Ronald Kuivila

Ronald Kuivila, University Professor of Music at Wesleyan, composes music and designs sound installations that revolve around the unusual homemade and home modified electronic instruments he designs. He pioneered the use of ultrasound (In Appreciation) and sound sampling (Alphabet) in live performance. Other pieces have explored compositional algorithms (Loose Canons), speech synthesis (The Linear Predictive Zoo), and high voltage phenomena (Pythagorean Puppet Theatre). Kuivila has performed and exhibited installations throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Expanded biography from the Institute for Unstable Media:

Kuivila, Ronald J. (b. Boston, MA, 19 Dec 1955). Composer/sound-artist. While his interest in music began with piano lessons at the age of six, his first introduction to experimental and electronic music (the record Indeterminacy) was in an eighth grade music appreciation class. This interest developed through attending concerts at SUNY at Albany organized by Joel Chadabe. Kuivila attended Wesleyan University (BA 1977, magna cum laude, music and mathematics) where he studied composition with Alvin Lucier and Richard Winslow, piano with Peter Armstrong and Jon Barlow, and shakuhachi with Yoshikazu Iwamoto. He also attended classes given by John Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Lejaren Hiller at “June in Buffalo” in 1975. His interest in live electronics developed during this time through those studies and interaction with fellow students Nicolas Collins and Marc Grafe. Subsequently, he attended Mills College (MFA, 1979) where he studied with Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Paul DeMarinis, Ron Nagle, and “Blue” Gene Tyranny and was classmates with Rich Gold, Frankie Mann, and Joel Ryan.

Kuivila’s sensibility as a composer has been shaped by the dual influences of Cage’s antipathy to recording as ‘artificial music’ and Walter Benjamin’s belief that the processes of technical reproduction have the potential to shape perception in a liberatory way. Recognizing his own relation to music as having been fundamentally shaped by recording, he set out to compose pieces that derive their structure from technical processes or that use technical processes to directly shape the sounding music. His first acknowledged composition, “The essential conservatism of feedback” (1974), for chorus, sought to create an audible self-correcting process or ‘servo mechanism’.

During an artist in residency at ZBS Media in 1976, the assistance of Bob Bielecki enabled him to begin working with motion-sensing fields (based on ultrasonic burglar alarms). This led him to compose pieces that can be presented both as concert works and as ‘sound installations’. A cycle of concert/installation works based on ultrasound were composed from 1978 to 1984 including “Comparing Habits”, “Flame”, “Sailing Ship/Flying Machine”, and “Untitled”. An invitation from David Tudor provided the first professional presentation of this work in two Studio events with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in January 1978.

Throughout the 80’s, Kuivila composed performance pieces based on high voltage phenomena (Paralel Lines, Radial Arcs, Spark Harp), speech synthesis (The Linear Predictive Zoo), and compositional algorithms (Loose Canons). Kuivila’s recorded works from this period seem for the most part to be records of extremely complex improvisations utilizing a complex musical rhetoric. His work is syncretic both in terms of stylistic vocabulary and instrumentation, and impressive in its utilization of complex technology. Yet Kuivila’s is generally accessible, his structures and syntax so idiosyncratic also be immediately recognizable.

Much of his work in the 1990s has taken the form of site-specific interactive multi-media installations. For Il Giardino de Babele (1990), a video camera was suspended over a set of separated tiles. Walking over each tile would trigger a musical note. A “virtual performer” was designed to accompany visitors’ actions, reacting according to the number of visitors as well as to what it judged to be the “musicality” of their interaction. In ShadowPlay (1996), participants used their shadows to interact with musical processes. Four light sources illuminated blank panels. When the light sources were interrupted, throwing shadows on the panels, a voice in an ongoing algorithmic composition was changed.

He has also pursued the use of digital signal processing to duplicate and recall the processes of analog “live electronics”. For example, fugue states (for David Tudor) is a 50 minute work based on a fixed set of 32 tunings for a processing structure designed by Gordon Mumma. Performance of the composition involves freely “morphing” between these tunings using a specially designed interface consisting of a graphics tablet and keyboard.