You wouldn’t know from reading his name (nor from the fact that he was born in Breslau, Germany – now Wroclaw, Poland -, in 1943) – and I didn’t know until I checked his entry on Wikipedia for the sake of this review – that Gehlhaar is in an American composer. For the anecdote, his father was a kind of Werner von Braun, a German test pilot, aeronautical engineer and rocket scientist who ended up being recruited by the US Government. The Gehlhaars emigrated in the US in 1953 and Rolf took US citizenship in 1958, studying at Yale and Berkeley.
But a seminal experience for him was when he became the personal assistant and member of the performing ensemble of Stockhausen in Cologne, in 1967, for four years. He became strongly involved in computer music, working at the major research centers in Europe including IRCAM in Paris and the major studios in Germany. In 1985 he designed the first version of a computer-controlled interactive software which he called “Sound-Space”, by which the audience can feedback on the music being played by moving around in a space, the movements being precisely detected by ultrasonic sensors.
I’ve reviewed only one CD of Gehlhaar, Diagonal Flying. Solipse. Polymorph. Rondell. Etcetera KTC 1127 (1992), and it’s essentially the only CD there is of his music. The music is wild, experimental, outlandish and imaginative – based on that recording, I don’t understand why Gehlhaar is so badly represented on disc. He has a website and you can consult the catalog of his works and discography (the latter is not entirely easy to find: it’s counter-intuitive, but you need to click on the tab “Words”). His new works grind to a near stop after 1998, with nothing since 2006. His discography is also very short, and the Etcetera CD is indeed his only complete disc, the rest are tracks on compilation CDs. Gehlhaar is currently Professor of Design and Visual Arts at the Coventry School of Art and Design in the UK, his “subject expertise” being sound/music, design, sensor electronics, interactive multi-media.
So here is a case of a composer who obviously didn’t make it to the public prominence his compositions would have deserved. Why? Too experimental and wild, maybe.