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Contemporary composer Mathew Rosenblum, a Pitt music professor, avoided opera as a youngster, but his later encounters with jazz, rock, and experimental trends pushed his own music far beyond the ordinary, where he found something new—opera.

On The Edge

Cindy Gill

  Mathew Rosenblum (Photo by Ben Filo)

In an apartment on 13th Street in Manhattan’s East Village, a 30-something composer sits at a baby grand piano, imagining layers of sound. Guided by a tug of intuition, he senses what he wants to hear. As he muses, he can see the baby grand’s inner life, its sweep of wire and soft-padded wooden hammers, its orderly rows of metal tuning pegs, its elegant arc of carbon-steel strings.

He’s trying to produce an original combination of sounds, influenced by his study of Persian flute, Javanese vocal music, jazz, and music theory. It’s a language of sound trying to emerge from a thousand possibilities, a vast river of influences and interesting tributaries and new directions. It’s an abundant sound, too complex to create from the typical 12 tones in an octave. So he turns to a second piano in the modest room—a Yamaha upright—and begins to experiment with tuning, hunting for more tones and pitches.

He uses a tuning wrench to turn a peg, then taps a key, listening.

He angles the wrench a bit more, tweaking the sound, trying to get closer to the music that inhabits his head. Before long, he’ll be composing for two pianos, played together, yet tuned worlds apart—one with the evenly spaced tones of a standard octave, the other based on an experimental notion of sound. The result will be something entirely new.

Today, Mathew Rosenblum is a Pitt professor of music who has an international reputation for creating innovative music. He routinely composes on the edge of the known, and he often leaps beyond it. “I don’t like to stay in one place as a composer,” he says. “Things change. I keep trying to find new possibilities.”

Initially, though, he wasn’t inclined to take musical leaps. In elementary school, he saw his first—and, for years, only—performance of opera. It was Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. He didn’t like it at all. He grew up in a middle-class family in Flushing, Queens, where the opera’s comic, flirtatious antics of noblemen and commoners seemed completely removed from his day-to-day life.

Not so with rock and jazz. When he was 8 years old, his parents gave him a saxophone, and his musical journey began. Within a few years, he was playing the sax in rock and jazz bands, traveling around the neighborhood and the city to perform at dances and in clubs (which he was too young to enter without the band). He became intrigued by the way jazz musicians “bend” notes, finding more expressive nuances of pitch between the traditional 12 tones of an octave’s scale. He expanded his experiments with improvisation while a student at Manhattan’s High School for Music and Art.

His increasing immersion in music eventually led him to Boston’s New England Conservatory, which specializes in educating musicians from around the world. There, he began composing music, where the “bending” notes of jazz led him to the concept of microtonal music—or “microtones” that fall between the pitches of the standard 12-tone equal-pitch octave system that’s fundamental to Western music.

Microtonal works give musicians and composers a range of tonal options, with octaves that are divided unevenly beyond the octave’s typical 12 intervals. This abundance of tonal possibilities fundamentally affects a composer’s choices about harmony, pitches, and scales. “There are a lot of microtonal composers out there,” says Rosenblum. “Some use certain scales or systems that many others use; some create their own variants of those systems; and some create completely from scratch.” The result can be an exotic mix of sounds unfamiliar to the Western ear, with off-pitch harmonies and oddities that can seem random, quirky, fresh.

At the New England Conservatory, Rosenblum took a teaching assistantship with noted microtonal composer Ezra Sims. The student became so intrigued by the engaging complexities of composition and theory that he decided to pursue graduate work to enrich his understanding and stretch his potential.

He entered an MFA program at Princeton University, where he extended his interests and began exploring world music and ethnomusicology—the study of music in its vast geographical and cultural contexts. He took a graduate assistantship that required him, for instance, to transcribe Persian flute works and Javanese vocal music.

In his final year of master’s study, he won first prize in the Institute of Contemporary American Music’s Student Composers Competition.

As a musician, composer, and theorist, he became intrigued by the meaning expressed through the sound of words. Recalling his work with Indonesian vocal music, he says: “It was a language I didn’t understand, so I was focused on just the sounds of the music, the surface of the language that was present.” How does sound express meaning? That’s how opera reentered Rosenblum’s life.

His academic research led him to the writings of 19th-century master opera composer and librettist Richard Wagner, who wrote in his essay “Opera and Drama” about “the ability of text to signify an underlying message or feeling through sheer sound.” Before long, Rosenblum was pursuing a PhD at Princeton on sound, structure, and signification in the famous “Evening Star” baritone solo from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. His dissertation focused on how Wagner used the literal sound of words to enhance meaning and drama in music.

While working on his doctorate, he moved back to New York City, and it was there that he developed his own innovative approach to musical composition. “If you think of the voice, it can move freely between the whole pitch continuum. People don’t speak in terms of only the 12 notes on the piano,” he says.

Microtones can imitate the voice more closely, and this is part of what Rosenblum had in mind in his small East Village apartment, with his two pianos. There, he developed his own unique language of sound. He taught music in the morning, worked for a messenger service in the afternoon, and moved furniture at night, but he also was totally immersed in his life as a composer. “It was a formative time,” he says. He bought a piano tuning wrench and a tuning book, and he tried to use his seasoned “ear” and some music theory to produce something wholly original. “It was like a ritual,” he says. “The tuning wouldn’t hold very well, so I’d have to keep retuning, and tweaking, and hearing the intervals a little more deeply.”

