Neil Rolnick: Seamless Transitions
Neil Rolnick is extremely soft-spoken and self-effacing, but for over 30 years he has helped to create a much changed musical landscape in the United States in terms of musical aesthetics and the application of technology in concert performance.
A conversation at Rolnick’s home in New York City
March 11, 2013–2:30 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan
Neil Rolnick is extremely soft-spoken and self-effacing, but for over 30 years he has helped to create a much changed musical landscape in the United States in terms of musical aesthetics and the application of technology in concert performance. Next month he will retire from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, where he has taught since 1981, founding the institute’s influential iEAR Studios shortly after his arrival. Yet Rolnick’s attitude about musical composition is the antithesis of an academic approach. While he deeply respects and loves a lot of modernist 20th-century music, he realized relatively early on that his own mind didn’t work that way.
Studies with Darius Milhaud at Aspen and Fritz Kramer, a musicologist based at the Manhattan School of Music, gave him his initial grounding in the fundamentals, but as a Harvard undergrad he chose not to study music and took literature classes instead, playing in rock and folk bands in his spare time. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, his earliest jobs after getting an undergraduate college degree were as a community organizer and counselor for teenagers in Vermont and as a hospital worker in Wyoming, where he got fired after attempting to unionize his co-workers. This was around the same time that commercial synthesizers first appeared on the market, and Rolnick was totally entranced by the possibilities of electronic music. So he went back to school, first studying with John Chowning, the legendary pioneer of FM synthesis, at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), and then later at IRCAM working alongside Pierre Boulez, whose musical worldview was less than simpatico. According to Rolnick:
It was like dropping into a history book. . . . Then I got there and realized that they’re all real people, just like you and me, doing things that they feel are right, and I’m actually capable of saying, “Well no, that’s not the right thing for me. No, I think some of those ideas are not O.K.” . . . They had designed the first digital synthesizer at IRCAM, and [Boulez] called me in to ask what I thought should happen with it. And I said, “Oh, well, it’s obvious. You should make this available to 15-year-olds.”—I was 30 at the time—“They will do things that you can’t imagine, and things that I can’t. This will be what they learn to make music on, and it’s going to change everything.” And he said, “No, no, no. It should go to Luciano [Berio]. It should go to Hans Werner Henze. It should go to Karlheinz [Stockhausen] and to Jean-Claude [Risset].” Those were the people who were going to make real music on it. And it didn’t matter really what anyone else did. And I said, “Wrong,” and he said, “You’re just too American.” And of course what I suggested is what Yamaha did. And I think it did change everything. . . . In fact, the stuff that I built at RPI was in direct reaction to what I saw at IRCAM.
Despite his deep immersion in technology, the human element has always been central to Rolnick’s music. He emphatically claims that he has never composed a piece of music that did not involve a live interpreter in its performance. (He acknowledged that he has done a few studio compositions to accompany live dancers.) And, as soon as it was possible to do so, the electronic components of his pieces were realized in real time as well. The way Rolnick has handled this aspect of the music has evolved along with the technologies he uses—ensembles featuring electronic instruments alongside acoustic ones, processing acoustic instruments electronically in real time, using laptops in a performance. But whereas there are detailed instructions for other musicians to perform whatever he asks them to play—whether precisely notated musical phrases or improvisation—the electronic component to his music has proven to be elusive to convey to others.
Perhaps an even more important human element to Rolnick’s music is the fact that many of his compositions have been a direct by-product of his life experiences—whether mowing the lawn for the legendary architect Walter Gropius, being overjoyed when his grandchildren moved into his neighborhood, losing the hearing in his left ear, or his extensive travels to places ranging from the People’s Republic of China to the Former Yugoslavia. Now that he is retiring from teaching, he’s hoping to have more time to spend with his grandchildren as well as to travel, but above all, to keep making music. Given his track record thus far, it will be very exciting to hear what he comes up with next.
Frank J. Oteri: In the booklet notes for one of your CDs, you made a statement that really resonated with me: you claimed that music, for you, was ultimately about communication. I thought that would be a great place to begin our conversation, because I’m curious to learn precisely what that means to you. How can you ensure that your music is communicating? Is some music more communicative than other types? What qualities make the music communicative?
Neil Rolnick: It has to do with putting things that really stick in people’s minds and that they can identify with into the music. The big jump for me had to do with having studied lots of 20th-century music and feeling like it was very important to be deep and difficult, but then realizing that my mind doesn’t really work that way. I seem to have a knack for writing melodies that stick in people’s ears, and after lots of studying that made me very embarrassed. But I figured that if I can express what I really hear, get it down on paper, and have it be played, that’s really the best that I can do. So communicating is really about being honest about what my feelings are, honest about what my ears hear, honest about what comes out musically, directly from heart and mind.
FJO: What’s interesting about you describing writing what you’re hearing in your head is that a few years ago you lost most of your hearing in one ear and it has changed the way you think about how other people perceive things. As somebody who is so sensitive about sound and hearing, that experience has fundamentally changed the way you hear. But you’re still writing music, and I personally don’t hear a before and after.
