Tag: sensory perception

Bridging Gastronomy and Art Requires Making Connections

The Basque Culinary Center's building, which is an impressive architectural structure , in front of which is an impressive piece of contemporary sculpture.

The Basque Culinary Center is as much a monument to contemporary art as it is an incubator of ideas for contemporary gastronomy.
(All photos by Ben Houge.)

Spain has been at the forefront of contemporary cuisine for many years, rising to international prominence with Ferran Adrià’s acclaimed and highly influential restaurant elBulli, which closed in 2011. Given my work combining music and food, when I was recruited to transfer to Berklee College of Music’s new campus in Valencia in 2013, this was no small consideration in deciding to accept the gig. (I was brought on to help develop curriculum for and serve as the full time faculty member in the new Music Production, Technology, and Innovation master’s program, and I also took charge of the video game component of our Scoring for Film, Television, and Video Games master’s program.)

As a result of spending two years in Spain, I’ve learned a lot about the key figures in the fascinating gastronomy scene, a recurring theme of which is the desire to reach out and engage with ideas from other artistic disciplines. In fact, merging taste with other sensory experiences was central to the topic—La Vanguardia (the Avant-Garde)—of this year’s Diálogos de Cocina conference. Now in its sixth iteration, this biennial event, founded in 2007, is a product of the Basque Culinary Center and Euro-Toques, and from the beginning the focus has been on interdisciplinary dialog. The conference took place over two days, March 9-10, 2015, at the Basque Culinary Center’s gorgeous new building on the outskirts of San Sebastián (the city with, not coincidentally, the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world). This was the first conference I had attended that was devoted solely to gastronomy—I typically find myself at video game or digital art conferences—but after experiencing the amazing dishes served up at every coffee break, this is the only kind of conference I want to attend from now on.

This is what gets served at a "coffee break" during Diálogos de Cocina

This is what gets served at a “coffee break” during Diálogos de Cocina.

The entire event was focused on the future, investigating ideas from other art forms as well as innovations in technology. Leading crossmodal psychologist Charles Spence was one of the presenters (in fact, it was he who commended the conference to my attention, following my presentation to his Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University last February), and in his fascinating talk, I finally got to hear the sound of Heston Blumenthal’s influential multimedia dish The Sound of the Sea (which was heavier on the gulls than I had expected). Adrian Cheok of the Mixed Reality Lab in Singapore shared some really wacky progress on his efforts to digitize taste and smell; one lucky volunteer got to taste one of Cheok’s digitized flavors via a device he put in his mouth. Other presentations included a history of avant-garde art, an overview of recent technological trends, and a meditation on communication in the internet age, plus panel discussions on the dining experience of the future, socializing culinary innovation, and what experimental art can bring to cooking (and vice versa).

The consistent theme was how to draw on ideas from other creative practices to enhance what’s going on in the kitchen, an investigation many of the participating chefs were already pursuing in their own restaurants.

Members of the board of the Basque Culinary Center were the main hosts of the conference, and one chef whose inviting presence was most continuously felt was Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz.  His smiling demeanor extended throughout the sessions and into a group dinner at the amazing sidrería Zelaia, where he was seen cutting enormous traditional Basque steaks for conference attendees to ensure that everyone felt welcomed. Andoni has pushed Mugaritz to explore unique collaborations over the years, working with musician Felipe Ugarte on the Mugaritz BSO (Banda Sonora Original, or Original Soundtrack) in a project that involved visits to Ethiopia and Peru, developing a food ritual with the choreographers Idoia Zabaleta and Filipa Francisco, and providing the climactic meal to a production by Barcelona-based theater group La Fura dels Baus of Titus Andronicus. After I met him and told him about my food opera project, he invited me back to give a presentation to the whole R&D team at Mugaritz, who received me with warm inquisitiveness last August.

On the other side of the country, on Spain’s northeast coast, the three Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca have also stretched the interdisciplinary boundaries of gastronomy, most notably with an immersive multimedia “gastropera” called El Somni (The Dream). Twelve invited guests were treated to an extravagantly high tech, one-time event on May 6, 2013. The event, documented in a film by Franc Aleu (another presenter at Diálogos de Cocina), was in twelve eclectic movements, each with music by a different composer, ranging from robotic string instruments to traditional Catalan vocalizations to neo-romantic piano, while motion captured 3D graphics were projected onto the table and onto screens surrounding the diners. Sound also plays a role in one of the dishes on their regular menu: an edible reenactment of a goal scored by soccer star Lionel Messi, who plays for the Barcelona hometown team, which comes accompanied by a recorded sports announcer commentary.

Since elBulli closed in 2011, Ferran’s brother Albert Adrià has been working to keep the family business flourishing. Currently there are five Adrià-branded restaurants in Barcelona (all located within a few blocks near the Plaça d’Espanya, dubbed El Barri Adrià), including the acclaimed Tickets, with a new restaurant named Enigma to open soon. But their most recent opening occurred last summer fifty leagues south, in the Balearic island of Ibiza, an ambitious interdisciplinary collaboration with Cirque de Soleil called Heart Ibiza. Advertised as a fusion of gastronomy, music, art, and performance, this elaborate take on dinner theater proposed a tantalizing opportunity to observe how live performance might complement a meal.

But unfortunately the meal I experienced there last summer was less than the sum of its parts. Throughout the restaurant, dancers danced, actors acted, and bodies were painted, while live video feeds illuminated the walls, but servers clashed with dancers in the aisles (resulting in having a drink spilled on me, for which the waiter did not apologize), and the performances were completely out of sync with the dining experience. Halfway through a course, the lights would dim, leaving me to munch in a lurid blue glow, which, as Charles Spence will confirm, has been shown to have a deleterious effect on food. When I could see it, the food was fantastic, served in some imaginatively sculptural tableware, such as a porcelain frog you had to kiss in order to extract the first bite, but the chaotic surroundings, completely out of sync with the meal, prohibited the performance from enhancing the dining experience. Some issues may be a result of poor logistics and layout (despite reassurances to the contrary, I missed a lot of what was happening on a stage around a corner), but I suspect that the very presence of live performers in the restaurant inherently distracts from the meal on the table.

Ibiza is also home to Paco Roncero’s infamous Sublimotion. Representatives from InHedit, the Madrid-based company that provided some of Roncero’s technology, shared the stage with Adrian Cheok at Diálogos de Cocina to discuss the use of new interfaces in gastronomy. The cost of the technology is surely one reason Sublimotion proudly proclaims itself to be the most expensive restaurant in the world, although I have to say that this elitist stance is anathema to my goals as an artist. But fortunately I already had the Sublimotion experience when I visited Ultraviolet, Paul Pariet’s innovative multimedia restaurant in Shanghai that Sublimotion has been widely derided for having plagiarized.

