No, don’t even think about that other Mc which is pasted in front of anything we want to denigrate for being common, mass produced, cookie cutter, lowbrow, and low quality. This Mc is Cindy McTee, a composer who’s been around for over 60 years. What do you mean, Cindy who? You’ve never heard of her? Well, neither had I. It’s the unfortunate consequence of having an abundance of talented people everywhere you look. The problem is further worsened by the myopic entertainment industry that only breeds celebrity worship and laziness. It’s too easy to simply keep throwing out the same old worn out names. This habit of mass media unmasks their insecurity, and their over concern with ratings. I prefer seeking out the dark horses, to explore the fringes, the under appreciated and little known talent. McTee is definitely one of them.
Her music is not cutting edge. It’s not going to turn your head. But then, it’s not going to make your ears bleed or give you a headache. Despite this, her music is exciting, fun, highly rhythmic, and easy to appreciate. That may even be why she’s not gotten much attention. After all, the art intelligentsia strive to make things difficult, not easy, and painful, not fun, all the while promoting trite, tortured, and absurd art. There’s meaning in McTee’s music, and without witless, warped contrivance.
There are clear commonalities among her compositions—driving, incessant, assembly line churning; strong thematic material, generous repetition; pounding rhythms, percussion; sudden contrasts, welcomed surprises. There’s an edginess in her music that, to me, conflicts with her name. Cindy—too cute for a composer whose music is anything but cute. For instance, the first movement of her Symphony #1: Ballet for Orchestra has a multilayered fugal construction mixed with distinctive jazz elements. All too often you’ll read about jazz influences in modern orchestral music, but let’s get real, it’s only glanced at. That’s not so with McTee’s music. She unapologetically borrows jazz harmonies and swing rhythms, none more obvious than in the 4th movement, “Finale: Where Time Plays the Fiddle.”
The second, movement of the symphony, “Adagio: Till a Silence Fell,” is heartfelt, searching, and sorrowful. It’s a deeply expressive piece in stark opposition to the other movements. With all the ease and familiar components in her music, there is additionally a deceptive complexity. That depth is combined with explicit formality. Her academic training, she has a PhD in music composition, is conspicuous, but uncharacteristic for someone with such a level of training, it hasn’t constricted her imagination, or made her music cerebral. That is a rare talent.
I also like the descriptive titles she gives her compositions. The first movement of Double Play, “The Unquestioned Answer,” is a good example. Its opening motif is the questionable answer stated by vibraphone, followed by a discernibly questioning phrase asked by the flute. It segues into the second movement, “Tempus Fugit,” again unambiguously conveying a sense of clock mechanization and frantic feelings of the uncontrolled passage of time.
Listen to a couple of samples.
Symphony #1, Introduction: On with the Dance
(||) Rating — Music : A- ║ Performance : A ║ Recording : A ║ Cindy McTee, Symphony #1: Ballet for Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, Naxos, 2013