Interview with Neil B. Rolnick
This Changing Thing is My Instrument
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #458, 13 March 2004. Kalvos on the road in New York at the American Music Center. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:18:22–2:00:34].
Since he moved to New York City in 2002, Neil Rolnick’s music has been receiving increasingly wide recognition and numerous performances both in the US and abroad. A pioneer in the use of computers in performance, beginning in the late 1970s, Rolnick has often included unexpected and unusual combinations of materials and media in his music. He has performed around the world, and his music has appeared on 13 CDs. Though much of Rolnick’s work has been in areas which connect music and technology, and is therefore considered in the realm of “experimental” music, his music has always been highly melodic and accessible. Whether working with electronic sounds, improvisation, or multimedia, his music has been characterized by critics as “sophisticated,” “hummable and engaging,” and as having “good senses of showmanship and humor.” Rolnick teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, where he was founding director of the iEAR Studios.
[Kalvos] It’s Kalvos & Damian on the road, and we’re here with the only guy in the world I could possibly imagine who could have written a piece about one of Vermont’s utilities.
[Neil B. Rolnick] This is true.
And it’s probably the main reason I opened that CD and played it right away — “What do you mean, ‘Central Vermont Public Service?’” [Laughter]
Does it sound like Central Vermont Public Service?
No, it was much more stable than the tower from CVPS ever was anyway. Neil Rolnick is our guest, this is just great. Welcome to Kalvos & Damian.
Let’s just start with that, then we’ll get to your background. How did you get inspired to do a piece that was titled after a utility company?
Well, because I had at that point moved around a lot. Now we’re about 13 or 14 years later, and I’ve been moving some, but not as much. The piece was called ElectriCity, and it’s out on the OO Discs label. At the time I wrote the piece, I was beginning to look at how my thinking for working with electronics coincided with my thinking about acoustic music. The piece is about 45 minutes long, and it’s about 13 or 14 separate pieces or movements. I’d got to thinking about how I’d moved to all these different places, and in each one I was more dependent than anything upon the electric company to supply me with the power that I was using to make the music, and there it goes.
We listen to Central Vermont Public Service from ElectriCity by Neil Rolnick [0:20:33–0:23:08].
Okay, now we can get to the background. Let’s take you back to when you became interested in creating music on a composer level versus a player level.
Yeah, actually I had started out on the composer level. When I was in high school, I started playing the piano kind of late (13–14 years old), and immediately started trying to imitate what I was playing in my lessons by writing them.
So you were late, too, on that. That’s interesting. I started late with it too, and I rarely meet anybody who started late.
I had played folk music before that, and I had played guitar, accordion and banjo and cello a little bit in elementary school. But none of it really stuck a whole lot until I started studying, first in Connecticut where I lived…
Where were you in Connecticut at the time?
Westport, there was a school of music there. I started playing piano, and immediately wanted to start imitating what I was doing by writing similar things. Then, I hooked up with a wonderful man here in the city. All through high school I spent every Saturday with Fritz Kramer. He was a musicologist from the Manhattan school, and he also gave the lectures before the philharmonic concerts. He was an old guy from Germany. We would do a piano lesson, then we’d do a species counterpoint lesson, then an 18th-century counterpoint lesson. He was really into Hindemith, so we do a kind of Ludus Tonalis-type counterpoint lesson, then we would do harmonizations, we would do twelve-tone studies, we would do imitations of all the piano music I was studying…
That’s a pretty adventurous Saturday afternoon.
Then I’d have free composition, so I’d always be working on a separate piece. So that was all through high school, and it was more work than getting my doctorate was. It was wonderful. So, I’d always felt like my piano playing was way behind my ability to think musically and write it down. Then I went to college, stopped being a music major, did other things.
What sort of other things? I’m always curious to know this.
I ended up as a literature major and I wrote a novel that is sitting in a drawer someplace. All through that time I was making extra money by starting to learn how to play more simply, so I was playing in square dance bands, rock ’n roll bands, and folk dance groups around Cambridge and New England. I went out to California for a while and played rock ’n roll and jazz. I met some people who taught me how to not think like a composer but think… well, not so much “to not think,” but to taught me how to not think so much like a European composer.
Okay, tell us something about that, because there really is a different kind of consciousness. What did you learn about that?
