David Rosenboom: Trio

“From time to time, an artist’s eternal aesthetic investigations into the evolution of humanity in the universe can encounter detours when it is necessary to search for light in times of great divisions,” wrote David Rosenboom in 2018. It is not difficult to see how the theme of tension between art as aesthetic investigation and art as practice grounded in social time and place might occur to an American composer at the midpoint of the Trump presidency; when the world seemed to be barrelling headlong into both predictable and unguessed-at turmoil, as indeed it turned out to be. But the theme, and indeed any theme in Rosenboom’s work, is not static but cyclical. “I seem to have this cycle of about four years where I come to a place in which I have to evaluate myself, or the idea I’ve been interested in, and start over,” he mused in an interview in 1983. If that is the case, then there are any number of works– including his 1966 Trio for clarinet, trumpet and bass– that can serve as an entry point into the work of one of the most innovative composers of the 21st century.

Perhaps counter-intuitively for a composer known for his work with computers, Rosenboom’s work has been from the beginning deeply concerned with the experience of performing and experiencing performance. In fact, bridging the divide between computer programs, which are largely designed to create a static finished product, and live performance, which is neither static nor “finished” in any real sense, has been one of the main projects of his career. The solutions he has come up with sound futuristic, and perhaps they are: “I believe that through the use of computers as appendages of man’s brain and methods of learning with bio-feedback, rates of information processing will be achieved that approach the speed of light,” he wrote in an article in the MIT press early in his career. “Thus, conception will be less necessarily bound with action, ellicited [sic] or observed, and life will eventually be embodied by information-’energy’ networks creating non-physical art; communal art will be revived as established networks connect us firmly.” As abstract as that sounds, much of his work has been organized around making it a reality. His On Being Invisible series of performances– “performances” because the works themselves are not and cannot be static– involve EEG input from a performer’s brain to create a biofeedback performance. Another example is HMSL, short for “Hierarchical Music Specification Language,” a programming language that Rosenboom developed with Phil Burk and Larry Polansky, intended to allow the creation of complex musical entities during live performance without individual specification by the performer, a goal that leads to some amusing examples of code:

( check to see if cool-lick-need is true? )
( play the current one )

If the work of electronic music seems to have entered the realm of the science-fictional, however, it is worth remembering through Rosenboom’s early music that there is and has only ever been one paramount goal: the centring of performance, of performer and audience, in a room together, experiencing music that will never happen quite the same way twice.