Friday, May 22, 2015

Roger Reynolds: On Space and Collaboration

In Roger Reynolds' …the serpent-snapping eye, sounds seem to come from all directions, simultaneously resulting from previous gestures while also seemingly materializing from nowhere.  Unison sonorities grow more and more vibrant until they suddenly erupt into lively gestures, before seamlessly dissipating back into the void.  Even on a simple stereo recording, there is an amazing evocation of space, while the periodic vertical sonorities mark the passage of time—a time that is continuously stretching and contracting, like a breathing organism, constantly manipulating both space and memory.

There are two elements which nearly every artist working in the field today (composer or otherwise) pays obligatory lip-service to, but which are so characteristic of Reynolds' output, aesthetic, and working method, that they deserve special attention.  The first of these is collaboration.  Reynolds' output has been consistently assisted and informed by a key group of performers whom he has frequently composed for, including Harvey Sollberger (whose flute recordings became the basis of the electronic component of the Transfigured Wind series, and who, as a conductor, premiered several important works by the composer), percussionist Steven Schick (who worked closely with the composer on the Watershed series, among other works, and with whom Reynolds has taught a course on collaboration at UCSD), vocalist Phil Larson, pianist Aleck Karis, and his partner of over fifty years, Karen Reynolds, who has premiered several works as a flutist and who has also assisted with technological elements (for instance, developing the projections for Ping in 1978).  Reynolds explains:
The feedback process is so important and is very rare in my experience.  […]  I already know what my own imagination is going to produce.  What I don’t know is exactly how that imagined sound is going to intersect with the physics of the instrument in the moment of real performance. So I think [the performers] make the opportunity to engage with the medium.
Roger Reynolds
In addition to collaborating with performers, Reynolds has worked with a wide variety of artists in other media.  Many of his electronic pieces are the results of close work with musical assistants (particularly those composed at IRCAM, including Archipelago for chamber orchestra and live multi-channel electronics).  In 1991, Reynolds provided incidental music for the Tadashi Suzuki Theatre Company's performance of Chekhov's Ivanov, the result of continued artistic exchange between the composer and Suzuki.  Just a few years earlier, Reynolds, moved by John Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, composed an orchestral response, Whispers Out of Time, which won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize.  Reynolds and Ashbery later collaborated on the evening-length song cycle, last things, I think, to think about, for bass-baritone (Larson), piano (Karis), and electronics, the latter of which consisted of recordings of the poet reciting his text.  His most recent large-scale work, the 'symphonic vision' george WASHINGTON, features collaborations with Ross Karre (video), Jaime Oliver (electronics), and Josef Kucera (sound engineering).  For Reynolds, such collaboration creates a symbiotic relationship, as he told New Music Box:  "You enter into a relationship with one or more people and you have to sacrifice some of your autonomy and they have to sacrifice some of theirs in order to get to a place that you couldn’t get without each other.  And I like that kind of situation."

Reynolds consults with James Baker during a
rehearsal at JiB 2010
None of this is to suggest that Reynolds' works are "co-compositions" or are incompletely his own—quite the opposite, in fact.  In getting immediate feedback from performers who are directly engaged with the composer in the process of creation, in relying on musical assistants to code his algorithms, and in working with poets to create the raw textual material for a piece, Reynolds has freed himself to be more expressive, to allow his voice and gestures more space in which to move and develop.

Which brings us to the second key element in Reynolds' work:  space.  The early description of
…the serpent-snapping eye hints at this element, but it reaches farther.  There are pieces which involve the physical movement of sound in space, like the early theatre piece, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, in which phonemes are passed back and forth among eight singers spread out across a stage, or Watershed IV, which maps out an array of percussion instruments and uses surround-sound speakers to locate the audience within the geometrical arrangement of sound sources.  But then, most significantly, there is the treatment of sounds as elements which themselves exist and interact in spaces—a sensitivity Reynolds inherits from Varèse.  This can be heard in much of Reynolds' work, and is described by the composer as "spatialization as subject."

One of my favorite memories of June in Buffalo centers around such an acoustic space created by the composer.  At the 2010 festival, Reynolds presented a mid-day "lecture," which turned out to be an early installment in his Passage series, a group of multimedia works centered around Reynolds' own narrations:  memories of conversations, meals, and ideas shared with several composers he's known throughout his life (including Takemitsu, Cage, and Xenakis).  After a week of intense, adventurous, spiky new music, this sparse, surprisingly pacifying presentation was intensely welcome, as Reynolds—looking strangely like Beckett in his black turtleneck—allowed his warm baritone narrations to envelope the audience.  The piece, while basically a solo Reynolds performance, seemed itself to be a collaboration of sorts:  the artists who helped make these stories contributing in their own way to the piece without knowing it.  And Passage seemed, in an oblique way, to be representative of what June in Buffalo is itself:  a space in which artists can meet, interact, exchange ideas, and create stories.

We're thrilled that Roger Reynolds will be joining us on this anniversary year, and look forward not only to his presence as a teacher and a thinker, but also to the performances of his works, which will include Eric Huebner's presentation of the first book of Piano Études, and Irvine Arditti's performance of the large-scale violin solo, Kokoro.  Both are sure to be continuations of Reynolds' ongoing mastery of space and memory.

—Ethan Hayden