Well, I learned to simplify. I learned that I could play triads. That was okay. I learned that I could make steady rhythms instead of things that were so complex you couldn’t hear them (or I couldn’t hear them). I learned how to worry about how things sounded rather than how they looked on the paper. I did that in California a bunch, and this was 1969–71. It was draft time, lottery time.
We all remember our numbers.
I think I was something like three or something. I was right up there. So, I ended up being a conscientious objector. At one point while living in California (I was bouncing back between the coasts), a friend of mine convinced me to go to Alaska where we were going to make millions of dollars fishing. We got up there and lost everything.
How far did you get?
Oh, that’s far enough.
My friend went on and became an oceanographer. When I spent my last $5 in Anchorage…
In a bar, right?
Yeah. [General laughter] That’s it. You know, back in those days, when you graduated from college, all the credit card companies sent you credit cards. So I had these credit cards in my wallet. I had left my dog in Cambridge, I’d left my car in San Francisco, I’d completely ran out of money. I used my credit card to fly back to Cambridge and get my dog, then fly me and the dog back to San Francisco, then I threw away the credit card, so I never…
Oh, so you didn’t, like, finish paying them off last year, then. [Laughter]
Well, I actually finished paying them off… in the following years after this, I ended up doing my conscientious objector work first in Wyoming, where I worked driving an ambulance at a hospital. I also learned about country and western music, which I really enjoyed. I played saxophone in a country and western band. Never could play much saxophone, but you didn’t need a whole lot. There were these big parties at these clubs in Jackson where i was. Then I got fired for organizing the hospital workers. I said, “Well, you can’t do that, this is through the government, I have a conscientious objector job here.” The hospital administrator said…
They said, “It’s either that or die, which would you rather…” [Laughter]
He said, “They need me, the administrator, more than they need you, the orderly. So, tough luck, buddy. Go find a lawyer, and the nearest lawyer is over across the border in Idaho Falls, and he’s on my board.” [Laughter]
So, then I was sort of hooked on finding interesting places. Having been (before the CO job) in California playing lots of rock ’n roll and jazz, then having to do this two years service, half of it done in Wyoming, I was sort of hooked on pretty places. That’s how I got in Wyoming after being in Alaska. I thought, “Well, either I’ll go either to L.A. and do studio stuff, or I’ll just go to the prettiest place I can think of.” So, after getting kicked out of Wyoming, I ended up back in Vermont.
We listen to Ratchet by Neil Rolnick, played by Fish Love That [0:31:42–0:33:15].
And where were you in Vermont?
Not far from you, in Brookfield.
Brookfield, wow. I currently live in Northfield Falls, but I used to live in Roxbury, which is just down from Brookfield, yes.
Oh, okay, yes! Well, we were right near the floating bridge, between Brookfield and Randolph, and I think between routes 12 and 14, is that right?
12 and 14, that’s right. You remember those days!
Yeah. I was playing in rock ’n roll bands there.
One of the great jingle-writers lives right in that area, a fellow by the name of Bobby Gosh. He’s probably most notorious for the Burger King commercials of about ten years ago. He lives right in that area, near the floating bridge.
That’s a lovely, lovely area, and I managed to find a wife there, which was nice. We’re still married.
Oh, well, both of those things are good. [Laughter]
Yes, yes, and that was 30 years ago. Somewhere in there, my parents decided that they were downsizing to a smaller house, and wanted to give away the piano that I had actually bought for $1,000 with money I had saved up when I was 14. It was an old Steinway L. First I said okay, but then I said, “No, you can’t do that. I’ll take it and I’ll be responsible for it.” As soon as I got it up to our place in Vermont, I started playing it and realized that I’d sort of been missing a lot about playing the piano, because I just had old clunkers.
So I started taking lessons again. Ultimately, I didn’t like the Vermont winters very much, and wanted to move back to San Francisco. I’d had an offer to join a rock ’n roll band in San Francisco. I thought, on a lark, that maybe since I was enjoying my piano lessons, I would apply to the San Francisco Conservatory. I went in thinking I was going to do a piano audition, heard the other pianists and said, “Oh no, I’m not that good. I think I should just do a composition application.” So I did the interview, went home and wrote the compositions that I told them I had written. I got in, and that sort of got me back on that. The first teacher that I had there was John Adams, who was also in my class at Harvard. [Laughter]
At that time, John Adams would still have been not quite famous.
Not at all famous. We were both about three years out of college. For him it probably would have been less, because he did a master’s. He had real interesting ideas. I was getting back to contemporary music and new music, although my thought of what was new was Stockhausen, Boulez and Berio.