NR: I don’t think that there is, except there are some noisier processing things that I tend to do now that I didn’t do so much before. But that’s such a teeny-tiny change. I think the interesting thing is that it didn’t change the way that I hear in my head; it changed the way that I hear what’s outside my head.
FJO: There’s a wonderful passage in your piece Gardening at Gropius House where all of a sudden there’s this cluster that comes in. That sounded to me like the din you have described that you now hear all the time in your left ear.
NR: Yes, more or less. It’s partially what I hear in my left ear. It’s the din, but it’s also sort of symbolic for me—a distilling of this kind of modernistic reliance on texture without really having a melodic and harmonic content that compels me, this counterweight, which I don’t entirely discount because I really love some of that music.
FJO: I’d like to talk more with you about your relationship to modernism, but before we do, I’d like to know more about these recent pieces, which are essentially about the perceptual idiosyncrasies that distinguish experiences for people. You created a piece about your own experience of hearing loss and how you’ve dealt with it, MONO Prelude, but then you took it further in Anosmia, which is about other people’s sensory irregularities. To bring it back to wanting your music to communicate, how is it ever possible to know if something is communicating when, as you have explored in these recent pieces, everybody hears, sees, smells, tastes, feels differently from each other? What you are trying to communicate to others might not necessarily be the way they receive it.
NR: What I’m trying to communicate is what it is. What they receive in terms of how they hear, how they smell, how they see, is going to necessarily be different and that’s actually what’s so fascinating to me. The thing that I came away from this experience with is this realization that all of our perceptions are really different. MONO Prelude, the piece in which I tell the story of losing my hearing on my left side, is kind of the beginning of the frame. A project which includes scenes from the MONO pieces and Anosmia will hopefully be a whole evening with lots of emphasis on seeing as well as listening, framing how our different perceptions work and how our senses are never the same. I’m kind of picturing it as a staged oratorio or a non-linear opera. I’m talking to a director, Caden Manson, who has a group called Big Art Group, about working together.
FJO: What about the other three senses?
NR: Well, they’re in there. I haven’t figured out how to make them work in a performance situation, but I’m interested.
FJO: There are things that have certainly been done with wafting scents.
NR: I’m not sure that they really work. Taste and touch are things that I could imagine figuring out a way to do online where you’re not dealing with a proscenium situation, but rather where you come into peoples’ homes. People take their computers to bed to read; you know, you get very intimate with people. At that point, I can easily imagine really thinking about involving senses.
FJO: That’s so interesting because with a computer you can see any image and hear all music, but there’s no such thing as digital wine. And there’s no such thing as digital perfume, either. And then touch—
NR: —There are people working with haptic interfaces where you can have something that is a surface which is a lot of little points that can tell how strongly you press against them. I’ve seen some demonstrations of things like that. But at the same time, I don’t think that the digital-ness is really so important. The fact that we get these cool little pictures on our phones is as important as the fact that they’re ubiquitous and that they really do reach into the intimate parts of your life. So that’s much more interesting than this sort of high-tech aspect of the sound or of the sight. It’s more the fact that it comes into your life and your life is where you touch, where you smell, and where you drink stuff. It’s a connector. That to me is much more interesting than that you deliver it all through the screen.
FJO: So you’re willing to let other people have their own experiences rather than trying to control what experience they’re having?
NR: I don’t know that you have much choice. People have their own experiences. You may try to control everyone’s experience, but that’s ultimately not very successful.
FJO: So to take it back to that Gropius piece—I love the essay you wrote about it that’s online. What a phenomenal story! There was a whole generation of people who felt that they could and perhaps should change the natural order—whether it’s a wildly growing lawn, or how pitches are organized, or how sentences are constructed, or how colors combine on a canvas.
NR: And I think for anyone who’s going to be a musician, or a composer, or a poet or writer, or an artist of any sort, some of that is there. Right? Because otherwise you’re not doing anything. Even John Cage finding chance procedures. Although he said he’s not really controlling anything, he’s doing something; there is some result. There is some control—some arrangement for something to control something. At the same time, what Gropius was interested in doing was taking this field behind his house and really making it into a formal garden. And I, as a 19-year-old student who was his gardener, thought that the field was much more beautiful than the gardens he had around his house, or the dorms he had built at Harvard, or anything else. So why would I take this natural harmony and beauty and mess it up?
I had a similar musical experience when I was a graduate student. I spent a year and a half working at IRCAM. I was working with Boulez closely, and also with Berio, Jean-Claude Risset, and Vinko Globocar; it was like the heart of European modernism. When I left, it was partially because UC Berkeley said if I wanted to get my degree, I better come back because they weren’t going to give it to me from Paris. But it was also partially because Boulez finally said, “You’re too American. You should go back to America.” At first I took offense, and then I thought, “He’s right!” They had designed the first digital synthesizer at IRCAM, and he called me in to ask what I thought should happen with it. And I said, “Oh, well, it’s obvious. You should make this available to 15-year-olds.”—I was 30 at the time—“They will do things that you can’t imagine, and things that I can’t. This will be what they learn to make music on, and it’s going to change everything.” And he said, “No, no, no. It should go to Luciano. It should go to Hans Werner Henze. It should go to Karlheinz and to Jean-Claude.” Those were the people who were going to make real music on it. And it didn’t matter really what anyone else did. And I said, “Wrong,” and he said, “You’re just too American.” And of course what I suggested is what Yamaha did. And I think it did change everything.
