Curtis Rumrill (b. 1980) is a composer of, as Baskerville put it, "strange objects covered with fur which break your heart." (editor’s note: he hopes). He is a short story writer stuck in a composer’s britches, churning out musical fables in the tradition, maybe, of Calvino. The bulk of his output is the outgrowth of his collaboration with writer Webberly Ebberly Finnich, and is made up of chamber works telling the stories of animals in desperate or violent situations (in Rover a giant dog rolls over on peasent villages; in Sex Poem for Lightbulb for Beetle an insect bashes herself against a lamp, presumably to death; and in The Long Hibernation a young animal confronts her own death during a long winter.
The other focus of his musical work has been collaborative compositions with musical botanist Juna Winston. Winston and Rumrill’s duo, The Tripdych, is mid way through the composition of a concert-length work for performer and tape, the first two movements of which have been performed in various European locales, as well as in the United States. Rumrill’s music has been performed in the United States, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Italy, Austria and Germany, by performers including Ensemble Dal Niente, Tony Arnold, Thomas Rosenkranz, Ayun Huang, Alia Musica, and Juna Winston. Upcoming premiers and performances include a performance by guitarist Jordan Dodson, and a new concert-length work for Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, to be premiered in Fall 2016, and subsequently toured and given a studio recording.
In addition to his work as composer, Rumrill is an active member of the New Music community, both at home in Pittsburgh, and internationally. He is the co-founder, along with Andres Carrizo of the MusicArte Festival in Panama, a bi-annual New Music festival that has established itself in the last four years as one of the premiere New Music Festivals of Latin America, drawing talented artists from the Latin American diaspora and from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, etc. including composers Mario LaVista, Carlos Sanchez Gutierrez and Valentin Pelisch, and performers Ensemble Dal Niente, Graciela Núñez, Grupo Paisaxe The soundSCAPE Trio and others. Rumrill is also the Chair of the Board of Alia Musica Pittsburgh, a New Music ensemble and presenting organization. During his tenure on the board the organization has produced two New Music festivals. It has also presented multiple solo recitals by the inimitable Frederic Rzewski (including the now legendary, New York Times 10 Best Classical Events of 2015 performance of The People United at Wholly’s Fish Market). The ensemble has performed nationally and internationally, kept a regular season of concerts, recitals, and presentations of touring musicians, and in 2015/16 hosted Ken Ueno for an extended residency including the Pittsburgh premiere of On a Sufficient Condition (concerto for overtone singer and orchestra), and the commisioning and premiering of a new work, Sawdust on Ararat for flute, oboe, clarinet, 2 cellos, and 2 percussionists. Rumrill also maintains longstanding ties to the soundSCAPE Festival in part through the continual design and maintenance of the website for the festival.
Aside from his work in New Music, Curtis is a committed activist for social justice. He had been tangentally involved in protest movements since he was young. His mother dragged him to protests against an incinerator being built in their community at age 6, which lead him both to write his first song, and to start his elementary school’s first recycling program (back before schools even recycled paper). However, his life took a turn in 2000, when he was arrested in a van on its way to the protests against the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. It turned out that the van was being driven by an undercover police officer. After 16 days in jail he was released along with over 400 other protestors, many of whom were illegally arrested simply to keep the protests off the streets during the convention. Five years, and innumerable court dates later he was acquitted of all eleven trumped up charges. The experience of seeing first hand the class and racial disparities of incarceration (albiet in a largely voyeuristic way) set his life on a different course. He returned home and began organzing more seriously. This work, a constant over the last decade and a half, has taken many forms. He has worked to end the abuses of sweatshops in the overseas production of apparel. He was an advocate on behalf of himself and others who were arrested at the RNC in 2000. He worked with residents of the Southside community in Syracuse to confront the County’s racially biased plans to demolish homes to build a sewage treatement facility. He worked with public housing residents in New Orleans after Katrina, when the city put barbed wire fencing around all of the public housing in the city even though it was hardly damaged, and used the storm as an excuse to demolish public housing, lighten the city’s complexion, and execute a wholesale land-grab/gift to developers. As a Union Organizer he has worked with healthcare workers to form unions, and to confront their employers over long-standing abuses and dangerous conditions for patients. Eventually he became the Western PA Staff Representative for for this Union, representing over 900 healthcare workers, bargaining contracts and leading strikes.
As to the role of the musical arts in the work for social justice, for him this remains an outstanding question, and is possibly even the question at the heart of his work, though he has found so far that the answer cannot be approached directly, as good art (which is, of course, that to which he aspires) follows the path of truth, not politics.