You still hadn’t been cured of that by these people who taught you not to think European?
No, because that was rock ’n roll, and now I was getting back to serious stuff. My experience with rock ’n roll and jazz was I played with a lot of people who couldn’t read (or couldn’t read much), and didn’t know anything about this other music I had studied. So that was just a different world. Since then, I’ve had many experiences where I’ve gone in and played, you know, in Japan with Japanese traditional musicians, or traditional musicians in the Balkan Peninsula. I don’t go in and try to teach them about Western traditional music, that would be silly. I try and find a place where we can meet.
That was how I felt playing pop and rock music back in the 60s and early 70s. I just didn’t bother bringing along all that other baggage. I was based in San Francisco — minus the time spent in Wyoming and Vermont — for pretty much 1969–1981. That was the first I’d ever heard of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La Monte Young. You know, the idea of thinking of Duke Ellington as a serious composer.
Those moments of change were beginning to happen.
Yeah. So that was really very important for me, I feel like I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t really need to learn all the technical stuff.
Well, let’s take a break now and listen to a piece that does not have that kind of pulse to it. This is Wondrous Love, also from ElectriCity. Tell us a little bit about that, we’ll play it, and we’ll come back to this biography.
Wondrous Love was written just about the time we’re talking about, in the late 70s I guess, or 1980… somewhere in there. It was the end of the time that I was in Paris, studying at IRCAM.
Oh, wait. How did Paris get into this story?
Oh yeah, well, part of living in California involved living Paris for two years.
Living in Paris. Fine, okay. “Except for the time I spent in Wyoming and Vermont… and Paris.” [Laughter]
Like I said, the reason for ElectriCity having all those names is that I lived in a lot of cities. But I was basically a Californian during that time. I was part of the crew that came over from California to basically set up the technology at IRCAM, in 1977–79. When I was in Paris I ran into another person I had run into in California named Toyoji Tomita, who is a trombonist and now is still, I think, in the Bay Area [ed.: Tomita passed away in April 2008]. I had gone through finding about all these other musics and thinking, “Well, maybe I don’t have to be sounding like Stockhausen and Boulez when I write new music,” so I found this shape note book of songs that felt very American, and wrote a piece for Toyoyi for solo trombone. It was sort of like the Berio Sequenzas but with melody and harmony, and a real sense of trying to think about who I am, where the music comes from and where I come from. I was, of course, living abroad, and whenever I live abroad I tend to feel a whole lot more American than I do when I live in America. [Laughter]
It’s a great piece, I love this piece.
We listen to Wondrous Love by Neil Rolnick, performed by George Lewis [0:42:25–0:51:40].
Wondrous Love, that old shape note tune. I did an arrangement of that myself, but a very straightforward arrangement for a chorus.
Which is probably how it should be, but… [Laughter]
Oh yeah, but it’s so interesting how some specific tunes come around again.
It’s a wonderful tune.
It is. It’s very evocative, the nice arch it has. We’ll leave it to our listeners to go out and find a copy, Wondrous Love or What Wondrous Love, depending on the edition. So gosh, took a little time off in Paris here, that’s a nice biographical segment.
Paris was actually really, really interesting for me. I was still sort of not sure where I fit in things. I guess we’re never sure where we fit. I was working at IRCAM, which is, you know, the temple of modernism. I went over there idolizing Boulez and Berio and Stockhausen, and I worked with all of them. I worked closely with Boulez and Berio, I had some interaction with Stockhausen. People like Jean-Claude Risset and Vinko Globokar were around and part of the crew. And I didn’t like the music I heard. It took me a while to say, “Well, what’s going here?” [Laughter]
Our only experience with IRCAM is me bribing the guard at the door to throw Damian out, to take a picture. That’s as far as we got, we got as far as the guard and us handing the few francs to help usher Damian right back out the door. [Laughter]
Well, there are two things. From about that time, I tried to think about writing and playing what I hear, what I really hear. I just don’t hear all that structural stuff that modernism is about. On some level I do hear structure, but I relate much more to the way that Steve Reich talks about structure, in terms of something that you can hear evolve, something you can hear change. Hearing rows going in every direction from Sunday doesn’t do anything for me. Some connection to forms which either evolve, or sectionals that I can hear that are based on ways that things evolve, either timbres or through melodic or harmonic changes, that’s the way I hear. When I was in Europe one of the first times for that long period, I really came face to face with that.