His serious tinkering produced his own 19-tone scale, which he began using in tandem with the traditional 12-tone octave scale to compose new pieces. His breakthrough came with a commission for a work based on his newly invented microtonal scale. When the piece was recorded, the performer sat between two pianos tuned to Rosenblum’s dual-piano, dual-scale system. “When used in combination, the two tuning systems provide a variety of intervallic and harmonic possibilities, allowing for strong harmonic and stylistic contrasts,” says Rosenblum.

Other commissions followed, along with stints at famed art colonies like Yaddo and MacDowell. His groundbreaking conceptual work—which he expanded to a 21-note scale—brought him respect as a microtonal composer and helped him create music that attracted positive notice from critics at the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Fanfare magazine. He joined Pitt’s music faculty in 1991, drawn by the University’s emerging reputation in jazz, new music, and ethnomusicology.

It was Paul Hostetter, conductor of Sequitur, a New York City new-music ensemble, who prodded the composer into considering an opera project. After conducting Rosenblum’s “Nu Kuan Tzu,” Hostetter recognized he had the potential to write a larger dramatic piece. “Nu Kuan Tzu,” commissioned in 1992 by the National Endowment for the Arts, is scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and 11 instruments. It incorporates source texts from Sung Dynasty music poems, as well as poems by Apollinaire and Rimbaud.

But Rosenblum was hesitant. “I thought, ‘If I write an opera, it’s got to be on my terms,’” he recalls. “‘It’s not going to be your father’s opera. It’s not going to be the opera that I didn’t like when I was 8 years old.’”

About five years ago, he decided to plunge in, enticed by the thought of attracting listeners to new music. His first step in composing the opera RedDust was to watch contemporary operas and study how others were reworking the genre. Then he compiled a wish list of visual and audio elements, including dance, live and recorded video footage, and surround sound. Video would bring a pop culture aspect to the piece—something for which Rosenblum developed a taste while researching electronica and IDM, or intelligent dance music, for an earlier composition. He also revisited Chinese literature, an inspiration for some of his previous compositions (Princeton University’s music department was near the East Asian Library). His opera would be a multimedia event, commissioned by New York’s Sequitur ensemble and the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.

In a third-floor studio of his home in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, he began to assemble all of these fragments of intuition, ideas, research, inspiration, and creative instinct, typically working from dusk until the still-dark hours of early morning.

Rosenblum drew inspiration from many sources: Svetislav Basara’s novel Chinese Letter; a 1934 NBC radio interview with famous stream-of-consciousness author Gertrude Stein; an 18th-century text, The Story of the Stone by Ts’ao Hsueh-chi’in; musings by 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun; and even the writings of Virginia Woolf. For the opera’s libretto—its lyrics—he created a collage of different and opposing sounds, including the use of spoken text as a sound-object. His study of Wagner’s use of sound to express meaning proved useful. His years as codirector of Pitt’s Music on the Edge series helped, too, with its perpetual focus on the latest trends in contemporary composition
and performance.

Given such an ambitious multimedia project, the opera required large-scale collaboration. Kurt Ralske, an artist, composer, and programmer, was one of the first RedDust partners, whom Rosenblum found in 2003 on a Web site devoted to video artists. A former guitarist in the band Crash, Ralske now customizes software to create video installations and video performance art. His work has been exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Bilbao.

Other essential creative partners included Jonathan Eaton, artistic director of Pittsburgh’s Opera Theater, and members of the dance and performance troupe Attack Theatre, including codirectors Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza. While Rosenblum assembled these and many other collaborators, he also was collecting audio files, researching literature, and composing music for singers and a 19-piece orchestra.

When rehearsals began early in 2007, the composer was still cutting and changing his composition to suit the stage. Meanwhile, singers were studying their scores, choreographers were blocking dance movements, dancers were learning the emerging choreography, the video artist was digitally manipulating images, the musicians were practicing, and Eaton was trying to design a set where virtually everything could happen on a small, red-carpeted stage.

Amid collaborative chaos, art emerged. “What really excites me,” says Rosenblum, “is when things of a diverse nature are juxtaposed in an interesting way; where one thing informs the other. It forces the observer to make connections that are different, possibly, for each person.”

On a spring night this year, a cornucopia of sounds and images and performers appeared in public for the first time in the world premiere of RedDust. An intimate theater in Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum pulsed with life. The 15’ x 15’ stage contained singers and coiling dancers. A sleek white desk tilted alarmingly, stage right. Large stair-step cubes held stacks of leaning books, and randomly placed green bamboo sprouted from the stage floor.

A video screen flashed with images, then phrases, like:

It is words that are to blame, words that are to blame ...

Truth is fiction when the fiction’s true

In the course of two hours, sounds of all kinds surrounded theatergoers: piano, cello riffs, spoken words, electronica, brass tones, scraps of voice recordings, wind chimes, sustained lines of lyric singing...vowels...silence...bells, hollow wood tones, fragments of jazz, an echo of Indonesian rhythms. An orchestra played, too—so close the musicians were virtually part of the audience, though separated by a curtain.

Things change. Watching RedDust that night, Mathew Rosenblum embraced opera in all of its boisterous glory. New opera, not your father’s opera.

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