Wired for sound: RPI celebrates composer Neil Rolnick's unique electronic music

Wired for sound: RPI celebrates composer Neil Rolnick's unique electronic music

Date posted: 2007-11-12 10:35:00


Wired for sound
RPI celebrates composer Neil Rolnick's unique electronic music

By JOSEPH DALTON, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, November 11, 2007

Neil Rolnick has spent most of his career putting music and musical  
ideas into machines, and making them spit it back out again. But it's  
only in recent years that the composer and longtime Rensselaer  
Polytechnic Institute faculty member, who turned 60 last month, has  
found the unique musical voice inside himself and been able to  
embrace it.

"I have figured out what my music is about: material that grows  
organically out of little seeds and with instruments interacting with  
electronics, so that the electronics become magic. It's important for  
me to be able to hear the architecture of a piece," he said in a  
recent interview.

Rolnick's birthday and his music will be celebrated on Saturday  
evening in a concert produced by RPI's Experimental Media and  
Performing Arts Center in the university's Academy Hall. The program  
focuses on Rolnick's recent works and features a world premiere, but  
it also includes "Ever Livin' Rhythm," a 30-year-old piece for  
electronics and percussion.

FACTS:Too American Rolnick's first effort with electronics, "Rhythm"  
was written shortly before he moved to Paris to study at the famed  
IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), the  
center for advanced musical research headed by composer Pierre Boulez.
Rolnick made valuable contacts during his time there, but IRCAM is a  
place for dense thought and denser compositions -- not such a good  
match for music that's as lively and playful as something called  
"Ever Livin' Rhythm."

"Pierre Boulez said you're too American, go back to America," recalls  
Rolnick, who took the advice. He later concluded: "If I'm a composer,  
then it's my job to write down what I hear. Why write difficult and  
complex stuff if that's not what I hear? I've always had a gift for  
melody. I used to be embarrassed by it."

As Saturday night's program will attest, Rolnick is no longer  
blushing at his inherent musical gifts. Says the composer, "Whatever  
it is I'm meant to do, I'm doing it now."

Art-technology link
What Rolnick has also been doing for years, besides writing music, is  
building the arts programs at RPI. He began as a junior faculty  
member in January 1981, arriving in Troy, as he recalls, "with a kid,  
a wife, no money and a piano, which was pretty much my only possession."

"He was energetic, very smart, and very ambitious," says sculptor  
Larry Kagan, also a young faculty member at the time. "He saw the  
real possibilities of growing an arts program that relied on  

"I presumed it was going to be a temporary deal," Rolnick says of his  
early days teaching at RPI. "I'm a musician. I didn't see how I could  
be long term at an engineering school."

Despite such concerns, Rolnick got busy pulling together some  
semblance of an electronic music studio. At the time, composer Joel  
Chadabe was running the electronic music program at the University at  
Albany. He provided Rolnick with crucial advice as well as spare  

"Joel told me to get anything I could working, and then ask for  
funding to expand it," says Rolnick.

The first major hardware was an IBM PDP 11/10, something that Chadabe  
no longer needed at UAlbany. "It was an old computer even then," says  
Rolnick, who describes it as measuring about 19 inches wide, 2 feet  
deep and 6 feet high. Together, the two musicians transported it  
across the Hudson in Rolnick's Volkswagen van.

Shortly after its installation, Rolnick put in a request to the  
higher-ups at RPI for an equipment upgrade. That, of course, is  
something he's done again and again over the years, as technology  
marches on. Lately though, the fact that every student owns a laptop  
computer has eased the pressure for ever-new equipment. "There are  
still things you need a studio for," explains Rolnick, "like space,  
microphones, and a video or sound stage."

A matter of degrees
Besides pushing for access to the latest tools, Rolnick has been a  
driving force in making the arts a prominent and respected part of  
the university. During his two nonconsecutive terms as chair of the  
arts department, he supervised the expansion of arts at RPI from  
being merely a variety of enrichment courses for students from other  
departments, to the offering of bachelor's and master's degrees in  
"integrated electronic arts."

