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Artist Profile: Ian David Rosenbaum, Brooklyn-Based New Music Percussionist

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Ian David Rosenbaum works extensively with new music, specializing in chamber music. He is a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's CMS Two program, as well as a number of other music ensembles including Sandbox Percussion, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Novus NY, Le Train Bleu and Time Travelers.

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As a percussionist, Rosenbaum plays the whole gamut of percussion instruments, from marimba to timpani to temple bowls to beer bottles. This multitude of expressive outlets keeps him having fun with his performances, which acts as a balance to his very serious and intelligent engagement with music. He is very active with the music of living composers, regularly performing and commissioning new works. Rosenbaum has also performed numerous innovative percussion works which have taken music for percussion to new places.

I had the pleasure of interviewing him this January.

Joel Garten: What is the life of a percussionist like?

Ian David Rosenbaum: The life of a percussionist is always interesting, and is very different than that of other musicians. We are expected to play hundreds of different instruments from many different cultures and traditions, often without any specific training. When a composer needs a special sound or wants an instrument played in a unconventional way (even if it's not a percussion instrument), they will undoubtedly turn to a percussionist. Since our art form is so new (compared to the established ways of playing instruments like the violin and piano), composers are constantly inventing new techniques and new instruments. So, on any given week, I might practice a marimba piece one day and a big set-up of drums the next day. And the day after that I might perform a percussion quartet played on everyday objects like newspapers and trash cans, things that you find around your house.

It's a fantastic time to be a percussionist because more and more composers are writing for us. Our repertoire is growing by leaps and bounds and so are the number of percussion performers and percussion chamber music ensembles.

JG: Which repertoire do you most enjoy?

IR: Right at this moment, there are a few pieces that I'm really enjoying working on and performing. The first is Andy Akiho's monumental LIgNEouS 1 for marimba and string quartet. Andy wrote this piece for the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival a few years ago and I've performed it maybe 10 or 15 times since then. Andy is a master of extended techniques and this piece is no exception. The entire thing is played with unconventional marimba mallets (essentially wooden dowels wrapped in moleskin) that give the marimba a very bright and articulate -- yet still resonant -- sound. Sticks like these are not produced commercially, but I'm lucky to have a relationship with the Vic Firth drumstick and mallet company who produces these specialty sticks for me. The piece also features a large rubber band wrapped around a marimba bar that gives me a Bartók pizzicato-like effect.

Another piece that I just started playing this year and that I absolutely love is Christopher Cerrone's Memory Palace. This piece is scored for all homemade and built instruments -- the first movement uses an old re-strung guitar, the second and fourth uses 17 tuned pieces of wood (creating a quasi-marimba), the third uses metal pipes, temple bowls, crotales and glockenspiel bars, and the fifth uses seven tuned beer bottles that I blow through. The whole thing is accompanied by electronics that Chris created -- they are field recordings from places that are important in his life. So the first movement has a recording of crickets from a camping trip he took, and the third has a recording of a set of wind chimes that's hanging in his parents' house. Throughout the piece, I trigger various versions of these electronics with a foot pedal to keep them synced up with what I am playing. It's around 25 minutes long and is a spell-binding work to both play and experience.

Perhaps the most important thing I can do as a percussionist is try to build our small repertoire by commissioning composers to write new pieces. Earlier this year, I organized a consortium of 12 percussionists who came together to commission David Crowell to write a piece for marimba and electronics. The result was Celestial Sphere, a piece I premiered in Los Angeles back in November. The piece is written in the style of Steve Reich's Counterpoint pieces -- that is to say, it features a live performer playing along with pre-recorded tracks of the same instrument. So, after David finished the piece, we went into the studio and recorded something like eight or nine marimba parts to this piece to create the backing track that I play along with live. It's a fantastic piece!

JG: What is the process for commissioning a new work?

IR: It varies depending on the exact situation. At its simplest level, a performer or organization will reach out to a composer to see if they would be interested in writing the piece. They'll agree on a fee and a timeline, and that's more or less all there is to it.

