An Interview with C. Bryan Rulon

C. Bryan Rulon, a native of Arcadia, Indiana, studied composition at the renowned School of Music of Indiana University, and moved to New York City in 1981, where he was active as a performer with his ensemble First Avenue. He studied at Princeton University in the nineties, where he received his PhD (ABD) in 1995. He presently lives in Arcadia once more, having left New York for health reasons in 2006. We talked via Skype on March 9, 2011.

[Note: C. Bryan Rulon passed away at his home in Indiana on April 13, 2015]

TM: Please talk about your earliest musical memories. Was there music in your family? How did you get started in music?

CBR: My grandmother played piano — local stuff, for the church — early 20s sheet music. I have very vivid memories of sitting in a scratchy old overstuffed chair in her living room while she played songs from the twenties and thirties. It would get darker and darker, and she would keep playing until she couldn’t see anymore — we hadn’t turned any lights on. The rest of the family wasn’t particularly musical.

Very early on I had a piano teacher who lived in the neighborhood. She was young and very far-sighted — this was before she went off to college. She got me off to a good start in terms of thinking unconventionally.

TM: To rewind a bit, where were you born and raised?

CBR: Near Arcadia, Indiana, which is a rural area, with lots of family farms. Central Indiana, north of Indianapolis about fifty or sixty miles.

TM: Was your family from that area? Had they moved there?

CBR: They had been here for a hundred years or so.

TM: …which goes back to the time that the area was settled?

CBR: Yes, pretty early on. In the safe here at home I have the original land deed signed by Zachary Taylor.

TM: From the 1850s, I guess.

Your parents were not particularly involved in music, then.

CBR: No. They were very good about taking me to piano lessons, and dropping me off at concerts by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, but they weren’t musical themselves.

TM: How did they happen to have a piano in the house? Was it simply because it was something that middle-class houses had to have?

CBR: We had borrowed one. They were looking for things for their kids to be interested in, and I took to it very early on, when I was four or so. Then they bought a piano when I was five, which I still have, and have had it for over fifty years. I carried it all over the country, and here it is, still.

TM: Were there other artistic activities in the family?

CBR: My mother is a painter, and a pretty good painter. Not so modern — old barns, owls and cats, and things like that. She is very good, and quite imaginative. It was a pretty normal farming community — normal in the sense that nobody did a whole lot outside the norm.

TM: You mentioned your early piano teacher — she must have grown up there as well.

CBR: She was my teacher for the first two years that I took piano, and went on to study at Butler and beyond. Her name was Penny Caccina.

TM: Paint for me, if you would, the musical activities of a farm town in Indiana in the early 1960s.

CBR: The school band was really the only thing going on.

TM: Was there church music that you were exposed to?

CBR: Yes, church hymns, though I think that did not make a lasting impression. My important influences were my piano teachers, who recognized that I had an ear, and pointed me toward more unconventional repertoire, modern stuff, though not avant-garde by any means.

TM: Debussy?

CBR: Oh, De Falla, Khachaturian…

TM: All that Soviet stuff…..

CBR: Of course I wanted to be popular — who doesn’t? so everyone once in a while I would have the theme song from whatever the popular movie was — the theme from Love Story — things like that.

TM: Were you involved in the band?

CBR: Oh, yes — I played the trombone.

TM: When did you pick that up?

CBR: Fifth grade — I don’t have any memory of why. They probably just needed one.

TM: It’s an interesting instrument. Somehow it is completely separate from the world of concert music. If you play clarinet, you can play the Mozart quintet. If you play the flute, you can play Ravel or Debussy, but if you play the trombone? What can you do?

CBR: Oh, yes. And the etude books were just the most pablum-y stuff. Not good.

In high school I worked with a brass quintet, so we had some cool stuff, and I wrote a couple of things for them. We had a good band director one year who brought in some less than standard rep.

TM: One of the basic advantages of the trombone is that it is one of the loudest of instruments, so if you are an aggressive young male, it’s attractive for that reason.

CBR: I had mentors who were pretty raucous individuals, so I guess that’s true.

TM: In talking with our friend David Sanford — he was a trombonist, and for him band music was about being louder and wilder than anything else.

CBR: The classic example of that is “The Stripper”, with those luscious, juicy glisses….

TM: Were you involved in jazz band or concert band?

CBR: Just marching and concert — there was no jazz going on. I had friends who were interested in rock — the Doors, the Beatles, but I was really kind of a snob, so I didn’t listen to much jazz or rock music.

