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