by Walter Simmons
McKINLEY: Paintings VI. Six Impromptus. MEKEEL: Alarums and Excursions. Rune. Katherine Lenel, actress/mezzo-soprano; Boston Musica Viva conducted by Richard Pittman. NORTHEASTERN NR-203, produced by L. E. Joiner
Unfortunately, the meticulous production values of Northeastern Records have been expended here on music of awfully paltry quality. Both William Thomas McKinley and Joyce Mekeel belong to the generation of composers born in the 1930s, and are currently located in Boston—McKinley at the New England Conservatory and Mekeel at Boston University. The pieces on this disc date from 1977-1980 and share a number of features in common: Both are composed in the fragmentary, disjointed, and relentlessly ugly style that was de rigueur for their generation a decade or two ago, but which has since been abandoned by many of their colleagues as an artistic dead end and a socio-cultural lost cause. McKinley and Mekeel do bring a modicum of artistic sensibility to the shaping of their creations, and the pieces are presented in the best possible light, through luminescent performances by the Boston Musica Viva. But the music’s meager virtues are overshadowed by outrageously unjustified pretenses: McKinley writes of his Paintings VI,”Acting as a microcosm for all existence through the symbolic development of the forces, ideas, and attitudes that color experience, this life process is given correspondent relationships in the musical structure.” Bill, watch those dangling participles. And the music—somehow it all suggests the work of an overly self-confident second-year composition student. But this is modest, compared to Joyce Mekeel’s Alarums and Excursions, a sound collage of largely spoken poetic fragments (whose sources range from Aeschylus to Mekeel) intoned ominously over a sparse instrumental fabric. While listening to it, I realized it would be most appropriate in a Neil Simon-type play, as a caricatured example of “modern music”—the kind everyone loves to hate.
Even if Northeastern Records insists on restricting itself to composers from New England, I find it hard to believe that they can’t come up with anything better than this. One wonders whether someone actually made a conscious decision to select this music for recording, or Whether it was simply the result of some depersonalized bureaucratic compromise.