In the case of a well-known composer who will ask for a higher fee that might be out of reach for a single performer or ensemble, we have a couple options. There are many great organizations out there who offer grants to composers to write new pieces -- but they often have rigorous application processes and many, many people apply to them. Kickstarter has become a very popular way to commission pieces in the last two years or so -- this is how my group Time Travelers commissioned Andy Akiho to write his percussion quartet. I think it's a wonderful way to get a commission to happen, not only because one is able to raise a significant amount of money but also because one can involve their audience directly in the commissioning process. Finally, groups of performers can join together in a consortium to commission a piece. Each member of the consortium will contribute a share of the fee (usually many people are involved to make the fee manageable for an individual) and each becomes a "co-commissioner". This is what I did in the David Crowell commission I mentioned above.

The individual or organization who commissions the piece will get to premiere the piece and will also typically get a period of exclusivity (usually one to three years) where only they are allowed to perform the piece.

JG: Any tips for musicians using Kickstarter?

IR: Kickstarter has emerged as an amazing new tool for arts fundraising. I think it's one of the best tools that we have these days, primarily because one is able to directly engage one's audience in processes that they ordinarily do not have access to (commissioning, recording, touring, etc). This is exciting for the performer as well as for the audience member -- we get to hear directly from them what they are looking for in a concert or recording or commission, and they get to be directly involved with the artistic process. Additionally, if you run a successful Kickstarter campaign, then you've already got a group of audience members who will come out and see your show, or buy a copy of your CD, etc.

The history of musicians using Kickstarter to fund their projects is a short one. For me, it didn't really take off until the rock musician Amanda Palmer ran her record-shattering CD/tour Kickstarter back in April of 2012. She raised nearly $1.2 million from nearly 25,000 people across the world. Now, she is not a common case of course -- she has a huge and incredibly devoted fanbase, and has spent much of her career developing her relationship with each individual fan. But $1.2 million, independently raised, for her to make and distribute her music.

After that, it seemed like everybody was jumping on the Kickstarter bandwagon -- I would say that I get somewhere between three and five donation requests from musicians every week. It's incredible to see all these fantastic projects taking life.

As I began planning to run my own Kickstarter for Andy Akiho's percussion quartet last year, I turned to one specific person for help: the composer and arts administrator Kevin Clark. Kevin has written a three-part guide to planning, executing and fulfilling a Kickstarter campaign on his website, and you can check out part one here.

JG: I noticed you have performed Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a personal favorite of mine. What is it like to play that piece?

IR: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is one of our most significant works and a staple of our repertoire. It was one of the very first pieces of chamber music that moved the percussionists from the back of the stage (where they are in an orchestra), up to the front of the stage with the other musicians, so to speak. Musically, the percussion parts are just as essential to the architecture of the piece as the piano parts and it also happens to an incredibly fun piece to play and listen to -- we really lucked out!

The percussion parts are difficult -- when Bartok first wrote it, he had to have three (or sometimes more) percussionists play the part, but today it's typically done with just two -- one person who primarily plays timpani, and one who primarily plays xylophone and two snare drums. There's also all kinds of other fun instruments: a bass drum, a tam-tam, cymbals, triangles, etc. There's a lot of tricky logistical coordination between the two percussionists -- we have to share many instruments and we have to do things to help each other play our parts, like the timpanist will often reach over to turn on and off the snare drum for the other percussionist.

But for all the difficulty of the percussion part, it doesn't go anywhere near that of the piano part! The piano is treated extremely percussively in this work, and the pianists have to deal with tricky rhythms, complicated harmony and a towering mountain of notes. It's a huge undertaking to learn and rehearse, but every performance I've ever done of it has made it worthwhile!

Music@Menlo, a California music festival I was at this past summer, just released our recording of the piece. I'm joined by the percussionist Christopher Froh, and the sensational pianists Gilbert Kalish and Wu Han.

JG: What projects are you working on now, or performances upcoming?

IR: My upcoming projects include:

You can find out more details about all of these performances and more on my website.

JG: You started out in traditional classical music. How did you make the transition to new music?

