RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Interview with Andrew McKenna Lee

img  Tobias Fischer

Interviews with Andrew McKenna Lee tend to run deep and into unexpected places. When I last spoke with him in May of 2007, the conversation dealt with, among others, the benefits of a more intellectually oriented understanding of a composer's intentions, standing naked on a mountain top and the ongoing influence of New York on his writing. The latter at least has remained a constant: "The community is relatively small, and everybody knows each other. It’s large enough that it’s never difficult to find people to work with, but small enough that one can take inspiration from a sense of support and collegiality within the community", he says about his hometown today, "I think the prevailing attitude of the moment is that anything is possible in music: the walls and entrenched attitudes that have in the past served as obstacles to exploration of different ideas have largely crumbled." There certainly don't seem to be any obstacles to exploration in McKenna Lee's world. Ever since that noteworthy interview, there have been plenty of changes and most of them have been for the better. For one,  McKenna Lee has released two acclaimed albums which have juxtaposed his own work with a lute prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach (Gravity and Air) or Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" (Solar/Electric). Their impact on his career has been palpable, not least because Reich praised his performance and since, as he points out, "a recording still has the ability to reach a considerably wider audience than your average new music concert." Even more importantly, returning to engineering and record production has allowed him to contribute creatively to a project without having to carry the entire emotional burden of it. As trivial as this may seem, the impact of this decision has been vital. After all, as satisfyingly elaborate as his music may be, it is always driven by personal experience, thought and, sentiment. To some extent, these considerations – next to a disappointing experience he speaks about in this interview - played an important role in his return to his rock roots and the founding of The Knells, a formation at the border between prog rock and centuries of classical tradition, between a tightly grooving band and a vocal trio delicately weaving a heavenly polyphonic web. The lyrics see Lee equally at his most philosophical and personal, dealing with life and death with striking immediacy. As much as he stresses that art requires no role or mission, The Knells raise questions, reveals the hidden and lead the listener inward. On "Thread and Fray", the poetry is at its most intimate, reduced to painfully precise lines: "Horizons forever drawn – then forever gone. If only we could choose to make a minute longer." It is in moments like these, when you know the album is hitting a truth and you're unsure about whether to rejoice at its unfolding or shed a tear at its implications, that you realise how much you've missed music as grand, gorgeous and gloriously meaningful as this.

What did it feel like to have Steve Reich call your performance of "Electric Counterpoint" 'magnificent'?
I was grateful for his comment, and deeply flattered. I hear a lot of performances and recordings of Reich’s music that sound very linear and mechanical to me, which is not how I hear it: I hear his music as being natural and circular, and I wanted to try and bring that kind of a vibe to "Electric Counterpoint". I love Metheny’s recording of the piece, especially since I think he brought a real unique sense of feel to it. The challenge for me was to find a different way to achieve that while still letting the piece remain true to itself. The fact that Reich appreciated what I was trying to do seemed like an affirmation of those ideas.

You mentioned that The Knells almost forced itself on you in a way with an experience in the spring of 2010. Can you tell me a bit about this, unless it's too personal?
(laughs) Well, it is a bit personal, but that’s OK …

I don’t mean to seem melodramatic or wimpy about it, but I encountered a fairly bitter professional disappointment in the spring of 2010. I was given the opportunity to perform one of my solo guitar pieces — one that I consider to be one of my best pieces in general — at what was, for me at the time, a hugely important concert. I practiced intensely and played better than I’ve ever played, but I got completely slammed by a couple reviewers. I don’t mind negative criticism when it’s thoughtful and insightful — in fact, I appreciate it — but what was directed my way was both derisive and dismissive. I confess that it hurt: it undermined my confidence and brought out a lot of my insecurities about my abilities as a composer, most of which I had been harboring secretly for years.

I have never felt totally comfortable in the world of classical music: growing up immersed in rock and pop, classical music always seemed pompous and severe to me. Nonetheless, I went to college to study composition because I wanted to learn about musical form and structure, and I knew that classical music had a lot to offer in this regard. Once I got there, I realized how profound it is, and how significant its history and development have been to musical culture at large. Upon this realization, I was helplessly seduced by its “importance” as well as its mythology, and I felt a strong desire to try and become part of its cultural stream. That said, and in spite of years of intense study since, I still feel like an outsider — perhaps everybody does on some level.

