Biographies Roger Reynolds

Image: [Roger Reynolds at the Tate Modern Gallery, London, England]
[Roger Reynolds at the Tate Modern Gallery, London, England]. Malcolm Crowthers, photographer. Roger Reynolds Collection, Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress. (copyright, Malcolm Crowthers)

Education and Early Career

Roger Reynolds was born on 18 July 1934 in Detroit, Michigan, and was educated in music and science at the University of Michigan. He has responded to the variety in the contemporary world with a perhaps uniquely diversified output, music that ranges from the purely instrumental and vocal to engagements with computers, video, dance, and theater.

While the works of many composers have focused on and explored the potential of a single technique, Roger Reynolds has created a body of work that encompasses nearly every major musical development in the 20th century. As well as incorporating new techniques into his music, Reynolds is responsible for initiating many of the new developments. The theater piece The Emperor of Ice Cream, for instance, became the model for a new genre, and its influence is evident in the numerous imitations it spawned. [Ciro G. Scotto, Contemporary Composers, St. James Press, Chicago/London, 1992]

Reynolds came upon music as a life's focus almost by chance when his architect father directed him to purchase some phonograph records with the admonishment that he was not to "…get any of that popular stuff". He took up the study of the piano as a teenager, and his teacher, Kenneth Aitken, required not only grappling with classic keyboard literature including the Brahms f-minor Sonata, Liszt rhapsodies, Chopin and Debussy, Bach and Beethoven, but also knowledge of the cultural contexts out of which this music emerged. He was expected to write about the music as well as to perform it.

The Emperor of Ice Cream
Image - Emperor of Ice Cream (page 1)
Emperor (1961-62) was Reynolds' first theatrical
work. Written for the Bob James Trio and the
ONCE Festivals in Ann Arbor, Michigan, its
score specifies not only non-traditional vocal
behaviors with a novel and evocative notation, but
also the performers' positions on the stage (left
<-> right) so as to control the spatial effects of
performer movement and repositioning. The
title is taken from and the work shaped by the
Wallace Stevens poem of the same name.

Uncertain about his prospects as a professional pianist, Reynolds entered the pioneering Engineering Physics program at the University of Michigan and obtained a degree that took him to Los Angeles and work in the missile industry. Thinking better of this direction after a short stint as a systems development engineer, he returned to Ann Arbor vowing to commit himself fully to music and the pursuit of excellence as a pianist. It was not long, however, before the University of Michigan's charismatic resident composer, Ross Lee Finney, introduced him to the excitements of musical composition. He began producing music of his own, and it was featured at Midwest Composers Symposia, occasions that involved first encounters with lifelong friend and colleague, Harvey Sollberger. Reynolds also became a co-founder of the ONCE Festivals with composer colleagues Ashley, Mumma and Scavarda. Subsequently, when Spanish expatriate and former Schoenberg student Roberto Gerhard came to Ann Arbor, he became a decisive influence, captivating Reynolds's mind and spirit with his questing and ardent dedication to a life lived in and through music. During his time at the university, Reynolds also encountered Milton Babbitt, Edgard Varèse, Nadia Boulanger, and John Cage, and each made a mark upon his outlook. As this period was coming to a close, C.F. Peters Corporation offered to publish his work, and this relationship continued on an exclusive basis.

At one lesson, while he was completing a Master's degree by attending the University year-round in an accelerated program, Reynolds found his mentor uncharacteristically passive. "I've nothing more to teach you," said Finney. Shortly thereafter, he left Ann Arbor embarking on a pilgrimage that was to take him to Germany and, with spouse Karen, to France, Italy, and Japan. Initiating this period abroad in 1962, Reynolds worked at the West German Radio's electronic music center in Köln. The couple then produced and performed on concerts in Paris, Rome, and Tokyo. Their daughter, Erika, was born in Japan where they founded and produced the CROSS TALK music and media series and began lifelong friendships with composers Toru Takemitsu, Yuji Takahashi, and Joji Yuasa as well as with painter Keiji Usami and theatre director Tadashi Suzuki.

