Composer returns to musical roots

Cindy McTee is coming home.
The composer whose music has been praised reviewers for the Washington Post and other major publications is returning to Eatonville to perform alongside the orchestra from Pacific Lutheran University orchestra -- her alma mater -- and with students from the same Eatonville School District where she once was a student.
The performance is scheduled for April 13 at 7 p.m. at Eatonville High School.
McTee has received numerous awards for her music, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Composers Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's third annual Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award.
Her works have been performed five times at Carnegie Hall and by major orchestras from New York, China, London, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and Australia, among others.
Along with her composing, McTee had a combined 30-year teaching career at Pacific Lutheran and University of North Texas before retiring in 2011. Later that year, she married conductor Leonard Slatkin. The couple live in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
In preparation for a return to her Eatonville roots, McTee gave district officials some of those memorires and her thoughts about arts and education.

McTee on McTee

“There are of course many good memories about my time in the Eatonville schools. But let's start with the worst … dissecting rats in biology class. Luckily, I was absent the day worms met the same fate. Science and math were definitely not my strong suits, and if it hadn't been for the goodwill of some very smart friends, I would never have made it through trigonometry. Art, music, languages, and athletics were my main interests in school and still are. OK-not so much athletics anymore, but I do still get out and walk about 10 miles per week. Does that count?
"In high school, I played a lot of tennis. There wasn't much else in the way of school sports for girls in those days. But, I was also an avid snow skier and enjoyed many trips to Mt. Rainier, White Pass, and Crystal Mountain with my sister and others. Among the many gifts from my parents was their focus on the outdoors as a place to experience nature's perfection, peace, and beauty. We did a great deal of camping and hiking together, and I believe our many encounters with the absolute best nature has to offer-the wildflowers and glaciers of Mt. Rainier National Park, and the tide pools and rain forests of the Washington coast-fed my musical soul in very important ways.
"When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always gave the same answer, “an artist.” By that, I meant someone who drew and painted. In grade school, I remember being called upon by one of the teachers to make art for the hallway bulletin boards. I loved that. In junior high, I was put in charge of designing one of the Halloween windows the school provided local businesses. We had great fun making a haunted house. During my high school years, I took Mr. Alvin Smith's art class and also made decorations for a couple of the school dances and banquets. But of all the things I drew pleasure from, perhaps the most meaningful was playing the piano for musicals and individual singers at concerts.
"It's hard to put into words the pleasure that results from making music with a small ensemble or just one other person. In that situation, one feels both the excitement that comes from being truly heard as an individual, and the huge satisfaction that results from intimate collaboration.
"Of course I also enjoyed playing in the band, a very different experience requiring a bit more willingness to suppress one's individual musical inclinations for the collective good. That was difficult for me. I was often caught by Dale Parton, EHS's band director for many years, playing whatever I wanted to instead of what was written on the page. I was a decidedly undisciplined performer, always pushing against the norm – probably marking the beginnings of my career as a composer.
"Once at PLU, I continued to pursue my interest in art, music and languages, taking classes in all three subjects. I loved French for its musical sound, and music notation for its visually interesting graphics. But as time went along, I gravitated more and more toward music. David Robbins' contemporary music class opened up a world of possibilities, and I was hooked.
æDuring my junior year, PLU's outstanding Choir of the West and symphony orchestra attracted the attention of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, one of the most highly regarded living composers in the world. He came to PLU for a week of concerts, and after hearing one of my pieces, extended an invitation: 'If you come to Poland to teach my two small children English, you can study composition with me at the conservatory in Krakow for a year.' Well, this was 1974, and Poland was behind the Iron Curtain. I am sure my parents thought they would never hear from me again after I left the country. In fact, I think it took six weeks for my first letter to arrive. But the experience was life-changing in myriad positive ways.
"Ultimately, I chose a dual career as composer and educator. There were several reasons. I couldn't envision myself making music exclusively for hire. What I wanted was a job that would allow me to make music if and when I wanted to without too much regard for its commercial value.
"I compose slowly, so I would have starved trying to make a living writing music without some other source of income. The logical choice was to prepare myself for the teaching profession. I retired from that in 2011 after 30 years, and I miss it. My students taught me most everything I know about music and about my musical self. The process of trying to explain things to others – especially things as abstract as music – requires a great deal of searching, discovery and learning. I am unquestionably most proud of my students and, secondarily, my compositions.
"Technology has played a vital role in my work since about 1988 when I acquired my first Macintosh computer, a Mac Plus. I notated my most-performed work, Circuits, through the nine-inch screen on this machine. My colleagues at the university were terribly skeptical of it. They had a hard time taking seriously a device that smiled at you when you turned it on, was named after a fruit, and operated with a mouse. But to effectively communicate with my students, I felt I had to embrace new modes of interacting with sound and music graphics.
I had always loved drawing music with calligraphy pens and all of the other associated accoutrements-drawing boards, electric erasers, vellum, T-squares, and more-but eventually realized that self-publishing using computer engraving processes was about to be born, and my interest was piqued. I also became very enamored of the computer's potential to capture improvisation in real time as a shortcut and time-saver, so I bought a new, state-of-the-art Mac IIci, laser printer, and 1MB hard drive. Yes, I'm not kidding. A 1MB hard drive the size of a Webster dictionary. The price tag? $10,000. I could have purchased a new car instead. I never looked back, but I've kept all of those handwritten manuscripts, some of which I may frame one day-they are the closest I ever came to making visual art as an adult.
Knowing one's way around a computer is pretty much a requirement these days for any activity in the field of music composition, whether writing for orchestra, film, video games, or any other medium. Also important is familiarity with the world of music and all genres-classical, jazz, pop, folk, and everything in between. Technology makes it easier as one can download or stream music from most anywhere in the world, often for free.

