Neil B. Rolnick is a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute, Troy, New York.
you for agreeing to share your thoughts with the Sonic
Arts Network. I wonder if you could give me a brief
history of yourself, a resumé if you like.
I studied first with Fritz Krammer who taught me musicology
at the Manhattan School of Music. I took piano lessons
and classes in species counterpoint and 18th century
counterpoint. I studied abstract rules from the Ludus
Tonalis and wrote imitations of all the pieces that
I was playing. I also studied with Darius Milhaud. I
was writing instrumental works at that time. Then I
stopped being a serious musician.
played rock n roll and folk music. The r
n r, folk and blues bands introduced me
to technology whilst at Harvard College during the years
1965 through 1969. I learnt technology, but more how
to simplify things. In classical music one is taught
how to make things complex. I then moved to San Francisco
doing all sorts of work but always playing. I had many
jobs. Being a concientious objector meant taking alternative
employment. Eventually I got an offer to go back to
San Francisco to play with a rock group but at the same
time was asked to audition at the Conservatory initially
as a pianist, but I hear the standard of the pianists
whilst walking down the hall and think "No, I am
a composer", go home, write a bunch of pieces and
spend a year there, studying with John Adams who was
incidentally at Harvard with me. This is where I first
got into synthesizers. I started to build things. I
went to Berkeley for post-graduate work and ended up
at Stanford then IRCAM and eventually Rensselaer Polytechnic
vast experience in many different areas then?
a classical training and a firm technological background
but the classical training is part of me.
does this influence the music you write?
think in terms of counterpoint. Whether with a sampler,
as in the older pieces I am playing tonight, or other
devices I think in terms of layers, shapes and cadences.
More recently I have been working with ensembles. Ive
written a piece for chamber orchestra and video. The
big challenge with the new technologies is in integrating
the electronic sounds themselves, the control of the
electronic sounds and the thinking behind it all. Working
with samples that are long enough to be recognisable
as musical phrases breaks the paradigm of gesture equals
Ive seen from your rehearsal, the gestures you
do make are reflected in other areas, such as a sense
of force and a sense of density. Is this true?
I think in terms of counterpoint not just of note against
note but phrase against phrase. The Robert Johnson Sampler
was my first piece with this method, sampling Mozart,
but I realised that I had spent just as much time listening
to Robert Johnson as listening to Mozart so that is
just as viably my musical heritage.
tell me about your work at IRCAM. When were you there?
at the beginning, 1977 to 1979.
as part of the technology deal from Stanford. IRCAM
offered work helping get the system set up with PDP-10,
PDP-11s and MUSIC 10, some of the first work with
which turned into the 4X machine but which was originally
the 4B and 4C machine when I was playing with it.
thing about IRCAM was there was an Hegalian sense of
dialectic forces driving music history which I think
is wrong. Its about what people do, not what historians
write about. The basic understanding was that IRCAM
was part of THE tradition of serious music. They develop
general purpose tools which require a lot of support
such as technicians for code to make them run. IRCAM
is really important. It does the kind of research that
gives us the tools we have today. My experience at IRCAM
helped me define what Ive done since then. I am
most interested in live performance. I love to perform.
me about tonights performance. Will you be improvising?
In my mind there is an UR-shape for a piece but the
finer details are worked out in performance. I know
these solo pieces really well. I have recently been
doing a set of songs about the Bosnian conflict with
myself, two singers, a percussionist and video. In that
piece also the singers parts are written out,
but they are rock n roll singers and if
they get off on something they change it. The percussionist
is basically a jazz drummer and I never know what hes
going to do. Thats good for me because I dont
have to know what I have to do either.
have visited the festival of electroacoustic music at
City University and now you are at The University of
Birmingham. Have you enjoyed the visit?
I just did a piece with the Gamelan in London. They
have Sundanese tuning but the piece was originally written
with Javenese tuning. Its called Re-Rebong. I
went in to hear it and it was quite different. I studied
Balanese shadow puppet music after IRCAM. Balinese chamber
music is really interesting. You have four players in
two pairs doubling each other tuned with beats between
them. Re-Rebong was a piece that took off from there.
have you been working on recently?
piece for chamber orchestra, video, two singers, amplified
sounds and processing. Its all real-time processing.
Also an Air Drum piece that is called Persistence of
the Claves based on traditional rhythmic patterns, the
basic beat for some African music. So with that piece
I explore different rhythmic possibilities and play
samples from Latin America. Whilst that is happening,
someone comes up and scans me with a camcorder, so you
get large ear-lobes etc.
to some of the video images in "Last Garden"
of Richard Povall that I saw recently?
tell me about Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
after I arrived, they gave me $15,000 to buy audio equipment.