FJO: What’s interesting is at that point in the development of electronic music, there really were two electronic musics. There were these laboratories at universities, research centers like IRCAM and Stanford where John Chowning, whom you also had worked with, has discovered the FM synthesis algorithm—really high-level scientific inquiry. And then there were pop musicians who played on synthesizers, like the Moog and the Buchla, which had recently become available on the commercial market. And for them, it was gear that enhanced their sound world. They created some weird, odd sounds that weren’t heard before, but it wasn’t really about scientific inquiry; it was about making something really cool.
NR: It actually started out as scientific inquiry with Moog and Buchla because they were working with analog machines and they were trying to figure out how to do it. The work I did when I was a student working at Stanford, with Chowning and Andy Moore and other people there, was with computers; you had to run the math to figure out what really happens when you do FM synthesis in terms of being able to put out the equations. But when I finished that and finished IRCAM and got a job in 1981—the one I’m just leaving at RPI—the first thing I did was go out and buy a synthesizer. And I bought some analog stuff. I think I bought a Prophet-5 and some things. Then someone told me about the Synclavier. So I sold my analog gear and got a Synclavier for about ten thousand dollars; I convinced the bank that it was like investing in a violin. It was going to gain value, and boy was I wrong. But I got the loan and I had a job. Some of the people that I had worked with at Stanford came out to visit me and they saw this Synclavier, and they said, “Well, this is just a toy. You can’t do everything on it.” Because on the mainframe computer at Stanford, we could do everything. And my response was, “What I can do is practice on this. I can use it every day. I can spend hours practicing, just as though it were a violin or a piano or anything else. And so even though it can’t do everything, I can do a whole lot more with it, because I can really get to know it.” Again it’s that it sort of has an intimacy because it’s in my life on a daily basis.
FJO: You had this interest in communicating that goes all the way back, and you had this desire to get to know an instrument intimately, but you also had a fascination with studio electronic music which doesn’t exactly seem simpatico with those other things.
NR: I have two memories. One is when I was in college or shortly after college, playing in rock and roll bands, and listening to a recording and the tape being stretched. We’re all sitting around listening and then, all of a sudden, it gets really strange. And I was fascinated. I thought, “What’s going on here?” What I had played was interesting, but then what I heard back was completely different. I didn’t major in music in college—I was a literature major—but I played in rock bands and folk dance bands all the way through. Then I worked at different things, including being a rock musician for about four years, and then went back to school and was formally introduced to electronic music, and it was just the easiest thing I could ever imagine doing. I completely got how to do it, and I could immediately go in and make things happen that seemed fascinating and interesting. I was always a pretty bad piano player; I can play a bunch of instruments pretty badly. But as soon as I started working, first with analog electronics and then computers, it was just like, oh right, this is what I’m supposed to do.
FJO: You mentioned playing rock and folk. I also remember reading somewhere that your earliest musical memory was hearing Western swing—after all, you were born in Texas. So there was all this music going on in your life. But you weren’t really immersed in classical music. Then, all of a sudden, you were in an academic environment doing really heavy, experimental music. Now, many years later, you’re writing for orchestra and writing for string quartet, sometimes even without electronics. So you’re coming at it from having done these other things, rather than returning to it.
NR: Well, there’s a little place in the middle there, when I was—I don’t know—14 to 17. I studied with a music teacher who lived right around the corner from here, up on 187th Street and Fort Washington. His name was Fritz Kramer. He was a musicologist at the Manhattan School; he gave lectures for the Philharmonic on Wednesday afternoons. We lived in Connecticut, and I would come in and spend all Saturday with Mr. Kramer. We would do a piano lesson, 16th-century counterpoint, 18th-century counterpoint and chorale harmonizations, listen to Hindemith. I would do exercises in Hindemith-like counterpoint. And I would have to do imitations of whatever I was playing in the piano lessons—Bach fugues, Mozart sonatas, and what not. Then I would have to do 12-tone exercises. And my grandfather got me a small subscription to the Philharmonic, so I had to do an analysis of whatever I was going to hear at the Philharmonic.
The last year I did that, that summer I went and studied with Darius Milhaud at Aspen. So I had done some folk music before that, but I got really immersed in this heavy-duty music theory that sort of took over my life for about three or four years, then went to college and had an extended case of adolescence and played in rock bands a bunch. I had to learn to play simply, which really was the difficult thing. And then when I went back, it was sort of like “Which world am I in?” I remember when I played in rock bands thinking, “Well, that stuff I did with Milhaud and with Mr. Kramer—no one listens to that, no cares about it. It’s just all this heady, high-brow stuff. Being able to play in clubs and festivals where people bounce up and down and really obviously dig what you’re doing—that’s what it’s all about!”
