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* Neil Rolnick

Rensselaer Arts Professor Neil Rolnick celebrated his 60th birthday in October with a concert presented as part of EMPAC’s fall 2007 lineup. The event was a tribute to Rolnick’s career as a pioneering arts educator and an influential composer and musician.


Electronic Arts Visionary

You joined the Arts Department in 1981. How prevalent were the arts on campus during that time?

Not very. The department consisted of only a handful of professors and offered no undergraduate or graduate degrees, only a few elective courses. The first class I taught was Electronic Music. The class had 125 students, and hardly any of them were actually interested in the discipline.

That must’ve been difficult for you.

Once I got tenure, I knew that the only way out of a situation where students didn’t care about the subjects I was teaching was to develop a program that would attract students who wanted to become artists. I talked to Larry Kagan, who was chair of the department at that time, and asked: Can we make an integrated electronic arts graduate program?

It was the first program of its kind in the U.S. What made it so unique?

Many other universities taught different facets of electronic arts — music, video art, computer imaging — as separate disciplines. We teach them as different faces of the same discipline so that students are exposed to a variety of genres, and can explore their interests. Our program has an emphasis on finding new forms for art and making use of technology as appropriate.

How have students responded to the integrated emphasis?

This is a great place for students who see art more holistically; for example, someone who might have a background in music but an interest in installation art. In more traditional departmental systems those students are discouraged from mixing disciplines. Here they might come in as an electronic musician and leave as a visual artist.

How has the field of electronic art changed since the graduate program started in 1991?

Twenty years ago “electronic art” meant computer music, computer imaging, and video art — these three categories don’t define the field anymore. Today the term can also describe interactive installations, Internet art, motion sensing, video games, and more — and our curriculum constantly evolves to engage technological advances.

You’ve been a professional composer and laptop performance virtuoso since the ’70s. How has your work evolved?

Since stepping down as Arts Department chair in 2002, I feel like I’ve redefined my musical career. I’ve been writing a lot of electronic and non-electronic music, and been able to enjoy working with other musicians to write pieces they can play without me. One of the things you realize when you turn 60 is that you’re not going to be here forever — I want to make sure that the music can continue whether I’m here or not.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I hope I’m doing more of the things I’m doing now. I have commissions for new pieces which will take me into 2010 and I’m really enjoying traveling to work with people in different parts of the world. I can’t think of anything else I’d want.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.