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

Ian Rosenbaum

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.

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!