While they were attending a Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored week with the Seattle Symphony in 1965, the Foundation's Arts Officer, Howard Klein, offered the Reynoldses an opportunity to travel down the West Coast to visit and assess the various music programs there. On a trip that ended in La Jolla, they visited the then fledgling UCSD campus. Several years later, the Department of Music's first Chair, Will Ogdon, sought out the young couple in Japan and brought them to UCSD, offering Reynolds an appointment as a tenured Associate Professor in 1969. Once in residence, he immediately began working with his new colleagues to establish the Center for Music Experiment and Related Research (now the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts) with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. He became its inaugural Director in 1971.

The Music: Inspiration Meets Technology (I)

Page image - Archipelago
Archipelago was written in 1982-83, on commission
from Ircam in Paris. Scored for a 32-member
ensemble and 8-channel computer-processed
sound, it involves a mosaic of fifteen themes and
their variations. Just over a half-hour in length,
Archipelago utilizes not only live instrumental
forces, but also computer manipulated recordings
of the same instrumental materials that are
performed live.

By the late 60's, Reynolds had begun to incorporate electronic elements into some of his works. And in the late 70's, his engagement with computers began (initially at Stanford University's CCRMA facility). Technology continued to represent for him a natural means of augmenting formal and coloristic resources. This can be particularly observed in three major works written in Paris on commission from Ircam: Archipelago (1982-83), Odyssey (1989-93), an opera in the mind on a bilingual text by Beckett, and The Angel of Death (2000-2001), for solo piano, chamber orchestra, and 6-channel computer processed sound.

Archipelago (1982-83) for large ensemble and computer generated, eight-channel based upon real instrumental sounds, and [the computer] rarely seems an alien force imposing upon or subverting the live ensemble. Instead, it acts like a sort of hyperorchestra, expanding instrumental possibilities.

Sometimes, with eyes closed, the tape is so lifelike that it can barely be distinguished from the ensemble. Reynolds, who has a strong background in ensemble music, is an accomplished orchestrator who can create interesting effects from standard instruments. And by getting the ear to trust the tape, he makes its imaginative forays seem all the more astounding.

The fascination in Archipelago, though, is the way in which the composer builds meaningful musical structures out of the interaction between computer and live player. The work is long (about half an hour) and is a complex mosaic of always changing textures and thematic ideas. Archipelago, in fact, seems to be as much about ideas as it is about sounds...[it] holds the attention as a musical and expressive sonic kaleidoscope where sound and structure are closely bound... [Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 29 February 1984, Mark Swed]

The Angel of Death was written in collaboration with perceptual psychologists (principally Stephen McAdams) and became the subject of a special issue of the journal Music Perception.

This issue of Music Perception presents the results of an ambitious and unique interdisciplinary collaboration. The plan was to ask a well-known composer to work closely with a group of musicologists and psychologists. The composer would create a work that would be the subject of psychlogical experiments: Do listeners actually hear what the composer intended for them to hear...?


No small risk was involved on the part of the architects of this project... Reynolds expresses an urgent need for "a serious and broadly conceived examination of the relationship(s) between how composers make their music" and the actual experience that listeners report….The authors of the empirical papers in this issue have adapted, manipulated, and in some cases invented laboratory tools to do just this. [The Editors, Music Perception, Volume 22, No. 2, Winter 2004]

Particularly identified with the writing of Beckett, Borges, Ashbery, and Kundera, Reynolds has sometimes responded to texts with songs, as in the cycle last things, I think, to think about (1994), written collaboratively with poet John Ashbery.

Mr. Reynolds's last things is a 70-min song cycle consisting of ten of Mr. Ashbery's poems, all linked together by a spatialized recording of Mr. Ashbery himself reading an eleventh piece, a prose-poem, "Debit Night," which was, in fact, commissioned for this collaboration. The poet's reading of "Debit Night" begins the cycle and resurfaces at various times over the course of the work. The other ten songs are interspersed throughout the composition, continually interrupting the reading of "Debit Night."…

Last things is truly remarkable for its fusion of complex design with directness of expression. It is an extraordinary collaboration uniting the music and poetry of two of the leading American modernists of the late 20th century. [Computer Music Journal, Benjamin R. Levy, Volume 28, No. 2, Summer 2004]

But there have also been instrumental glosses, including Focus a beam, emptied of thinking, outward... (1989) for solo cello (responding to a poem of James Merrill's), and a series of multichannel electroacoustic compositions collectively entitled VOICESPACE. About the fourth of this series, Nicholas Kenyon wrote in The New Yorker that "The Palace is a powerfully atmospheric piece whose form is perfectly suited to the extraordinary visionary quality of Borges' poetry..."