As Ultraviolet demonstrates, Spain does not hold a monopoly on multimedia dining experiences. Ultraviolet seats ten people per night for a twenty-two course meal in a room that has been outfitted with video projectors, a sound system, and a mechanism to waft in different smells throughout the evening. Back in 2012, my experience at Ultraviolet was wonderful, including a few truly transcendent moments. The one that sticks with me the most was the most understated: a simple slice of bread in meunière sauce with a few truffle slices, experienced in a projected forest, while subtle ambient sound played in the background, a profound synergy of the senses that remains for me a benchmark of what can be achieved in this arena.

But I must point out another course that exemplifies the pitfalls in trying to bridge the worlds of gastronomy and art. Towards the end of the meal, there was a riff on traditional gazpacho (in the world of food, Spain is never far away) that involved two different elixirs separated by an edible shot glass. As the dish was served with a lighthearted “Olé” and flamenco music began to play, the video screens metamorphosed to display not an idyllic Iberian landscape or a boisterous cervecería, but Picasso’s devastating Guernica, commemorating the horrific slaughter of civilians in a Nationalist bombing raid during the Spanish Civil War. When I first saw the painting in 1998 at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, I was somberly transfixed for twenty minutes. Projecting it on the walls of a restaurant as a shorthand for Spanishness was an egregious miscalculation, insensitive to the language of art, but more important, to the tragedy depicted.

I think all of these examples suggest that, as we’re moving beyond the mere novelty of pairing sound or visuals with a meal, the focus needs to shift to what is being communicated by the resulting amalgamation; it’s not enough to simply put things side by side, to project a painting or dance in the aisles next to a diner. The languages of art and food are very different, and in many cases artists and chefs seem to be talking past each other. I think the key is to look beyond the end product of a meal or a performance or a composition to examine the processes and considerations and motivations that produced it. Despite the pervasive trend for chefs to develop dishes that visually evoke famous artworks, we should be thinking not about how a plate of food looks like a painting, but about how the work of a chef is like the work of an artist. This is where fruitful interdisciplinary conversations can occur.

At Ultraviolet, as well as in El Somni, which prominently features a 3D animation of Michelangelo’s iconic David (at one point depicted in flagrante delicto, and later shown shattering to pieces), a famous artwork is reproduced to serve as a cipher for art. I understand this impetus; for much of my career in the video game industry, I’ve observed a desire for games to be taken more seriously, to aspire to the artistic credibility and cultural respectability of film, and sometimes that means invoking the conventions of cinema in cut scenes, casting, and marketing. But in fact, in gastronomy as well as in games, these ciphers are unnecessary.

I lived in Shanghai for six years, from 2004 to 2010, and during this time, Paul Pairet was my favorite chef. When I first conceived my food opera project, back in 2006, I had his innovative cooking at his first Shanghai restaurant, Jade on 36, in mind. The food was spectacular, iconoclastic, playful, but with a serious rigor, and wildly inventive: candied foie gras on a stick, ice cream disguised in a lemon rind, sardine mousse served in tin cans. It dawned on me that the experience I was enjoying was exactly the reason I went to new music concerts, to have my preconceptions shaken, to fully engage my senses to interrogate and evaluate new stimuli, not relying on conventions of naming or presentation or other culturally learned tropes. That was when I made the leap, realizing that the kind of music system I was then designing for Ubisoft (as audio director of Tom Clancy’s EndWar) could be equally applied to the unpredictable, real-time input of the dining room, highlighting and harmonizing with the music inherent in the meal, responding to its intrinsic rhythms. Ultraviolet opened much later (in May 2012, about a week after my first food opera at Harvard), but by recognizing a parallel creative process, one that, like music, unfolds over time, I already saw the tremendous potential of pairing music with food in a way that builds on the language of each.

Having completed my two-year appointment in Valencia, I returned to Berklee’s Boston campus this fall, and I now teach music programming in the Electronic Production and Design department. One of the perks of being back in the Boston area is being able to attend Harvard’s fantastic Science and Cooking Lecture Series, which has been host to a parade of luminaries from the culinary world over the past six years. A few weeks ago I got to meet up with Andoni Luis Aduriz once again, while he and one of his chefs, Ramón Perisé, were in town to present a fascinating talk on science and emotion as part of the series.

The next day, I organized a Berklee tour for the two of them, showing them some of the fun musical gadgets we have in the EPD department before visiting the new studio facilities in Berklee’s brand new building at 160 Massachusetts Avenue. As part of the tour, my boss, EPD Department Chair Michael Bierylo, demoed a Moog System 55 synthesizer. My take on the recent resurgence of interest in modular synths is that, in comparison to the vast array of sounds available as plug-ins in today’s digital audio workstations, the constraints of an analog modular rig help focus creativity. While this may have been the first time he’d seen a Moog synth, Andoni immediately recognized this concept, the notion of freedom within limitations, as being just as true of his work in the kitchen. Identifying these kinds of correspondences is what makes working at the intersection of different practices so fascinating and why I have been incorporating these ideas into my classes, to teach students about creativity and innovation by drawing parallels to other disciplines.

The last stop on our Berklee tour was the cafeteria in our new building. The previous cafeteria (a former hotel swimming pool, I’m told) had a longstanding tradition of being converted every evening into a performance venue for student ensembles, so when designing the new cafeteria, the priorities were inverted: instead of a cafeteria that also serves as concert hall, we built a concert hall that doubles as a cafeteria. Seeing Andoni and Ramón in that space, I recognized it as a perfect embodiment of the ideals of interdisciplinary collaboration. By accommodating the concerns of two different creative practices, the potential of each is expanded, and a welcoming space emerges, awaiting unforeseeable new expressions.

Andoni and Ramón at the Berklee Cafeteria

Andoni and Ramón visiting the Berklee Cafeteria.

Food Opera: Merging Taste and Sound in Real Time

[Note: Portions of this article are borrowed from my paper “Food Opera: A New Genre for Audio-Gustatory Expression,” co-authored with Jutta Friedrichs (producer of our food operas), to be presented at the Second International Workshop on Musical Metacreation, and are reproduced here with gratitude.]

Beside the White Chickens: A Summer Food Opera (excerpt) from Ben Houge on Vimeo.


Since 2012, I’ve co-produced three audio-gustatory events that I decided to call “food operas.” For each of these events, I composed a real-time generative soundtrack to accompany a multicourse meal, designed by chef Jason Bond of Bondir restaurant in Cambridge, MA. This music responds to events cued by diners, drawing on event-driven scoring techniques adapted from my work in the video game industry since 1996. Each table in the restaurant is outfitted with speakers, one for each diner, totaling thirty channels of coordinated, real-time, algorithmic, spatially deployed sound in all.

