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Roger Reynolds reflects: 9 New Videos of the Composer in Conversation at the Library of Congress

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Roger Reynolds portrait
[Roger Reynolds at the Tate Modern Gallery, London, England.] 2004. Roger Reynolds papers. Music Division. Photograph by Malcolm Crothers.
The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Kate Rivers.

In the newly-released Music Division Presents: A Series of Interviews and Conversations with Roger Reynolds, the celebrated composer offers over eight hours of wide-ranging and in-depth discussion with David Plylar and James Wintle of the Music Division.  Rich in targeted technical analysis of specific musical compositions, as well as deep personal reflection on his art and creative processes, the videos are part technical handbook, oral history, and philosophical exposition.  The interviews further enhance the available resources for the study of Roger Reynolds’ works at the Library of Congress.

For a portion of the series, the composer is joined by his wife, flutist and webmaster Karen Reynolds, and long-time friends, composer Thomas DeLio and Katherine Malfa, for a conversation spanning topics from the couple’s shared efforts to promote awareness of contemporary music, to the Reynolds’ time spent living in Japan, to prospects of having famed architect-composer Iannis Xenakis design a beautiful but impractical home for them in the California desert.

Engineering a Start
Reynolds famously began his professional life as an engineer, having trained as a scientist in a rigorous Engineering Physics degree program at the University of Michigan.  Although music “struck [him] like a thunderbolt” when he was a teenager in Detroit, the young man began too late to develop sufficient manual dexterity needed by the time he finished high school for him to enroll in piano studies at a college or conservatory.  At that point, music “wasn’t a practical way to go,” the composer recalls.  The realization that he might have pursued the wrong career came a few years later while working a stint in the missile industry in California.  There, Reynolds found himself at a piano keyboard “practicing at night more hours than I was sitting at my engineering desk” during the work day.  “I thought, ‘this doesn’t make any sense,’ so I quit and returned to the University of Michigan to study music.”

In a beneficial confluence of timing and experience, Reynolds’ engineering background allowed him a level of comfort with emerging technologies that drove the course of contemporary music in the 1960s and 1970s.  Looking back, the composer believes that one of the principal advantages conveyed by his scientific experience may have been his ability to systematically organize artistic thought and materials, with the “drawing of plans…the shaping of intention” becoming clear before taking action in a new musical work.

Experimental Bedtime Stories
From his teaching base at the University of California San Diego in 1971, Reynolds founded the Center for Music Experiment, a premiere facility for investigating ways in which “experimentation and exploration in science and other fields might honorably be brought into music.”  One particularly absorbing experiment was sparked by Reynolds’ experience as a father reading bedtime stories to his young daughter.  “Fairly desperate” to satisfy his child’s demands for unique voices that suitably matched characters from her story books, he became interested in how we humans phonate, “how excitations of the structures in the body are transformed by the vocal cavity into something we understand as words.”  With consultations from medical school personnel that elucidated the anatomical processes, he then began work to explore the use of extended vocal techniques in music.  Reynolds describes a far-fetched scene from the hushed experimental studio late at night: a singer, stretched out on the floor on his back, serenely producing a range of unusual vocal sounds captured by a microphone suspended into his open mouth.  Although the vocalists were following detailed directions laid out in Reynolds’ music, the composer says, “to be honest about it, I thought of [this] from an experimental point of view.  [It was] something I wanted to explore. I did not, at that point, think of it as music.”

Process and Commitment
There is immense discipline evident in Reynolds’ art.  He concedes that he “always work[s] in a more effective way when there are boundaries,” referring to parameters he imposes on himself during the compositional process.  “I take the progress of the piece as a kind of contractual or ethical obligation to myself.”  Rather than treating imposed frontiers as a limiting factor, Reynolds sees these self-determined strictures “as opportunity, a kind of responsibility that sparks invention.  If I know that at any moment I could change something, it wouldn’t have the same impact, the same meaning.”

Space and Perception
Reynolds recollects his experience working with a range of developing technologies and evolving artistic concepts over the course of several decades, often relating highly specific details about the processes that contributed to specific elements in his compositions.  For instance, of Watershed IV (1995), a multiple-percussion work that deploys real-time computer processing as a means of creating a sense of moving paths for sound, the composer explains the steps used to erode the audience’s understanding and perception of what they hear.  Turning the listener’s usual reference points inside out forces them to re-evaluate musical potential—sounds may come from unexpected locations or move at “impossible” speed, defying normal inertia. The point of making these adjustments to predictable sound is to “show that the migration of location is, in fact, a powerful, expressive dimension to music.”  Even if, as Reynolds points out, it also produces “a very weird feeling!”

Machines and Music

Manuscript sketches for Angel of Death.
Roger Reynolds. The Angel of Death sketches, page 3. January 2002. Roger Reynolds papers. Music Division.

Addressing his use of particular invented algorithms in The Angel of Death (1998-2001), scored for piano, chamber orchestra, and computer processed sound, the composer explains that these tools offer evidence for how to divide and arrange musical behaviors, such as rhythm, so that he can achieve the desired artistic effect in the end.  Pointing to a project notebook in front of him, the composer clarifies that it is “filled with the data that I use to drive these algorithms in a distinctive way…[to] produce the elements that my imagination seeks.  But I’m thinking of all these things very specifically in terms of traditional musical processes,” Reynolds explains.

In his earlier experiments, Reynolds appeared circumspect about the sounds produced by digital processes. “I always had the feeling that…electronic sounds were…insufficiently rich.  [They felt] arid.  I didn’t like them.”  Through his process of experimentation and exploration, however, Roger Reynolds—engineer and artist—is decidedly firm: “technology must serve expression.”

You can access these new videos and explore Reynolds’ work by visiting

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