Q&A with Alumnus Brandon J. Rolle ‘19, Composer and Founder of the Impulse New Music Festival

Brandon J. Rolle
Interview by Audrey Sandlin
April 21, 2021 at 2 pm PT via Zoom
 
Brandon J. Rolle is a composer and conductor who lives in Los Angeles. He received his PhD in Music Composition from the University of California, Santa Barbara in the Spring of 2019. Rolle’s music is published under Precious Noise Music (ASCAP), and he is represented by Black Tea Music; his debut album, Glitch Portraiture, is set to be released at the end of 2021 by Arpaviva Records. Rolle spoke with us about recent projects, including the Impulse New Music Festival, a non-profit organization that Rolle co-founded and for which he serves as Artistic Director. Impulse’s 2021 festival was held online this past August, and included nearly 150 events, sixteen commissions, and four concerts of new music.
 
What was your motivation for creating the Impulse New Music Festival, and what is the festival’s mission?
 
"The festival was started with a colleague of mine, Vlad Vizireanu, who was working with the UCSB orchestra while I was a doctoral student there. I was lending a hand with the orchestra and teaching quite a lot, and working with these students really made me reevaluate how we could better support and prepare these young musicians for the early stages of their career. Honestly, this was a topic close to my own heart, having just gone through that transition myself, and it had become clear to me that there are certain aspects of working in the field that can be difficult to address in an academic music program—how to receive commissions, create a business plan, work with non-profits and fiscal sponsors, adapt to non-academic grant writing, where to even find those grants and know which are a smart investment of your time. These were things that I had only really learned after diving into the deep end and having to figure it out for myself.
 
"The other big challenge for musicians leaving school is the dramatic shift in their network. In every place I have studied, there is a strong built-in community of colleagues, which is one of the wonderful things about studying in a college environment. But after graduation that community scatters across the country as people leave for jobs, academic programs, and personal reasons. So, after school it is a little like starting from scratch to build relationships within a new community of musicians who are in your area, interested in what you are doing, etcetera. That is a really difficult (and long-term) process to undertake as you’re trying to stay afloat financially and move forward in your career. So, these were sort of the things we were confronted with ourselves and that we wanted to find a way to talk about and address with our students. 
 
"Over the past few years, one other thing I’ve become really conscious of is that if you zoom out a little, these are some of the same issues acting as obstacles to a truly diverse and inclusive field. The pivotal early stages of your career can be extremely difficult, especially if you don’t have personal or family financial resources to help weather that storm for the first few years as you’re figuring it out. Ultimately, it means that the music community loses out on bringing a lot of new voices into the fold, which unfortunately reinforces a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy about classical music 'exclusivity' where the freedom to express yourself musically equates with having the means to survive in the field. I can say personally, it took many, many years to start to truly understand my own musical voice, and to develop the tools and skills of expressions to articulate it effectively; learning how to use those skills to support myself financially during that period of development was intensely, almost insurmountably, difficult—especially after leaving school. So, more than anything, it was important to me to find ways to help early-career musicians explore and develop the tools to express their own musical language, which absolutely must include strategies for these types of professional development issues.
 
"Of course, the difficulties of the early stages of a musical career are not necessarily the same for everyone. But these themes kept coming back over and over again as I had this conversation with friends and colleagues. For me, the core question became, 'Okay, so then how can we help musicians bridge that gap? What should music training look like in today’s music scene? What does it mean to actually prepare students to work in the field?' It became pretty clear that the answer was not only to teach counterpoint and orchestration, which are important, of course, but to mentor musicians on how to survive in the field so that they can actually contribute their voice in a lasting, sustainable way. So, when Vlad approached me with the idea of starting a festival program, it felt like an obvious and concrete way to address some of these issues. 
 
"The first festival was in 2019 in Santa Barbara, but these past two years we had to move the program to an online/hybrid festival due to COVID-19. For our 2021 festival this year, we commissioned sixteen early-career composers who will work with our composition and performance faculty as they write a new work to be premiered at the festival. We are truly so excited to work with this exceptionally talented and diverse group of young composers, and very thankful for the support of our donors, partners, as well as the Ditson Fund of Columbia University, which together provided significant financial support for our participants. We are planning (and hoping) to be able to move back to holding an in-person festival next summer, but we’ve learned a ton from the process of translating our mission into an online program, and are incorporating those lessons in a number of exciting ways as we move forward."
 
Who is the INMF faculty composed of, and what kind of support and guidance do they offer attending composers and performers?
 
"These are some of the most outstanding musicians, people, and teachers I know. To be honest, I always feel a little conflicted about referring to them as faculty. On the one hand, these are artists who have an immense amount of experience and talent to share with participants. On the other hand, though, I’ve tried to make INMF rigorously non-academic, haha. Part of that is because we are trying to specifically address the blind spots of academic programs, but the other part is that I think the teacher/student dynamic can imply that there is some point at which you stop learning and become worthy to teach, which I find really, really problematic—especially for young artists trying to build the confidence to put themselves out there in the professional arena. All of these participants have the fundamentals of craft, many of them already with quite developed and personal musical languages. We want them to come to the program receptive to learning from our experience, but also willing to share their own unique talents and skill so that we can learn from one another. So, if the faculty I’ve put together is trying to model one thing, really, it is a virtuosic open-mindedness. They want to share what they know, learn what they don’t, and explore new pathways in musical expression wherever they arise. Helping our participants build that particular combination of confidence and receptivity is ultimately what we would hope for them to get out of our program.
 
