Inside Rensselaer
* Neil Rolnick
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Rolnick “MONO” Concert Draws on Fragility of Sensory Perception

Drawing on a personal experience of hearing loss, composer and Rensselaer Professor Neil Rolnick will perform portions of his latest composition — titled “MONO,” an exploration of the nature and fragility of sensory perception — Dec. 1 at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC).

Rolnick began work on MONO in 2008, in the wake of a sudden loss of hearing in his left ear. Tapping the Internet for stories similar to his own, Rolnick was “inundated” with reflections on the changes wrought by a sensory loss that was significant, but not definitively debilitating.

“This is a series of stories about individual ways of dealing with the world after a change in the ability to perceive something,” Rolnick said. “Making a piece was, for me, a way to make something positive about this experience.”

Rolnick, professor of music and founding director of the iEAR (Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer) Studios, is a pioneer in the use of computers in performance. Since the late 1970s, Rolnick has often included unexpected and unusual combinations of materials and media in his music. He has performed around the world, and his music appears on 15 CDs.

In a New York Times review of a recent performance, writer Allan Kozinn described a section of the work, “MONO Prelude,” as “a haunting spoken text ... with driven, vital music that conveys his determination to overcome the challenge.” Rolnick’s album The Economic Engine was listed on the New York Times “best classical CDs of 2009.” Rolnick’s work has been in areas that connect music and technology, and is therefore considered “experimental” music, he said. However, his music has always been highly melodic and accessible. Whether incorporating electronic sounds, improvisation, or multimedia, his music has been characterized by critics as “sophisticated,” “hummable and engaging,” and as having “good senses of showmanship and humor.”

“Bad stuff happens to us because we’re alive, and that’s something we have to be appreciative of and move forward.”

A work in progress — Rolnick has completed and will perform seven of the 12 pieces in the series at the Dec. 1 concert — MONO explores the loss of perceptual ability and the subsequent changes in how we relate to the world in response to that loss. The piece combines video, spoken text, four singers, and six instruments.

“MONO is a series of musical meditations on the fragility of perception: its appreciation, its loss, and our ability to adjust to changes in our perceptual abilities,” Rolnick said. “The piece is an evening-length consideration of how our perceptions shape us.”

On the morning of March 31, 2008, Rolnick was working in his studio and noticed a sound problem.

“I thought that my left speaker was blown, and I discovered that my left ear was blown,” Rolnick said. An audiologist described his condition as “sudden sensory neurological hearing loss,” a poorly understood condition affecting the auditory nerve of the inner ear. Treatments, including cortisone shots in the eardrum, have failed to improve the hearing in his left ear.

After posting a request for similar experiences, Rolnick was surprised at the variety of responses, including stories about loss of smell, touch, vision, and, of course, hearing.

While the obvious reaction to sensory loss may be sadness, frustration, or anger, many of the stories spoke also to humor, courage, and inspiration,
Rolnick said.

“The responses I’ve gotten from critics is that it doesn’t sound sad or morbid or scary,” Rolnick said. “It has an upbeat feel, which I think is important — what’s interesting to me is that we keep going, and that’s a positive thing. Bad stuff happens to us because we’re alive, and that’s something we have to be appreciative of and move forward.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 18, November 18, 2011
©2011 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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