The Life of a Modern Day Classical Composer – An Interview with Roger Rudenstein

Roger Rudenstein is no ordinary musician. Unwilling to allow his views on the world and his classical career to remain entirely separate, he has found a way to both vent his spleen and create magnificent artwork. His musical life has seen him pen operas based on George W. Bush and Donald Trump, as well as works based on literary classics like Faust and James Joyce’s Ulysses. We caught up with Roger to see what makes him tick.

What attracted you to the area of music you work in? Do you come from a musical family?

My parents were classical music lovers and had many recordings in their house that I discovered at a very early age. They took me to concerts in New Jersey and also to New York City to the Metropolitan Opera. I played violin in my grade school orchestra and attended Music Camp every year I was in high school. I wrote duets for me and my sister for violin and flute. Later I found “The Variety of Lute Lessons” at the Folklore Center in New York and played them on my guitar. I used to play guitar and fiddle in an ad hoc old time music band that performed in Washington Square and sometimes in the Greenwich Village coffee houses. During college I studied theatre and played in a bluegrass band called the Green River Boys. After graduating college with a degree in drama, I played in a jug band called Tiny Alice for several years in Cleveland, Ohio. After moving to New York City I went to a lot of opera, decided I wanted to compose opera and within a year my first opera, “Faustus”, debuted at Symphony Space. I was on my way as a composer.

What is your local music scene like? How do you think you fit in?

Here in Portsmouth, NH, I have gotten a very good reception by audiences for my modern classical music pieces. The workshop debut of my opera Ulysses was sold out for six performances and received a rave review in the local press. I was composer in residence for a year at the local Unitarian Church and my works were well received there also. However there is no new classical music scene as such here; on the contrary, the new music scene consists of a plethora of bands that hold forth every weekend at the numerous bars in the historic part of town. In light of this I have aimed to step up my presence on the Internet in order to meet a wider audience.

What artists influence you in general? What is it about the way they write, or their sound that is appealing to you?

I am greatly influenced by a number of European composers including Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Haydn, Vivaldi, Purcell, Dowland, Mahler, Richard Wagner and others. Twentieth Century influences include Stravinsky and Richard Strauss. Although this is a diverse group, their music has in common the qualities of depth, complexity and harmonic richness that result in works of great musical beauty and expressiveness. The richness of feeling in many of the works of these composers affects me greatly. My efforts, as a composer, have been to fit in with this outstanding community of musical works presenting my own spin based on my life and musical experiences which include both classical and popular music, especially blues, old timey and Bluegrass. Distilling the essence of our existence into music is difficult and even more difficult is to also make it entertaining to the listener. During the Twentieth Century many composers got hung up on theories that said, “This world is going to Hell in a hand basket so my music should reflect that by being as unpalatable to the listener as war, poverty and oppression are.” Unfortunately this resulted in honing their musical talents to a high standard of incoherence and extreme dissonance. While this garnered grants and even acclaim in some cases, it did not create an audience and actually instilled in the classical music audience an aversion to modern classical music. Many composers have learned from that mistake and I am one of them. I feel so strongly about this that I authored a series of short fiction on the subject called “Thought Experiments” which is about the misadventures of a certain cultural icon in the land of music thought. Although my music often does reflect the war, poverty and oppression of our times it presents itself in an accessible way and seek to create musical beauty of a high order.

Tell us about how you go about creating your music, from initial idea to completion. What equipment do you use and what instrument is your weapon of choice for composition?

My music flows from my id – or you can call it God or the World Spirit or you can say, like Mozart, “I’m spitting music”. I am very prolific. When I first started composing as a kid I composed on the guitar, as a young adult on the piano and now I compose on the computer, using Finale and the Vienna Symphonic patch library, mostly, on a Pro Mac. Oh, and earphones.

Tell us about what drove you to compose an opera based on Ulysses? Were there other literary works which you considered? How did you crystalise a full-length novel into only 2 and a half hours?

