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A Conversation 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.

C. Bryan Rulon

© C. Bryan Rulon

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.