There’s not always a primacy of the hearing of it, in some European venues.
Yeah. Boulez, I really think he does hear it, and I saw him do almost parlour tricks with being able to hear pitches and microtones, which is great, but it’s not my ears, that’s not the way that it works.
I think what I meant by that was not the ability to hear it, so much as the point being that it be heard.
Yes, I think that’s right. The other thing that I came away from that with is that I was really impressed at that point — in a negative way — by how stratified the kinds of distinctions were between technicians and musicians, between performers and composers. I came back because my differences with IRCAM were surfacing in my mind a lot, and I was still not finished my doctorate at Berkeley. They said, “Either you’ve got to come back and do it, or forget about it.” So, I tried to negotiate a lot of money from IRCAM, which was a hopeless cause, and went back to California. I went back with the idea that what I really wanted to do was to somehow integrate all this stuff. Keep writing, keep being involved in performing more than I had been, and also keep my hands in the technology. Because in a way, computers and electronic music are really what I perform with.
And they were really blossoming at the time. It was becoming possible to perform with them, as opposed to manage equipment.
And even before I went to Paris — I started working with computers in ’75 — before that, I worked with synthesizers, Buchla and Moog synthesizers, put together systems with tape delays and stuff that I would use in performance. So, I’d always been interested in that. Way back in the early 70s in the Bay Area, there was a group called the Newport Costa Players, which was run by John Duykers (the tenor) and Janice Giteck, who is a composer from Seattle.
She’s been a guest on our show, yeah.
She’s wonderful, and they were married at the time. There were a bunch of other people in there, including Paul Dresher, who was around some. I did electronics for the performances there, so I was engaged at that point in doing performance with analog gear. The idea of having something which I could really perform on a lot was important to me, just what I wanted to get back to. When I came back, I finished my doctorate and got my job that I still have at Rensselaer [Polytechnic Institute (RPI)], which started in January ’81. For the first time in my life, I had a paycheque. [Laughter]
There’s a convenience to that.
Well, what I did immediately was go out and negotiate a loan to buy a Synclavier. At that point it was about $10,000. I managed to convince the bank that this was a loan for a musical instrument, that it would appreciate. Little did either of us know that it would not.
[Laughter] Well, until of course, it became a collector’s item later on, a different kind of appreciation. Did you go to pick up your Synclavier?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
You went up to New England Digital, and…
And we drove across the border to New Hampshire, where there’s no sales tax, in order for me to hand Syd Alonso the cheque, and him to hand me the box with the Synclavier. I remember at that point some of the people, maybe David Jaffe — who, when I was first learning about computer music at Stanford, was there, and is still there — came by, and I showed him the Synclavier. He said, “Well, it’s nice, but it’s like a toy. There’s all these things you can’t do with it.” It’s not a general purpose computer like the mainframe computers we were using at Stanford and IRCAM. My reaction was that there’s lot a whole that theoretically I can’t do with it, but because it’s something that I can practice on every day, I can spend two to five hours working at this thing, that I can get to know it in a kind of intimacy in which I never got to know the mainframes. Plus, I can pick it up and carry it around. That all changed when a year or two later, when the people at New England Digital told me that in order to keep my machine current and get involved with new sampling they were doing, I had to re-invest another $60,000 in it. So I sold the Synclavier for $9,000 and I got the first generation Macintosh Prophet Sampler and DX-7.
A DX-7, a classic choice.
Well, that was the only choice there was! [Laughter] And the first Opcode MIDI interface, number three (as in serial number 0003), and started beta-testing all of Opcode’s stuff. I became really hooked on “this changing thing is my instrument.” At that time, I did a lot of touring around Upstate New York to learn about performing. There was another singer and composer named Julie Kabat, who still lives around the Capital district of New York, and she does a lot of work with arts and education. She had a lot of concerts lined up going to schools and community centres, and I started doing that with her. That became my learning about performance again.
And this was about what year?
This was early 80s, mid-80s. I started working first with Julie and doing more and more things, either alone or with other groups. I started traveling more again. In the late 80s, I spent four months in what was then Yugoslavia, right before the war. I was traveling around doing concerts and helping the conservatory there set up a computer music situation. I did some irregular touring in Europe, and in the mid-90s spent another six months in Japan. All of that has been integrating performing things around there.