Ulysses was my favorite book in High School. I read it after my parents took me to see the play “Ulysses in nighttown” in which Zero Mostel played Leopold Bloom, the Jewish everyman. I found the book much richer than the play which only deals with a fragment of one of the book’s chapters. Later in life, with a couple of operas under my belt, I reread the novel and thought “Wow this book could be a libretto”. Why? Because it’s written in poetic prose so I decided to use only Joyce’s own words in my adaptation. Also the book quotes a lot of music including “Don Giovanni” as well as popular music and even has the sheet music of a song written by Joyce within its pages. Joyce was a great lover of classical music, especially opera. He stopped writing for a while to take an opera singer he was championing around to get gigs. In addition to all that, he wrote into Ulysses verbal motifs similar to those used by composers to delineate feelings and ideas. One of the pleasures of creating the opera was to create my own musical motifs to track Joyce’s. Ulysses also deals with prejudice and alienation: his main character Leopold Bloom, a secular Jew, the wandering Ulysses of the title, is not accepted by Irish society due to religious bigotry and rejection of his modernism. Stephen, his Irish Catholic Telemachus is not accepted because of his striving for truth and hatred of hypocrisy. He is consistent to a fault. For example, an atheist, he refuses his dying mother’s request to kneel down and pray for her. One of the most amazing things about the novel is that it takes place in a single day: June 16, 1904, subsequently commemorated as Bloomsday during which the novel is celebrated in many cities around the world.

What would be your ultimate aim in the industry?

My professional aim is to reach as wide an audience as I can via the Internet and to have my music played by numerous performing organizations. Currently I am working on getting an established opera company to stage my Ulysses opera…anyone interested in this should contact me at roger@rogerrudenstein.com. I also think my four-opera cycle based on Trump as a modern American Faust should stir some interest now that he has been elected President of the United States…an outcome I never anticipated when I picked a well-known con man and crook as the subject of my opera cycle back in the 1980’s.

What should new listeners to your music expect from you? How do you see yourself as a composer in 21st Century America?

New listeners should expect to hear music unlike any other. It is not an imitation of any particular composer’s music or even very similar. If you don’t like classical music then you might not like my music but it’s worth a try, especially if you have never been exposed to classical music before. Right now I’m working to complete my four-opera cycle based loosely on the life of Donald Trump, seeing him as a modern day American Faust. I’m also working on more purely instrumental music including a trio for viola, clarinet and piano which I hope to release shortly. Also I have a short Trump satire called “Ronald Glumpf, part two” about to debut on the net. Look for it at my website or on Soundcloud.

Some have argued that classical music is dead. That modern composers in this idiom will never surpass the dead composers of the past centuries so why bother. And anyway, the famous composers of today are all in the popular music sphere, propelled by millions of dollars in commercial investment, so why listen to such notes as mine. My advice is this: If you can’t get to my music because the style is not like the music you ordinarily listen to then take a chance and expand your horizons. If you are a classical music lover who looks forward only to the ninety millionth interpretation of Beethoven’s sonatas then you are contributing to the demise of the music you love so much which is in danger of becoming pickled in a jar in a museum. My music will not bore you and is not esoteric so take a listen and you will not regret it. Believe me.

One of the difficulties of being a classical music composer in America is the incredible commercialization of popular music to the exclusion of all else. Early in America’s history, although there was always such a thing (Tin Pan Alley and Big Band music) but there was also a great deal of classical music in American culture. Even with the initial rise of television in the 1950’s classical music was still a factor with opera programs and the NBC Symphony Orchestra led by Toscanini. However, with the rise of American post WW II prosperity teenagers became the owners of large amounts of cash; once this was noticed by the large corporations popular music because a juggernaut, not just another form of music. With huge investments on the line, it quickly eclipsed classical music as a money-maker and things only got worse for classical after that as the immigrant population died off and their progeny called the musical shots. This, paired with the decline in school music programs and a traditionally low amount of government funding of the arts – made worse by the ascension to the throne of Donald Trump and his cronies — is where things stand now in America. I am looking to Europe with its higher cultural standards and greater appreciation of classical music, including modern classical musi,c to be a port in the current storm in the States.

Is there anything you would like people to know about your music?

I think music has a two-fold mission: to entertain and to elevate the lives of those who listen. All music does this to some degree, however I believe classical music’s depth and complexity creates the ability to go beyond mere entertainment and become life changing. This is hinted at by the “Mozart Effect” that some researchers discovered several years ago. So that’s why I’m in the game. In addition to entertaining and elevating music can also serve the cause of opposing the injustice of our times. Many composers of the past have done this: Beethoven, Mahler, Wagner (his anti-Semitism aside), Shostakovitch, Prokfiev, Bernstein…the list goes on. I position myself squarely in this camp. My first recording for MMC was called “State of the Union” and dealt with the Bush administration’s use of torture and invasion to prosecute its war on terror. A work entitled “We do not torture” is on my website rogerrudensteinmusic.com which is based on the CIA’s attempts to justify its attack on human rights and quotes its own words to that effect. My short opera entitled “The Rise and Fall of Ronald P. Glumpf” has been streamed by over 100,000 people on Soundcloud. While some of my music is abstract, not topical, it still reflects the tumultuous times we live in. How could it not?

 

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