Anyway, a few days after this concert, I went hiking alone out in the California desert. I have always had a deep connection with nature, and hiking in the wilderness has often served as a cure for my spiritual and emotional ailments. I didn’t see another soul for 6 hours that day, and while I was out in the midst of that immense nowhere, I was listening to some of my favorite rock records on my iPod: U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, and Remain in Light by The Talking Heads among them. It sounds corny, but at that point, I realized how much I truly loved that music as well, and how much I wanted to stop trying to tow the line as a strictly “classical” music composer. In my personal experience, studying music formally in school and conservatories was a double-edged sword. I learned so much and was exposed to so many things for which I am eternally grateful. On the other hand, I also encountered a subtle propaganda machine that seeks to inculcate students with the idea that classical music is “the best” music: the most progressive, the most forward thinking, the most adventurous, and most artistically meaningful music that the world has ever conjured. I swallowed this idea wholly, and the fact that I did so says as much about me as it does anything else. I have since come to reject that idea, or at the very least, place it in a larger frame of cultural context. I feel like that day in the desert was when I regurgitated it all; for the first time in my life, I felt like I really knew what it was I wanted and needed to do artistically and professionally. It was a cathartic experience for me, one in which I realized that as an artist, one owes no allegiance to anybody other than himself. There are no rules: life is short, boundaries are illusions, and when it comes to music, one should do what he wants to do without apology, compromise, or fear. For me, that realization meant that I needed to get back to my rock roots. I came up with the idea for The Knells — the instrumentation, the approach, production, and most everything else — that day.

Interestingly, more and more musicians who grew up with rock are turning towards the concert halls. What, do you feel, can this bring to the 'Western music tradition'?
Well, I can really only speak from my own perspective. There are things I deeply admire about classical music: among them a preoccupation with form and structure over longer periods of time, and a high regard for elements of imagination and craft in musical content. On the other hand, there are things that I greatly appreciate in rock music, such as emotional immediacy over intellectual contrivance, and an embrace of rhythm in the form of grooves and pockets. There are also things about both that I feel less attached to, creatively speaking, such as classical music’s overt formality in creation and presentation, and rock and pop music’s tendency to celebrate somewhat banal social issues and trite musical ideas. Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Any and all of these things can be both liabilities and strengths: none are exclusive to either genre, and there are plenty of exceptions all the way around.

As for crossover in the industry in general, it seems like we are currently in a place where classical presenting organizations are eager to capitalize on a cache of hipness, exposure, and cultural relevance that rock and pop musicians can afford them. I don’t really have a problem with this as long as it’s not just a marketing ploy and the artistic goal is genuine: different musicians can bring a fresh perspective and approach to “serious” musical proceedings that can frequently seem hermetic and staid. On the downside, there unfortunately does not seem to be much going back the other way: with some exceptions, of course, I don’t see much of the rock and pop world aspiring to accommodate the higher levels of artistic accomplishment that classical music strives for. Obviously, this has as much to do with audiences as it does with the artists themselves.

You've cited music from Palestrina to 60s psychedelic pop as points of departure. In an age where the past and the present are more closely intertwined than ever, what's your take on the relevance of influences and inspiration?
For me, influence and inspiration are everything, and they are closely intertwined. I see no justifiable reason why disparate sources of influence — in terms of time period, genre, style, performance practice, or anything else — cannot be distilled and combined together. This is often how “new music” is born. How one wishes to weigh those various considerations and shape them in proportion to one another is an artistic consideration, and a defining characteristic of one’s creative voice. Essentially, an artist has to do what feels right to them. Maybe this seems like an endorsement of self-indulgence, but I don’t see a problem with that in the context of being a composer.

I regard stylistic boundaries a bit like color boundaries between objects in a photograph. If one looks at the “big picture,” it’s quite easy to see the sharp delineations of color that mark the borders between things; a tree and the sky, for example, or a person and a car. If you enlarge the photo 1000X, however, you begin to see that those borders are no longer so clearly defined, but are rather vast, fuzzy swaths of pixels of various shades and colors. Personally, I’m interested in exploring those equivalent regions between different musical styles and practices. I think the challenge comes in making something that moves beyond simply being blatantly appropriative, retro, or pastiche, and that feels cohesive and deeply synthesized. I think one of the ways to ensure this is to have a genuine love and deep understanding of the musical sources of inspiration from which one draws.

