Consider this: Christopher Rouse does not compose every day; he starts every piece in full score, on measure one; he doesn’t use a piano much, because he can hardly play; he finds the entire process of composition miserable from start to finish and perennially aspires to artistic levels he believes he cannot attain; he only hears the bad things when his pieces get performed, and he is waiting for the day when people wake up and realize he’s no good.

Rouse is, as in his music, unafraid to air his honest thoughts. He can appear neurotic and contradictory one moment, pragmatic and confident the next. He was so thoroughly interesting, I couldn’t resist trying to switch him before interview’s end to my own favorite topics: music and education. But we still had music to discuss.

Rouse has two upcoming world premieres: a Requiem (commissioned by Soli Deo Gloria, Inc.) and Wolf Rounds (commissioned by the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music). The former takes place March 25th at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, the latter at Carnegie Hall on March 29th.

Rouse has been thinking about a Requiem for a while and all along the idea of interspersing the Latin liturgical text with secular poetry has inspired him. In his new work, he uses the secular texts to tell the story of a man’s encounters with death: a Seamus Heaney poem describes death from the perspective of the man as a ten year-old boy; a poem by Michelangelo mourns the death of the man’s father; a Siegfried Sassoon poem relates the suicide of a comrade in the trenches of World War I. These poems – and others – are sung by a solo baritone; the Latin is reserved for the chorus. Musically, Rouse organizes the work into an instrumental palindrome, building up from the opening unaccompanied baritone solo to the tutti “Tuba mirum,” and closing again with the solo baritone.

In Wolf Rounds Rouse gets the chance to rock out. The 17-minute work for symphonic band attempts to capture the rhythmic vitality and virtuosic energy of Rouse’s favorite rock music – most notably Led Zeppelin. Over a driving beat, instruments take up variations of the same melodic line; the close, quasi-canonic counterpoint calls to mind the circling of wolves around their prey. There are even some flutter-tongue trombone growls: mimesis, but also a nod to John Corigliano’s Symphony No.3 – another work for symphonic band.

Near the end of the interview, Rouse told me he was worried about his stage bow at Disney Hall. It takes 90 seconds to reach the stage from the balcony, and it was possible the applause might not last that long. The performers have assured him they will stretch the applause in the unlikely event such measures are necessary.

P.S. He’s also on MySpace.

21 Responses to “How Christopher Rouse Does His Thing”
  1. I’d be nice if you gave us the direct link to his myspace page instead of forcing us to go search for it… and we all know how god-awful myspace search is! Thanks!

  2. David Salvage says:

    Whoops. Duh. Done.

  3. David, did you hear a tape of Wolf Rounds?

  4. David Salvage says:

    No.

  5. Andrew says:

    I think that Rouse’s early music is much better than his later efforts. Something happened to him, as a composer, as he got older, and I have never been able to figure out what it is.

    His Symphony No.1 and his Trombone Concerto, both early works, are vital and energetic and interesting and display very well-argued material, expertly manipulated. My attention never wains.

    In his Symphony No. 2 and in his Cello Concerto and in his Flute Concerto and in his work for guitar and orchestra, I find my mind wandering whenever I listen to these pieces, and I can only remain attentive by identifying, one by one, the many influences of numerous other composers, which seem to change every thirty bars or so in those latter compositions.

    Frankly, I have almost lost interest in Rouse as a composer. That said, I wish I could hear the new Rouse Requiem at its premiere. Perhaps Rouse has emerged from a bad period (which happens).

  6. Andrew says:

    “Wanes”, not “wains”.

    Good grief! Was John Constable on my mind?

  7. Jeff Dunn says:

    Rouse’s later music is harder to get a hold of. I myself have not heard his recent ballet, the Neville Feast or the Oboe Concerto. However, that his powers are not waning is demonstrated by the tremendous success his piece “Rapture” enjoyed nationwide.

    Personally, until I hear the Requiem this weekend, my favorite fairly recent work of his is the Kabil Padavali, insufficiently exploited by Dawn Upshaw, who became ill after the premiere performance. Valdene Anderson, mavelous as she is, just doesn’t have Dawn’s draw to make this masterpiece better known. I’ve heard her do it in three venues.

  8. Lisa says:

    Never heard a note by this guy before but I listened on myspace. I dislike lots of things but usually I understand that (and sometimes why) other people do like it. But this… I can’t imagine anyone on earth enjoying this music – even the Yanni crowd. Anyone out there really dig it? Please let me know why. (Especially the stuff on myspace so I can know what you are talking about.)

  9. Eric says:

    Rapture is waaaay to cheesy for my tastes…

  10. Jeff Dunn says:

    Here’s what I wrote about his most notorious piece, the opposite of the flute concerto that reminded Lisa of Yanni. You can hear it on Amazon if you do a search on Rouse Gorgon.

    “”Gorgon” is an astounding creation, one of the loudest pieces ever written, adding 75 percussion instruments to the full orchestra. Its frightening relentlessness will test the capacity of the best stereo system. Rouse does you blotto with the ostinato. Not for the squeamish; but for those who can take it, it may well prove to be the most exciting investment of a lifetime.”

  11. I found Gorgon to be overblown without reason; a UE guy gave me the score cuz I was curious at a conference. It just seems loud for no reason like that LedZep drumming piece – Bonham? Nothing like his early music which seemed to have a pacing and inevitably that suggested real musical thought and not just belligerence.

  12. There’s no recording of the new “Oboe Concerto” at present since it hasn’t been performed. It’s tied up on some strange issues/negotiations with the Minnesota Orchestra who commissioned it a few years ago. Who knows if it will see the light of day anytime soon.

  13. Kyle Gann says:

    I’m with you, Lisa.

