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Neil McKay: Biography

Neil McKay
1924 - 2016
Region: International

Neil McKay

Neil McKay was born in Ashcroft, British Columbia in 1924. His parents were both musical and at age 4 he began piano lessons. On the death of his father in 1932 the family moved to London, Ontario where, at the age of 8, he began violin studies. In his his high school years he organized, a dance band, writing his own arrangements, and the band maintained a busy schedule of engagements in southern Ontario until he joined the Royal Canadian Navy Band in 1944, serving at the Signal School in Ste. Hyacinth, Quebec and aboard the aircraft carrier Warrior until 1946.

ln 1946 radio station CFPL in London originated a radio production division and McKay was hired as staff arranger; programs were aired locally, and nationally over the CBC networks. Some of the programs for which he arranged were “The Don Harding Show” which featured the Neil McKay Octet, “Invitation to Dominion” (a variety show), “Silverwood Serenade” (studio orchestra plus the Don Wright Chorus and solo singers), and the Trans-Canada network's Saturday Night Dancing Party with the CFPL dance band from the London Arena.

He began studies in composition in 1949 with John Weinzweig and continued his composition studies at the Eastman School in Rochester, NY earning an M.A. in 1955 and a PHD. in 1956.

Initially intending to become a composer with the National Film Board, he opted instead for a university position which, at the time, paid more, a significant consideration for someone with a wife and two children to support. He spent eight years at the University of Wisconsin in Superior, teaching theory and woodwinds and playing oboe with the Duluth Symphony. During this time his compositional style was relatively conservative, evident in String Quartet (premiered by the Chicago Fine Arts Quartet ), the Dance overture (commissioned by the Duluth Symphony for the opening of a new Arena/Auditorium complex) and the opera "Ring Around Harlequin."

The family moved to Hawai'i in 1965 where McKay taught composition, orchestration and theory at the University of Hawai'i in Honolulu. He also established course s in jazz improvisation and jazz arranging and developed a contemporary music ensemble. The mingling of many cultures in Hawai'i prompted him to study koto, Hawaiian Chant, and to play in the Javanese gamelan. Intense experimentation in McKay's compositions began to include musical concepts and/or instruments of Asia, Africa, Polynesia and South-East Asia. Examples are "Evocations" for concert band (Japanese), "Parables of Kyai Gandrung" for gamelan and orchestra (Javanese), "world(s)" for solo koto (gamelan, twelve-tone, and blues) and "soundprints" for clarinet and koto (Japanese and jazz).

In 1972, on a sabbatical leave, McKay and his wife travelled around the world recording on cassette music of many cultures from the South Pacific to Africa. On their return, McKay wrote "Ritual", a chamber ensemble piece inspired by a ceremony in the Congo involving slit-gong and chanting.

Since retiring in 1986, his compositions tend to reflect is entire musical experience. Examples are “Connections” for clarinet and bass clarinet, and “Such Sweet Sorrow” for orchestra.

For the past 17 years he had worked closely with the Hawai’i Youth Orchestra Chorus for which he has written 2 operas, both based on Hawaiian legends, and the Hawai’i Youth Symphony for which he has written compositions featuring as soloists the most accomplished performers in the orchestra and also arrangements for the orchestra accompanying local soloists and groups at fund-raising events.



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