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David Rosenboom Steps Into the New

October 12, 2019

With fascinating range of style and technique, composer David Rosenboom has been at the bleeding edge of various areas of music, including the use of neurofeedback in live performance, cross-cultural collaboration, and generative opera. He will be leaving his position as dean of the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts after this term, a time celebrated by a retrospective performance of his works on Oct. 12, including a preview of his new work for string quartet, Quartet for the Beginning of a Time.

You’ve been at CalArts for 30 years. What does stepping down as dean mean for you right now, in term of your music and your creative environment?

It means my music and my creative environment are so demanding, that in a very wonderful way, I need to dial down my administrative life and dial up my creative life. It’s always been dialed up, but I’ve been doing two full-time jobs my whole life, if not more. I turn 72 this year, and I will have done this job for 30 years, and I’m very gratified by what we’ve achieved. And before CalArts I was 10 years at Mills College, and before that I was 10 years at York University in Toronto. That’s a long time, and I’ve decided now is the time to make a change. So it’s a personal decision, entirely. I’m not leaving CalArts, yet, I’m going to stay on to teach.

I imagine that interaction with an ever-evolving set of students influences what you’re thinking about.

Yes, I love the students, and I very much enjoy working with them, and I have had the luxury of working with some really fantastic ones, and collaborating with them, and then they become alums and we still work together. I look forward to more of that.

It seems like a huge part of a modern American composer’s life is being involved with students.

It is, you’re right. It is, especially for people who are involved in, for want of a better term, experimental music. It’s a tricky thing to figure out how to make a life, and to pay for it, and [to support] a family. So everyone finds their own solution. It’s been a huge juggling act for my whole life, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. I’m not complaining, but now’s the time to change that balance a bit.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that the concept of resonance spans a lot of your work, This impressed me because of how — in the classical composition tradition — the role of the composer is somewhat defined by control, the ability to make all the decisions that go into a piece. But here, you have an interest in how things bounce off other people. Could you expand on this concept of resonance?

Resonance has emerged in all domains of [my] work as a kind of meta-concept. You can think of it in acoustic terms as a process by which an energy form that is cyclical enough that it’s repetitive and simulates another acoustic medium that causes it to ring spontaneously. But in a way, you could apply that to everything. You could apply it to cultures, you could apply it to algorithmic processes that are emergent, to processes that are self-organizing. Really, it’s about [asking] how does something emerge?

I am very interested in what we talk about as “emergent form” or “self-organizing forms” or “auto-poetic forms” that emerge naturally. Here’s where we get into language. Language is a critical thing, and I think that’s one of the places where art and science meet in a very theoretical territory. How we describe stuff really influences the cognitive models we use to interact with it. Things that emerge often emerge because they ring like a bell, right? That’s true in the brain — various resonant phenomena happen in these resonant frequencies we can detect, and sometimes they grow in different ways. [These resonant phenomena] influence how we differentiate things in our memories and our perception. You can have runaway resonances, and that becomes epilepsy — like out of control feedback in a rock band.

I’ve used [resonance] throughout a lot of my work. One of the lines that connects a lot of my work is models of evolution. I’m interested in how things evolve. Sometimes I make compositions in which I let things evolve within a system that I set up, and that system is the composition.

As an example, can you describe what is happening in your piece Portable Gold and Philosopher’s Stones? That was your first piece incorporating neurofeedback.

Well, that piece in particular is one where, as an improviser, I’m interacting with other performers who are engaged in this idea of listening as performance. They’re listening, and what we gather from the brain signals then influences the realization of a structure. The structure is composed, it does proceed through various sections and I add layers of complexity as I see it working with the performers, and then at a certain point I get up and start playing with them. They are perceiving a sound world that is emerging from both the structure and how they are interacting with it — how they are learning to follow what they are doing, and how what they are doing might influence it.

For me improvisation is the hardest thing to do in music. The way I think of improvisation is that it is a highly disciplined practice that is created by each master improviser on their own, and in a way, I think of it as composing myself.

You’ve mentioned in interviews your interest in generative opera, could you explain what you mean by that term?

I have been interested in the idea of self-organizing systems and emerging form, as you know. From that, there was a natural trajectory to want to investigate the idea of what would that be like when you’re looking at narrative form? We have the predecessors of that, in things like the [Julio] Cortázar novel Hopscotch, with non-linear pathways through stories. So I explored that idea [asking]: Can you improvise narrative structure? Can you make a narrative form be emergent in some way? And the answer is yes, I think you can. It depends on how much you tie it to theatrical production. The more you tie it to theatrical production, the less flexible it is.

In many of your works, including your generative opera Ah! — or opera generator as you call it — you collaborate with composer-performers specifically, and you yourself are a composer-performer. Do you see a greater future for new music in this collaborative realm? It’s a giant shift for composition in our Western classical tradition to allow for this kind of collaboration, which is from the ground up and has much less hierarchy.  

Right. The answer is absolutely yes. I see huge potential; I hope the opportunities will match the potential. I think as a younger generation emerges in the new-music world, I see more and more people collaborating on projects, certainly in a sort of multidisciplinary sense. And more in the sense of music and music composition: [composing] music with some openness in it as well. And I’m not judgmental about that, I’m not saying that if somebody wants to, you know, sit in their studio and write a piece that’s completely predetermined all by themselves and give it to people to play, that’s not wrong, you know? I have done it myself! Quite a lot actually.

It’s nice sometimes.

I think that prioritizing a particular way of working is something that I think is best that we move away from, and I think we are moving away from. I’m very gratified by lately by going around doing concerts and finding a real interest in venues that are open to this kind of thing. For me, especially in Europe, more and more and more opportunities to perform or do projects in venues that are very egalitarian about style and genre. They book some straight-ahead contemporary classical music one day, and a metal band the next day, and then a collaboration between the two the next day.

There’s a big audience out there, people who are interested in this new stuff that’s coming out. And that’s very exciting.

It’s not really that people are closed.

Yeah, and I think that’s really exciting. So the answer is I see huge potential, I hope for huge opportunities, and I’m optimistic.

Tamzin Elliott is a composer and writer based in Los Angeles, and a doctoral student at University of Southern California.