TM: You were listening to Khachaturian and that sort of middle-of-the-road contemporary music.

CBR: It really wasn’t contemporary — it was all early twentieth-century. I didn’t know anything about really modern music until I went to college. By that time it was fresh.

TM: Where did you decide to go to college, and why?

CBR: Indiana University — a big music school, and still is, very respectable for being in the middle of Indiana.

TM: One of the best in the country, as a matter of fact.

CBR: Yes, it really is. It was a fantastic experience. There were a lot of new people, and a lot of old-school people with incredible experience.

TM: What was the cultural shock like when you moved from Arcadia to Bloomington?

CBR: It was like coming home — similar to the experience that I had when I moved to New York. I was always ready for new experiences — it wasn’t frightening or intimidating.

TM: Like going to the place that you hadn’t known was home before.

CBR: I soaked it up. I had a good transition. There were a lot of my friends from high school who also went there, so it wasn’t like everybody was new. But it was like a drug, being around so many people with so many different backgrounds. This was the early seventies, so there was a certain something in the air, a cultural rebelliousness, that also made it very exciting.

TM: The hangover from the nineteen-sixties.

CBR: Everything is always five to ten years late here in Indiana, so we were just then going through our own little cultural revolution. It’s interesting, and this is something that is reflected in my more mature music, that I liked balancing convention and non-convention/chaos.

TM: Had you already been composing in Arcadia?

CBR: I had done some, but I threw it all away. It was silly, had no craft, the sort of thing that you would expect from someone who didn’t know any better. It’s something that you’ve got to go through, but not something that you want to keep around.

TM: What was the musical environment like at Indiana in the early seventies? Were you starting to study composition at that point?

CBR: I studied with Bernhard Heiden, a really good teacher for just plain solid technique. He had studied with Hindemith. My experiences with him, even though they could be painful, because he was old-school brutal about telling you when he didn’t like something, often were what I bounced my own ideas off, to say, OK, how much of this is simply convention, how much is fulfilling convention for a good reason, how much should I really consider violating for a good reason. There was also Fred Fox, a very interesting composer at IU — he was a little more adventurous. I could be more adventurous, and he would still be following what I was trying to get at, with some good commentary and criticism. John Eaton was also at IU at that time, and was doing a lot of live electronics, with the old analog synthesizers, so there were people I worked with who had been working with John. That made a big difference in my life — having the attitude toward electronic music that it was not so much something that you do by yourself in a studio and then bring to the concert hall, or bring to performers to play with, but that it actually had live interactions in an ensemble sense. I still have an old Moog synthesizer that I got in 1974 that I have used ever since. I also had a great piano teacher in the person of Bronja Foster. She was an arch-romantic, but a great teacher and human.

TM: Was there music that you were first exposed to at IU that you had not heard, things that you were excited about, that you wanted to emulate?

CBR: Synthesizers — just the instruments themselves. They were making sounds that I had heard in my head all my life. There were a couple of master classes/seminars where people were talking about Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the minimalists.

TM: That was very early.

CBR: It was incredibly exciting — I just couldn’t get enough. I would go home and listen to those recordings over and over, which is kind of minimalist just in itself. There were a lot of performances there. IU is a huge performing school, so I was surrounded, as I had never been before, by performers, and concerts all the time. They did the Berio Sinfonia while I was there — hearing that live is an incredible experience. They were doing a lot of contemporary music in the ensembles and in the orchestras — there were five orchestras. I wasn’t used to live performance, outside of the band, at home in Arcadia.

TM: Was there a point at which there was an opus 1, a piece that marked your debut as a composer, rather than as a student?

CBR: That’s a good question. For my masters’ thesis, right before I left, I did a large multi-media piece called Ritual for the Industrial Tribes. That was about as far as I could take my conventional training. Moving to New York gave me a quantum boost in what I expected from myself compositionally. Some of my student works were very good, and some was not so good, but I was experimenting with a lot of new vocabularies.

There were people improvising. That was something that I had never thought about doing — just going on stage and playing without music.

TM: Where did that come from? Who brought that to town?

CBR: There was a woman named Judith Martin, who I believe is in New York, going by the name of Judith Sainte Croix now, who was doing a lot of live electronic performance and improvising. Then I was leading that bunch for a long time. It was called the Electronic Music Ensemble. It wasn’t exclusively electronic, but it was an alternative for your ensemble requirements at school, for people who didn’t want to be in band, orchestra, or chorus, and had some kind of chops. It was in a dark corner of the Musical Arts Center, which is the big opera house in Bloomington — so it always felt a little subversive. There was also Paul Sturm who worked with me a lot, and was very influential in so many ways.

