Music Notes: Neil Rolnick's checkered career
By Kyle Gann
April 21, 1988
"The whole world of music comes at us from all sides these days," says Neil Rolnick, oblivious in this Indian restaurant to the guy playing ambient music on the African kora immediately behind him. "Looking back, what I got from studying with [French composer] Darius Milhaud is that--he lived over the Place Pigalle [the red-light district] in Paris. He loved to open the windows, and there would be all this music and sound, and it all went into his music. A lot of what I'm doing now, especially since it's become possible to do sampling and grab actual pieces of that soundscape, is the same way."
Rarely have I heard a musician evoke so well in speech the sound of his music. Using the latest in digital keyboards, Rolnick makes a quirky, humorous, discontinuous kind of music for which--in desperation--I once coined the term nonlinear minimalism. Take his piece What Is the Use?: it's part minimalist continuum, part avant-garde synthesized-voice piece, and part samba. Then there's the punnily titled A Robert Johnson Sampler, which samples a record by the great blues player to make an everchanging forest of blues riffs.
Rolnick's art and life are cut from the same cloth, for he's lived all over. Born in Dallas in 1947, today he directs the iEAR electronic studios at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. After studying with Milhaud in high school, Rolnick took the first of many detours and got a bachelor's in literature from Harvard. A novel he wrote brought his first stack of rejection slips. "It took me quite a while to get more in music than I had for the novel." To make a living, he played in square-dance bands in Cambridge; then, after moving to San Francisco, he became a flower-child rock and roller.
"It was good for me, for I was into complex, intellectual music, and playing rock and square-dance music was a simplicity lesson. I'd play some complicated rhythmic thing, and they'd say, 'No, no, just play dum, dum, dum, dum.' There was a place in San Francisco called Jack's, a late-night place; after gigs on Saturday night, all the whores and pimps would be there hanging out and cooling off before sunrise. If you were ballsy you could sit in on the jam sessions, because they were really good players. I'd be the only white person playing in these bebop bands."
Rolnick made a lot of false starts. "I auditioned to play piano for Eddie Money once. He listened and said, 'You got to have more balls, man!' I looked around [Rolnick gives a helpless downward glance] and said, well, OK."
From this point Rolnick's bio reads like a resume collage. He took a hospital job in Jackson, Wyoming, and was fired for inciting the staff to organize. In Vermont, he counseled drugged-out high school kids. Back in San Francisco to join a rock band that never materialized, he enrolled at the conservatory and studied with John Adams, composer of the minimalist opera Nixon in China, who was as yet unknown. Rolnick, then into serial music and Stockhausen, didn't realize at the time what a good influence Adams was.
"Then once I was singing my daughter a lullaby. It suddenly occurred to me, 'I'm a composer, I should be singing her some 12-tone [serial] thing.' Then I thought, 'I'm being a jackass, I should sing whatever I feel like singing, not what somebody tells me to sing.' That was it. My next piece was based on a sailor's hornpipe, and completely tonal."
Despite this change of philosophy, Rolnick landed a summer fellowship at Stanford, where at last his niche became clear--he took to the new synthesizers like a duck to water. A friend at IRCAM, Pierre Boulez's institute for computer-music research in Paris, gave Rolnick a job. "At IRCAM I lectured about how someday computers were going to be the most ubiquitous instruments ever, that you were going to find more computers around than pianos. I felt silly saying it, because I wasnt really sure it was going to happen. But it's happened."
In 1978, Rolnick grabbed a chance to participate as technician/performer in the first live computer-music performance ever given. "The composer involved was a Hungarian, Balz Trupy. The idea at IRCAM was that you shouldn't need to know anything about computers to use this medium. So Balz didn't know shit. The piece was for chamber orchestra and synthesizer. The orchestra parts were all scored out, and at the bottom of the page were all these numbers and lines. I said, 'Where's the synthesizer part?' He said, 'Oh, it's those numbers and lines.' I said, 'Hunh?'
"The first performance was iffy. We couldn't get the machine to stay running for the entire piece until the day of the premiere. I hadn't slept for days, trying to get this thing running. I kept saying, what is this thing supposed to sound like? Trupy had planned for things that hadn't been implemented in the machine and never would be. One friend said, when it was over, that the piece flew 15 feet off the ground for a hundred yards before it crashed."
IRCAM failed to give Rolnick proper credit for his work on the piece, so Rolnick left to finish his doctorate at Berkeley. If he walked out on history, he has no regrets. "It was the best thing that could have happened. Staying at IRCAM would have been the kiss of death. I don't find that the exciting stuff is happening there at all. The best thing that's happened to me is putting an instrument in my home [an '82 model Synclavier, then the only digital machine around] and being able to play it, and work with people. You can only make music by practicing the instrument you're writing for. You cant do that in an office building."
Listen to Rolnick's music, and this checkered career all fits together. In the minimalist patterns you can hear the influence of Adams, and in the prickly, detailed textures the early love for Stockhausen. The music is laid-back enough to come from an ex-flower child, yet the high level of digital expertise is that of an IRCAM technician. Most of all, the incessant changes of texture and idea point to a musician who just doesnt seem to want to sit still.
Chicago will have a chance to hear Rolnick's digital wizardry: Thursday, April 28, at 7:30 PM, Rolnick will present an extensive solo program at N.A.M.E. Gallery, recently moved to 700 N. Carpenter. Admission is $5; $4 for students, seniors, and N.A.M.E. members. Saturday, April 30, at 8:15 PM, Rolnick will be the synthesizer soloist in his A la Mode, an ensemble work performed at a computer-music concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 1977 Sheridan Road, Evanston. That's free. Call N.A.M.E. at xxx-xxxx, Northwestern at xxx-xxxx.
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