The Knells is a lot more than just a rock band with some classical vocals and instrumental parts slapped on top of it. What was the group sound and interaction between the different parts you were originally looking for?
I think the record is a fairly accurate representation of what I originally conceived in the desert that day. In addition to wanting to reconcile with my roots, the idea for The Knells was born out of a desire to redefine the idea of “art song” in a post-Beatles world.

The idea of using three singers came from my wanting to avoid the paradigm of there being a “lead vocalist” typical of most rock bands. Perhaps it’s because I’m primarily an instrumentalist, but it’s always kind of bugged me that so much of the success of a band hinges on the charisma of the lead singer. By using three singers, I felt like I could somewhat mitigate that issue. Also, it’s not like this is unheard of in rock/pop music: vocal groups such as CSN&Y, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas used to be a huge part of the vernacular in American pop music. I wanted to reference that, but go about constructing the vocal harmonies in a different way.

As for the rest of the band, the idea was to just write through-composed forms that involved the guitars in more interesting textural ways than what one might find in a typical rock band. I originally wanted to use the strings as an equal partner in the band, but recanted and tipped my hat to practicality in the end: making strings an integral part of the songs would have meant that we couldn’t perform without them, and I couldn’t go that far. I scaled back my ambition for their role in the arrangements, which I don’t regret. We can play all the songs live without strings, and they hold up well without them.

Finally, I wanted a rhythm section (à la drums and bass) because I wanted to get back to the sound and feel of a good groove. There seems to be an attitude in classical music (unspoken or not) that grooves are lowbrow and pedestrian, but I reject that idea. Anybody who has ever really listened to a drummer like Stewart Copeland or Billy Cobham has to see how highly developed they are as musicians: at least as refined, nuanced, and complex in their musical expression as an orchestral percussionist who waits 67 bars to play a quarter note on the claves. I realize this is a flippant and vastly oversimplified comment, but it gets back to what I said earlier about posing questions: why is drumming any less of a sophisticated art form than playing the cello, and why can’t there be a place for it in the practice of modern concert music? This especially doesn’t make sense to me in a post-minimalist world: evidently, it’s OK for guys like Reich, Glass, and their progeny to beat out 8th note ostinati for their entire careers, but a drummer playing highly sophisticated, simultaneous subdivisions of a beat, often somewhat improvisatorially and in real time, cuts a little too close to the bone of “low art.” It seems like classical music will accept drums as long as they’re played stiffly by some guy in a tux reading off a chart, but the minute any real feel or groove comes into the picture, the music somehow slips into a lower slot of artistic credibility.

I don’t wish to seem like I’m standing on a soapbox about this point, but it’s ridiculous to me that the use of a particular instrument — be it drums, an electric guitar, or an accordion, etc. — causes certain people to make certain assumptions about the height of ambition in a piece of music, and its integrity in fulfilling that ambition. It’s as ridiculous as qualifying Sgt. Pepper’s as classical music because The Beatles used brass and strings in their song arrangements.

From your perspective as an instrumentalist, what does the inclusion of voices change in music? How do you see the relationship between language and sound, between lyrics and music?
The Knells was my first effort at writing vocal music. I had always avoided it until now because, as an instrumentalist, I always somewhat resented the fact that the minute a composer introduces vocals into music, everything else in the piece has to be at their service. I found a way to be at peace with this by writing the music for the vocal parts first, and then writing the lyrics to fit the lines I had created, usually with little alteration. Sussing out the lyrics usually involved knowing which vowels would work best given a certain pitch and register in a particular vocal part. From there, the vowels would suggest words, and individual words would suggest thoughts, phrases, and eventually the completed text. Sometimes I had an idea of what I wanted the song to be about before I started; other times, I figured it out through the process.