Maybe I should go back to the 80s to early 90s, and say that one of the things that was happening for me a lot was the idea of starting up an educational program that was really unique in the country, at Rensselaer. In some ways, that was sidetracking some of my creative work for a while, but it’s been a really interesting and exciting environment that’s been set up there.
Let’s take a quick break, ask you what is it about fish, and play something from your CD Fish Love That. What is it about fish? I’ll give you 60 seconds.
Well, if you have fish, you can reach into the little bowl after you feed them (they come up to get the stuff you put on top), you can grab them, and then while they’re kind of wriggling in your hand you can stroke their bellies, and fish love that.
Ah, so they do. Let’s take one that almost alliterates with that, we’ll play Hush.
We listen to Hush by Neil Rolnick, performed by Fish Love That [1:06:19–1:14:20].
This is a great CD, everybody should rush right out and get a copy of this. Todd Reynolds is on here, Steve Rust, Andrew Sterman, this is just a wonderful thing. Compositions by all of them, and it’s on…
You won’t find much else entitled “Fish Love That,” so just put that into the search.
It’s actually been very interesting for me, because I haven’t put out a CD for six years — I was on other things. When this came out, I went looking for it listed on Barnes & Noble online, and amazon.com. I couldn’t find it — it’s listed under “pop & jazz.”
Are you surprised?
Well you know, I just never thought about it. [Laughter]
If you start looking at it and figuring out what’s on there, and there’s this improvisato… — well, if it has any “impr” — you get those four letters, and that’s enough to go into the jazz section right there!
Yeah, and I’ve yet to see whether or not it has any impact on the sales. I guess when I come back from places, I come back with ideas about how I want to proceed next. When I came back from Japan in 1995–96, I ran into a situation where the people that I had the most fun playing with were traditional Japanese musicians who were the most open to doing things differently. We ended up doing a lot of improvisation, which I had not done a lot of before.
Actually, there’s a very funny story. I’ll go back a long way. When I was applying to college, I had written a lot of music at that point, and was applying to Juilliard. I went to the interview, they looked at my stuff, I played a little bit of stuff, and that was okay. Vincent Persichetti, who was the teacher, said, “Now, we want you to improvise something.” I said, “I don’t improvise.” He said, “If you’re a composer, you must improvise.” I said, “I’m a composer, and I don’t improvise. I’m not going to improvise, period.” I got into Juilliard anyway, but didn’t go. [Laughter] It was a very strange interview.
Anyway, when I came back from Japan, I got to thinking that I wanted to be improvising more. I was at that time being Chairman of the department at RPI, and I had a bunch of written music that I had on my plate to write (orchestral stuff and things like that). I thought that the only way that I would really make a habit of improvising would be that if I set up something regular. So I set up something monthly at the Knitting Factory in New York, and then we did it at a place called HERE. This group, including Todd and Andrew and Steve, Ron Horton (I think Ron was in the original group), and Dean Sharp (the drummer), grew out of a group that I had done a theatrical piece with before I went to Japan.
It was a theatre piece in which I had the computer making up the story of the theatre. Each night, it would make up two stories that were different, and then the players, including the musicians and the actors, wouldn’t find out until we were on stage, and it was all projected on screen. They had been involved in this, which involves some sort of thinking about improvisation. So I called them all up and they were all game, and we just started doing this thing. At first, for about three years, we did it almost every month at one of the two venues. In the time since then, we’ve all gone in a lot of different directions, but people have been interested in coming back whenever I can line up a gig, which is usually two, three, or four times a year.
We come from different backgrounds. I mean, people do really different things. Steve Rust plays a lot of funk stuff, and he and Dean Sharp, both based in Woodstock, play with all manner of jazz and rock and folk music stuff. Steve was actually also on an album with James Galway a little while ago. Todd works with Bang on a Can and ETHEL, Andrew works with Philip Glass a lot and also does broadway stuff. So anyway, the deal with this thing is that anyone is welcome to bring in material. At the most, we have about an hour before each gig where we look at the material. Everyone reads real fast, so we look at it, go through it, and then the audience is there, and we play. It keeps everything really fresh and we’re on our toes. They’re such good players, it’s a treat, and each one brings different musical things to what they write, so the CD has a real wide variety of stuff.
Two things. Does this influence how much you actually write in fixed compositions at this point? Has it taken away from that time?
