Neil McKay - Autobiography

Neil McKay was born in Ashcroft, British Columbia in 1924. Piano and violin lessons at an early age preceded participation in high school ensembles (in London, Ontario) with string bass, saxophone and clarinet.

He eagerly absorbed the dance band broadcasts on radio (Benny Goodman, for example) and was inspired to organize a swing band of his own for which he wrote the arrangements. The band was popular in Western Ontario ballrooms from 1940 to 1944 at which time he was drafted, assigned to the Royal Canadian Navy Band, and served in Quebec and on the aircraft carrier “Warrior.”

Upon discharge he was hired as staff arranger by CFPL radio in London, Ontario. Eight instrumentalists were hired to form a versatile ensemble for “The Don Harding Show with the Neil McKay Octet.” The octet formed the core of a studio orchestra and writing for it led to broadening the scope of his arranging skills.

While working at CFPL he began studies at the Toronto Conservatory of Music with noted Canadian composer John Weinsweig who encouraged Neil to enroll at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. There for three intense and inspiring years he studied with Wayne Barlow, Bernard Rogers, Howard Hanson, and Alan Hovhaness, and wrote predominately chamber works, his first symphony, and earned a doctorate (PhD) in music.

Neil’s teaching career began in 1957 at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. During his eight years there he taught composition, theory and woodwinds, played oboe in the Duluth, Minnesota Symphony, and continued composing. Among the works written were “Four Miniatures for Piano”, the String Quartet, the comic opera “Ring Around Harlequin”, “Fantasy on a Quiet theme” for chamber orchestra, “Folk Song Fantasy” for solo clarinet and chorus, and Sonata for Horn and Piano.

The McKay family moved to Hawai’i in 1965, Neil to teach at the University of Hawai’i in Honolulu. It was a move not only fortuitous weather-wise but, more importantly for a composer, musically opportune. Along with classes in theory, composition and orchestration, he instigated classes in jazz improvisation and arranging, and established a Contemporary Music Ensemble. His musical interests broadened, too, as he studied koto and Hawaiian chant and played in the Javanese gamelan. His compositions began to reveal the influences of Asia and the Pacific instruments and modes of expression. Examples are “Worlds”, a work for solo koto that has been played world wide, and “Parables of Kyai Gandrung” (Hardja Susilo, co-composer), a work for Javanese gamelan and symphony orchestra, a unique combination at the time of its commissioning and premiere – 1975.

In 1986 Wadsworth Co. published Neil and Marion McKay’s book, “Fundamentals of Western Music”. It was widely used in colleges and universities as an introduction to music theory.

Since his retirement Neil has written more than one hundred and fifty works. Some are purely symphonic, and many others are symphonic arrangements for the Hawai’i Youth Symphony and intended for the orchestra’s fundraisers where local singers and ensembles are featured with the orchestra. The Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus commissioned two operas; they have received multiple performances and a TV version for Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

Neil has won prizes, fellowships and commissions in both Canada and United States. In Hawai’i in 1997 he received a formal commendation from the Hawai’i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts “in recognition of artistic excellence, significant accomplishments in Music Composition and your commitment to the Arts in the State of Hawai’i”.

Professional organizations to which he belongs are The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), The Society of Composers, Inc., The American Composer’s Forum, and the Canadian Music Centre. He was a three-time resident of the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, awarded fellowships in 1961, 1963 and 1986.