Vol. 32 Issue 1 Reviews

Neil Rolnick: Shadow Quartet

Compact disc, 2005, innova 631; available from innova Recordings,
332 Minnesota Street #E-145, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101, USA; telephone (+1) 651-251-2823; fax (+1) 651-291-7978; electronic mail innova@composersforum.org; Web www.innova.mu/.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Treviño
San Diego, California, USA

CD CoverThis potpourri collection of six pieces has convinced me that Neil Rolnick is my kind of composer. He knows how to make technology part of his music, not his music part of the technology, and he seamlessly and convincingly integrates electronically-processed acoustic sounds with acoustic ensembles as traditional as string quartet and woodwind quintet. He doesn’t have scruples about letting his life experiences into his work; the first selection on the disc is a touching memorial for his departed father, accompanied in the liner notes by an intimate account of the specific experiences that inspired the music. His music is even funny, a virtue to be lauded in correlation to its current paucity in electronic music. This is especially so in Body Work for Joan La Barbara, for which the composer set to music a list of student questions collected over ten years by University of Portland biology professor Terry Favero. A whimsical paean to the mysteries of our own bodies, Mr. Rolnick offers no answers to a cornucopia of zany but mundane inquiries such as: “Are boobs just mostly fat?”, “Why do babies drool?”, and the popularly meditated, “I saw this Clint Eastwood movie where this bad guy took this good guy and laid him out in the sun and sewed his eyelids open; what would happen to the guy’s eyeballs?”

The composer’s use of computer technology to sample, augment, and manipulate acoustic timbres in these recordings is exemplary, although the performance of these works in a live concert setting might be differently effective. Sonic color is a pillar of Mr. Rolnick’s music, and the composer has developed commendable strategies for the integration of acoustic and electronic timbres that might be of interest to artists who are similarly interested in an expanded but cohesive palette. For example, in Ambos Mundos, the acoustic sounds of a woodwind quartet are heard first in a series of hocketed, punctuating staccatos, each sound rippling in a stereo delay. Shortly after this, an electronic timbre enters, modulating in synchrony with the delay previously heard on the acoustic instruments. Specifics of unfolding aside, the net effect is a sonic environment in which all sounds naturally exist together. These pieces for acoustic instruments and electronic sound are not usefully considered through the traditional acoustic-electronic binary, as the boundary between the sonic results of the two realms blurs to the point of erasure. Pieces like Ambos Mundos and Shadow Quartet are fine examples of how artists can think across technologies and marshal them for principled explorations.

The album also offers a few noteworthy shortcomings from which we may learn. Gate Beats and The Real Thief of Baghdad are outliers in an otherwise strong set. From the standpoint of my private listening experience, the former’s stagnant, stacking development and the latter’s vague, unconsidered political rhetoric make these more vernacular, more conventionally sample-based electronic beat pieces potentially successful in a lounge or open mic situation but certainly disappointing in the company of more formally ambitious works of instrumental composition and the absence of a responsive audience. Perhaps these pieces might find good company among others of the composer’s like them on a separate disc, with documentation to provide a clearer context for their creation and performance.

Speaking of formal ambition, a subtler drawback of the set is that the large shapes of the compositions have much in common, which can be cheapening after repeated listenings. One crutch the composer relies on is to begin with the kind of beguiling timbral hocket described above, followed closely by a bloom into a plaintive melody. This is refreshing at first, a proposed reconciliation between mathematically structured abstraction and intuitive singing. But this listener finds the reconciliation unconvincing, although honest and well-intentioned. Perhaps it is my Sputnik modernist values, but there is something emotionally exploitative about the kind of sliding, blues-tinged melodies deployed in these pieces against their less conventionally expressive alphabets of rhythm and timbre. The transition between the two can be effective, as it is at first in Ambos Mundos, but even just slightly later in this piece the affect begins to resemble Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for the film Driving Miss Daisy. This is the usual modernist accusation of decadent sentimentality, and Mr. Rolnick, to his credit, lays his own values out clearly in his liner notes to Fiddle Faddle for violin and live electronics:

Fiddle Faddle in my cookbook is described as: “butter toffee with almonds over popcorn…” My dictionary describes it as “trivial nonsense.” In either case, it’s sweet and enjoyable. Not necessarily nourishing or profound, but not too bad for you. What more could you ask of a piece which allows you to show off your violin chops while engaging in some pretty intimate interaction with a computer? (CD liner notes)

I understand and appreciate this outlook, especially given much of computer music’s suffocating gravity, but sometimes, Mr. Rolnick, you should ask more.