TM: The question is: what style do you improvise in? in jazz, you can play inside or outside; in church, you can improvise in the style of Messiaen; but in a classical concert, what style do you choose?

CBR: If you think about some of the modernists that we were listening to — Berio, Babbitt, Boulez, Stockhausen — and the composers there that were modernists — Donald Erb, Fred Fox, John Eaton — I guess you could say it was improvising about classical, contemporary, modernist music. With synthesizers and percussion, you could make big, noisy orchestral-sounding pieces that could sound like some section of a piece by Stockhausen. And the whole idea by Cage about sound objects — you didn’t have to have melodies or chords, you were dealing with sound objects in time. That had been percolating around long enough to be the basis for improvisation.

TM: What came after Indiana?

CBR: I moved to New York with a friend, and we free-lanced. His name was Layman Foster — a very interesting painter. He wanted to go someplace where there was an artistic community without academia. We decided that New York was one of the few places in the United States and the world where you could find that particular setup. I freelanced as a music copyist and doing various other jobs.

TM: When did you arrive in New York?

CBR: 1981.

TM: This was when you had the division between “uptown” and “downtown”. What was appealing to you thirty years ago?

CBR: I was living on First Avenue at 12th Street, which was the heart of the East Village. There was a very vital gallery scene that was developing there. The downtowners, around the Kitchen, were establishing a voice. I was involved in a some of that, but I wasn’t a jazzer. You would meet people, go to a concert, think “they’re doing interesting stuff, I’ll try that”. My group, First Avenue, was trying to establish itself in that downtown scene. We would have guests at each of our concerts. Elliott Sharp was a guest, Pauline Oliveros was a guest… a lot of downtown sorts, as well as established uptown musicians like Jon Deak and Dan Druckman. We built a network of people we knew and had worked with.

TM: What year did First Avenue get started?

CBR: 1982. Matt [Sullivan] and I met, and we were joined a couple of years later by Bill Kannar. We had a kind of formula for our concerts — we would play some, and we would offer the guest a solo spot, if they wanted to do something, and then we would do a bunch of improvs together. It worked out really well.

TM: The East Village would have been a pretty funky part of town in those days.

CBR: Yeah! When I moved in it was also the beginning of the punk movement. I wasn’t all that worldly, but I wasn’t a hick. All of a sudden you would see these guys with this enormous spiked hair, purple things, all sorts of studs on their clothes and their cheeks, and you would think “Oh my god! What is this?”

TM: The area has been completely gentrified since then — it’s a place and time that simply doesn’t exist any more.

CBR: Just like Soho, which was a place where a lot of artists could get cheap space. The same thing happened to the East Village, then the Lower East Side, then to Williamsburg in Brooklyn — there’s a predictable cycle to how those neighborhoods develop.

TM: “First Avenue” in 2011 connotes something entirely different it would have in 1982.

CBR: The people who have something invested would like you to think that it’s still a very rough area, but it ain’t — really — at all.

TM: When were your first CDs with First Avenue?

CBR: We did one called Two Suns. We had met this really odd character, named Mieczyslaw Litwinsky. A singer, multi-instrumentalist. He was very popular in the New Age scene — he did yodeling, throat-singing — an odd combination of stuff. He was very musical, and a very interesting character. It was released on Newport Classics, which decided to put out a New-Age CD. There was some New Agey music, but also some very craggy First Avenue stuff.

TM: Is that still available?

CBR: I don’t think it’s still available. You really know you’ve made it when you are in a remainders bin at K-mart. [Note: available through Amazon, ITunes and other vendors.]

TM: “Lost Mozart manuscript comes to light!”

When did you decide to go to graduate school at Princeton?

CBR: 1991. I didn’t know that they paid you to go to graduate school, or I might have gone earlier.

TM: It’s a great scam, isn’t it?

CBR: Who knew? I was always suspicious about that. “What’s the catch here?”

I had been doing some copying work for Steve Mackey, and he said “You ought to check out the scene down here”, and then I found out that they paid you to go. It would be like a sabbatical from New York for a few years. It worked out really well. Well, not to sound too mercenary, I was interested in meeting other composers, musicians, etc. I also had a notion for a while to go into teaching in academia.