The Music: Inspiration Meets Technology (II)

Visual art provoked from Reynolds works as diverse as the 1991-92 Symphony[The Stages of Life] (inspired by self-portraits of Rembrandt and Picasso); Visions for string quartet, which responds to the startling range of Bruegel's imagination; and, later, another string quartet, Ariadne's Thread, concerned with the character of line itself, both as drawn and as sounding.

An incessant, insistent darkness throbs through the heart of [this quartet] capturing the neurotic and sublimated sexuality of the Ariadne myth in a strikingly original way. The result was a truly astonishing musical voyage. [The Strad, London]

Myth emerged as a central concern in the second of Reynolds's three symphonies:

Reynolds is a composer who has remained strongly committed to the experimental spirit...Symphony[Myths] gave no specific message to the listener, rather one had to use one's imagination. The music, which accumulates an increasing level of activity throughout, makes a listener feel as though he is experiencing the same complicated, multidimensional object from three perspectives in turn. The process is filled with the joy of discovery. [Akimichi Takeda, The Mainichi Shinbun, 6 November 1990]

This mythic preoccupation expanded in The Red Act Project. The first of its works was commissioned by the BBC, and The Red Act Arias was premièred at the 1997 Proms Festival. With a text drawn from Aeschylus, it probes the deadly conflict between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, using a narrator, choir, and orchestra augmented by eight channels of computer processed and spatialized sound. Writing in The Sunday Times, Paul Driver called it "a kind of anthropological brooding; a secular oratorio in which the theme is the dark forces at the foundation of civilized society." Work towards a culminating opera proceeded then, with Justice, for soprano, actress, percussionist, and computer spatialization (commissioned by and staged for the Library of Congress' Bicentennial in the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building), and Illusion (for 2 singers, 2 actors, 3 instrumental soloists, and chamber orchestra, commissioned by the Los Angles Philharmonic).

A signature feature of the composer's involvement with technology is the gradual fulfillment of an early desire to confer an expressive reach upon the spatial aspects of musical sound (perhaps even to discover the roots of the empathic exclamation "I was moved."). Beginning as early as the notorious theater piece The Emperor of Ice Cream (1961-62), he introduced spatialization through antiphonies of live musicians. Subsequently, his work involved the simulation of auditory illusions using computers, as in Two Voices -- an allegory (1996), commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Watershed was the first Dolby Digital 5.1 DVD to feature music originally conceived for multi-channel presentation (Mode Records, 1998).

...the spatial element is integral to the conception of each piece and is not simply imposed as a final production effect. For ... Reynolds, this is expressed as a synergy between background (he holds degrees in both Engineering Physics and Music Composition), 30 years of experience working with spatialization issues, and the considering of each particular situation in light of a variety of tools. As in all art making, there is a kind of 'alchemy' going on wherein the totality of the composer's knowledge and experience boils down to produce a richly nuanced and authentic result. [Richard Zvonar, Surround Professional Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 3, April 1999]

In many of the spatial projects, architecture also played a role, for Reynolds has created numerous works expressly intended for buildings such as Kenzo Tange's Olympic Gymnasium in Tokyo, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, Arata Isozaki's Gran Ship, The Royal Albert Hall, the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, and Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Research -- Teaching -- Writings -- Awards

Image: Roger Reynolds with Brian Ferneyhough and John Cage in Warren Studio A, UCSD
Roger Reynolds, Brian Ferneyhough and
John Cage in Warren Studio A, UCSD
Bonnie Harkins, photographer. Roger Reynolds
Collection, Performing Arts Encyclopedia,
Library of Congress.

Reynolds's aesthetic outlook was jointly shaped by the American Experimental tradition (Ives, Varèse and Cage) and -- through his teachers Finney and Gerhard -- also by the Second Viennese School. His multi-continental career, in Europe, South America, Asia, and the Nordic countries, as well as in the United States, has included writing, lecturing, organizing musical events, and teaching. After living and working abroad for an extended period in the 60s, the Reynoldses settled into the life of Southern California, with their Del Mar home overlooking the Pacific at the stable center of their existence. They committed years of energy to the growth of the UCSD Department of Music while continuing their relations with international friends and colleagues.