But then I said, “Well, O.K., what do I really hear?” I was much more interested in something that was more intellectual and more challenging and more interesting to me than what I was doing with rock bands or with jazz groups. But I feel like I don’t really fit in the classical music world either, in some ways, because I think a lot of people listen to my stuff and say, “Oh, well that’s just like jazz, you know.” There’s improvisation sometimes, and there’s beats, constant rhythmic things. I guess that’s what I think about when I am communicating, it’s just a matter of saying what I really hear. Forget about the ear that doesn’t hear.
FJO: Yeah, we’ll get back to that later, but let’s stay with your earlier experiences a bit longer. You had these role models. Milhaud was a really solid composer who had a firm grounding in the Western classical tradition—counterpoint, sonata form—and he wrote tons of string quartets and symphonies. And the guy who did these composition exercises with you was also completely entrenched within old-school classical music.
FJO: But you abandoned that path. Instead, you do the rock and jazz thing and don’t even major in music as an undergrad. But then you decide to go back into music and so you work with John Chowning and then Boulez. That seems to me like the other extreme.
NR: I’d been living in Vermont. I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and I started out working in a hospital in Wyoming, where I got canned for organizing hospital workers. Then I moved to Vermont, and got a kind of community organizing/counseling job with teenagers there. I was playing in rock bands this whole time. Then I met a guy who was the local music teacher; he organized the school chorus, and they did plays and musicals. And I thought, “Gee, that’s what I want to do.” I tried to be a counselor. I tried to be a mechanic, or a taxi driver, or a carpenter. With all of these things, I discovered that if I really particularly wanted to do something crafty, like being a carpenter, it’s going to take me five or six years to really learn how do any of that really well, anyway. And, if I was going to take all that time, I might as well do what I really wanted to do, which was to be a musician. So I thought, “O.K., well, if I go back to school and I get a degree in music, then I can move out in the country and you know, teach at a high school or something, and that would be great. That would be wonderful.” So then I went to Berkeley and got swept up into all the interesting new music things that were happening in the Bay area.
Then I got this opportunity to go to Paris and work at IRCAM, and it was like I was dropped right in the middle of all these things I had been reading about from the time I was in high school. It was like dropping into a history book. I remember reading Boulez articles when I was in high school and studying Stockhausen. It never dawned on me that since they were the people that I read about in books that I could actually reject things that they did. Because that just wasn’t an option, you know. Then I got there and realized that they’re all real people, just like you and me, doing things that they feel are right, and I’m actually capable of saying, “Well no, that’s not the right thing for me. No, I think some of those ideas are not O.K.”
In fact, the stuff that I built at RPI was in direct reaction to what I saw at IRCAM. IRCAM was really based on the idea that there is this great musical tradition. Someone once asked if I was going to hear Boulez here because he was probably the last musician who saw himself as directly descended from Wagner, through Debussy off into the great future of contemporary music. But I really feel like music is about communication. It’s about doing something. It’s not about making great masterpieces. It’s about making music for people. I’m much less concerned about the great masterpiece problem, and much more concerned about making events happen, where people listen to music, and making music that people want to listen to.
FJO: At the same time, I wouldn’t sell you short; you’ve written some really terrific, formidable pieces that deserve to be widely appreciated.
NR: Well, I hope so, and that’s actually one of the things that I really am hoping that I can do now that I’m getting rid of academic life for myself—to really focus. I have a lot of pieces that I really like and that I feel should have much bigger audiences. And I have a lot of pieces that I’m intending to write, that I think should have bigger audiences. Even though I’ve been very productive all the time I’ve been a teacher, now that I don’t have to be a teacher, I think that I can maybe be productive on a level of getting the music out more.
FJO: To take it back one place before we bring it more into the present, one of the things that I found so striking about your earliest pieces—I’m thinking about Wondrous Love (the trombone piece for George Lewis) and Ever-Livin’ Rhythm—is that even though you were writing pieces with tape, there was always a live performer as a part of it. You didn’t do these tape pieces where you go to a concert and you’re sitting in the audience looking at just the two loudspeakers.