The concept is predicated on the acknowledgement of dining as a time-based art form, akin to film, dance, and music. I use the term “opera” for its multimedia associations, describing a hybrid, interdisciplinary work that engages and explores the junctures between multiple senses.

I identify the main innovations in these food operas as follows:

• Real-time scoring techniques adapted from the field of video game music create a custom soundtrack that follows unpredictable, live input from diners.
• Associating sound with taste at the level of texture (somewhere between an individual note and a complete musical phrase) allows for a heterophony in which the two senses can be closely linked while still maintaining a degree of autonomy.
• Coordinating sound across a massively multichannel speaker array allows us to preserve the interpersonal and social aspect of communal dining while also elaborating a large-scale sonic environment. (I spent some time debating whether thirty channels could be described as “massively multichannel,” but I decided in the end to keep the term, as it’s more than what can be deployed from a single computer using a single audio interface, more than you typically find in a movie theater, and far more than a typical home listening environment.)

Each of these innovations on its own may represent a small step forward, but collectively, they allow for what we (producer/artist Jutta Friedrichs, chef Jason Bond, and I) consider to be a new genre of artistic production: the food opera.

One reason we consider food opera to be a new genre is that its expressive potentialities are so vast. The potential to link sound to food, scent, and the tactile sensations of the mouth creates an entirely new field of sensory interplay, which may be harnessed to a wide range of expressive ends. Approaches include theatrical narrative structures (including non-linear or generative narratives) that might tell a story, spatial or landscape meditations that might resemble a sound installation, and ritual events such as a Passover Seder or a wedding ceremony.

As an example, in our second and third food operas, alongside purely musical elements, we incorporated field recordings and interviews from some of the local, organic farms that provide Bondir’s ingredients. Our goal was to tell the story of sustainable food practices by sonically connecting diners to the sources of their meals. We feel that this message was conveyed more deeply and memorably than it would have been using sound or taste alone.

Through the food opera project, we hope to show how the application of real-time music generation techniques, originally developed for use in the virtual worlds of video games, can increasingly be applied to score the unpredictable, real-time phenomena of our everyday physical environment, which we observe to be a rapidly growing arena of cultural production.


The chef and the composer. Photo by Melissa Rivard/Andrew Janjigian.

History and Previous Work

The impetus to associate eating with music goes back to our earliest human history; in myriad historical documents, music has been present at feasts, banquets, rituals, and celebrations. Since the development of the restaurant, performers have often been present to provide background music for diners. And following the advent of recorded sound in the twentieth century, recorded music, from jukeboxes to iPods, has increased in prominence in restaurants to the point of ubiquity. But in all of these situations, music, by the very means of its production, has been physically distanced from the table and at best only coarsely synchronized with the meal, with none of the sophistication of interplay between music and other art forms to which we are accustomed in a ballet, a film, or an opera. (For a lively and detailed overview of historical pairings of food with sound, check out Qian [Janice] Wang’s freshly minted MIT master’s thesis: Music, Mind, and Mouth: Exploring the Interaction Between Music and Flavor Perception.)

In recent years, there has been an increase in artistic attention to the sense of taste, while at the same time chefs have been making forays into the art world. Perhaps the most famous milestone in this rapprochement was Spanish chef Ferran Adrià’s “G Pavilion” at the Documenta 12 art exhibition in 2007. Other touchstones include Natalie Jeremijenko and Mihir Desai’s Cross(x)Species Adventure Club and renowned French pastry chef Pierre Hermé being invited to lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Examples of food-based experiences that incorporate sound are more rare. The most well-known example is perhaps The Sound of the Sea, developed at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England; this dish is served with an iPod in a conch shell allowing diners to hear a field recording of ocean surf on headphones while they dine. A similar approach is used in Volcano Flambé, developed by chef Kevin Lasko and artist Marina Abramović at Park Avenue Winter in New York, which was accompanied by a recording of the artist describing the ice cream and merengue-based dessert and thanking diners “for eating with awareness.” Paul Pairet, a French chef based in Shanghai, opened a new restaurant named Ultraviolet in the summer of 2012, which seats only ten diners per night, and each of the twenty-two courses is accompanied by video projections on the walls and a soundtrack of previously-composed music. (The Beatles’ “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” accompanies a riff on traditional English fish and chips, for example.)

While there has been an increase in art world interest in eating in the last century, much of it ignores the sensory nuance of taste. I dismiss as irrelevant to the current discussion art that incorporates food for purely visual or conceptual effect (e.g., Luciano Fabro’s Sisyphus, Paola Pivi’s It’s a Cocktail Party), performance work that involves eating without an exploration of the sensation of taste (Yoko Ono’s Tunafish Sandwich Piece, Alison Knowles’ Identical Lunch, Emily Katrencik’s Consuming 1.956 Inches Each Day For 41 Days), or merely visual representations of food (Claes Oldenburg’s Baked Potato, Francesc Guillamet’s photographs of dishes from El Bulli).

Small Asparagus Opera

Diners waiting in anticipation at the first food opera. Photo by Melissa Rivard/Andrew Janjigian.

My food opera work has its genesis in conversations and sketches dating back to 2006, including a workshop in Shanghai in 2010. The first public presentation of these ideas, and also my first collaboration with chef Jason Bond, was entitled “Food Opera: Four Asparagus Compositions” and took place in May 2012 at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, as part of a food-oriented series curated by Jutta Friedrichs, Elizabeth MacWillie, and Sara Hendren, then students in the GSD’s Art, Design and the Public Domain program, headed by professors Sanford Kwinter and Krzysztof Wodiczko. The second event, entitled “Sensing Terroir: A Harvest Food Opera,” took place in November 2012 at chef Jason Bond’s Bondir restaurant in Cambridge, sponsored by Artists in Context; this event incorporated field recordings and interviews with local, organic food providers and sought to explore dining as a narrative form to tell the story of sustainable food practices. The third event, entitled “Beside the White Chickens: A Summer Food Opera,” took place in July 2013 at Bondir and highlighted chef Bond’s local, organic poultry providers, Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds of Concord, MA, taking as its inspiration the William Carlos Williams poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” around which sous chef Rachel Miller organized the menu.

Disclaimer: renderings of individual textures are interspersed throughout this article. Please note, however, that at a food opera event, none of these would be heard in isolation, but they would merge in space with twenty-five other textures at various stages of deployment to create a dense, rich soundscape.

Space and Massively Multichannel Sound

Pam Joy and Margaret Experiencing Food Opera

Diners enjoying Chicken Galantine au Foin, Lions Mane Mushrooms, White Sage Peach Confit, Broccoli Leaf and Rhode Island White Flint Corn Flour Polenta, Charred Eggplant, Snow Bok Choy, and Cherry Tomatoes in Tomato Honey with corresponding music. (Note the placement of the speakers on the table.) Photo by Jutta Friedrichs.

