Scale makes music of Rosenblum distinctive

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Mathew Rosenblum can count nine distinct reasons his music is unique in the world.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Composer Mathew Rosenblum works in the studio of his Point Breeze home, where he created the multimedia chamber opera "RedDust."
Click photo for larger image.
Listen In:
Hear excerpts from compositions by Mathew Rosenblum:
"Star Gazing" from "Circadian Rhythms"
"Ancient Eyes"
"Nu Kuan Tzu"

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Opera 'RedDust' is a fusion of art forms

Two decades ago, the Pitt composer perfected a personal scale that inserts nine new notes among the traditional 12 of the chromatic scale. To a Western ear, the additional notes can sound out of tune, but they are structural elements influenced by Persian and Javanese music. It's the compositional DNA that lends Rosenblum's works a distinctive quality.

"It creates a hyper-chromaticism," Rosenblum says in his studio in Point Breeze. He can increase expression because he has more notes to choose from: A stormy chord with harsh intervals can become more tempestuous; a tender melody can have more inflection.

"His music is like no one else's," says Eric Moe, a composer and colleague of Rosenblum's at Pitt. "You can find elements in others' music, but he doesn't have a theoretical ax to grind. [The scale] Mathew has come up with, he can use to express any number of things: It can be quiet, wistful, amorous, as well as raunchy and funky."

Next weekend, audiences can hear Rosenblum's largest project to date, a multi-media opera, "RedDust," in a production by Opera Theater.

Today, Rosenblum has pulled away somewhat from the extremes of his scale, but he still brings it into largely tonal works to contrast different styles of music.

"It's the idea of having different traditions within a piece and having them juxtaposed and set out against each other," he says.

In "RedDust" he also is juxtaposing performing disciplines. The opera incorporates singers, dancers, a video artist and computer-generated audio. "I have collaborated with performers for instrumental pieces before, but not like this," he says. "I am not exactly on the same page with anyone here, but that's a good thing."

To understand how that can be true, one only has to look at Rosenblum's life. The composer always has thrived on the melding of disparate elements, beginning with his childhood in Flushing, Queens, in New York City.

"I grew up in a working-class neighborhood," he says. "My best friend was Italian, and my other best friend was Irish. It was a classic melting-pot street." Early on, Rosenblum showed aptitude for music -- he was in a band as early as elementary school -- and he was placed in the music and art magnet high school in Harlem. There he played saxophone in various jazz and rock bands with the likes of David Krak-hauer and Anthony Coleman.

"It was the '60s, there was a lot more going on in the streets than in the actual classroom," he says. "Most days we would go down to Central Park and jam around the fountain." Nights, he was either going to jazz clubs to hear music or was playing in them in one of his bands.

"We were 14 or 15, and you had to be 16 to get in to the clubs," he says. "My parents were very supportive. We played in clubs in Flushing and Long Island, and my father would drive us to these gigs."

But Rosenblum had his heart set on composing, and he was already writing music that moved beyond free-form jazz. One teacher in high school discouraged it, saying, "Get everything that you write played right now in this class, because you are never going to hear your stuff ever again."

Rosenblum winced but stuck to his guns.

He enrolled at New England Conservatory because Gunther Schuller was there, famously juxtaposing classical music and jazz. Rosenblum played saxophone but eventually got pulled into the composing world, studying with Lee Hyla and Don Martino.

"It was a little like oil and water," he says of his adviser Martino, who influenced Rosenblum's award-winning early work, "Harp Quartet." "I learned a lot with him, but there was a little of a personality conflict."

It was working as a teaching assistant for Ezra Sims, the doyen of microtonal music, that Rosenblum's ears first were opened to a new sonic world. "I was drawn to it."

While finishing his doctorate at Princeton, he moved to Greenwich Village and met with a piano tuner who had worked on another seminal microtonal piece, La Monte Young's "The Well-Tuned Piano."

"He said, the only way you are going to learn your particular take on this stuff is to tune the intervals yourself," says Rosenblum. "I had a baby grand piano, and I went out and bought an upright. In my one-bedroom apartment on 13th Street, I had the two of them side by side in a sort of flying "V" formation. I bought a tuning book and wrench and started tuning."

Since then, Rosenblum has become one of the world's most respected composers of microtonal music, with works such as "Maggies," "Circadian Rhythms" and "Nu Kuan Tzu."

"I think the most satisfying thing about being a composer is having the imagination to hear certain sounds and hear those sounds realized," he says.

Since coming to Pitt in 1991, Rosenblum has turned his attention to electronic dance music and sampling and, now, opera. But his personal scale always is in the foundation of anything he writes.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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