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Music of the Prodigal Son

New York
Le Poisson Rouge, 162 Bleecker Street
01/11/2011 -  
Neil Rolnick: Release from Shadow Quartet, for String Quartet and Computer – MONO Prelude for Computer and Speaker – Faith for Piano and Computer – Extended Family for String Quartet

ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble): Rob Moose, Laura Lutzke (Violins), Nadia Sirota (Viola), Clarice Jensen (Cello) – Bob Gluck (Piano), Neil Rolnick (Laptop Computer/Speaker), Jody Elff (Sound Design)

N. Rolnick (© Sozo Media)

Mais où sont les neiges? Downtown.”

The snows downtown were a minor deterrent to the usual packed house at Le Poisson Rouge, since the attraction of an hour of new works by Neil Rolnick attracted a sizeable group of listeners, both curious and knowledgeable. The challenge of Mr. Rolnick’s concerts, though, is that the peripatetic composer has taken the whole world as his inspiration. One never knows whether he will be transforming the music of China, the Balkans or Indonesia. Whether his laptop computer will be cloning the ouds of Morocco or the baritone trumpets of Tibet.

This concert, though, showed Mr. Rolnick as a prodigal son. His music was purely American, both in style and theme. His thoughts weren’t with the Middle or Far East, but were an homage to jazz, a tribute to family and friends, and–most fascinating of all–his own personal woes, an oncoming deafness.

This was no secret. Mr. Rolnick had asked online for ideas on how to “exploit” his deafness, and one of them appeared here in his MONO Prelude. Were the capital letters a sort of pun for a shout to the deaf? I have no idea. But he certainly made that clear with different volumes of voice in the work which he played on his computer and narrated.

Perhaps if Beethoven could make electronic sounds, if he had had a sense of humor and syncopation, than his Heiligenstat Testament–the essay where he told how deafness had transformed his artistic vision–might have turned into MONO Prelude. But Mr. Rolnick has so far not made efforts in such a sober direction. Instead, he spoke–sometimes inaudibly, sometimes highly aurally–of the treatment of his oncoming deafness, while the computer worked on sounds which were strangely tinkly, or hummed or went in counterpoint to the voice.

At no time did we feel pity for the composer. This was a simple statement balancing amusement (the medical tests), with a frank resignation to the inevitable.

The only other paean to Mr. Rolnick’s pain might have been the first notes of his Release. Was this monotonous string humming like Smetana’s recurring note in the string quartet, showing his own increasing deafness? Possibly not, for the rest of the work was a joyous series of variations on some very American-style tunes.

The strings (little was heard from the computer) had the gamelan style of playing phrases imitatively in different rhythms. But the whole work showed Mr. Rolnick at his syncopated amiable best.

No matter what the origins of his music, Mr. Rolnick has always retained a jazzy interior. Bob Gluck, the noted jazz pianist, stuck to the score of Faith, but the work, in about six different sections, was an anthology of jazz. Part gospel, part Hancock jazz, a lot of what Mr. Gluck does best, with Oscar Peterson/Erroll Garner, very very cool jazz. Mr. Rolnick’s computer at first was strict accompanist, but later imitated the piano itself. I frankly found it too long, too cool, too self-satisfying. Mr. Gluck, though, has a right to be satisfied with such a marvelous technique.

C. Jensen (© Liz Linde)

The ACME String Quartet, very young and enthusiastic, played the string quartet, named for Mr. Rolnick’s newest disc, Extended Family. In a way, the movement titles shouldn’t have been so blatantly illustrative. The opening “The Gene Pool” started with the strings playing octaves, then branching off (mutating?) into various other forms. Were “Siblings” Mr. Rolnick’s own sibs? I was picturing simple brothers and sisters ambling down garden paths whistling simple songs. (It reminded me of Ivess’ Alcotts movement from the “Concord’’ Sonata.)

This was followed by a diverse set of “Cousins & Uncles & Aunts” a morose “Loss” with a tender cello solo by Clarice Jensen, and a hoedown-style recapitulation in “The Gathering”.

Like the opening work, this was a cordial good-humored piece, Mr Rolnick’s web of counterpoint as transparent as the melodies. But Neil Rolnick is obviously a man who enjoys his writing as much as he enjoys his wayfaring inspirations.

Here, he was no wayfaring stranger. Mr. Rolnick’s world of Timbuctus has–hopefully temporarily–come back to this country, offering genial music and an upbeat American outlook.

Harry Rolnick



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