- Collaborative Resonances and Obstinate Interfaces:An Interview with Butch Rovan
Joseph Butch Rovan (see Figure 1) is the faculty director of the Brown Arts Initiative. A media artist and performer on the faculty of the Department of Music at Brown University, he also codirects the MEME (Multimedia and Electronic Music Experiments) program in computer music. From 2013 to 2016 he served as chair of the Music Department. Prior to joining Brown he directed the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia (CEMI) at the University of North Texas and was compositeur en recherche with the Real-Time Systems Team at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. Rovan worked at Opcode Systems prior to that, serving as product manager for Max, OMS, and MIDI hardware. He received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, where his teachers included Richard Felciano, Jorge Liderman, Olly Wison, and David Wessel.
Rovan’s compositional output is far-reaching, spanning works for custom controllers, old technology, theatrical sound design, and music for instrumentalists as well as for dance and video (see Table 1). He has received several prizes from the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition, as well as first prize in the Berlin Transmediale International Media Arts Festival. His work has been performed throughout Europe and the USA. His interactive installation Let us Imagine a Straight Line was featured in the WRO International Media Art Biennale, Poland, and most recently his work Of the Survival of Images, for custom GLOBE controller, video, and sound, was included on the Computer Music Journal Sound and Video Anthology DVD. His music appears on the Wergo, EMF, Circumvention, and SEAMUS labels.
Rovan’s research includes new sensor hardware design and wireless microcontroller systems. His research into gestural control and interactivity has been featured in a variety of publications, including IRCAM’s journal Resonance, Electronic Musician, Computer Music Journal, the Japanese magazine SoundArts, the CD-ROM Trends in Gestural Control of Music (IRCAM 2000), and the book Mapping Landscapes for Performance as Research: Scholarly Acts and Creative Cartographies (Riley and Hunter 2009). This interview took place over e-mail in February 2016.
Where did you grow up, and how did you first get involved with music?
I grew up in rural southern California, outside Corona, at the edge of the desert. It was a great place to grow up—lots of room to experiment, to build things, to tear things down, and to experiment with all sorts of dangerous techniques that would later prove valuable. I had a small lab in the garage that I used for experiments, and my earliest interests in media were perhaps fueled by my desire to be a special effects technician for the movies. So I experimented with making films, doing special effects with explosives, all sorts of things that made my mother nervous.
I became involved with music as a clarinet player. Apparently I told my third-grade teacher that I really wanted to play the clarinet. I’m not sure where I even heard about a clarinet, but I think I might have seen it on TV. My mother played drums in high school, and so she was very supportive of my interest in music. I became a very serious clarinet player, and participated in solo competitions, Southern California Honor Band, etc.
In junior high school I learned saxophone so I could be in the jazz band, and then in high school I learned guitar while I was in the hospital recovering from a serious motorcycle accident. It was a little hard to play clarinet or saxophone lying in bed. [End Page 10]
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What first brought you to music composition?
I fell in love with composition in high school, by arranging and composing for the jazz band. It was an amazing opportunity to have an entire jazz band ready to play whatever you wrote. And the players were great, because my high school had a very serious and well-known jazz program. I learned all of my music theory from a book that was...