TM: Please talk about what you did at Princeton, and who you were doing it with. You were continuing to work with First Avenue

CBR: I see that David [Sanford] said that he had not been studying composition with anyone, and I felt a little the same way. It wasn’t so much studying composition, as taking advantage of the whole environment, and the resources of the place, and also contributing back. It was an ideal situation that way, where you were basically hanging around, and talking to very interesting people, doing interesting things, and hopefully you have interesting things to contribute.

TM: Is there a particular piece of music or recording that you would highlight from that period?

CBR: I did a piece right before I went down there, called Res Facta, for the New York New Music Ensemble, a big, messy electroacoustic piece, with live electronics and acoustic instruments, that was a pivotal point, compositionally. When I got to Princeton, I was following some of those impulses. There was one section in that piece where it became very pretty and tonal. I had a nice conversation with Steve about this. I found myself always looking forward to that spot, and enjoying being in that spot, and Steve said “Why don’t you just write a whole piece like that?” “Oh yeah….I guess I could do that……” We are far enough into post-modernism now that you can do that. Some of the pieces I wrote in Princeton were exploring that. It’s almost a description of a lot of Paul Lansky’s music.

TM: …I was just going to say that.

CBR: Maybe it was something that was in the air, and just by osmosis and conversation, ideas rub off. It was like getting permission to do something.

TM: It’s amazing how quickly things changed. I recall going to a concert at Princeton at that time, with a string quartet by David Diamond, who attended, if I am not mistaken. Afterwards I spoke with Milton Babbitt, and asked him what he thought. He didn’t have much to say –it was not his cup of tea. Presumably it was too palatable. But at the same time, or shortly thereafter, you have Lansky doing these things with very approachable, you might even say beautiful, harmonies.

CBR: There were three summers in the eighties where the New York Philharmonic did “New Romanticism” festivals, with a lot of pieces that would have been shot down by the craggy modernists, that got incredible performances. I remember going to the performances, and the incredible variety of very interesting pieces, some of them very tonal, in incredible performances at Avery Fisher Hall by the New York Philharmonic. For me, that was when I began to think that the dodecaphonic vocabulary was not an end-all. There are a lot of emotional states that you just can’t get out of atonal music. I can’t think of anything atonal that sounded tender, or elated, to give two examples. I know that’s really subjective, but I knew these were things that I could get from a tonal vocabulary, and that I could not get from an atonal vocabulary. Hearing the “New Romanticism”, and being down at Princeton with Steve and Paul, reinforced the idea that you could be both contemporary and yet not reactionary. The modernist fear is that if you go back to tonality you are just being reactionary.

TM: Perhaps the one strand of American music-making that was never important at Princeton has been jazz. You might wonder why.

CBR: The distinction between jazz finally got and where contemporary music finally got — there wasn’t a big dividing line. By the time they got so similar, whether something was jazz or not was not so relevant anymore. Traditional jazz, yes…Branker was working with the undergrads, but I don’t think it was ever seriously pursued.

Mackey always had the rock background, and there were grad students that had one foot in rock — Matt Wuolle, Michael Oesterle — Michael had some major rock and roll chops on the guitar. David Claman had some rock and roll background — I am sure there were others.

TM: And after Princeton?

CBR: I moved back to New York. First Avenue was an important part of that. I won a Fromm and an NEA, and the next year I won a Guggenheim — some major awards that made me think, well, maybe I don’t have to get an academic job.

TM: Please talk about a couple of those pieces, if you would.

CBR: I started working with the New Millennium Ensemble — Tara O’Connor, flute, and Peggy Kampmeier, piano — I was close to all of them. I started writing pieces for them. I wrote a piece called I am Yolanda Vega based on a Jean Baudrillard text, that was very popular and very funky — they sang and talked and shouted and played their instruments — sort of a three-ring circus. The text was about post-modernism.

Later on I did a piece called MessMixExpress, which was for pre-recorded sound and the ensemble. That was pretty popular and got a lot of play — people enjoyed hearing it and musicians enjoyed playing.

I did an opera [Still Life with Daniel] based on a Freud case history, about someone who thought God was turning him into a woman in order to procreate a new race of Germans. Very Germanic! An interesting case — the hallucinations that he had I thought were evocative.

TM: Somehow madness is always a good subject for opera.