An overriding goal throughout this project is to respect the integrity and the history of the experience of communal dining: the focus is at the table, not on a stage situated elsewhere in the dining environment. Diners are free to converse during the event. To quote Brian Eno, the music should be “as interesting as it is ignorable,” a statement that also parallels chef Jason Bond’s observation of the manner in which people enjoy his food. The sound is there to enhance and supplement the meal, not to supersede or distract from it. In our conception of food opera, the very physical presence of a live performer alters the calculus of the dining experience to an unacceptable degree; this is why we rely on recorded sound for our event. (However, because the sound is being deployed in real time, it exists, as all video game soundtracks do, somewhere between recording and performance. The combination of video game music techniques and multichannel sound diffusion are the technologies that enable food opera as we define it to exist.)

In our second and third events at Bondir restaurant, each diner has a dedicated speaker through which she or he hears the accompaniment to her or his meal. The small speaker, about 3 inches in diameter, takes the place of a traditional table centerpiece (e.g., a vase of flowers) and rests in a small speaker stand designed by Jutta Friedrichs, which allows two speakers pointed in opposite directions to be directed at two diners facing each other. Bondir seats twenty-six diners, so twenty-six channels of sound are deployed simultaneously to individual diners throughout the restaurant. Six additional speakers (four around the perimeter of the room plus two custom hemisphere speakers, designed by Stephan Moore, positioned on stands in the middle of the room) play a slowly evolving low frequency drone that provides a harmonic context for the musical textures of each diner’s discrete accompaniment.

We do not use any particularly focused or directional speaker technology, and in fact, it is not particularly desirable for our planned experience. Sounds from nearby speakers will naturally blend together, providing a rich field of music, in effect transforming the entire restaurant into a generative sound installation. At our second and third events, diners could make reservations anytime between 5pm and 9:30pm, such that, at any given time, different people in the restaurant would be at different points in their meals; this is why the harmonic and rhythmic coordination described above is particularly important. The overall form of the piece is an aggregate of every table’s individual dining trajectory, which results in an emergent foreshadowing and recapitulation as other diners in the restaurant order the same dishes at different times.

Mimesis and Abstraction

The primary sound sources in our first three events are traditional, acoustic musical instruments: flute, clarinet, bassoon, viola, cello, accordion, a tourist nyatiti from Kenya, a Chinese hulusi, and miscellaneous percussion. This may seem an unnecessary restriction, as the sound is played through speakers, allowing any electroacoustic sound to be employed. We used traditional musical instrument sounds to create an association with the alchemy of cooking: recognizable physical materials are juxtaposed, manipulated, and transformed to an aesthetic end. The sample manipulations we employ are fairly straightforward (e.g., splicing, transposing, applying amplitude envelopes), so that the acoustic source material remains clear.

There is an essential abstractness that is shared by food and music (distinct from visual art and writing, for example), which we sought to underscore. One of the original inspirations for this whole project was to explore the idea of using sound to describe taste, bypassing words entirely. It is difficult for the taste of asparagus, like the sound of a cello, to be “about” anything other than itself. As in dining, mimesis in acoustic music is by far the exception (e.g., the thunder at the end of Berlioz’s “Scène aux Champs” from Symphonie Fantastique).

In addition to these abstract sounds (abstract in the sense of an abstract photograph) intended to evoke or compliment the sensory experience of each dish, the second and third food operas also incorporated field recordings and interviews from the farms that supply Bondir’s ingredients. With the field recordings, the goal was to get people thinking about where their food comes from, using sound to connect diners at Bondir to the farms on which the ingredients for the meal were produced. And in the interviews, diners could hear directly from farmers stories about the labor that goes into producing organic produce, the challenges of sustainable farming, and the histories of obscure heirloom vegetables (such as the Waldoboro green neck turnip).
Interviews accompanied only some of the courses, and the ambient sound served primarily as buffer or interstitial behavior between courses. (After we finished our setup and sound check, but before the first guests arrived, the room was filled with 26 channels of chickens clucking, which was a pretty fantastic sound, and remarkably evocative of the experience of walking on Pete and Jen’s farm.) But since different diners are on different courses at the same time, these three modes of listening (abstract [or conventionally musical], mimetic, and linguistic) were almost always active somewhere in the space and contributed to the richness of the experience.

Video Games in the Restaurant

As video games are inherently organized around the unpredictable input of players, video game music has evolved to be uniquely sensitive to real-time input. In a video game, any event may be associated with a musical parameter, and this concept of mapping between two different types of data is at the core of video game music, and indeed, of digital art in general. These mappings have evolved to be quite sophisticated and can be thought of as the points of convergence between two autonomous but linked systems.
The challenge of composing music for real-time deployment may be summarized as follows: deciding what to do when an event is received (typically the managing of a musical event or transition), and what to do for the indeterminate amount of time between events (typically some kind of continuous or state-based musical behavior). The simplest solution, and historically the most prevalent, is to simply loop a piece of music indefinitely until an event is registered, at which point the music fades to silence over a certain amount of time, while a new piece of looping music may fade in. The disadvantages to this approach, however, are numerous, including tedious repetition and inelegant transitions.

Many more sophisticated techniques have been developed, and while it is beyond the scope of this article to present a full taxonomy, the techniques that we have incorporated into our food opera work to date include the coordination of musical events along a metric timeline, transposition of MIDI-like note data, and the algorithmic generation of musical melodies, pitch aggregates, rhythms, and phrases. In some aspects, our focus on notes and short phrases recalls the DirectMusic system released by Microsoft in 1999. It also draws from work by aleatoric composers of the mid-twentieth century, including John Cage, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff. (For more information, see my paper Cell-Based Musical Deployment in Tom Clancy’s EndWar, presented at the First International Conference on Musical Metacreation in 2012.)

In our food operas, the sources of real time events are constrained to a fairly limited range: we observe which dishes are chosen by a diner, when each course arrives, and when it is finished. The number of courses is fixed (four for our first food opera, five for the second and third), and for most courses, the diner has a choice between two dishes.

In addition to the events indicating the beginning and ending of each course, the music responds to the elapsed time since the beginning of each course. In most cases, over the progression of each course, there is a gradual decrease in musical intensity, which may be quantified in density of musical events, volume, or number of concurrent layers. An additional behavior, limited in duration, may be associated with the beginning or ending of each course.

These parameters may seem few, but given that diners are coming and going throughout a span of roughly five hours, and that any of the twenty-six diners may be at any point in their meal at any time, the richness and complexity of the overall, emergent sonic environment is significant.

The field recordings and interviews also draw on video game techniques, as recordings of environmental ambiences and dialog are a key component of most video games. Our field recordings are chopped up and shuffled, providing infinite variation. Lines of dialog are also edited into individual files and balanced for volume before being deployed intermittently.

