In a career spanning over 60 years and counting, composer (and long-time Del Mar resident) Roger Reynolds has created a body of work known for its immediacy, intensity, and intricacy.
Though he is perhaps most famous for his 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning work for string orchestra, Whispers Out of Time (a reflection on poet John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which was itself awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976), Reynolds’ work often engages with spatialization and processing of sound via electronic means. Through experiments and collaborations with colleagues at UCSD and elsewhere, Reynolds has sought to unlock new expressive potential in the interaction of acoustic instruments and computer manipulation of sound. Sometimes the results are so seamless that it can seem impossible to find the boundary between traditional acoustic and computer-controlled instruments.
A great example of Reynolds’ ability to expand and transform a traditional ensemble (in this case, the orchestra), is his Symphony “Vertigo.” Composed in 1987 for a large orchestra with “quadraphonic computer processed sound,” it can be heard on the album Roger Reynolds: Whispers Out of Time (works for orchestra) on the Mode label. Performed by the La Jolla Symphony and conducted by long-time collaborator Harvey Sollberger, the work begins with a powerful sustained sonority from violins and winds, punctuated by crashing percussive chords and rapid ascending scales. A few minutes into the opening movement however, we begin to hear a peculiar sound infiltrate the orchestra. It sounds like a piano, but quickly begins to stutter and refract itself, until we understand that manipulations beyond the scope of human performers are occurring. The blend of acoustic and electronic is magical and transportive.
Symphony “Vertigo” is an ideal place for the interested listener to begin an exploration of Reynolds’ work. Another excellent starting point is the more recent set of twelve Piano Etudes. Composed in two books of six between 2010 and 2017, these etudes are composed in the grand tradition of virtuosic concert pieces like those of Chopin, Lizst, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and Ligeti. Recorded by pianist Eric Huebner (again for Mode Records), the pieces dance and fly across the familiar sonic landscape of the piano, while simultaneously sounding unlike anything one may have heard before. Here is an incredible and often thunderous virtuosity but also an impish wit and a delicacy of gesture. Even without the use of cutting-edge technology, Reynolds’ musical ideas are fresh and sonically explorative.
Reynolds has taught at UCSD for over 50 years, and is as beloved a mentor as he is a creative artist. A recent student, Elisabet Curbelo González, has this to say about Reynolds’ ability to get the best out of his students: “Roger Reynolds is a wonderful mentor. He asks the right questions to make students think and build confident opinions about important subjects that they may not have thought of otherwise…. He is an example to follow as a teacher, as a person, and as a composer.”
Ed. Note: Jordan Kuspa is the founder and director of Del Mar International Composers Symposium (DMICS). Elisabet Curbelo González was a Composition Fellow at DMICS in 2019