American composer William McClelland came of age in the late1950s and early 1960s, as did I. It was a heady time. I quote from McClelland’s notes for this release: “I was lucky to be part of a family with a wide range of musical interests—from big band and early jazz to standards and Broadway show tunes to opera and other classical music. During these years my older brother David and I also explored different music and recordings on our own, listening to composers and performers like John Fahey, Ma Rainey, Sonny Terry, Wanda Landowska, Julian Bream, Spike Jones, Ken Nordine, Duane Eddy and Fats Domino. Once when I was eleven, David came home after being away at school for several months and brought recordings of the Bartók quartets and the ragtime composer Joseph Lamb. . . .” His experiences mirror mine. My earliest record collecting was similarly wayward. I discovered Mozart, Gershwin, The Dell Vikings, Bix Beiderbecke, Beethoven, Elvis, and Stravinsky pretty much at the same time. In my blissful ignorance, I didn’t realize that I was enjoying music from several market-defined categories, and that those categories were supposed to be mutually exclusive. I am happy to say that my blissful ignorance is still in full flower.
McClelland, like so many composers of our moment, is fully at home in a multiplicity of styles, and we are treated to a wide range of them on this release—from the tonally ambivalent parallel harmonies of Song for the Rainy Season, the pop-inflections of The Ballad of Don and Dan, the rarefied hymnody (sometimes jazz inflected) of the Five Sonnets for Men’s Voices and the ecologically inspired Collect Pond, the symphonic grandeur of A Wood, the offhand counterpoint of Wolf Moon… to the ethnically Scottish flavors of The Revenge of Hamish. Withal, a distinctively American composer’s voice emerges, and it is both an imaginative and compelling one.
The Ballad of Don and Dan, inspired by a local newspaper account of a crime in Montana in 1984, and The Revenge of Hamish, motivated by a section of a 19th-century Scottish novel by William Black, are the two major pieces on this offering. Both show McClelland to be an accomplished balladeer able to sustain a prolix narrative through time. Some of this program is a cappella. Other numbers offer diverse instrument-ations that deftly underscore the subtexts of the poems. In all cases, that point where language ends and music begins is magically blurred.
The choral work is excellent and the instrumentalists play with both exactitude and enthusiasm, revealing a composer who is more than worthy of our attentions.
Charles Ives pioneered this concept of integrating the pop music of his time (hymns, parlor tunes, patriotic airs, ragtime, etc.) into his symphonic creations, and here William McClelland, in his homage’s to the musics of our time, continues that hallowed tradition.
- William Zagorski