Texture and Musical Granularity

What we mean by musical texture is a convenient middle ground between an individual note and a fully composed musical composition. It is a musical behavior with a clear identity, characterized by instrumentation, melodic contour and duration, harmonic structure, voicing style, rhythmic density, and number of constituent layers. While textures may contain melodic elements, they are not primarily melodic in character. Our textures are designed to continue indefinitely without repetition, using algorithmic techniques to vary, shuffle, offset, juxtapose, and in some cases generate musical material.

Game music may be categorized according to the granularity of its musical components, from through-composed pieces of several minutes in duration to individual notes (or even, in considering real-time synthesis systems, subdivisions of notes). Granularity is linked to responsiveness, which is to say, the maximum amount of time that could elapse between the arrival of a game event and a musical system’s response. By orienting music around texture, we achieve a highly responsive musical fabric.

Texture in our usage is independent of pitch, so that the music may modulate to a new key area while preserving texture identity. Some textures incorporate longer phrases, which are categorized according to the harmonic areas with which they are compatible.
We emphasize texture, because it offers a useful way of defining a musical identity without large-scale temporal expectation; a key aspect of our use of texture is that it can continue indefinitely. This allows for sustained and concentrated evaluation, which in turn makes it well suited to pairing with other multimedia input, such as taste.

We find this approach preferable to playing a completed piece of music, which may contain a conflicting or distracting dramatic trajectory (manifested, for example, as the climax of a phrase or a juncture in a piece’s formal articulation), or which may end prematurely, or which may loop unvaryingly, resulting in fatigue or annoyance for listeners due to unmitigated repetition.
This approach is also preferable to simply sustaining or repeating a single tone, timbre, or sonority, since it provides rhythmic and harmonic context for individual tones and allows for the investigation of the modes of meaning with which music has long been associated, including harmony, rhythm, and melody—the syntax and grammar of music.

Coordination and Modularity

The music for the food opera is coordinated in harmony and rhythm and composed so that this coordination would be readily apparent. As most of our diners are assumed to be musical non-specialists, we decided to compose music that is diatonic and organized around a clear beat referential of 188 beats per minute.

All rhythmic activity is coordinated in reference to a common pulse that is present throughout the work. New events are, for the most part, quantized to start on a beat (although random delays of a few milliseconds may be introduced as a humanizing gesture). There is no concept of meter, only pulse, although events may be assigned to happen on multiples of beats, which creates a kind of local meter within a specific texture.

As the project has evolved over our three events so far, we determined a desire to blur the rhythm at certain points, to avoid an overly metronomic effect. For this reason we introduced the idea of rubato phrases that could be played intermittently, uncoordinated with the underlying pulse.

Over the course of the evening, the underlying harmony modulates very slowly in a random walk among five diatonic key areas excerpted from the circle of fifths: D, G, C, F, and B flat. This provides a sense of harmonic progression and combats key fatigue. A bass drone (generated in real-time from transposed recordings of a viola, a human voice, a synthesizer, and an electric generator used in a chicken slaughtering we observed) articulates this harmonic movement. The bass drone slowly (every forty to eighty seconds) chooses scale degrees from the current tonality (excluding the leading tone) according to a first order Markov chain of acceptable progressions; this allows each texture to be heard with any of six possible scale degrees in the bass, providing additional variation. Key modulations happen every three to eight bass notes (with a weighting towards the short end of that range). We don’t really use MIDI as an interface, but a lot of the system works similarly to the way MIDI does, e.g. handling notes with integer ID numbers.

Our musical textures are transposed according to one of two principles. For musical textures that are rendered using this MIDI-like system, transposition is a trivial affair, involving an integer semitone offset. For textures that involve recorded phrases, transposition is slightly more complicated: based on the current key, we choose from a pre-compiled list representing the subset of phrases compatible with the current key. In some cases, we perform real-time transposition of musical phrases. For rubato phrases that do not need to be rhythmically precise, we have found it musically acceptable to transpose as much as two semi-tones up or down to achieve compatibility with the current key. For phrases that do require rhythmic precision, we may transpose in simple multiples of the original speed (e.g., 0.5, 0.667, 1.5, 2.0) to achieve musical variety and to maximize the contexts in which a recorded phrase may be used (an important concept in game audio development).

As for the musical textures, each can be thought of as an independent algorithmic study unto itself. The only constraint is that it must in some way conform to the current key area and acknowledge the underlying pulse. Textures are composed to be somewhat sparse, with an awareness that they will be deployed alongside other textures, and are designed with registral variation in mind.
The system we used for the first three food operas was programmed in Max. The menu was preloaded into the system, and as diners placed their orders, we input the choices into a patch representing the layout of the restaurant. As dishes came and went, we advanced the musical behavior for each seat. An interstitial behavior, consisting of footsteps from one of the farms providing the ingredients for the meal, quantized to the pulse of the music, played between courses. Ambient sound from the farms played before the first course and after the last.


Soft Poached Egg (already consumed), Cucumber Foam, Lemon Balm Brioche, Prairie Fire Chili, Brown Butter Vinaigrette, and speaker in position in front of the plate. Photo by Jutta Friedrichs.

Scoring vs. Synaesthesia

A question that has come up repeatedly while working on this project is whether the goal is to attain a kind of synaesthesia. I have observed an increase in discussion around the notion of synaesthesia in recent years, and it is my guess that the reason has to do with the importance of mapping in the growing field of digital art. By now, this concept should be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the genre; mapping, simply defined, is the binding of two sets of data. A classic video game example would be the linking of a vehicle’s velocity to its engine sound’s pitch. In an interactive installation, it might be the association of a viewer’s location in a video image with the volume of an accompanying sound.

Synaesthesia is a hard-wired mapping between the senses. I think of Messiaen hearing a certain sonority as blue-violet or mauve. There’s a notion that a sound has a certain smell, or a color has a certain sound, and it is not a choice or assignation, but rather an inalienable attribute of the thing.

What mapping has in common with synaesthesia is the notion of consistency; once established, there is a fixed method for converting one kind of information into another. The difference between mapping and synaesthesia is that, whereas synaesthesia is somehow hard-wired, a mapping is assigned (we might just as well say, “designed,” or “composed”). This creative aspect of mapping, of system design, is only slowly gaining recognition as a field of artistic activity, but it is not far removed from an aleatoric composition like Christian Wolff’s Burdocks, for example. Tatsuya Mizuguchi’s video game Rez is a famous example of an effort to suggest synaesthesia via a tightly coordinated merging of visuals, music, and (if you bought the Trance Vibrator peripheral) haptic information. On the other hand, there is a preponderance of software that makes it possible to completely ignore this creative exercise, resulting in some very blunt conversions; the famous Aphex Twin example works as a goofy in-joke, but countless others fall flat from what amounts to a lack of understanding of basic artistic materials.