CBR: The trick with doing something like that is to not make it mad itself — to be standing outside the madness, commenting on it. It’s like poking a hole in the fourth wall in the theater. I like to let the ensemble disintegrate into chaos, because it makes everyone a little upset and a little uncomfortable, and then you pull it back to a more familiar discourse. If the whole thing were like that ,chaotic, people would just dismiss it as ranting, but if it’s only every once in a while you get a moment when, oh, things are little out of control.

TM: The layperson’s notion must be that anyone who sings opera is crazy from the get-go…

CBR: I’m sure that’s true. In reality, I think that dancers are much crazier, and have much more of a tendency in that direction by the very nature of what they do. They spend twelve hours a day jumping up and down in front of a mirror — if that doesn’t create insanity, I don’t know what does.

TM: Have you written any dance music, by any chance?

CBR: I worked in the early eighties with Bill T. Jones. I thought at the time “this guy has got something extraordinary”, and he has gone on to do extraordinary things, and I am proud to have been able to have worked with him then. I decided, though, that I didn’t like sharing the stage with other people — they were distracting. I wanted people just to concentrate on the music.

TM: Ballet has this tendency to use pre-recorded music, or just counting numbers to get the steps right.

CBR: There’s some really beautiful ballet that I enjoy watching. Modern ballet, like the Dutch National Ballet, or Bill Forsythe, out of Stuttgart. I had friends in the Dutch National Ballet that I worked with off and on. I really like the modern stuff –you can have a wonderful emotional impact with good modern dance. There’s an interesting balance that you have to be able to strike, with the dancers, with the music not becoming simply incidental, receding into the background. As soon as someone throws an arm up, everybody’s attention goes right there. You can have the most wonderful chord progression, or melody, or sound — but if somebody jumps, then it’s “What was that???”.

TM: What are you up to these days? You are back in Indiana.

CBR: It’s a sad tale. In 2006 I had to have open-heart surgery.

TM: Three words we don’t want to hear from our doctor.

CBR: That was a really hard year because of a lot of things. New York — I love it very dearly, but it’s a hard place to live, and I think I was more traumatized by the whole affair than I realized at the time. I just needed to retreat. I came back here, my parents still live out here in the country, so I stayed with them, did stuff for them, since they were getting on. My dad passed away in a year and a half, and before that we took the RV — they had a huge RV that was the size of a bus — hauling a car behind it all the way to Texas, where we spent three months. That was a new experience — driving a bus to Texas! The trucks whoosh by you, and the vacuum between the two vehicles sucks you over. The first three days or so I thought “What have I gotten myself into?”, but it got easier.

So I don’t have any plans. I am being very Zen. I have my rock garden, which is also very Zen…I have a wonderful little garden, and I am not doing anything. I can’t say more than that.

TM: Sounds Cagean.

CBR: It would be. Every once in a while, I think “it would be fun to do In C with the high school band”, but I think that stuff is not valued here, which is probably why I spent most of my life away from here. I went to a high school band concert, and for one thing, it sounded like shit, but also it was basically happening so the parents can appreciate their children on stage. It has nothing to do with esthetic value, or beauty, or art, or anything. I don’t have kids so from that standpoint, I feel very alienated from the arts living here. It’s a choice that I made in coming out here, but once I am here, why would one try to get anything happening when you fear it won’t be appreciated.

TM: You are in the land of rooted non-cosmopolitans.

CBR: Oh boy. That’s why people leave places like this and go to places like New York. If you want to be stimulated, have an appreciative audience, have people that will help you realize these things, then you don’t live out here in the middle of Indiana.

TM: There’s a wonderful novel by the late Thomas Disch, who was from Iowa, and moved to New York City. He describes an artistic type, and his girlfriend, who leave Iowa. This future has a fence around it, which is not to keep people in, but to keep the people outside from coming in.

CBR: I keep quiet. I am practicing standard rep on the piano that I never studied before. The twenty-six years that I was doing improv with First Avenue I did not play written music at all. Now I am actually playing written music. It’s a never-ending process. I am spending a lot of time on that. I am working on the Ives Concord Sonata. People around here could respond to that –there’s enough in there that they can recognize, but at the same time it’s freaky and hallucinogenic.

TM: One of the twentieth-century masterworks.

CBR: Indeed. It really is gorgeous — truly transcendental. And hard as hell to play!

TM: Do you see yourself going back to New York?

CBR: I couldn’t say. I may do some composing here, but it’s a whole scene — the career end of getting something played. I may write some things, but I won’t be writing to get it performed. Maybe I am doing a Charles Ives.