Neil ROLNICK (b.1947)
Extended Family (2009) [22:30]
Faith (2008/2009) [24:20]
MONO Prelude (2009) [11:16]
ETHEL Quartet (Cornelius Dufallo (violin); Mary Rowell (violin); Ralph Ferris (viola); Dorothy Lawson (cello)); Bob Gluck (piano); Neil Rolnick (voice, laptop computer)
rec. New York, February 2010. DDD
INNOVA 782 [58:06]

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 music.

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.


This is US composer Neil Rolnick's first appearance on MusicWeb International.