However, neither of these perspectives is quite what I’m attempting to do with the food opera. Instead, I come at it from the perspective of scoring. In scoring a film or choreography or any other time-based medium, the task of the composer is not to simply convert the visual information into sound. Rather, the idea is to add an additional layer of meaning on top of the original source, to create an additional stream of information. (In fact, this is a common exercise for beginning film scoring students at Berklee College of Music, where I teach: to take a film clip without sound and use music to give it several different emotional spins, now comical, now tense, now poignant, for example.) The result is a kind of counterpoint, in which this new stream contextualizes and informs the original information. There’s a potential for ambiguity, which can provide richness and nuance to someone experiencing the work. To simply replicate it in sound would be redundant.

So it is with the food opera; I am presenting not so much the sound of Chicken Galantine au Foin with Lion’s Mane Mushrooms, White Sage Peach Confit, and Broccoli Leaf; but rather a sound of Chicken Galantine au Foin with Lion’s Mane Mushrooms, White Sage Peach Confit, and Broccoli Leaf. Of course, there is an intense effort to present a score that supports the meal in a meaningful way, but the associations are intuitive and arbitrary, and any number of alternate solutions to this compositional problem may be equally valid.

Future Work

We have a lot of ideas about how to take this idea forward; as I mentioned earlier, the expressive possibilities are vast.
On the technical side, there is enormous potential to increase the amount of input into the system generating the music; we plan to explore this potential in future food operas via a range of sensing mechanisms. Accelerometers could be attached to stemware or silverware, or cameras could be mounted above the tables, to name only the most obvious subsequent steps. In some situations, it might be desirable to have live musicians performing remotely, similar to what is currently done in some Broadway productions, incorporating real-time scoring and cueing systems.

There is also considerable potential to expand the concept in terms of visual art, incorporating projections and video displays, by coordinating table settings, clothing, and other elements of interior and set design.

Food Opera – Four Asparagus Compositions from Jutta Friedrichs on Vimeo.


Ben Houge

Ben Houge. Photo by Jutta Friedrichs

Ben Houge is an artist working at the nexus of video games, sound installation, digital art, generative video, music composition, and performance. Also an active composer of choral music, his Lao Zhang was premiered by Dale Warland at the American Composers Forum’s ChoralConnections conference in 2012, and other choral compositions have been commissioned by the Esoterics and the Minnesota Compline Choir. He holds degrees in music from St. Olaf College and the University of Washington and recently moved to Spain to help develop and teach in the new Music Technology Innovation master’s program at the Valencia campus of the Berklee College of Music.

Submission, Discomfort, and Transcendence

The Blind

Before audience members enter the venue where The Blind is performed, they must put on a blindfold after which they are personally escorted one by one into the space by ushers. (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Lincoln Center.)

I have frequently described on these pages how for me experiencing a work of art—whether it is listening to a piece of music, looking at a work of visual art, or reading a book—is an act of submission. That submission is, ideally, an eschewal of self in order to focus as much as possible on something that has been created by someone else. As I’ve stated before, I firmly believe that this act of submission—whether focusing on a live performance or recording, attentively observing paintings or sculpture, or quietly experiencing literature—helps us to better respect and understand the viewpoints of other people and therefore become better citizens in a democratic society. There’s also the added benefit of being able to have an aesthetically transcendent experience with someone else’s creative endeavor in that it gets you to think about the world in a completely new way and therefore will hopefully be a source of enrichment for the rest of your life.

But the metaphor of “submission” as my ideal audience intake position has now reached a whole new level for me. (If “intake” sounds too medical to you, blame it on the paucity of words for experiencing that are not vision-specific rather than an attempt to compare audience members to doctors’ patients; after all these years I’m actually still a lousy patient.) Last week, for the John La Bouchardière production of Lera Auerbach’s opera The Blind I attended at Lincoln Center (which co-produced by American Opera Projects), the entire audience is required to be blindfolded. (Full disclosure: I went to the performance since I was asked to moderate a panel for Lincoln Center in conjunction with this presentation about the arts and the senses. While my ongoing immersions with other senses–which frequently relate back to music–offered some valuable fodder for that discussion, nothing was better preparation than sitting through the actual show.) Anyway, many publications have already published extensive reviews of this production ranging from ecstatic to annoyed. (Even The New York Post weighed in!) Since my ideal role as a member of an audience is to submit to whatever the creators and/or interpreters want me to, I have no desire to play critical can opener. But I will say that I found the performance very moving as well as deeply inspiring both on a creative level and as a life experience. Vivien Schweitzer, in her extensive New York Times feature about The Blind, perhaps best summed up the impact being blindfolded had on being able to appreciate not only Auerbach’s music but also the various olfactory and tactile elements Bouchardière incorporated into the production:

I … found the experience initially disconcerting but then vividly intense, as I became highly attuned to the sounds, sensations and unseen movements unfolding around me.

But what struck me as equally significant as the act of being blindfolded resulting in a foregrounding of all of my other senses, was the element of personal discomfort and vulnerability involved in the process. At first the blindfold was too tight. I wasn’t sure what to do. Ultimately I decided that if it remained too tight, I’d waste my concentration on the tightness of the blindfold and not pay requisite attention to the production so I loosened it after a few minutes. Yet I was still occasionally distracted. From time to time I feared the blindfold would fall off and that I would accidently get a peek of something which would ruin the illusion for me. Also I wasn’t sure if I should keep my eyes closed or open. At one point, having my vision obstructed became so annoying that I took advantage of my loosened blindfold and actually stared down at my shoes through the tiny sliver that had been opened up. I confessed to this in a conversation with Bouchardière, to whom I was introduced following the performance, and he said only half-jokingly that he thought I had cheated. But my discomfort with this particular audience requirement has made me ponder audience requirements overall.

The more I thought about it the more I realized that every time we encounter something outside of ourselves and wholly give ourselves up to doing so there will be some discomfort and vulnerability. Some people find it an immense personal sacrifice not to be able to talk during a musical performance. I’ve been a motor mouth for most of my life, and the first few times I had to remain quiet during a concert felt unbearable, but once I became acculturated to it I began to get a lot more from the listening experience. The same is true for the constant rewards I get from reading, an activity which eluded me—since I was very hyperactive—until I was a teenager. I still think I can be a better viewer of visual art. Unlike books which can only be read as fast as one’s reading pace, or music which operates according to its own immovable clock, most visual art allows the viewer to determine viewing time. Since I want to see everything, I think I spend too little time looking at individual works. In this case my voracious sight prevents me from seeing more deeply into things. But no blindfold will enable me to better see a work of visual art. Then again, one of the panelists for my Art and the Senses panel, Rebecca McGinnis, is in charge of the access programs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, including tours for visually impaired visitors which are specifically designed to offer them ways into works of art that go beyond the visual component—touching various objects, sightless drawing as a way to conceptualize two-dimensional space, etc. These programs make it possible for people to have meaningful encounters visual art without needing to see it.

