This is US composer Neil Rolnick's first appearance on MusicWeb
International's pages; that is apart from a listing in a review
late last year of a 5-CD boxed set of composers associated with
the New York Foundation for the Arts. That release, also on
Innova, featured the last movement of the first work on this
disc, Extended Family.
The MONO Prelude is "for laptop and voice".
Rather ominously, it opens with a 1980s synth-pop kind of 'intro',
and the words, spoken by Rolnick, "Monday morning, I'm
writing music in my studio". Many people will doubtless
take immediate issue with this, because the backing track -
there is no other term for it - sounds like something that a
computer on auto-pilot came up with. The voice-over - again,
no other term - charts Rolnick's sudden and permanent loss of
hearing in his left ear, and the onset of loud tinnitus - "more
or less like having a white noise generator in my left ear 24/7",
as Rolnick puts it here - followed by medical diagnosis and
prognosis. The Prelude is in fact part of a whole evening
of "media performance" assembled by Rolnick from solicited
feedback from the wider public, from others who had experienced
similar impairment of one of their senses. All of this may sound
worthy in principle, but not only does the listener have to
cope with the constant electronic pop fluff, but also with Rolnick's
voice as it undergoes various software-generated sound modifications,
presumably intended to give an idea of the aural distortions
Rolnick himself suffers, but ultimately coming across as rather
effete. The irritating synthesizer sounds certainly make a good
substitute for white noise.
Faith, for piano and laptop, is an improvement, but the
listener may well be left wondering what the point of the computer
effects is. In his notes, Rolnick has an explanation: he says
that he wanted to explore the idea of faith in musical terms
by writing this piece for pianist Bob Gluck, who is also a Rabbi.
The laptop is interacting in real time - improvising - by which,
according to the atheistic Rolnick, he is "exercising the
kind of faith I do have: a faith in people, and in our ability
to do our best in challenging situations."
Gluck, who commissioned the work, describes the result as "a
fusion of a lyrical Tin Pan Alley song, late 20th century abstraction,
boogie-woogie riffs, jazz improvisation, cut and paste mash-up,
Chopin and Liszt virtuosic Romanticism", which gives a
pretty good idea of what to expect - except that Chopin and
Liszt would probably turn in their graves at the vulgarity of
association. There is certainly something of merit in the piano
writing, which is sometimes excitingly virtuosic, but at other
times it lapses - perhaps wilfully - into what sounds like the
soundtrack of a 1980s American TV cop drama. The computer effects,
on the other hand, seem to be a case of 'because I can'; the
idea that this has anything to do with an exploration of faith
is tenuous at best. For ten minutes Rolnick might have got away
with it, but at 24 minutes, this seems a very long-winded piece.
Despite the caveats regarding Faith and the MONO Prelude,
there will be many, particularly in America, who find this kind
of new technology experimentation interesting, if not overly
musical. Certainly no one can accuse Rolnick of not trying new
things. His involvement in musical theatre suggests, as does
his grinning face in the booklet, that he may not be taking
himself too seriously in these pieces.
Happily, there is nothing negative that can be said about the
programmatic string quartet Extended Family, which should
have wide appeal. The five movements - 'The Gene Pool', 'Siblings',
'Cousins & Uncles & Aunts', 'Loss' and 'The Gathering'
- describe the "key features of my experience of an extended
family". 'The Gene Pool' provides the musical DNA for the
rest of the work which ends with death and finally the coming
together of wider family at the post-funeral fugato 'Gathering'.
The music, ably performed by the ETHEL Quartet, is, apart from
the necessarily mournful 'Loss' movement, blithe, evocative
and therapeutic. It is a pity that the considerable empty space
on the disc could not have been used for more of Rolnick's non-experimental
Sound quality is superb. The CD cover design gives this the
appearance of a pop disc - which it kind of is, in part. Rolnick's
notes on the works are detailed and interesting. URLs take the
listener to the personal websites of all performers.