NR: I’ve never done that. At the very beginning, I wrote a couple of pieces like that, but they were for dance—one for Margaret Jenkins and one for a friend when I was in graduate school. It’s never made sense to me, that idea of acousmatic music where there’s no connection to what’s making the sound. It just isn’t interesting because it seems to me that when you play something and you make something, you want to have someone say, “Here is my gift. Here is what I can give you. And it’s beautiful, I believe it’s beautiful, and I hope you’ll think it’s beautiful also.” That requires a person, and so every time someone has tried to get me to do something like that, it’s not interesting to me. And I thought that from the very beginning. The first piece that I wrote with the computer was a percussion piece, Ever-Livin’ Rhythm, and it was about making a virtuoso. It was kind of thinking in terms of what would Zyklus be if Stockhausen could hum a melody? So there was all this sense of how to really make a virtuoso percussion piece that had one person playing–there were 42 instruments—and yet make it work. A lot of the early pieces took melodic material from other things and this actually used material from a recording of Ba-Benzele Pygmies from Central Africa that had an interesting nose flute hocketing rhythm. I used that as the basis for it. But it was something where you hear the rhythms, and you hear the melodies, and there’s the spectacle of the person playing it and making it work. I always think of electronics and technology as being a little gloss of magic on the sound. We all know that you can get anything out of loudspeakers, right? You can make any sound that you want. But if you have a live player, and the speakers are doing something that just makes it so what the player’s doing isn’t really possible, then that’s really kind of exciting for an audience.
FJO: I think there have been several important moments of transition for you. As I said to you before, I don’t really hear a before and after in your music as a result of your hearing loss, but I do hear a before and after between those early pieces and the pieces Real Time and À la Mode that were released on LP by CRI in the 1980s. I want to talk about that LP a bit because the cover is so striking.
NR: It was one of the very last CRI LPs.
FJO: CRI was a label that tended to have pretty staid covers. Sometimes, there wouldn’t even be a picture on the cover, just the names of the composers—usually three different composers. And maybe if you knew one of them, you bought the record for the one you knew. But here was a record of just your music with a picture of you on the cover in a suit, wieldng an AX-Synth and sitting on top of a fake, oversized piece of cake.
NR: Yeah. Cheesecake. I’ve always felt humor is important, not taking yourself so seriously. One of the wonderful things that I’ve always loved about John Cage is that he was always smiling in his pictures. You know, you had Schoenberg, who was always frowning and looking very serious. And then you had Cage, who always had this big, silly grin on his face. You don’t have Shakespeare plays without Falstaff. If you’re going to really reflect life, you’ve got to have some humor. It’s too much to have without humor. That’s why we have it. So there’s that. And then it’s also using graphics and colors to frame what I’m trying to do. Real Time and À la Mode are an interesting pair of pieces because they’re where I got away from using samples of other people’s melodies and said, “I can just make my own up, and it’s O.K.” I started doing that with these ensemble pieces and then actually moved into doing that with electronic pieces and pieces with all sorts of different kinds of groups.
FJO: There’s another aspect to these pieces which is different as well. In the earlier pieces with electronics you had an acoustic player performing in real time with a pre-recorded tape of electronically generated sounds. But in these pieces, the electronic sounds are happening live alongside the non-electronic ones. Eventually you would find ways to integrate what the performers on the non-electronic instruments play with the electronics by having those performers trigger the electronics or having the electronics alter those acoustic sounds in real time. That’s a very different way of thinking about electronic music.
NR: Well, it all comes from the idea of performance and communication. I can play electronics as well as anyone. I can get on a stage and play things now using a computer or whatever, and feel like I can give as a good a performance as anyone can. And so it puts me in the place to communicate. One of the things that I learned when I was playing rock and roll and jazz was that it was great to be able to sit in with the band and have your role that you played. But at some point, if you really were trying to communicate your own ideas, you had to be able to get up and do it yourself without all the support. There was a point, I guess around the time that I did À la Mode and thereafter, when I did a bunch of solo pieces, some of which I still play now—things like Balkanization and Robert Johnson Sampler—and a bunch of others that I don’t play so much anymore. I could just go give a concert where I get up and play. Doing that really helped me define what my musical ideas are. Because if I can get up and do it, that’s what it is. I’m actually making it happen.
FJO: Another part of it that I think speaks to how performers/interpreters of this music have evolved over time is that in the really early days of this stuff, you’d have the ensemble or the soloist who would do his or her thing—they didn’t touch any of the electronics—and you’d have the tape that’s playing those sounds. The next step is having players who are doing their thing, and you’re doing the electronics live with them. Then the next step is you’ve got the group and then you’re manipulating their sounds in real time. You’re affecting their sounds as well. But then the final part of that is working with players who are comfortable doing the electronics as per your intentions. They can do it without you.
NR: Well, there’s a before-ness in terms of setting it up for them. I have to make the stuff that processes them. But in the iFiddle Concerto that I did with Todd Reynolds, we actually set it up so that he controlled it. That was great. He’s going to play Gardening in Gropius House for the recording of it we’re doing in June. We haven’t really talked yet about whether I’m going to control things or he’s going to control things. So that’s a discussion that we have to have. The trade off is that while I actually love to give all the control over to him and let him play and switch things using foot pedals that I can set up, I also want him to be able to put his full focus on playing the violin. So I don’t know what the answer will be to that. But that’s always a sort of an interesting question to me.
The other thing I think about is how all of what I do is really about live performance. So when I croak, no one gets to perform this anymore. What happens? I’ve taught a lot of people, but I’ve really never taught anyone how to do what I do. So, I don’t know the answer to that one.