When I began working on The Knells, I worried about the vocal parts a lot. I had also never really written lyrics before, and I knew it would be a challenge. Generally, the sound of the music is the most important thing to me: the pitches, the shape of the lines, and how they work together in the context of the rest of the band took precedent. Nonetheless, there was something specific I felt I wanted to communicate through this music, so I felt compelled to accept the challenge and responsibility of creating the texts. The alternatives — setting somebody else’s text or simply writing “vocalisms” — were not appealing to me at all. In the case of the former, I didn’t want to endlessly scour books of poetry in hopes of finding something that might effectively communicate what I was feeling and then have to deal with the whole publisher/permissions issue. On the other hand, writing vocalized syllables instead of meaningful words just seemed like a cop-out.

Tell me about the vocal scoring, please. Some of the arrangements sound as though the voices could well work without the music ...
The Knells was conceived primarily as a collection of songs. Generally, I wrote my own guitar parts first, and then built the vocals in layers on top of that. Consequently, almost all the songs work quite well with the three voices and single guitar accompaniment.

As for the vocal scoring, I essentially began with a single melodic line, and added the other voices as harmonic and contrapuntal accompaniment. Sometimes I knew I wanted to do something different, like the hocketing section in the song Spiral Knells, for instance. Other times, it was just a process of finding the right harmonies to work with the chordal parts I had written, while keeping in mind that I generally wanted a very homophonic, ensemble feel to the vocal parts.

In our 2007 interview, you mentioned you were searching for a harmonic language that works for you. Why is it that harmony is proving such a challenging concept for your writing?
Form has always been really important to me, and I have always been driven to explore that aspect of music, and to figure out how to build more dynamic and fluid structures that maintain a sense of trajectory and internal connectedness. As I got further into studying composition, I began to understand how harmonic relationships in older, classical music dictated form, and how later composers — like Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, and countless others — began pushing those ideas to their limits.

I think part of the reason harmony has been such a challenging concept for me is largely due to the fact that I’m a guitarist. Although the guitar has a relatively large amount of harmonic elasticity built in to it (at least relative to an instrument like the flute) it is still somewhat limited, at least compared to an instrument like the piano. It didn’t help growing up in the world of rock and pop, where harmonic motion is mostly always diatonic, and often never moves beyond a few chords.

With The Knells, I feel like I’ve found something that is starting to work for me. I am still acutely aware of its harmonic limitations, but feel like I can use dissonance and instrumental texture to make up for that to an extent, while imbuing the music with that fluid and elastic quality which is so important to me. Using scordatura tunings on the guitars can also sometimes help, but no matter what you do, the guitar is always only going to be able to encompass so much terrain, harmonically speaking. I’ve kind of come to accept that for now, and am feeling quite happy exploring what it can do, as opposed to feeling disappointed about what it cannot.

You've mentioned that the passing of time is becoming increasingly apparent to you. How has this affected your approach to composing? What is your take on spirituality in music?
I think this gets back to my experience in the desert. As I have gotten older, I have learned to shed the expectations that I may have put upon myself from teachers, parents, and other colleagues. I’ve realized that — at least at this point in my life and in my own music — I am truly free. The only limiting factor in all of this, of course, is time. We each only have so much of it, and it’s up to us to have the courage to embrace the freedom we’re afforded and make something we find meaningful out of our lives.

As for spirituality in music, I think its ability to help us transcend our mundane existence as human beings slogging through life and experience higher and/or deeper realities of emotional and spiritual meaning is its greatest power, and precisely what makes it so valuable.

You've talked about states where one question leads to more questions and, eventually, spiritual death. What's your take on the role of the arts: Should music ask questions or should it answer them?
I don’t believe artists have any obligation to any other purpose than what they choose to pursue. Consequently, I don’t believe music or art has any responsibility or obligation towards asking or answering questions. At best, I think inspired art offers people who engage with it any one of a number of positive things: perspective, solace, empathy, and perhaps a sense of connection with something greater than themselves, all of which I think are priceless. I certainly have my opinions on things, and I wish that our culture in general was more attuned to a wider variety of meaningful aesthetic experiences through music, but I don’t feel comfortable saying what art should be for anybody else.

By Tobias Fischer
Image by Live Shots Photography

Homepage: Andrew McKenna Lee
Homepage: The Knells
Homepage: New Amsterdam Records