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MU composer McKenney inspired by Stevens' poem about a blackbird

Thursday, January 6, 2011 | 11:47 a.m. CST

Composer W. Thomas McKenney shown in his office on Dec. 15 at the Fine Arts Annex on the MU campus. McKenney teaches composition and music theory at MU, and serves as the director of electronic music studies.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a three-part series of audio profiles on Columbia artists created for KBIA's arts and culture program "Off the Clock" and the Columbia Missourian. The following is the script for the profile of composer Thomas McKenney:

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a poem by Wallace Stevens, and MU theory and composition professor Thomas McKenney wanted to do something with it for years.

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The imagery — a single blackbird whirling in the autumn winds, its shadow playing among snowy mountains — stuck with McKenney, and when it came time for him to write a piece for the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, he remembered the blackbird. The nationally known new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound premiered the work last July.

McKenney has been writing music for more than 50 years. A substantial portion of it has incorporated electronic sounds as voices in their own right. That interest began when he met Robert Moog, a pioneer in electronic music and the inventor of the Moog synthesizer.

“So when I came here, one of the first things that I did was apply for a grant to do some work at Moog’s factory. He had a little studio in the back of the factory. His factory was this little kind of store in this small town … and he had a bunch of wooden tables in this room and there were a bunch of little old ladies sitting there with soldering irons soldering components together, and in the back of that, he had a synthesizer all set up with tape recorders and so on.”

That visit inspired McKenney to write his first electronic composition. Right now he’s writing a commission for the Columbia Civic Orchestra. When he has time, McKenney works on a piece inspired by two of his six grandchildren. He recorded them laughing and singing one day at the kitchen table.

“The piece that I, the sound files that I have so far are sound files that don’t sound anything like children’s voices, but all of a sudden you hear this child’s voice come out of this texture.”

Although as a teacher, it’s hard for him to find uninterrupted time, McKenney tries to set aside Fridays, Saturdays and parts of Sundays for composing.

“And some people have said that one of the most basic desires of all humans is to create something. And so to me that is the most important thing, is to write a piece to get it done. Hopefully, it’ll be performed and hopefully it’ll be a good performance. … Whether the piece endures or whatever, I don’t really, I’m not really concerned about.”

Stefan Freund teaches music composition at MU and plays the cello in Alarm Will Sound. He calls McKenney’s style neo-impressionism, with lush harmonies and rich orchestration. Freund said “Blackbird” demands a delicate kind of playing, like walking on eggshells.

“One thing that was noticeably written for Alarm Will Sound was, you would not listen to the piece and think that it was difficult. But the orchestration was actually quite difficult in the doublings, these octaves between glockenspiel and violin and very high, demanding ... It’s kind of an orchestrational virtuosity that’s difficult to pull off.”

McKenney says that in general, he’s not trying to tell any kind of story with his music. That’s even true of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which, like the poem, has 13 parts.

“There are certain parts of the poem that are reflected in the music that I’m doing. And so there’s a part of the poem that talks about the blackbird whirling, and so I’ve written some things that some people, maybe not everyone but some people, might interpret as a whirling of the orchestra.”

You can hear all of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" at KBIA.org (and ColumbiaMissourian.com).

Elizabeth Brixey, for KBIA and the Columbia Missourian.


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