UCSD celebrates 80th birthday of musical visionary Roger Reynolds

THE MAN: 80-year-old Roger Reynolds, a mainstay of UC San Diego’s music department for almost half a century, has been called an explorer, a visionary, and one of the most adventurous composers working today. Next week, his birthday is being honored on campus with a three-day celebration that includes a symposium, an exhibit of several of his multimedia pieces, and a concert of his music for strings and electronics by the London-based Arditti Quartet.

Born in Detroit, Reynolds started playing piano at 14, too late to consider a concert career. At the University of Michigan, he first studied music, then got a degree in “experimental engineering” and worked for a time in the missile industry in L.A. More satisfied practicing piano than at his day job, he returned to music and Michigan, thinking he’d someday teach piano in a small college. But a course called “Composition for Non-Composers” changed the course of his life.

“The professor introduced us to the way a creative mind works,” Reynolds said. “But he completely decimated the first string trio I wrote for class. That was shattering, of course, but then he asked if I’d like to take private lessons with him.”

It took awhile, but Reynolds finally managed to please his mentor, and after a number of successful compositions and performances, the teacher announced he had nothing more to teach. So in 1963, Reynolds went off to Europe with Karen Hill, a flutist who had premiered one of his pieces. The two were married in London, and began performing and producing musical events in various cities, including Tokyo, where their daughter was born.

At home and abroad, Reynolds had a gift for befriending interesting composers and musicians, people like John Cage and Iannis Xenakis, who thought outside the box, as he did, and had uncommon visions about what music could be.

In 1965, under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, he returned to the U.S. to work with the Seattle Symphony; another Rockefeller grant enabled him to check out job possibilities along the West Coast. He soon received several offers; UCSD won out.

“The nature of their aspirations was very appealing,” he said. “They were looking for practicing artists to aerate the academic environment, and they brought me in as a visiting lecturer; then they offered me a permanent, tenured position as associate professor in 1969.”

On campus, he founded the Center for Music Experiment, which encouraged the exploration of new technologies; he has been mentoring young composers ever since. His work, widely performed and recorded, includes live and computer-generated music, poetry, video and theater, but he also writes books and articles, and spends three months a year in Washington, D.C., where he runs an Arts Internship Program. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he has been honored by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and collections of his works are installed in the Library of Congress and the Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, a prestigious repository for musical manuscripts.

THE WORK: In 2000, Reynolds became composer-in-residence at UCSD’s Calit2 (California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology), a hotbed of innovative collaborations. At Calit2, he not only completed Sanctuary, a composition for percussion quartet and real-time computer, but found ways to document the process for future performers. Sanctuary premiered at the National Gallery in Washington in 2007, and was then performed at the Salk Institute in La Jolla.

In 2013, his orchestral work, george WASHINGTON, premiered at the Kennedy Center, with text taken from Washington’s letters and diaries, and sounds and sights recorded around Mt. Vernon. He is currently at work on Flight, a piece for string quartet and a quartet of actors, with multiple projections and multichannel sound, that explores the ancient-to-modern history of the human desire to fly.

THE EXHIBIT: The installation in the Music Center’s Experimental Theatre was created by New York-based percussionist and videographer Ross Karre, along with UCSD recording engineer Josef Kucera. Karre, a UCSD alumnus with degrees in music and visual arts, has been collaborating with Reynolds since his student days.

“I was never a direct student of Roger’s, but as a percussionist, I premiered many of his works, and we talked about how video documentation and projection design could enhance the music,” Karre said.

Their collaborations continue on both coasts, with Karre doing visuals for george WASHINGTON and the upcoming Flight. The exhibit gives the public a chance to experience george WASHINGTON, Sanctuary, and several other multimedia pieces, including an early work, PING, which originally used 16mm film and 35mm slide projectors.

“Working with Roger is an intense engagement with a tireless force of creative nature,” Karre said. “He looks to collaborators of all ages and backgrounds to help him bring radical ideas into the realm of realizable artistic results.”

Roger Reynolds

After all these years, does he still think of his work as “experimental”?

“I don’t like the word ‘experimental,’ ” he said. “It seems to imply that you’re not really sure what you’re doing, which is not the case. I prefer ‘explorative’ or ‘innovative.’ Of course, I’m still working outside most of the boxes. You don’t want to work outside all of them; art must have limitations—norms—or you really can’t do anything.”

If you go

Roger Reynolds 80th Birthday Celebration at UCSD

Multimedia Installation: Experimental Theatre at Conrad Prebys Music Center

Feb. 3, 4-10 pm; Feb. 4 and 5, 10am-10pm (no charge)

Concert with Arditti Quartet: CPMC Concert Hall, Feb. 4, 7 pm

Tickets: $10.50-$15.50

Info & Tix: (858) 534-3448/ Tickets also available at the door.