I’m not quite sure how to answer that. At the same time I was doing Fish Love That, I got involved in about a six-year process. There are some CDs I didn’t send you, but I could give you one if you want, which have nothing to do with new music. It started out with a series of commissions by David Alan Miller, who’s the conductor of the Albany Symphony. Together, we started a group called Dogs of Desire. In the very beginning of it, it was discussions with David. He was talking about really wanting to do pop-influenced things. I ended up doing a series of six different songs at different times for the orchestra, for Dogs of Desire and voices, and eventually fleshed it out with six orchestral interludes. It was an hour’s worth of music, which of course all had to be written out completely. I ended up putting the whole thing together for them in a pair of back-to-back performances that they did in Troy, which got rave reviews for the pieces, and terrible reviews for the group… at the very end, and they haven’t done anything of mine since. Then they dropped the record. We had gone through making a recording, and I can only presume that because they didn’t get good reviews out of it, the record never happened. My collaborator in the words was Larry Beinhart, who is a novelist whose main recognition has been that he wrote the book that the movie Wag the Dog was based on.
[Laughter] Great movie.
Great movie, yeah. And even better, the novel is called American Hero. It’s a wonderful book, and instead of focusing on Clinton for the presidency, it focuses on Bush number one. It shows how the first Gulf War was set up for and by Hollywood. In any case, the characters that emerge from these songs turned into a real story. At first, I thought that it would be really interesting to write an opera about it, and opera companies were not interested. But then Larry, who’s a less-than-highbrow-oriented kind of guy, said, “Oh well, I don’t like opera anyway, why don’t we send it to musical theatre places?” A group called The Director’s Company in New York said, “We love it. We’ll work with you on it.” It’s never made it out of workshops. For about three years we did once-a-month workshops, and actually, during that time I was doing once-a-month Fish Love That.
I was also going through this process of writing. I’d write a couple scenes of this musical, all notated, The Director’s Company would line up actors from broadway shows on Mondays when they don’t work. They’d pay them a little bit of money, they’d come in and do a reading and sing through what we had done, and do a critique of it, come back and do some more. So, the idea of notating improvised things and improvising notating things, is really a jumble in my head. I feel pretty fluent doing both things. Maybe it’s interesting to talk a little bit about where this has gotten me now.
Good, but I want to ask you one quick question. You let slip in the department chairman, which means that maybe you did finish that Ph.D. somewhere along the line?
I did finish the Ph.D.
Oh, good! I just wanted to clarify that.
Although it’s not one of the things… It’s not what I think about a lot. When I first got my job, they started calling me “Dr. Rolnick,” and I said, “No, no, I’m Neil and I will be Neil.” What has actually been good out of it has been the program at RPI, which I’d started talking about before. I’ve just recently stepped down from Chair after about ten years, and it’s something that I’m really proud of and excited about. It’s really moved into new areas. We started out as the first place in the country that offered an MFA in Electronic Arts, which meant at the time computer music, video art and computer animation and graphics. That was because it was an engineering school, and I was the first of the crew to be hired when they decided they’d have a new arts department, which included visual and music arts. It was mostly to take the edge off the engineers and their general education requirements. I found that giving the same electronic music course to people who just didn’t care about it pretty stifling. So, when I got tenure, which I had sort of tried to avoid but got it anyway…
That paycheque you were talking about.
The paycheque was nice, but I’d had mixed feelings about it. People talk about tenure as golden handcuffs. I thought that if I couldn’t find a way to be teaching people who were really dedicated to what I wanted to teach, that I didn’t want to stick it out. There were I think five people in the department, including myself, video artist John Sturgeon, and a computer graphics person, initially Mark Resch. It was clear that there was never going to be an undergraduate program that we could make in electronic arts. There just weren’t enough people and the field didn’t really exist. So we set up an MFA program, which to everyone’s surprise was full, and we attracted people who just didn’t fit any place. They were people who liked working with computers for music but were also really interested in visual arts, or vice versa. There were philosophers who wanted to do things with electronics but weren’t sure how to put it all together. So, it kind of evolved from there.
We opened the program in ’91, and a lot of those people are teaching at major schools now and their work is shown all over the place. That’s been really exciting. In the mid-90s, before I went to Japan, it became clear that the school was going to close down the graduate program if we just kept losing money, even though we had a great program that was recognized. So we decided to start an undergraduate program in Electronic Media, Arts and Communications, which we set up and advertised before I went to Japan. We were told that we’d be lucky if we got five people to join the program.
