Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Neil Rolnick - 60! RPI, November 17, 2007.

Composer Neil Rolnick was celebrated on his 60th birthday at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, with a retrospective concert of works going back 30 years. His work is known for successfully linking technology to conventional instrumentation. He was born in Dallas, but studied at Harvard, Aspen, San Francisco, and Berkeley, Stanford and IRCAM, eventually landing a teaching post at RPI. His works have been increasingly performed in New York and the world over the last 5 or 6 years. His work is characterized by infectious rhythms, and melodies that are a pleasure to follow. All of the works performed this evening except one had an electronic ingredient.

Requiem Songs - for the Victims of Nationalism (1993), is a set of highly focused songs written while the composer was in Yugoslavia. The songs were influenced by the indigenous Central European musical idiom. The vocal parts, provided by silvery tones of Amy Fradon and Leslie Ritter, explored rustic counterpoint. The lyrics by Rolnick and Ed Sanders, based on folk songs, addressed the political turmoil of that part of Europe. Gently rocking meters like 4+3 contrasted with vigorous playing in the tragedy of ethnic cleansing and its victims. One piece addressed the role of the artist in war - the cellist who plays in the street despite the shells that fall around him.

Hammer and Hair (premiere) - During this piano and violin duo the pianist's hands muted strings emulating the pizzicato of the violinist. The 20 minute work shifted between brusque and percussive interplay with some lovely jazz inflected passages by violinist.

Ever-livin' Rhythm (1977). One percussionist with an arsenal of instruments played along with what would have been a taped part in 1977. The somewhat dated synthesizer sounds were not the composer's fault, the piece is 30 years old, after all. As a "student" work, it was quite impressive. It had a "modernist" tint (in other words, "old fashioned"), but hints at the infectious African rhythms that inspired the piece.

Shadow Quartet (2003). Cast in a more or less traditional form, and despite the influence of the death of his father, this quartet for strings rocked with a bluesy grittiness the players convincingly dug into.

Digits (2005), written for and performed by Kathleen Supove, was truly unreal as she interacted with a computer part generated in real time along with her playing. R. Luke DuBois's video, captured with cameras perched on either end of the keyboard, played with the building and disassembling of grid forms taken from images of Supove's performance. The video, while accomplished, seemed extraneous to Supove's unearthly command of this demanding work.

It was exciting to see every seat in the hall taken for this event. Rolnick's work deserves the attention it now receives. He has developed a style that comfortably integrates conventional instrumentation with electronics, and has fashioned a language that is both contemporary and accessible.

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