Neil Rolnick’s Mastering of Music and Technology

Before dubstep, before EDM, there was composer, Neil Rolnick.

In the late 1970s, Neil boldly –– not without criticism –– pioneered the incorporation of early computers into musical performance. By creating and layering musical samples on top of each other, Neil discovered a whole new realm of possibilities. His work helped lay down the foundation for much of the heavily computer-based electronic music, we hear today.

Neil took center stage of Winifred Smith Hall at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, with a kind and unimposing smile. Adjacent to him stood his “instrument,” an electronic rig outfitted to serve the technical demands of his music. A MacBook pro and an iPad were mounted to his keyboard in order to achieve a wide variety of electronic and musical sounds, which could then be mixed and layered.

Neil proceeded to welcome to the stage UCI student, Priyanka Venkatesh. Priyanka, brandishing her violin, commanded the audience’s attention as she stepped into the spotlight.

Neil took a seat and she began with a charming ethereal tune. Beautiful flowing notes tinged with a light vibrato flowed from the polished instrument held in her hand.

But suddenly, the tranquility was broken as the song cascaded into a menacing flurry of fast and seemingly arbitrary notes, all amplified and manipulated by Neil Rolnick through his iPad. A true marriage between music and technology, it was as if every musical breadth was drawn out and enhanced by his technological manipulation.

The once gentle song had erupted into chaos. But it was structured chaos. Neil was in control the whole time. The sounds intricately looped over each other in a seemingly incomprehensible way at first. Then slowly, the layers were peeled away until the opening melody was recognizable once again.

As Priyanka finished, the audience erupted in applause. Priyanka humbly bowed and exited stage left. It was now Neil’s turn to shine.

With a smile, Neil took his seat behind his instrument. At the touch of a button, a bluesy slide guitar emanated throughout the room –– the work of delta blues guitarist, Robert Johnson.

Slowly, Rolnick layered in drum-beats and melodies to accompany the lonely slide guitar; the music would seemingly build to a climax. Then all at once, it would die back down again into nothingness.

Changing tones and style midway through a song is a trademark of Rolnick’s composing style, so it was no surprise when the music suddenly shifted to a daunting, almost dreadful tone ripe with tension.

A flurry of rhythms … then none at all. Only the lonely slide guitar, which faded out soon after.

Next up was a collaboration with his brother appropriately titled, “O Brother!”

The song had in fact been completed three days before Neil had arrived in California; it is the newest song in his repertoire.

The song began at four percent the speed of its actual tempo. Slowly and deliberately, the tempo picked up as a distorted voice sang a haunting melody behind the track.

For just a moment the song–one from the folk genre — was heard unaltered. Sticking to his dispositions however, Rolnick quickly ended the calm and cycled through a range of styles including oriental, blues and vocal.

Once again a roaring applause and he took a seat.

Graduate student, Andrew Anderson then took the stage on the piano. His fingers moved faster than the eye could perceive and once again Rolnick, off on the side, manipulated the sound.

Rolnick performed a final song that shocked and enamored the audience. The music was chaotic, unique, and even disturbing. Whispered pained voices called out from the speakers: “dream, dream, dream.” It was a bit unsettling.

Nonetheless, the stunned audience let out a final boisterous applause for Rolnick.

Students Anna Savery and Audrey Spaulding then closed the concert, performing a piece entitled “Hammer & Hair” on violin and piano. After their flawless execution the audience let out one last appreciative applause to the bowing performers.

First-year Kimberly Marcial, commented on the unusual and experimental nature of the performance.

“It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It almost seemed unreal, like an accident, but it wasn’t … if nothing else, it was unique.”

Rolnick pushed the boundaries of music. His unique sound demonstrates that even in chaos there is structure. That beauty is often accompanied by things we may not understand, but it’s there if we can open our eyes and ears to it.