We now have well over half a million dollars worth of
audio equipment/video gear. I have been in charge of
putting it together. But also we have an ad hoc, group
vision that has worked well so far.
was myself and the video maker, John Sturgeon. We ran
undergrad courses in music and video. What we wanted,
to make our lives more interesting, would be to teach
graduate students who knew what they wanted to do with
their lives. Initially we had the idea of putting music
and video together because we had done some collaborative
work and were impressed by the closeness of our ideas
about form, structure and time. Both at a deep and technical
level we found common points. We drew up a curriculum
list. John thought people should be painters and I thought
people should be classically trained musicians. But
we are extremely flexible and we have been inventing
the rules more or less as we go along. We have half
and half video artists and musicians.
I understand it, if you enroll as a musician you get
training in video art and vice versa?
exploit the idea that there is electronic media but
you dont need to feel the boundaries that have
been traditionally perceived. It requires a different
stance, different perspectives. I have learnt much from
the students, from what they do as well as from teaching
heard you have been working with La Monte Young?
I have been renting an apartment from him. Its
been fascinating. His work is about a whole different
perception of time. I like that. It expands the boundaries
of perception. My musical material wasnt bounded
by the classical part of my education. Anything that
shows me where my boundaries are artificial thereby
making me grow, is interesting.
what I hear and see I think that Rensselaer is expanding
the boundaries for the artists working there.
do too. Its pushing them in a number of ways.
As its cross-disciplinary, people are forced to
think of their work from a number of perspectives. Rethink
things. Musical performance involving people who are
video artists changes the meaning/context. Our values
in terms of education are simple but interesting - non
academic but very practical. There is continuity, but
we are still inventing the programme. The most important
thing about the students is their art work. The only
way to make yourself into an artist is to continue making
art. Not by sitting over books.
a sort of technical level, tell me something about your
set-up at RPI.
our music studio is MIDI plus ProTools. We have off
line video 0.75 inch. You can bring video into the music
studio and audio into the video studio on a basic level
but then we also have an integrated studio. Its
basically an exact clone of the music studio plus a
compatible high end video system. Then you can work
simultaneously to complete the project. On top of this
we have what we call the graduate student play-pen
called the iEAR space, for projects that involve interaction.
We have a complete set of audio/visual gear that is
in flight cases and moves. This includes a sound system,
video projection and camcorders. It is a lot of equipment,
not all top-of-the-range, but all brought within a collaborative
framework. Look at our situation. We have all these
things to do. We can make something that is perfect
and superb and probably very specific or we can get
something that works. Thats one of the differences
between us and IRCAM, Stanford and MIT. Their emphasis
is on cutting edge equipment. Ours is off-the-shelf.
Using things for very interesting purposes, often not
the original purpose.
as the powerglove?
but you have to remember that the activity at RPI is
not just what you see myself and Richard Povall doing
here. There is also a very strong video unit directed
by Brenda Miller. She involves the community in her
work, a recent piece she did was called Witness to the
Future. Its in a sort of documentary style. She
went around the country to people who have been affected
by chemical and nuclear pollution showing life from
their perspective. She has done similar kinds of works
with children in local schools. The students have taken
this up and developed it a lot. The students also produce
a weekly hour long television programme called "hour-iEAR"
which we transmit to a large part of the north-east...
at least 300,000 viewers. We put together interactive
satellite broadcasts for example: we invite artists
in to the studios and do something which we broadcast
but ask the audience to participate in via the phone
lines, to sing or play instruments over the air. Brenda
has been the driving force behind the project but it
is all done by the graduate students. We have just hired
a new person to work on high end computer graphics and
animation. She is just beginning to set up her system.
all sounds very impressive. If you have so much technology
and ideas that emanate from RPI, how easy is it to get
performances out of town, abroad even. Do you think
that concert organisers get put-off when told to get
or expect lots of electronic equipment or as in our
case, provide transformers to convert your equipment
to our voltage rating?
not really because I am working with technology that
many people have access to. My songs about Bosnia are
being played in New York tonight. For tonights
concert, the technology is on stage because I play it,
it is my instrument.
you think it is partly the problem with the interface
that its communication with the black box is not sufficient
to enable the black box to exist off stage. I am increasingly
of the opinion that one needs to provide blatantly obvious
correlations between sound and gesture otherwise it
is pointless having the equipment on stage and from
that, pointless doing it live.
at all. Playing musical technology is the same as playing
an acoustic instrument. The interface changes all the
time but the black box does not always change with it.
When I am playing the keyboard, I always have two pedals,
that control different aspects of sound and performance.
I can play them without thinking about them. I really
think that it is important to have performers on stage,
but having said that, the idea of making the diffusing
of tape music a performance art is really exciting.
you. It sounds like the Institute and its work are going
to become even more exciting in the future.
further information on the graduate program in electronic
arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, email email@example.com
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