"I guess this is all a long way of saying that the faculty that we bring in are not necessarily in a traditional student-teacher relationship with the participants. They’re coming in as collaborators who have been through the same experiences that these participants are going (or about to go) through, and now have the perspective of being a little further down the road. These are people that we trusted to help participants develop both the confidence and skills to go out into the real world, to transition from 'student-musician' to 'musician.'"
 
Are students paired with one faculty member or many?
 
"It depends. On the composition side, for instance, some students come in and just want their butt kicked with counterpoint or orchestration or theory, and so we sit down and really get into the weeds of it during their lessons. Others may need help finishing their violin piece for the festival, in which case they might do one or two of their lessons with a composer who also plays a string instrument. Sometimes they want feedback on their portfolio, sometimes they want to explore using computer instruments, sometimes they just want to talk about next steps or fears or interests. A lot of times, they’re coming in wanting a little bit of everything. Whatever the case, we try to pair them in ways that ensure they’ll get the most out of their time working with us. Part of the reason we keep the festival small is so we can tailor the experiences of each participant in this way. There are no tracks in Impulse. The whole program is available to them as a resource, and the participants can utilize those resources however is best for them."
 
How do composers and performers get involved in attending?
 
"People usually hear about us first through word of mouth, which is awesome from our perspective, because we hear that their friend or colleague told them ‘Hey, I did this program and I loved it. You should really go work with them at Impulse.’ For us, that is ideal because it organically expands the INMF community; it becomes this evolving, growing network of people who know and respect each other’s work.
 
"On the technical side, people apply through an online application process. The application has so far been free every year in an effort to help break down some of the socioeconomic barriers to music training where we can. Running a non-profit, I understand first-hand the incredible amount of work involved with reviewing applications, but when you charge a hundred dollars to apply to a program, right off the bat you are again limiting your pool to those talented people who can afford to even apply. In my gut, I hate the message that sends to those deserving artists who can’t afford to even toss their name in the hat for an opportunity like this. In the application itself, applicants have the freedom to submit whatever materials that they feel best represent them. They may include up to three pieces, scores, recordings, and write a personal statement about what they’re looking for from our program. Once we’ve narrowed down the applicant pool a bit, we do interviews with our best matches to get to know them on a personal level. The materials, statements, and interviews, together, help us find attendees who we are confident will thrive in our program and contribute their own talents, backgrounds, and perspectives to the INMF community."
 
How have you seen the festival enhance the knowledge and creative output of its attendees? Do you have any success stories?
 
"Oh definitely. We have had some brilliant participants who are now doing incredible things, but actually the one that comes to mind immediately was a composer that attended in 2020 who had written very little before the festival. But they were a talented musician and had a great attitude—you could just tell they were hungry to learn and to make music. They wanted to dive deep into counterpoint, and to be honest I was hesitant because that can be a quite difficult and frustrating topic for students who are just starting, and I didn’t want them to feel discouraged (especially in the context of such a short two-week intensive program). But I’ll never forget the huge smile on this participant’s face as we basically tore apart one of their only pieces of music. It was crazy and so humbling to see how much they loved learning, how they completely set their ego aside and absorbed this stuff like a sponge.
 
"For me as a teacher, that’s the best. That’s what drives me. It’s very vulnerable to be a student, and to have a teacher, or someone that you look up to, criticizing your work. It takes a long time to get comfortable being vulnerable like that, and to learn how to be truly receptive to feedback. Of course,  it’s largely the responsibility of the teacher to create a safe and positive environment where students have the freedom and the courage to ask questions, to try things, and to make mistakes. Seeing this young musician’s excitement as we workshopped their piece, it was clear to me that our efforts to create that kind of environment were working. That was an amazing feeling and an important bit of early feedback that we were headed in the right direction with this program.
 
"Actually, one other example comes to mind too—last year, one of the participants from our inaugural festival got a graduate position at a school running its bands, and commissioned one of his former colleagues from INMF to write a new work for them. When I heard about this I was thrilled because, really, that’s the whole point of what we are doing—building a community to help support and navigate the beginning stages of a career in music. At the beginning of your career, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll have the Berlin Phil commissioning your work right away; you are mostly going to be working with people who are part of your community early on. So, to see the festival’s community evolving into concrete projects and musical collaborations like this is truly, truly wonderful." 
 
We talked a little bit about the pandemic already. Could you elaborate on the transfer to the online format?
 
"Oh. At the start it was...a nightmare. For one thing, in March, before we really knew what the severity or timeline of the pandemic would look like, life was already going sideways. My family found out my sister had cancer and my mom passed away rather suddenly, so I was taking some time off from planning the festival to just sort of get my bearings. Of course, we had already planned for an in person festival, but by the time I came back to work in April, it was pretty clear that things were shutting down, and we really didn’t know if or when we would be able to hold any sort of in-person event. Certainly August 2020 seemed tenuous. 
 
