Neil Rolnick

Future Music Oregon: triangle of artistry

University of Oregon's music technology program shows that instruments aren't the only evolving aspect of music -- so is the composer's role

 by DANIEL HEILA

At first glance, the stage at the University of Oregon’s Thelma Schnitzer Hall looks like any other chamber music recital. A violinist and pianist sit/stand ready to perform Neil Rolnick’s Deal with the Devil. Look closer, though and you’ll see controllers (devices that trigger sound generators) mounted on violinist Jennifer Choi’s violin, resting on her music stand, and at her feet. New York new music star (and Portland native) Kathleen Supové’s piano is wired for treatment, as well. The composer is also on stage, facing a bank of mixers, black boxes, and a laptop.

Neil Rolnick’s Deal with the Devil starts out a lightly swung, jazzy duo with minimal electronic elements, but it swells into an expansive sonic canvas of interchange and interaction between acoustic instruments, their affected sound, and modulated sound samples. It is powerful, engaging music. Ten minutes in, however, I ask myself, “Why is the composer on stage?”

As the instrumentalists dig in to their virtuosity, a warped string orchestra of electroacoustic sounds emerges: a whorling cacophony that whips around the hall’s eight-channel speaker system, causing heads to swivel. In contrast, Rolnick’s performance is mundane. He pushes faders, twists knobs, wiggles his mouse, and peers at the laptop. He makes intermittent, quasi-conducting motions, without ensemble eye contact. Put simply, he appears out of place. Next to the impassioned gestures of the musicians, his presence is a distraction.

Jennifer Choi, Kathleen Supové, and Neil Rolnick perform Rolnick’s ‘Deal with the Devil’ at Future Music Oregon’s fall quarterly concert on November 17, 2018. Photo: Daniel Heila.

Nonetheless, with its crowd-pleasing, whiz-bang ending, the piece is a success. But my question remains: Why is the composer on stage? Luckily, I find answers in the program’s remaining pieces and during a later interview with longtime FMO director Jeffrey Stolet.

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