Portrait of an Artist: Roger Reynolds

Although Harvard students are no strangers to computer-synthesized sounds in house-party dubstep, a union between technology and classical music may seem a little odd. Even though Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Roger Reynolds is renowned for his work in classical music compositions, the orchestral symphonies and quartets he develops are strikingly different from Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” or Mozart’s “Requiem.” By using his background in engineering physics to write his compositions, Reynolds has engaged with electronic influences on natural sounds to develop seemingly impossible audio patterns designed to engage multiple senses.

Currently residing in Mather House as the Artist in Residence, Reynolds is teaching courses as the Fromm Foundation Visiting Composer and has been composing the project “george WASHINGTON,” revolving around George Washington’s own words and soundscapes from Mount Vernon. A selection of his work will be presented in “Roger Reynolds: A Portrait Concert” on Thursday, December 6 at 8:00 pm in John Knowles Paine Concert Hall.

The Harvard Crimson: When you started, your piece “Watershed IV” (1995) was the first classical music DVD designed for surround sound. In what way has modern technology influenced your work?

Roger Reynolds: The computer was capable immediately of doing anything that you knew how to ask it to do. It’s really not so much that the technology is new, but that approaches to the use of the power of computation have changed. Things that used to be extremely computationally intensive still are done in more or less the same ways that they were done before, but they can be done much more rapidly. A computer musician can be onstage and can perform with guitarists or a string quartet, and there is no issue anymore in speed, in capacity, in reliability—all these things that used to be deadly are now relatively trivial. This has resulted in me getting involved in a lot of real-time processing.

THC: What influences has your work abroad, in Japan and in Germany—had on your current work—particularly your project “george WASHINGTON”?

RR: You realize that just in general...artists in those contexts are almost inevitably very conscious of history and, I think it’s probably fair to say, there’s a responsibility to history. In this country, the attitude that artists have toward tradition is much more varied, and I would say that the impact that living in other societies has had for me has just been to generalize and enrich the variability with which one thinks about things…. Once we came back to this country and decided to live in California, I’d say that the impact of European or Asian ideals became less consciously important, and in fact the George Washington work represents a swing almost to the opposite pole…. I have found the research necessary to create the text for this piece [to be] an extraordinary and very rewarding experience.

THC: What challenges have you faced as a composer in America?

RR: The reality is that we have a vastly greater number of options about what we can do with our time.... Music is discursive art, and it takes time. We all live incredibly busy and congested lives, and it is harder and harder to devote the amount of time necessary to go to a concert…. The challenge is that concert music life in this country is dominated by fairly dire economic problems, so this means that the work that is more likely to be fostered is work which is more likely to be economically neutral…. This means that more innovative things are less likely to get a hearing. I think the American situation now very strongly privileges work that is less challenging, so that’s a challenge to me, because I’m not interested in work that is not moving ideas or moving, at least, me in some interesting way.

THC: In what way do you see modern classical music shaping or entering into dialogue with pop culture?

RR: Boundaries are disintegrating. There’s such a variety of ways in which people are doing their work, and I suppose that’s a good thing. But on the other hand it’s clearly going to have very complex consequences because the advantages of the genre—the advantages of focus—are obvious, and as soon as you start exercising more and more options, it’s harder and harder to explain what you’re doing… to have people prepare to actually grapple with it on a serious level. These are exciting times, and I’m a great believer in the importance of opportunity, and we have that. The problem is that opportunity is not one-dimensional.

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