"But we did know one thing: All of us musicians were hit hard by the pandemic because gig work basically stopped in March. So, by May we had already decided to refund everyone who had signed up for the festival right away while we figured out what might be possible for the summer. Pretty shortly after, we made the decision to move forward full steam with translating the program to an online platform, which turned out to be a...Herculean task. In the end, though, we got the program moved to an online platform and  our participants in 2020 were able to take part in readings, workshops, and lessons, as well as evening lectures and masterclasses. One unexpected positive of doing the festival online was the much lower overhead costs, which meant we were able to reduce the cost of participation substantially. Knowing the artist community was suffering financially, we also fundraised aggressively and built partnerships for the online program that allowed us to give further scholarships to more than half of our participants." 
 
The festival’s live concerts didn’t happen last year. This year there will be online streaming concerts?
 
"Yes, sadly one of the things we weren’t able to coordinate in 2020 were live concerts. Getting multiple musicians together in a space was—at that time—just not practical. This year, since we knew in advance that the festival was going to be online, we were able to plan a more robust online program: participants in 2021 still had composition lessons and readings with the ensemble or the performer that they were working with, but they also had multiple workshops with those performers during the festival. And, the weekend after the festival finished, all of the composers’ works were premiered as part of a streaming series that included four concerts of new music this season. I’m particularly happy about the addition of this concert series year, because it meant that our composers all received excellent audio and video recordings of their works being performed by world-class musicians, which will be invaluable when they’re applying for grad school or grants or competitions." 
 
What are some recent innovations in the contemporary music performance world, and how have those innovations influenced your upcoming album, Glitch Portraiture?
 
"The album is kind of an interesting project. It is a compilation of my electro-acoustic chamber works from the last five or so years, which together represent a pretty wide range of approaches to integrating the computer into my compositional process. I’m a bit of a weirdo because even though computer music techniques are a huge part of my work, I actually still write my scores pencil to paper first. Somehow, I find that it helps me structure the piece more effectively, without getting bogged down in the technical or surface details too early in the process. The electronics parts are also notated in pencil on the score first, and are usually only fleshed out afterwards, which is actually similar in a lot of ways to the process of orchestrating from a piano sketch of a piece. One of the things that is tricky about working this way, though, is that it usually means I have to create a new computer instrument for each piece, based on the specific sounds and processes imagined for that piece. Some of these computer instruments use live processing to manipulate the sounds produced by the acoustic instrument, other times they use algorithmic techniques that help determine the musical material given to the acoustic instruments in the first place. 
 
"The last piece on the album, which is the title track, is the newest work on the album and a bit of a combination of both approaches. The piece is a chamber concerto for Mari Kimura who is a brilliant composer, violinist, and inventor. In this piece we’ll be using a sensor that she actually invented, MUGIC, which she wears on her hand as she performs on violin, and which essentially allows her hand motions to control and shape electronics through a wireless communication protocol with the computer. Among the many amazing things about her MUGIC device is that it allows for intuitive, physical gestures to control parameters of electronic sounds in a much more performative way. Doing so makes the electronics feel much more risky, more personal to the performer, and I think the audience perceives and appreciates that. It makes the whole musical experience more intense for everyone involved, which aligns well with the psycho-physicality that my music is all about."
 
Where can people find your album when it comes out?
 
"It’s being released by Arpaviva Records and will be available on all the major streaming sites in addition to their own website arpaviva.org. There may be some limited pressing of physical albums, too, if my memory serves me correctly. I’m extremely grateful to Arpaviva for the work they’ve put into making this album happen, and to the Ditson Fund of Columbia University whose generous support of this project really made this album possible. And of course, I am deeply, deeply grateful to the incredible musicians on this album who I have the great fortune to work with and to call my friends."
 
Is there anything else that you’d like to say?
 
"Thanks so much for interviewing me about my work! You know, I am really grateful for my time there at UC Santa Barbara—the rare opportunity to study both traditional and modern techniques under the mentorship of such incredible faculty was absolutely fundamental to all the work I’ve done since. Professors Emeriti  Joel Feigin and Clarence Barlow, in particular, profoundly impacted my craft and work, and I am so thankful to have them now as colleagues and friends. I also was fortunate to teach a lot during my time at UCSB—from composition and aural skills and theory to composing for videogames and computer music, to working with jazz and orchestral and chamber ensembles—and across the board, the students I had the opportunity to work with there were just the best. I still hear from them from time to time with updates on what they are up to, and it totally makes my day. I love seeing the wide range of paths they are on now, and hearing how music found its way into their lives after college. Finally, I want to give a shoutout to the incredible cohort of graduate composers and performers I was with while at UCSB. Maybe everyone feels this way about their cohort, but I really do think I hit the jackpot with the colleagues I overlapped with while at UC. So many of them remain close friends who inspire me as people and as artists, and I am very thankful for them—especially this past crazy year."