Rolnick remembers during his early days hearing a now-retired arts  
faculty member tell him, "Our job is to interest engineers in the  
arts enough to be future board members and supporters of arts  
organizations." He still groans at such a limited mindset.
Growing bored with teaching introductory-level courses only, Rolnick  
and his colleagues decided to seek students who would be interested  
in the arts as a career by offering a master's of fine arts degree.  
The multidisciplinary ("integrated") focus made the program unique in  
the nation when it was first offered in 1987.

An undergraduate program, which began nine years later, was the most  
successful new undergrad program in RPI's history, according to  
Rolnick, with an enrollment that grew from 40 to 300 in four years.
"The timing was right, at the beginning of the tech boom," he says,  
adding that it was a good fit for "students who play video games and  
have various music and graphic programs on the computers and they  
would say, 'Can I really made a career of that?' "

The new building
The latest manifestation of arts and technology at RPI is the  
prominent glass building on the hill above downtown Troy -- EMPAC,  
the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, a unique lavishly  
expensive facility scheduled to open next fall. Rolnick had a role in  
its genesis as well.

"The germ for EMPAC was an idea that Neil brought to me," says Faye  
Duchin, an RPI faculty member who was dean of the humanities and  
social sciences from 1996 to 2002. "I brought (the proposal) to a  
president's retreat with the deans, and (RPI President Shirley  
Jackson) loved the idea as soon as it was on the table."

Concert celebration
"Neil basically prepared the ground for EMPAC at RPI," says Johannes  
Goebel, director of EMPAC. "So I think it is most appropriate for  
EMPAC to throw a birthday party in the form of a concert."

Among the half-dozen Rolnick works on Saturday's program is "Digits,"  
a 2005 piece for piano and electronics. Earlier this year, Anthony  
Tommassini of The New York Times caught a performance at the  
Juilliard School in New York City and described it as "an  
exhilarating interactive piece."

"Digits" was written for Kathleen Supove, a Brooklyn-based pianist  
who is known for tackling the most demanding contemporary scores.  
Rolnick has lived in New York City since 2002. In the piece, computer  
programs sample and transform portions of the piano music as it  
unfolds live. Managing such electronic trickery is nothing new for  
Rolnick, which was a relief to Supove.

"I would put him at the top tier of people to work with. He knows a  
lot about the technology of the piece, and has made it easy for me to  
be able to do it," says Supove. "I've had some other pieces that are  
terrific, but the composer knew what he wanted but didn't have a clue  
how to realize it, and I had to go talk to an engineer and figure out  
how to set up."

Amid the virtuosity and technology, Rolnick's personality comes through.
"His music has lively tunes and rhythms, and is immediately  
understandable," says Chadabe. "And it is has a very good  
disposition, a sunny disposition, very much like Neil himself."
Joseph Dalton is a local freelance writer and a regular contributor  
to the Times Union.

Celebrating Neil Rolnick at 60
What: A concert of mostly recent works with pianist Kathleen Supove,  
violinist Todd Reynolds, singers Amy Fradon (amyfradon.com/)  
and Leslie Ritter (www.leslieandscott.com/) and other artists.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Academy Hall Auditorium, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute  
campus, Troy
Admission: Free
Info: www.empac.rpi.edu or www.neilrolnick.com/ />

Also coming up: The Albany Symphony Orchestra has commissioned a new  
work from Rolnick, "Love Songs," which will feature vocalist Theo  
Bleckmann and violinist Todd Reynolds, for a special Valentine-themed  
concert also with music of Mozart and Schumann. 7:30 p.m. Thursday,  
Feb. 14, Canfield Casino, Saratoga Springs. Tickets $23-$46, call  
465-4663; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall,  
tickets $23-$46, call 273-0038; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16,  
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, Mass.; tickets $27, call (413) 997-4444.

iEAR Presents! Irene Lusztig's "Yours in Sisterhood"
March 27, 2019 7:00 PM
EMPAC Studio Beta

Documentary filmmaker Irene Lusztig, Associate Professor of Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz, will present her recent film Yours in Sisterhood (2018), which uses as source material the archives of Ms. Magazine. Lusztig uses letters to the editor, filming them read by people living in towns and cities across the country where the letters originated.