Neil Rolnick:  Ex Machina

Innova 950



Disk One (63:31)


1.      Silicon Breath (2014) 23:36

            performed by Ted Nash, alto sax; Neil Rolnick, laptop computer


2.      WakeUp (2013) 11:49

            performed by Neil Rolnick, laptop computer


3.      Cello Ex Machina (2015) 28:04

            performed by Ashley Bathgate, cello & laptop computer


Disk Two (39:53)


1.     O Brother! (2014) 9:38

            performed by Neil Rolnick, laptop computer


2.      Dynamic RAM & Concert Grand (2014) 30:13

            performed by Kathleen Supovˇ, piano; Neil Rolnick, laptop computer



All compositions except WakeUp are by Neil Rolnick, copyright © 2014, 2015 by Neilnick Music (BMI)


WakeUp is by Neil Rolnick and Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, copyright © 2013 by House of Bryant Publications (BMI).  WakeUp contains elements from ŅWake Up Little SusieÓ and ŅAll I Have To Do Is DreamÓ performed by the Everly Brothers.  All Rights Reserved.  Used by permission.  Under License from Barnaby Records, Inc.  By arrangement with Ace Music Services, LLC.


Ashley Bathgate

Ted Nash

Neil Rolnick

Kathleen Supovˇ



Nikolitsa Boutieros  (T.N.)

Stephanie Berger (A.B.)

Miriam Hendel (K.S.)



Recording Information:

Silicon Breath and Cello Ex Machina were recorded by Jody Elff

Dynamic RAM & Concert Grand was recorded by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, NY

WakeUp and O Brother! were recorded by Neil Rolnick

All pieces mixed and mastered by Jody Elff

Neil Rolnick, producer



Program Notes

by Neil Rolnick


IÕve been performing with computers for many years.  When I play, the computer becomes a musical instrument for me.  It drops its other functions (email and web interface, word processor, spreadsheet, sound, image and video editor) and becomes something which I can play and touch and tweak in various ways to realize the sounds I hear in my head.  The two laptop pieces in this collection are my most recent solo efforts in this direction.


A lot of the music I write and perform, though, involves processing the sounds of other players in real time.  IÕve always thought that, rather than me always playing the computer parts for these piece, it might be interesting to integrate the control of the computer and the processing into the instrumental part.  Just as itÕs commonplace for rock guitarists to control the quality of their sounds and audio effects with stomp boxes, it seems reasonable to expect that classical players can do something similar.  The three instrumental pieces in this album are my most recent explorations of this idea.


As described below, the pieces take varying approaches to how the player engages with the computer.  All three pieces involve looping live materials and interacting improvisationally with digital effects.  Dynamic RAM & Concert Grand asks the pianist to improvise with sounds she records in real time, and play with them in much the way I play with sounds in my solo pieces.  And Cello Ex Machina actually takes the performance controls entirely out of my hands, and turns them over to the cellist.


Silicon Breath (2015)


Breath is what animates us.  Without breath, a saxophone is just a bent metal tube and valves.  Add breath, and it comes to life.  In writing this piece, I had the image of the playerÕs breath animating the computer as an extension of the horn.  One way of thinking about Silicon Breath is as a catalog of ways the instrument and the computer can interact with each other:  from building layers of loops, to complex canons, to using processing on accented notes to make a kind of counterpoint, to building chords which take their dynamic shape from the playerÕs breath.


My New York neighbor Ted Nash is normally heard with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  HeÕs got an international reputation as an incredible sax player, but had never worked with interactive electronics until he jumped into this project.  He jumped with both feet, unintimidated by the technology, figuring out how to create and coordinate loops of his playing, and how to trigger various aspects of the computer processing with his articulations and dynamics.  The virtuosity and musicality of his sax playing seemed to elevate and accelerate his integration of the technology. 


While Silicon Breath is a piece for solo saxophone, the sound world it creates is multilayered and multi-textured in a way that is impossible for a solo horn.  Yet all of the sound of the piece comes from the playerÕs breath, on stage, in real time.  ThereÕs nothing pre-recorded, and Ted is controlling much of how his playing is transformed by the computer.


Another way of thinking about Silicon Breath is as a story about us and computers.  ItÕs not much of a relationship if we think of the computer as an inanimate object which we use to do mundane tasks.  But if we breathe life into it, and take it on as a partner to expand the scope of what we can create and the breadth of our ability to express ourselves, then perhaps we get a whiff of silicon breath. 


This piece was made possible by an Individual Artist Grant from the New York State Council On the Arts.



