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UNT Resource magazine >> Art & Science in Music

Music is an audible demarcation of time.
    Just as visual artists work in space, musicians work in time.
    Cindy McTee's latest composition, an eight-minute overture commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, pays homage to that fact.
    "Timepiece is an exploration of how musical time shapes a composition," says the University of North Texas Regents Professor of composition.
    The piece begins slowly, as if in a holding place. Then a pulse emerges, takes control and provides the driving force behind a sustained, highly energized second section.
    Within this section, the music frequently moves in circular patterns, or ostinatos, making it possible to suspend time and continue a forward progression.
    This is possible because musical time is not like ordinary clock time, according to McTee.
    "It is more like the kind of time experienced when reading a story. It's almost imaginary
repeating, reversing, accelerating, decelerating, and possibly stopping," she says.
And just as an author develops a character, McTee develops patterns of sound, moving them forward and backward. But in Timepiece she's not telling a specific story. She's sharing the passing of time.
    "Part of the joy of listening to this piece is identifying patterns and following them through their development," she says.

Audiences first heard Timepiece in February during the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's Centennial Celebration. It was met with favorable reviews:
    "With crosscuttings of time signatures, little rhythmic gestures were dovetailed and set scrambling one after another. The piece was exhilarating, and cleverly wrought," wrote Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News.
    The Dallas Symphony Orchestra will perform Timepiece again in Birmingham, England, while on tour this fall, and in New York's Carnegie Hall in February. In March its conductor, Andrew Litton, will perform the piece with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
    In addition, the College Band Directors' National Association commissioned McTee to write the wind version of Timepiece. It will be debuted by the UNT Wind Symphony during the association's 2001 conference in February.
    During the spring semester she will be on professional leave writing her first symphony, which was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra for its 2001-02 season and European tour.
    "I'm in a feeding mode for that piece," McTee says, referencing the start of her creative process.
    "I'm reading, listening, sketching. I'm trying to eliminate the clutter to make mental space for work," she says.

When McTee composes, she spends half her time working on computer, developing sounds and patterns.
    Her computer is networked to an electronic keyboard (which is used for input) and synthesizers (which are used for output), allowing her to hear what she is composing.
    The other half of her time is spent in silence on her couch with a notebook and pencil.
    "Silence is just as important to me as sound," she says.
    In that silence she imagines sound.
    But even in her head she cannot always hear exactly what she is composing.
    Her primary teacher, respected Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, told her to compose slightly beyond what she could hear.
    "There is a fine line between composing responsibly and taking risks, composing to grow," she says. "If I could hear everything I was writing, I wouldn't be growing as a composer."
    So, on her computers and in the silence, McTee develops the material
soundsshe wants to work with for a particular composition.
She also develops a theory of what she wants to do with that material.
    Much of her recent thinking about music is informed by the writings of Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung, who felt that creative energy springs from the tension between the oppositions of thought and feeling, of mind and body, of objectivity and subjectivity.
    Jung's concept manifests itself in McTee's music through the integration and reconciliation of opposing elements.
    Once her materials are ready, McTee aligns the details of the piece, juxtaposing her pitch worlds (dissonance, consonance) and rhythmic patterns to find a balance.

"Composing is actually very similar to what a scientist does," she says. "We develop a theory and then we test the theory until we have a final product that either works or not."
    Albert Einstein, who once said, "After a certain level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity and form," would probably agree.
    However, McTee says she never really knows if her composition works until she hears it played for the first time.
    "My computers are sophisticated, but they are not really capable of emulating an actual orchestra," she says. "The first rehearsal is always scary."
    With Timepiece, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra first rehearsed the piece on Tuesday before a Thursday performance.
    "It was in pretty good shape," she says. "I was pleased with what I heard, for the most part. And what I didn't like I fixed before the next day's rehearsal."

McTee knew what to expect from a premiere, because during the nearly four years she spent with Penderecki one in Poland and three at Yaleshe attended many of his rehearsals.
"I learned much more than music from him," she says. "He showed me what it was like to be a composerthe struggle, the responsibility and the enormous pressure, as well as the success."
She also learned the value of having a supportive teacher. "His frequent encouragement of my work did much to bolster my confidence."
    Today, she tries to do the same for her students.
    "Young people have their hands on the pulse of something vibrant and energizing," she says. "I encourage them to use that in their work and to take risks."
    In doing so, she keeps her own creativity fresh.
    "I learn more from my students than from anywhere else," she says. "In trying to guide them, I have to constantly evaluate my own process."
    McTee says beyond rejuvenating her creativity and continuing her own education, she has found an additional value to teaching her art while producing.
    "I'm not dependent on my art to live, so I'm freer to be truly creative," she says.
    Thus universities, the places where ideas are shared and learned, have become an even more critical part of our societal fabric as patrons of the arts, according to McTee.
    "A university is a place where an artist can find support without having to compromise personal style and expression."


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