Who told you that? [Laughter]
The administration. Well, the humanities and social sciences at RPI had never had more than about 20 majors in all their departments altogether at any one time. So they said that if we could give five that would be great, because that’s more than anyone ever gets. I came back and they had signed 42 students in the first class, and we basically went in four years from 0 to 300 majors. This of course brought a lot of money into the school, and again it was the first program in the country that brought all these things together at the undergraduate level.
There are all sorts of really interesting people there now. The person who took over from me as Chair is named Michael Century, a Canadian who was the first director of the Media Program at [The Banff Centre] in the 80s. He’s been in Montréal a lot. Pauline Oliveros is there now full-time. There are wonderful video artists, there’s Kathy High, and there’s part of the group RTmark, which is a web group. They do web interactions and performance work. The musical end of things is really focused on performance with computers and technology. So there’s Pauline, myself, Curtis Bahn, Tomie Hahn. Tomie is a dancer and ethnomusicologist who focuses on Japanese dance and music, which embodies itself sometimes — she and Curtis sometimes do things where she dresses up and becomes a Japanese anime character who emits sounds from a body pack that she wears. She also works on an ethnography of monster trucks. So, we have a wide range of things.
We finish listening to Macedonian AirDrumming [1:33:15–1:33:35] and Gate Beats [1:35:10–1:44:10] by Neil B. Rolnick.
Brand new, which gives us a jumping-off point to ask you what’s coming up.
Well, this change in moving to New York means I’m continuing to teach at RPI, but no longer directing the program there.
In the letter you wrote, you said, “Shortly after moving into New York from the upstate countryside…” and as Kalvos and Damian are from Vermont — which is really the upstate countryside in yet another state — it sort of gave me a nice smile.
Well actually, the upstate countryside is pretty country up there. Where we moved immediately moved from was a little town called Chatham, New York, and we were on seven acres of nothing, with the nearest neighbour about a half a mile away. It was great, but I’d lived in the country for 20 years. In the ten years since my daughter moved away from home, we’ve also had a pied-à-terre in New York because I was doing work regularly in the city. I’d always sort of wanted to be in the city more. At one point, my wife said, “You know, you’re gone a lot, and there are turkeys and deer, and they don’t talk very much.” We had talked about that when we’d retire, we’d move into the city. She said, “Well, why do we have to wait until we retire?” So, we sold the place upstate, bought a place in Manhattan, and love it. We’ve actually found a very green corner of Manhattan.
Oh yeah, you are in, you said, Upper Manhattan?
Yeah, there are beautiful parks. I used to go jogging every day down little dirt roads in Upstate New York, and now I go jogging through Fort Tryon Park and Inwood Park, where I’m up above the Hudson and there’s the beautiful view of the Hudson, New Jersey…
We spoke to Frank Oteri recently, he’s just moved up to Inwood. He has many pieces about that neighbourhood.
Oh, it’s wonderful. Yeah, and being in New York is wonderful because of the musical excitement of the city. My experience has always been that it takes about a year to get into a new place, so starting next year I’ll be doing a lot more performing and having things done in New York. I’ll be doing a bunch of performances in the fall. I’ll be doing something I’m not sure where but it’s sponsored by the Electronic Music Foundation, where I’ll do some solo stuff and some duet things with various people from around the city. I have a piece I’m writing for the string quartet ETHEL. They’re a really interesting group. Where I’m at right now is that I’m 55 years old, I’ve hopefully got some considerable time left to do what I want to do, and I’m trying to look at everything I’m doing musically and ask me, “Where did I cut corners before, for whatever reason? What do I really think about this now?” Although I’ve written a number of pieces for ensembles (like ElectriCity that we played at the beginning of the show), they’ve always been not quite using the electronics and the acoustic instruments the way I thought I’d like to. So I’m really rethinking that relationship, but I’m also doing the same thinking about my performances. I’m rethinking what it means to be performing on a computer, I’ve got ideas for different interfaces I’d like to see happen, and really rethinking, as in Gate Beats, how I can make the music really embody what I’m thinking musically.
Well now, we’ll listen to something from that point on your latest watershed. [Laughter] Neighbourhood Ears, your portrait of your new neighbourhood of Washington Heights. Neil Rolnick, thanks so much for joining us on Kalvos & Damian.
Thank you for having me, it’s been a pleasure.
We listen to Neighbourhood Ears by Neil B. Rolnick [1:51:00—2:00:34].