Ultimately our senses can be as much of a hindrance as they are an asset in our ability to comprehend the world around us. How we balance our senses as well as the preconceptions that all too often block that sensory input from being processed is an ongoing struggle for all of us. But most life lessons do not come easily, so the occasional discomfort that is a requisite for a deeper understanding is a small price to pay.

Nobody’s Fool

I’ve opined before about friends’ claims that I have no sense of humor. I have to concede—despite having occasionally laughed out loud in response to something that’s really funny—that there’s some truth to the allegation. As a result, today’s annually designated day for pranks is something I’ve never participated in much over the years. I’m not really able to dupe anyone most of the time (I’m a lousy poker player), and I’m also not that easily conned. But since a number of websites invest a lot of creative energy in posting outlandish content on April Fools’ Day, I fear that any music-related narrative that I’d attempt to relate today might be misinterpreted as some kind of joke. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d ponder a couple of the hoaxes that made it into my web browser today.

I have no intention of entering the World’s Greatest Living Composer Competition, but then again I pretty much have never tried my luck with any competition. That said, I was intrigued by the competition’s required submission of a composition scored for “one piccolo, one violoncello, and three contrabasses”—talk about no middle ground.

I also didn’t fall for Google Nose, although I might have done worse than fall for it—I’ve been thinking about it all day. If such a thing actually did exist, it would not only revolutionize internet communication, it would fundamentally change the world. At this point, just about anything we are able to see or hear can be digitally simulacrified, distributed, and replicated ad nauseum. As a result, the music, film, book, and magazine industries have faced serious economic challenges. Now with personal 3D printers a reality, if the costs drastically came down (as you know they will) similar challenges could eventually come to the auto industry and architecture. But imagine if it were possible to digitize the information we receive through our other three senses and have it be freely available 24/7 anywhere in the world provided there was an internet connection.

Food Memory

Last year at JFK Airport en route to Greece via Turkish Airlines this food kiosk caught my eye, but the plane started boarding before I could order something. Who knows when I’ll be back at that terminal? But if these delectables could somehow be digitally synthesized…

Virtual perfume? Chanel might go out of business. Digital food and wine? No need to ever order take out again, or perhaps eat period. A 24-year-old Atlanta-based electric engineer named Rob Rhinehart is already experimenting with a way to chemically generate all the nutrients in food necessary for one’s survival and has given up conventional eating. What additional scientific breakthrough would it require to infinitely replicate the atoms in those chemicals? And, if such a thing were possible, to enhance them via digitally transmittable taste and olfactory information for those of us who want a slightly more aesthetically rewarding experience than Rhinehart’s less than appetizingly named substance, Soylent, offers? Within a few years the Napa Valley would become barren. Not even such corporate behemoths as Budweiser or McDonald’s could ultimately survive this technological breakthrough. Or would those companies find ways to prevent the inevitable triumph of distribution services over content creators that have thus far eluded the music and film industries? Or would people within the latter 21st century Technorati eventually become bored by the absence of scarcity and find new ways to simulate it—as did Alastair Porter, who unveiled Ephemeral Playback during MIDEM Hack Day 2013 (something that actually would have made a good April Fools’ Day gag)?

Have you been fooled into believing anything today that somehow could change the course of music history or any other history for that matter? If so, please share.

Neil Rolnick: Seamless Transitions

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?

Rolnick Working

Neil Rolnick at work.

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?

Neil 1977 Paris

Neil Rolnick in Paris, 1977

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.

Neil mid 80s

Rolnick with his gear in the mid 1980s

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.

NR: Absolutely.

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.”

Neil late 80s credit Gisela Gamper

Neil Rolnick in the late ’80s, photo by Gisela Gamper

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.
Rolnick CRI LP
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.


Neil Rolnick: A Robert Johnson Sampler performed at EMPAC (Troy, NY) on Feb 27, 2013.

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.


Neil Rolnick: Faith, performed by Bob Gluck (piano) and Neil Rolnick (laptop computer) at EMPAC 2/16/2010.

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.


Neil Rolnick’s Fish Love That: “Calypso” featuring Neil Rolnick, Todd Reynolds, Steve Rust, Andrew Sterman, Ron Horton, and Dean Sharp performing during a 1998 recording session for the Deep Listening CD. Video by John Jannone.

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.

Rolnick Desk

Neil Rolnick’s desk in his New York City apartment which looks out toward the George Washington Bridge.

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.

Rolnick Workstation

Rolnick’s grandchildren are always present at his workstation.

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.


Neil Rolnick: Shadow Quartet, First Movement: “Western Swing” performed by ETHEL (Cornelius Dufallo & Mary Rowell, violins, Ralph Ferris, viola, Dorothy Lawson, cello) at EMPAC (Troy, NY) on Feb. 16, 2010.

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.

Engaging All the Senses

Last year I spent most of my birthday wandering through various New York City galleries to see tons of recent visual art. This year, visual art also played a role in the day’s activities (I finally made it to the 2012 Whitney Biennial) but I devoted a significant amount of energy to sating my other senses as well, all of which presented different curation models.

My kind of traffic jam

My kind of traffic jam: the dim sum carts at Golden Unicorn.

The day began with tasting a nice range of the dim sum at Golden Unicorn on East Broadway in Chinatown, my favorite place to eat dim sum in New York City. (I didn’t eat enough Cantonese food in Hong Kong!) As in most classic dim sum places, although there is a menu, the way the food is normally ordered is directly from waitresses who roam around the restaurants with carts hawking the most recently cooked up varietals. So, instead of making a decision about what you are going to eat from a verbal description on a menu, customers have an opportunity to see and smell the aromas beforehand, which is extremely effective incentive to ordering a lot of things you might otherwise not have ordered, as well as a lot more food than you probably need!