  14. Samuel Vriezen says:

    “and he is waiting for the day when people wake up and realize he’s no good”

    No problem! This was what happened to me the second after the ending of the trombone concerto here at the Concertgebouw some years back, Slatkin conducting. I went to that concert to hear Ives 4. Slatkin had been saying about that piece in the papers that it wasn’t really well-crafted but of course still very important, blah blah. So the Rouse, I suppose, was to present what REALLY good, well-written and original American music sounds like. To me, it was intolerably turgid if not downright ugly. It seemed as if the composer was more interested in the idea of the piece (which was the concept of a very emotional and profound trombone concerto) than with the sound and the flow of the piece (which is something other than its “argument”!). Stodgy and pointless. But then, there’s a lot of new music out there that I feel is mostly there to further ooze the aura of classical profundity, there’s a market for that kind of stuff, so perhaps I’m the one missing out.

  15. zeno says:

    I’m more with Andrew and the two Jeffs above in their mixed, though at least mildly positive, response to some of Mr Rouse’s neo-expressionist and neo-romantic music. I am against Lisa and Kyle in their dismissal of him.

    Some of Mr Rouse’s less heavily pop influenced music (yes, the symphonies and the Trombone Concerto, and perhaps the more problemmatic Rapture) has strongly interested me (as I am interested in, say, German neo-romantic/expressionist symphonic and music theater composer Manfred Trojan, whose “Four Sea Pictures” I heard the NY Phil perform, and whom I have met in Berlin), and I’d like to find time perhaps to relisten to Mr Rouse, and reevaluate his works.

    I am interested in Mr Rouse’s Requiem (as I was interested in Andrew Imbrie’s poignent, though to me, problemmatic, Requiem, with orchestra, almost a generation ago). I am also interested in rehearing Harbison’s Requiem and, finally, hearing his Four Psalm Settings.

    I would, in fact, be interested if the MET Opera, or another major American opera company, commissioned an opera from Mr Rouse and a colleague; but perhaps opera writing is not considered a worthwhile pursuit by many American tenured composers. I’d be interested because I think that Mr Rouse might choose a topic from America’s popular culture — or possibly a satirical topic? — for his opera.

    I have not yet read this morning’s reviews of the Rouse Requiem, but perhaps will this evening.

    I enjoyed the voice of Valdine Anderson [note correct spelling]when she substituted for Dawn in the Dutilleux Orchestral Song Cycle “Correspondances” a few years back with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil; and I very much enjoy the precision of her recording of Lutoslawski’s Chantefleurs et Chantefables.

  16. Dexter says:

    I’ve known Chris Rouse for 30 years. I played timpani in the world premiere of Ogoun Badagris. I was in Carnegie Hall with Chris last night at the premiere of Wolf Rounds. It is a great piece, funky and full speed ahead for 17 minutes. Very loud. I would not be surprised to see a few symphony orchestras play this piece. It is, however, very difficult and would be tough to pull off on only 2 or 3 rehearsals, even for the pros. The University of Miami Wind Ensemble did a fine job. The passion of top notch students is always a rush.

    Look for a review in the NY times over the weekend.

  17. Jeff Dunn says:

    Kyle seems to concur with Lisa’s statement, “I can’t understand anyone on earth enjoying this music – even the Yanni crowd.” I assure you that thousands do: I’ve seen them give standing ovations to Rouse’s music, including the beautiful flute concerto. Rouse has the respect of many serious composers, including those who awarded him the Pulitzer. He doesn’t speak to all, nor should he, but if he doesn’t cater to your taste, that doesn’t mean he’s ipso facto bad. In our dwindling field of classical music, more tolerance is needed. The fact is that Rouse is one of the most performed of all American composers. There are reasons for this, including his popularity with audiences and conductors alike. The LA Times raved about the Requiem, which displays the same “problems” found in Gorgon and the Flute Concerto.

    Just because someone doesn’t like Rouse’s music and others do is no reason to feel guilty, one way or the other. Hell, there are still people who think Rachmaninoff was a loser. Their loss!

    In terms of opera, I’m sure Rouse would be delighted to do so. But no one has commissioned him yet. He has said he would like to do a setting of Poe.

  18. Fascinating to read these mixed reactions to Christopher Rouse’s music! Not surprising, though. I would guess that his music often pushes people into one camp or another. If and when the Requiem gains further exposure (a recording, hopefully!), it will probably do the same. For my part, I think it’s a great piece, a work with an undeniable, endearingly raw human core – beautiful, solacing at times, and terrifying. I direct the organization that commissioned the piece, so admittedly I have a huge bias. I enjoyed getting to know Chris through the project and interviewing him in connection with the premiere in L.A. He’s such an affable fellow. A bit of our conversation is posted on YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VLMCzGJCpKw

  19. zeno says:

    … “In terms of opera, I’m sure Rouse would be delighted to do so. But no one has commissioned him yet. He has said he would like to do a setting of Poe.” (Jeff Dunn 4/1)

    Maybe the same consortium which commissioned Stephen Hartke’s first opera, “The Greater Good … ” for Glimmerglass in 2006, and now on Naxos, will commission Christopher Rouse’s first opera.
    Maybe the consortium will find funding to allow Rouse to use, if so desired, a small chorus in his first opera.

    And shouldn’t NYCO be regularly commissioning American composers such as Hartke and Rouse (and others) ? There styles are certainly as well matched for opera/music theater as was Charles Wuorinen’s style for “Haroun and the Sea of Stories”. Maybe someone brave can send the new Hartke opera and a recording of the Rouse Requiem to Gerald Mortier?

  20. Andy Francis says:

    For as amazing as rouse is, his humility is what makes him my hero.

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