Although Reynolds' entire academic career was spent in the fermentive and always challenging Music Department at UCSD, he accepted several visiting positions over the years at other institutions: the University of Illinois (resulting in his first book, Mind Models), Brooklyn College of the CUNY (where he wrote A Searcher's Path), Yale University, and Amherst College, at which he composed the string orchestra set, Whispers Out of Time.

In addition to writing articles for periodicals including Perspectives of New Music, the Contemporary Music Review, Polyphone, Inharmoniques, and The Musical Quarterly, Reynolds published four books; Mind Models: New Forms of Musical Experience (1975, revised 2005) is the earliest.

Not many people have anything worthwhile to say, and of those, very few have the ability to say it well. [Reynolds is] one of the fortunate few with both. [Conlon Nancarrow]

The 2002 Form and Method: Composing Music is a detailed treatment of his compositional approach published by Routledge, New York.

This book is the outcome of Roger Reynolds's residency at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, as Randolph Rothschild Guest Composer (1992-3). Reynolds (b. 1934) takes the opportunity to build on the foundations of his earlier, shorter monograph on compositional method, A Searcher's Path (1987), and has clearly thought long and hard….

In putting his own head above the parapet in the way he does here, and also in his studied avoidance of reference to other composers where matters of possible technical substance are concerned, Reynolds has underlined the personal specifics of his 'Rothschild' project. More such projects are needed, though they will have to work hard to match the positive, illuminating results…in this volume.
[MUSIC & LETTERS, Arnold Whittall, Volume 84, Number 3, August 2003]

Reynolds has given master classes in settings such as Buenos Aires, Thessaloniki, Porto Alegre, Ircam, Warsaw, and the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. They complement frequent North American residencies. Reynolds was also featured composer at numerous international festivals including Music Today and the Suntory International Program in Japan, the Edinburgh and Proms festivals, the Helsinki and Zagreb biennales, the Darmstadt Courses, New Music Concerts (Toronto), Warsaw Autumn, Why Note? (Dijon), Musica Viva (Munich), the Agora Festival (Paris), various ISCM festivals, and the New York Philharmonic's Horizons '84.

Whispers Out of Time
Image - page one of Whispers Out of Time
While Valentine Visiting Professor at Amherst
College in 1986, Reynolds came upon the extended
poem by John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex
, a text concerned with the artist's relationship
to society and the influence of time. The poem
mentions Mahler, and this stimulated Reynolds
toward an atypical engagement with musical quotation
(Mahler and also Beethoven). Whispers' six
movements, each named with a phrase from the
poem, are scored for 23 strings (sections of violins,
violas, cellos, and basses, each with a soloist).

In 1989, Reynolds received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for the string orchestra composition Whispers Out of Time, inspired by Ashbery's poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

One can say that, just as Elliott Carter came from neoclassicism and became Europeanized, Reynolds became Europeanized from the direction of experimentalism, perhaps especially after his residencies at Ircam (Pierre Boulez's electronic music institute in Paris)….It is a telling detail of Reynolds's career that he became, in 1989, the first composer since Ives from an experimentalist background to win the normally conservative Pulitzer Prize for music. [Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, Schirmer Books, 1998]

Reynolds, honored by the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the National Endowment for the Arts, also has received commissions from, among others, Lincoln Center, the Library of Congress, the Koussevitzky, Fromm, Ford, and Suntory Hall foundations, the BBC, the Los Angeles and Philadelphia orchestras, the British Arts Council, Radio France, and Ircam. His works are recorded on New World, Disques Montaigne, Neuma, Pogus, Mode, Gramavision, Wergo, Lovely, CRI, GM, and Bridge compact discs. Reynolds is represented by Broadcast Music, Incorporated, and his compositions are published in printed editions exclusively by C.F. Peters Corporation.

Reynolds is at once an explorer and a visionary composer, whose works can lead listeners to follow him into new regions of emotion and imagination. [Andrew Porter, The New Yorker]

In 1998, the Library of Congress established the Roger Reynolds Collection.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress