds them useful. Listen to his recently composed choral piece, “Come Spirit Come,” as rendered via the music software program Finale.