It's hard to put my finger on what I like most about music or my work. It's changed over the years as I have changed. Right now, I very much enjoy hearing from my former students about their trials, tribulations, and triumphs. In earlier days, I might have said that my favorite time was spent alone in my studio, wrestling with the pitches and rhythms of a new idea coming to fruition. But now, in my relatively new and perfectly wonderful roles as wife-of conductor Leonard Slatkin, who performs in a different city nearly every two weeks-family business manager, and traveling companion, I find far less time to compose. For a while, I felt uneasy about it and made excuses about health issues getting in the way-which they did-and finding it difficult to compose in hotel rooms instead of my studio sanctuary-which it was. But then, maybe less than a year ago, the answer to the question “why has your compositional output slowed down” hit me like a freight train and lifted the anxiety I was feeling over slowing down. The answer-I was no longer teaching. Unconsciously, I had always felt a mandate to remain very active as a composer in order to validate myself as a teacher. Once the teaching went away, so too did some of my motivation to create. The two professions had been inextricably linked, and they fed one another.
But I did recently complete a piece for brass and percussion ensemble, premiered by members of my husband's French orchestra, Orchestre National de Lyon. And I have plans to do a version for band followed by a new piece for Leonard's 75 birthday. So the creative wheels are turning, just not quite as fast as they once did.
To close, I might comment on why I think new art is necessary. There are a million answers, but here is one: We need new music, new books, and new art to reflect who we are as a society, to provide a lens through which future generations can know and understand who we were in this time and place.
Perhaps society needs artists more now than ever before. We must encourage young people toward careers in the arts, and we must advocate for greater focus on the arts in general education, especially given the dangers that surround us-for I am convinced that participation in the arts, whether passively or actively, will surely lead to a kinder, gentler, world. I believe that a person who has experienced and truly felt the magic of a Picasso painting or the emotional depth of a Beethoven symphony will become a more compassionate person with an expanded appreciation for what it means to be fully human.”


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