FJO: How much of the details of the electronic components in these pieces—which I imagine can’t really be conveyed via noteheads on staves—is actually notated? Is there a system?
NR: There is nothing notated. Well, not quite nothing. There are notes to myself—move to this preset, that set up—but what the things actually are is stuff that I do and I’ve never figured out how to notate it. So for all the big ensemble pieces and large pieces with single instruments or small groups, everyone else’s part is completely notated in great detail, but my part is just little numbers. I know how to do it, so I’ll do it. But I have no idea how to notate it; I’ve never figured it out.
FJO: Well, that’s not completely true because you sometimes include improvisation in your pieces.
NR: But it’s notated as it needs to be. Things go from places where I give some sort of parameters and just say, “Go!” to things being minutely notated. I’m very comfortable notating them as much as I need to. But I’ve never figured out how I notate what I do, so I don’t know what happens with that.
FJO: In terms of control versus lack of control versus improvisation: when you do the electronics for a piece versus somebody like Todd manipulating it himself, how much leeway does the performer have to manipulate sounds in a way that’s different from what you had originally envisioned? Because it’s not precisely notated.
NR: It’s pretty much the same kind of difference you would have in a completely notated piece. There’s phrasing and how you shape the gesture—I’m usually pretty clear about what I want the sound to be, or the overall gesture to be. Todd is the only person I’ve worked with who can do the manipulation all by himself. I’m pretty directive, but there’s some flexibility. Overall I kind of think my job as the composer is to tell everyone what to play, even if that means improvise some here.
FJO: There’s still something of a leap of faith involved in how performers will interpret what you tell them to play, as you point out in the program notes for the piece you wrote for Bob Gluck. You actually called it Faith, riffing on the double entendre since he used to be a rabbi. When you give a piece to somebody else, especially one that is somewhat open-ended, you’re kind of hoping they do something that’s in the spirit of your intentions.
NR: Well, that’s an interesting piece. There are two different kinds of processing that go on in it. One is that he plays and I process the sound; I do it all live on my computer. Then there are some sections where I give him a little controller which I’ve set up so that he can bring different synthetic sounds up and down, and he can trigger and play different loops and fade them in and out of each other. Then he’s supposed to be playing some on the keyboard, too. When we worked on that, it was a matter of me giving him directorial advice in terms of thinking about it as phrases and gestures; don’t think about going three or four minutes without stopping, make a phrase, explore one of the particular things I’ve got in there. You can select different ones each time. So he developed a way that he plays it. I’ve also done the piece with Kathy Supové and with Vicky Chow. They all play it really differently. Kathy really gets into the improvisational parts with the controller, completely different from Bob’s approach. And I like them both. I don’t have favorite children. But they’re really dramatically different. It’s partly because Bob is very enmeshed in the world of jazz; he plays a lot of jazz stuff and just did this book on the Mwandishi period of Herbie Hancock. Kathy is sort of more in the new music and free improvisation world. I don’t think any of it makes it any less of my piece as long as I’m comfortable with where they’re going with it.
FJO: But you said that you feel it’s your job as a composer to tell them what they’re doing, whether that means play these precise notes and rhythms or improvise here for a designated length of time. But you’ve also played alongside other improvisers in a more open-form type setting; I’m thinking of the group Fish Love That, which sounds very different from everything else I’ve heard that you’ve done, because it is a collective thing rather than just you.
NR: That was a really interesting period. I initially got the group together that became Fish Love That to do a project called Home Game in the early ‘90s. Then I went away and spent about six months in Japan and got involved in playing with some traditional musicians there, and was suddenly feeling this lack of improvisation in my life. When I came back, I got the group together again with the idea that we would just meet once a month on stage and play. And that’s what we did. We started out doing monthly things at the old Knitting Factory, and then we moved to HERE and we kept it up pretty regularly for about, I don’t know, four or five years. Everyone brought pieces in. I brought pieces. Todd [Reynolds] brought pieces. And Andy Sterman would bring pieces in. So it was this slightly amorphous thing, but it wasn’t the main thing for any of us. It was just something that we all enjoyed doing. I really wanted it to be everyone’s, but then Todd and Andrew at several points said, “You should just be doing stuff of your own. You should be putting together this group to do your own work, instead of whoever’s work. Actually that would make more sense.”
The other thing that was happening is that I was working on a music theater piece for that whole five years with a group in midtown that supposedly produces things that go off-Broadway and Broadway. So at the same time I was writing this very tonal, directed stuff for people, many of whom couldn’t read music because a lot of Broadway people can’t. They just learn it all [by ear]. It was about the discovery of a drug that makes you feel like you’re in love and want to act on it. And how much money you could make on that, putting street drug dealers in competition with big pharma. The book and the lyrics were written by a friend of mine, Larry Beinhart, who wrote the book that the movie Wag the Dog was based on. He’s a quirky, wonderful writer.