IR: For a percussionist, an interest or even a specialization in new music is a natural progression because we simply don't have a lot of music to play that was written before the 20th century. It's limited entirely to transcriptions and orchestral parts -- and while there are some fun and interesting orchestral percussion and timpani parts, for several hundred years we were relegated to only playing sol-do at cadences and resting through slow movements!

These days, composers nearly always put percussion parts in their orchestral music, and the repertoire of chamber music and solo music is growing exponentially. Percussion is given an equal voice in an ensemble, just like any other instrument, and pieces of chamber music solely for percussionists or concertos for percussion and orchestra are no longer rare.

Similarly, for a percussionist, building a close relationship with composers also comes very naturally. Although our repertoire is growing quickly, it is still very small compared to, say, the violin repertoire, so every new piece is a significant addition. A big part of what I do is identify composers who I think would write great percussion pieces, and then convince them to do so.

JG: Have you worked with performers and creators in other mediums like dance or film?

IR: I have done projects with artists in other mediums -- I believe that combining talents in this way, when done effectively, only results in a more interesting and compelling experience for the audience member.

I think I first became interested in this sort of thing while I was learning Mauricio Kagel's Dressur several years ago (see our performance here). Dressur is a 30-minute theatrical percussion trio in which the performers are asked to perform actions and move about the stage in addition to playing a difficult piece of chamber music. Since at that time my compatriots and I had barely any theatrical experience, we turned to a colleague at the Yale School of Drama for advice. Enter Michael McQuilken. Michael, at the time a directing student at the Yale School of Drama, worked with us as he would work with actors. He helped us create characters to portray, a plot, and he talked about things like our intention in certain moments. We learned which actions would get a response from the audience and which wouldn't. And we learned how to use these actions to enhance the musical dialogue of the piece.

I don't think it was until we had given several performances of this piece that I really understood how powerful this combination of theatrics and music was. Audiences of all kinds -- and we gave performances to young children, senior citizens, classical music professors and everything in between -- went crazy for the piece. When we asked them why afterwards, they told us that they connected to it more than any other classical music performance they had ever seen. They felt the awkward 'fourth wall' of classical music performances -- the one that urges an audience member to sit in rapt, silent attention while musicians they will never meet dressed in clothes they will never wear perform music by someone they have never heard of -- disintegrate, and they felt comfortable laughing, clapping or audibly reacting in any way they wanted to during the performance.

Since then, I've collaborated with dancers (the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and SYREN), with Palmer Hefferan on an evening-length show with music she composed, again with Michael McQuilken in another evening-length show that he pieced together from original music and existing percussion repertoire called THE PERKS, and most recently with the video artist Jesse Ricke at CultureHub in Manhattan. The show at CultureHub was particularly noteworthy -- Jesse put three or four cameras on me while I was performing a series of works for percussion and electronics and then projected the images behind me as I played. This allowed the audience to get inside a percussion performance -- they saw close-ups of my mallets, my hands, my instruments and were able to see exactly what I do to create the sounds I use. It was an amazing experience and we're planning more interesting collaborations -- stay tuned for more musical events at CultureHub!

I do firmly believe that combining artistic disciplines in this way -- again, when done effectively -- gives an audience member a more emotional and interesting experience. I think that performances of this nature are also far more accessible to the general public, and thus serve classical musicians well as they search for ways to get people interested in their work. There are many incredible people and organizations dedicated to this notion (check out the organization VisionIntoArt or So Percussion's original piece, where we live).

Visit iandavidrosenbaum.com for more information.

This blog post was also published on the Arts Magazine's Fresh Pound.

Joel Garten is a composer, pianist, artist, and writer. You can view his artwork and listen to his music on his website.

You can also read Joel Garten's artist profiles of conductor Alex Pauk, pianist Vicky Chow, Composer Andy Akiho and pianist Claudia Chan, and read about how Joel Garten composed new piano music during Hurricane Sandy.

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Thanks to Andy Akiho for helping make this interview possible.

Photo Credit: Matt Fried