For Ann McMillan, musical inspiration grew from the sounds of our environment. A composer whose work was primarily recorded and completed throughout the 1970s, McMillan was part of the burgeoning musique concrète and electronic music movement, forming sparse, eclectic sounds through tape manipulation. In looking back on her music more than 40 years later, her penchant for radical exploration remains apparent. Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal & Other Sounds, a recently reissued Smithsonian Folkways recording, is a treasure trove of her thought-provoking and captivating music, venturing through a wide swath of manipulated nature sounds, from frog croaks to thrush calls to bells and gongs.
Much of McMillan’s work is lost to the ether, and it’s significantly lesser-known than the work of her male peers. The gender disparity in electronic music and experimental music is inescapable. During the ‘70s, McMillan found herself at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Exchange, the most prominent electronic music studio of the 20th century, where she recorded Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal & Other Sounds. Prior to her time there, she worked with Edgard Varèse, known for electronic work on pieces such as Poème Electronique, which layers magnetic tape to form intricate texture. In listening to McMillan’s work, the influences from composers like Varèse is evident, however, her own individual voice shines through the veneer of comparison.
In listening to this album, I found myself awestruck by its complexity, captivated by every sonic turn. What’s most exciting about this music is its ability to make the sounds of the natural world feel digital. This agenda is palpable from the first moments; “Amber 75” manipulates frog croaks and insect hisses into swirling electronics. The sparse music whirls and echoes as if it’s an electric swamp; the ideas of technology and nature effortlessly weave together into something in-between the two.
Throughout the record, metallic electronics and stark natural sounds morph into one. “Episode” takes a different approach than “Amber 75,” exploring the possibilities of the harpsichord rather than manipulating a field recording from the outdoors, but it still sounds like an acoustic piece that’s been struck by lightning shot from Azula’s fingertips. Extended techniques in the vein of Henry Cowell are crucial to the piece, as harsh plucking of the harpsichord’s strings calls to mind The Banshee. But here, McMillan brings these ideas into a new realm, coloring each stroke of the piano’s strings with reverb only made possible by electronic amplification. The resulting music is wild, and striking in its sparsity.
McMillan writes in her liner notes: “Every composer must have an individual palette of sound, and in recent years there has been a greater choice of sources than ever before.” On Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal & Other Sounds, she makes this statement her ethos, creating her own sound within the broader tradition of experimental electronic music-making while exploring styles from numerous places. McMillan’s music inspires us to discover music in our surroundings, no matter what they are.