I was also doing stuff at RPI. But that kind of all came to an end when I moved to New York City in 2002 and took very seriously the idea that what I want to do is just forget about this group that I’ve been trying to maintain and forget about the theater thing, just take a deep breath and say, “What do I want to write?” I had some money from a grant and I actually contacted a bunch of people that I had wanted to write for—Kathy Supové, Joan La Barbara, Tom Buckner, ETHEL—and said, “O.K., I got this money. You want a piece? If I write a piece, will you play it?” That’s kind of where I took the direction to what I’ve been doing ever since.
FJO: So the theater piece never happened.
NR: No. It had a lot of staged readings. It was a wonderful experience. I would love to see it happen. I think it’s a really cool piece.
FJO: Did you finish the music?
NR: Not only did I finish the music, I finished two or three times the music. I probably wrote about 50 songs for it, and it maybe has 20 in it. I keep trying to figure out places where I can get that done. But I also don’t know that I ever want to get into a situation where I’m not in control of the music, as was the case of developing this thing where there were group meetings. Does this piece work? Does that piece work? As we worked through it, I felt like the music got dumber and dumber, and less and less interesting. But it would be interesting to me to go back and try to make that really happen.
FJO: On your own terms.
NR: On my own terms.
FJO: So it was all straight-up musical theatre songs with a pit orchestra. No electronics?
NR: No electronics.
FJO: We keep coming to these places in your career where there’s a before and an after. This might sound utterly ridiculous, but I was aware of a before and after in 2002 because up until then you were Neil B. Rolnick and since 2002 you’re just Neil Rolnick. I’m particularly attentive to this kind of detail since I obsess over my own middle initial, so I have to ask you about it.
NR: That’s right. That’s because you don’t call me Neil B. Everyone calls me Neil. I got the feeling that I was just being pretentious. Again, it’s this feeling that what’s important is really directly communicating. At that point I also started referring to what’s going on in my life in my notes about the music: my grandkids being born, my feeling about being in New York City. That’s what’s important; that’s what I’m spending my time thinking about. I think that whatever you spend your life in comes out in what you write; at least for me it does. When I first moved to the city, I wrote a piece called Uptown Jump, and it was about the fact that my daughter and her family, including one grandson at that point, had moved from Brooklyn up to Washington Heights. So they made an uptown jump, and it changed my life in terms of interacting with a new generation in my family.
But that’s why the “B” got dropped. At a certain point, when I moved here, I said, “O.K., from here on, it’s real. No one calls me Neil B. Everyone calls me Neil.” I’m 65 now. I was 55 then. The move here was a lot about saying I wanted to start pulling away from academia. If I don’t put my full energy into making music, when the hell am I going to do it? This is my time. I think what I’m doing now is making another step in that same direction, saying, “O.K., I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to keep eating and keep putting a roof over my head.” Assuming that I can make that work, I should be able to spend the next however many years I’ve got making as much music happen and writing as much music as I can imagine. And at least at this point, I feel like I can imagine a lot.
FJO: A big challenge that could have gotten in the way of this, but actually hasn’t gotten in the way, was what happened with your hearing.
NR: I don’t think it’s in the way. You know, I would love it if I had my hearing back in my left ear, but everyone has things that challenge them, whether it’s physical or perceptual things, relationship things, or money things. There’s no prize for having problems. We all have problems. There’s only what you can do to react to them and grow out of them and make them into something positive in your life. I’d rather it didn’t happen, but stuff happens. I feel like it expanded things. I feel like the loss of hearing made me really have a whole new perspective on how we perceive the world. I never really thought about how different our perceptions were. I’ve built this whole piece that I hope will actually get produced in the full way that I imagine it. I keep feeling like the music I’m writing out of each of the changes that I go through is getting better, and more interesting, and deeper, and funnier, and more joyful, so that’s O.K.
FJO: After the hearing loss, you also finally wrote a string quartet with no electronics, Extended Family, which is an extraordinary piece but also a very extraordinarily traditional piece. It harkens back to centuries-old traditions in ways that a lot of your other music doesn’t. It’s multi-movement and the last movement is even a fugue.
NR: I love fugues. I love the way that they sound and the idea of them coming out of these other textures that I’m working in. But it’s something that I learned how to do when I was in high school. It’s just like playing with electronics. I can just do it.
FJO: I was wondering if hearing in mono has somehow realigned your musical priorities. Electronic music is all about exploring a very detailed level of distinctions with textures, timbres, and directionality. Perhaps other musical parameters are now rising to the forefront in your music. We all know what the sound of a string quartet is. You can’t necessarily make a new timbre with a string quartet, but you can do wonderful things within that timbre and emphasize other aspects of the music making. I’m wondering if there’s something to hearing the world a different way that now gives you the opportunity to say, “I appreciate this just for what it is.”