A short subway ride uptown took me up to the Whitney Museum of American Art which every two years offers a retrospective exhibition of what is new and exciting in the world of visual art. Originally these retrospectives were devoted exclusively to art produced in the United States, but recent biennials have included international work as well. While it would be great to get a sense of the latest developments in visual art from all over the world, such an undertaking is probably too ambitious for any one institution, let alone one whose presentation is contained within one Manhattan building. And this year the Biennial attempted to embrace more than just visual art by including a series of musical performances as well (including avant-garde rock pioneers The Red Crayola and, on the day I was there, jazz pianist Jason Moran and mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran). The range of work presented at the Whitney this year is so broad that its being brought together under one roof seems somewhat random. In fact, that seeming randomness was further compounded by significant portions of the exhibition devoted to work that was created much further in the past than two years ago. For the 2012 Biennial, the seminal German film director Werner Herzog created a film montage of works by 17th century Dutch artist Hercules Segers (c. 1590–1638). Plus there was an entire room of work devoted to the forgotten eccentric Texas painter Forrest Bess (1911-1977), whose work was more compelling to me than most of the work on exhibit that was actually created between 2010 and 2012. (That said, I quite liked the paintings of Andrew Masullo and the sculptures of Vincent Fecteau, both San Francisco-based artists, and it was very difficult for me to draw myself away from Lutz Bacher’s Pipe Organ, an installation whose centerpiece is an old, seemingly decayed Yamaha organ whose keys are triggered by a computer program yielding a random array of harmonies and rhythms—totally my kind of thing.) I should point out, however, that presumably the “art work” Biennial spectators were supposed to be considering was not any of the paintings of Forrest Bess, but rather their collection in the room by sculptor Robert Gober. Another work presented at the Biennial (by Nick Mauss) recreated a 1939 antechamber of the French perfumer Guerlain which anachronistically incorporated art works by Andy Warhol and others. Curation itself was in fact the theme of this year’s accumulation of art—the 2012 Biennal was supposedly about how our perceptions of art and everything else are shaped by the way things are packaged and presented.

Ultimately, I was disappointed. But luckily my encounter with a fake Guerlain display room was followed by visits to several real perfume emporia which inhabit Madison Avenue. Two deserve special mention here. I had never experienced any of the singular scents created for the firm of Frédéric Malle (the nephew of the famous French film director Louis Malle) before discovering the sole Frédéric Malle boutique in the United States on the corner of 72nd Street and Madison Avenue. I was immediately impressed that, unlike any other perfume brand I know of, Malle’s perfumes prominently feature the name of each of the perfumes’ “composers” on their bottles. (I love that the name for someone who creates a perfume is composer.) However, perhaps even more impressive than Malle’s giving credit where credit is due, are three large vessels, reminiscent of the tanks in Altered States, in which a few spritzes of a scent are sprayed and effectively contained for their olfactory perception by visitors to the boutique. It was a great way to experience Jean-Claude Ellena’s 2003 almond-themed Eau d’Hiver, but Edouard Flechier’s all-encompassing Une Rose, also created in 2003, didn’t need the assistance. Remarkably, the blotter a dollop was sprayed on Saturday still holds the scent two days later.

Frederic Malle Scent Containers

The scent containers at the Frédéric Malle Boutique on Madison Avenue. Photo by Frédéric Malle courtesy Marina Lodato of HL Group.

Perhaps even more extraordinary, though, was a fragrance I smelled composed by Annick Ménardo and manufactured by the New York-Grasse firm Le Labo called Patchouli 24. It, too, has remained perceptible on the blotter after 48 hours and is truly strange—as its name suggests, it is based on patchouli but it smells somehow barbecued. Le Labo’s fragrances are part of a massive display of fragrances at Barney’s, whose offerings trump Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, Saks, and every other place I’ve visited since becoming obsessed with perfume after experiencing The Scent Opera three years ago. Like the waitresses who deal in dim sum at Golden Unicorn, the sales reps at Barney’s various consignment stands lure you with their offerings by dazzling you with their olfactory possibilities. But after about ten different scents, it is difficult to perceive anything.

Le Labo

A scent kit issued by Le Labo (no longer available) that enabled people to build their own scents; talk about information overload.

This is not true for experiencing tons of pieces of music, which I have done time and time again for years and did so again to cap off all these other sensory encounters. Saturday night was the final concert of Carnegie Hall’s 2012 installment of Spring for Music, a festival offering a week of adventurous programs by North American orchestras. Last year I went to three of the seven concerts. I planned to outdo myself this year and go to all six concerts. Jetlag got the better of me the first night, so I missed the Houston Symphony’s Shostakovich extravaganza, but I attended everything else. There were many aural delights throughout the week. On Thursday, the Alabama Symphony (under the direction of Justin Brown) opened their concert with a fascinating new piece by Avner Dorman called Astrolatry (I’m eager to see the score) and closed it with an incredibly insightful reading of a piece I thought I had heard enough times not to be surprised by, the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven (Beethoven?!?). The next night, Edo de Waart led the Milwaukee Symphony in a very lush performance of Qigang Chen’s Chinese-music-meets-Messiaen cantata Iris dévoilée. (To drive home the connection, there was also Messiaen on the program.). But until Saturday, the highlight for me had been Wednesday’s stunning performance by soprano Hila Plitman and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jacques Lacombe of Edgard Varèse’s final composition (the unfinished Anaïs Nin-inspired Noctural, which was completed by Chou Wen-Chung), even though for most people in the audience it seemed to be trumped later that evening when Marc-André Hamelin joined the orchestra to play Ferruccio Busoni’s 70-minute everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Piano Concerto (1904), which ends with a male chorus.

ESO Flag Wavers

The most enthusiastic audience of the week by far was that of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra which included 1100 Edmonton residents (who flew to NYC just to attend the concert), among them the town’s mayor and several members of the Canadian Parliament. Photo by Steve J. Sherman; courtesy Véronique Firkusny at Mary Lou Falcone Public Relations.

But Saturday’s concert, by the Nashville Symphony under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero, was the program I wanted to hear most of all. It opened with the Larry Austin completion of Charles Ives’s final composition, the Universe Symphony, which he worked on, on and off, for almost 40 years until the end of his life in 1954. It remains one of American music’s most enigmatic and controversial works. While Saturday night’s performance did not definitely answer any of that work’s mysteries, it certainly shook up Carnegie Hall with its 5 conductors and 20 percussionists scattered across the orchestra.

Terry Riley & Tracy Silverman

Composer Terry Riley in rehearsal with electric violinist Tracy Silverman. Photo courtesy Mitchell Korn.

For Terry Riley’s new electric violin concerto, The Palmian Chord Ryddle, the orchestra was joined by Tracy Silverman, who proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a violin can rock as hard as a guitar. If that wasn’t enough, they followed all that with Percy Grainger’s The Warriors, a 1916 composition for large orchestra featuring three pianos and almost as many percussionists as the Ives. This work also required multiple conductors. It was Grainger at his wildest. Too bad Ives and Grainger didn’t know each other. Or did they?

Usually I attend art exhibitions, restaurants, or perfume shops and contemplate how much music presenters can learn from what these other communities do. But this time around, the music people totally got it right. The music proved to be my favorite part of the day, although I’m also still thinking about Patchouli 24, can’t wait to return to Golden Unicorn, and think that next year I’ve got to find a way to have an encounter with something tactile as well.