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Neil Rolnick kicks off new media lecture series with talk on music

To most casual listeners, computer-generated music may not measure up to PST.

To Neil Rolnick, however, using technology to compose music is just like "using any other kind of instrument."

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Rolnick, who is chair of the Arts Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, spoke to an audience of about 30 yesterday on how he uses computers and other technology to compose music.

His speech was the first in the "Series in New Media," a lecture series that will explore areas in which technology and arts interact, said professor of electrical engineering Wayne Wolf, who is sponsoring the talks.

Rolnick spoke about several pieces that he composed using either computers or other technology. One such creation, called "Home Game," combined music and drama to tell a computer-generated story.

Spontaneous game

"It's a piece in which the computer makes up the music and the story as it goes along," he explained.

"Home Game," set in the future, begins with the premise that prosperous blacks from New York City are attempting to settle in the decaying, all-white suburbs, where poor, downtrodden whites have banded into terrorist groups.

A computer program randomly dictates how the story unfolds – whether there is an interracial love affair, whether the settlement succeeds and who triumphs when leadership conflicts emerge in the black and white communities. The program simultaneously composes a musical score to accompany the story.

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As actors read the story off a computer screen, an orchestra sight-reads the music off another screen.

Rolnick also led a project called "2 Places @ Once," in which two ensemble groups performed together simultaneously – one in New York, the other in Los Angeles – by using video conferencing.

'Musical challenge'

"I saw it as an interesting musical challenge because there's no way that I can get everyone to play something in unison," he said. The half-second delay created by the transmission of images and sounds from coast to coast added a unique artistic element to the music, he said.

Rolnick said he views "2 Places @ Once" as a metaphor for the problems people encounter when communicating across cultures.

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In addition to teaching at RPI, Rolnick leads an improvisational group called "Fish Love That," which performs weekly in New York City.

Rolnick played clips of his music at different points during the 75-minute lecture. He also showed a short film for which he wrote the background music in 1990.

The next lecture in the Series in New Media will take place on April 16 when the University hosts Glorianna Davenport of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wolf said he hopes the series will engage engineers working with different aspects of media as well as arts-oriented students interested in technology.

"There's lots of ferment on the arts side and on the technology side of media," he said. "We're trying to stimulate people thinking about both sides of that problem."