NR: When I started the piece, I thought it was going to be about my extended family, meaning my daughter’s family that lived here in Washington Heights with me, and the kids I saw all the time, and the community that I have around me here. Then it became about my actual extended family, as I spent a lot of time with my brothers and my sister, and my mother dying. Actually the previous string quartet that I wrote was about my father dying. I hope I don’t have to write too many more quartets about those sorts of things. But they were both very strong experiences for me. I was with both of them when they died. My hands were on them. Life and death are so much more interesting than thinking about electronics or not—the details of how the piece is going to come together. Often, when someone approaches me about writing something, they say, “And of course there’s a computer part.” And I say, “Yeah. There’s a computer part.” I was really interested in the idea of not working with electronics, because I’ve done so much.
With Extended Family, ETHEL wanted a multi-movement piece, so the five movements were the way it worked. Besides the fugue, which I think of as sort of bringing all the parts of the family together, the part of that piece that I really love the most is the central movement which is slow and basically has one chord that just hangs there. We get a very halting little melody that traces its way through it. That’s not a texture that I really think about. I’m sure that there are lots of string quartets that do that, but I wasn’t even thinking about texture. I was just thinking, “How do I capture this in sound?”
FJO: I imagine another factor that might have led to your writing a piece for ETHEL that doesn’t involve electronics is that a non-electronic piece is probably much easier to tour.
NR: Absolutely. The first string quartet that I wrote for ETHEL is Shadow Quartet. In cleaning out some stuff at school, I found a quartet I wrote when I was teenager, so it’s not quite the first, but it’s the first one that I would want anyone to listen to. When we put that together, it was at a weeklong residency up at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, and I had it all set up, so they were all controlling everything. I had them all with pedals, and they were bringing things in and out, controlling how much everything was happening, and switching between things. Then when it was done, they said, “Great, we would love to take this piece on tour, but we can’t take you on tour. So you have to figure out a way that we can do it without you.” And I said, “I can’t do that because it’s got to be interactive and I’ve got to do all this stuff,” and they said, “Then we don’t have to tour with it.” And I said, “But, but, but…” So since we were going to do a recording of the piece anyway for CD, we recorded it. We used a click track and we multi-tracked everything. Then I extracted their parts from the recording, and left only the effects. So if they played with that click track, it sounds exactly like I’m processing them live. And I had these wonderful discussions, particularly with some more doctrinaire electronic music people, about cheating. You really can’t do that. On the other hand, they probably did a hundred performances of Shadow Quartet. No one had a clue that it was not being processed live. And, in fact, it was processed live, because if I hadn’t processed it live, we wouldn’t have had the recording to put the click track on. So ultimately it doesn’t really make any difference to me; what I’m interested in is the music coming out.
FJO: So you actually turned it back into one of those old school pieces for ensemble and tape.
NR: Yes, exactly. But it’s very different from the old school ones, because it’s got the impression that it’s all being generated by the instruments.
FJO: It’s sort of a Milli Vanilli approach to electronic music.
NR: Well, maybe. But if we go back to the idea that I can’t notate the things that I do when I’m playing and then what happens to this music, it is so important. The communication doesn’t happen because I’m sitting on stage mixing what’s going on with the electronics; it has to do with the instrumental performers up there playing for the audience and then these magical things coming up around them. I can make that happen so that they can take the piece out and tour with it.
FJO: You’ve traveled around the world a great deal over the years. You mentioned Japan during our discussion, but you also travelled extensively through former Yugoslavia as well as China and these travels have inspired quite a few of your pieces. Some of the remoter parts of the world that you’ve visited don’t have the same level of access to electricity that we have.
NR: When I was in China, one of the places that I played The Economic Engine was in this art area in Beijing called Qī Jiŭ Bā [“798”] which is in an area of old munitions factories. Artists moved into it, then the government decided it should become the official art area, so there are now lots of high end galleries from all over the world there. These people produced this thing and it was in one of the old buildings there. There was thick dust on everything. It was just this abandoned place that hadn’t been renovated. We had the whole top floor of this building, but there was no electricity. There was electricity in the plaza down below, so we ran an extension cord up four stories on the outside of the building and plugged in the sound system. I don’t need much electricity to do what I do. A laptop doesn’t take a whole lot and speakers don’t take a lot. But I also feel like I need the electronics for me to perform. If the music doesn’t require electronics, then like the string quartet, it can happen without me.
Of all of the places that I’ve been, the recent trips to China have been particularly interesting because China is not a kind of backward third-world country anymore. It’s got lots of really sophisticated things, and it’s been really interesting to see a kind of underground electronic music scene growing up there. I’ve gone there to do something with the conservatory or an official conference, and then there are these guys who are in their 20s and early 30s in clubs that are completely non-academic. It’s almost like two different worlds happening. I find the freshness of the young non-academic things really invigorating and exciting.
FJO: So now that you no longer have to do the day job of being at the RPI, you can actually travel even more.
NR: I hope so. That’s my plan. I’m in the midst of trying to see what comes up next. I’m working on saxophone and electronics pieces for Demetrius Spaneas. He’s done a lot of work traveling to Central Asia, so I’m looking forward to an opportunity to take that piece to Kurdistan and Tajikistan and all these places I’ve never been.
FJO: Bring your battery chargers.
NR: That’s right.