WakeUp (2013)

by Neil Rolnick and Felice & Boudleaux Bryant


Making new music out of old music is an old trick.  ItÕs abetted by new technology, and the ways in which digital access lets us move not just around the globe, but back in time.  The Everly BrothersÕ recordings of the two songs which form the basis of this piece were on one of the first LPs I owned, when I was about 10 years old.  It was a first glimpse into what I thought love would be:  dreaming of a special girl, and the embarrassment of being Ņfound outÓ by grown ups.  Looking back, the songs have become iconic, carrying with them the more innocent, but not necessarily benign 1950s.  Don & PhilÕs harmonies are still sweet, but they take on a different sound and different meaning after 60 years in our ears.



Cello Ex Machina (2015)


Writing this piece for Ashley Bathgate, cellist for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, was a unique and rewarding experience, not just because sheÕs a spectacularly talented and accomplished cellist (which she is), but also because she is utterly unafraid of technology, eager to explore the possibilities it presents, and engaged enough to toil through crashes and malfunctions, in order to get to the musical heart of the piece. 


Cello Ex Machina is the most recent of the pieces on this CD.  It was composed with the explicit goal of eventually making the piece something that Ashley can perform on her own, without me playing the computer.  And this is, in fact, how she now performs the piece, playing the very demanding cello part while controlling the computer with pedals and with her articulations and dynamics on the cello.


This piece aspires to an orchestral sound world, with the depth and variety of sound you might expect from a large ensemble, not from a solo cello.  There are layers of voices, contrasting timbres, and opportunities for the performer to play freely within the musical structures.


The title means:  the cello emerging from the machine.  But I donÕt think of it as describing a futuristic sci-fi world of machine-like automated cellos.  Instead, I imagine a symbiotic world in which the cello motivates the machine to sing, the computer motivates the cello to expand its voice, and together they can construct sweet, expressive and complex musical worlds, different from what either can produce alone. 


O Brother! (2014)


During my freshman and sophomore years in college, I spent most of my evenings playing various kinds of folk music at a communal house in Cambridge, MA called Old Joe ClarkÕs.  On trips back to my parentsÕ home, I taught my younger brothers and my sister the music I was learning.  In the nearly 50 years since, IÕve moved on to other kinds of musical pursuits, but my brother Peter has continued making this kind of American roots music a major part of his life.  And heÕs gotten really good at it.  When we get together, we usually play some of those old songs, but always in very traditional ways.  I feel that I need to follow PeterÕs lead, since the kind of performance I usually do is pretty much outside his experience as a musician.  But IÕve often wondered what it would be like if I took the lead in re-arranging some of these tunes.  O Brother! is one answer.  The voice is PeterÕs, the mashup is mine.


Dynamic RAM & Concert Grand (2014)


RAM: Random Access Memory.  Dynamic RAM is the kind of small, cheap memory chip which makes up the memory in your computer. 


So, on one level, the title of this piece simply says that itÕs focusing on the computer and the piano playing together.  But perhaps more interestingly, it suggests that the computer and the piano are somehow co-equal as musical instruments. 


The piano part is a virtuoso romp which demands a lot from the performer. The pianist needs to not only play lots of notes, but also to keep a strong sense of a groove going, often in the face of constantly changing meters and unanticipated sonic surroundings.  The half-hour piece traverses a wide range of moods and styles, and there are transitional sections where the player uses musical materials from the rest of the piece to improvise, loop and process the music in performance.


Kathleen Supovˇ has recorded all my works for piano, and we perform together often.  Her flamboyant virtuosity and showmanship combine with a deep understanding of the music.  Besides the kinds of interactions sheÕs encountered in my previous works, this piece demands that she control the processing of her playing in improvisational sections, using a specially programmed iPad and foot pedals.  She ended up engaging with this challenge with the same musicianship and spirit of adventure that IÕve come to expect in all our collaborations.


The computer may be co-equal, but itÕs different from the piano.  Much of the computerÕs material comes from processing the piano in real time, creating rhythmic delays or granulated clouds of sound surrounding the piano.  Other parts use the ability to record and play back loops of phrases.  There are several sections in which the computer uses percussion loops to accompany the piano.  But the computer doesnÕt try to imitate a percussionist.  Instead, it makes use of the decision-making capabilities of the instrument and assembles combinations of beats in a quasi-random way which varies from  one performance to the next, while processing and expanding on the percussion sounds in the same way as it does the piano sounds.


Making music is perhaps the most intimate, emotional and indescribable kind of artistic activity.  On some level, making music with a digital machine seems to contradict that idea.  But for me this piece represents an integration of the machine into the very soul of music making.  ItÕs not a piano piece with a computer track.  ItÕs chamber music in which we have to play together, listen together, make music together.


This piece was made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation.


innova is supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation.

Philip Blackburn, director, design

Chris Campbell, operations director

Steve McPherson, publicist