Three Decades of Fun For a Downtown Booster.
By LIZZIE SIMON
Anticipating the release of his 30th album, “Boost|False Doors,” we asked composer Mikel Rouse to assemble some figures associated with more than three decades of innovation, experimentation, and multi-discipline collaborations.
“When I actually sat down to do it I thought, ‘This is a really interesting way to get to know somebody, and a really interesting way to get to know myself,'” he said. “This really sums up the history of my life.”
The largest number he mentioned—3,620,800—comes from “International Cloud Atlas,” a score for choreographer Merce Cunningham’s “EyeSpace” project; for that, Mr. Rouse composed pieces of music that were set to iPods on shuffle and given to audience members, with more than 3 million possible combinations ensuing.
“A completely different dance experience for each member of the audience,” he said.
In 2010, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center acquired Mr. Rouse’s archive, which comprises 30 boxes of analog tapes, 250 scores, and more than 500 digitized recordings.
But there are items that defy the Dewey Decimal system, like the drinks Mr. Rouse consumed while writing “Boost/False Doors.”
“I kept track,” he said. “At 100 beers you become an All American and even get a shirt.”
Mr. Rouse recorded his first album in 1980 on Christopher Street. “Thirty years later, it’s kind of a wild thing to think about. Given that so many things have changed in the digital age, 30 seems like a good time to think: ‘What do you want to do next?’ I’m just at the very beginning of that question.”
A version of this article appeared April 23, 2012, on page A23 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Three Decades of Fun For a Downtown Booster.
TAMPA BAY TIMES
John Fleming’s CD picks: Alison Balsom,
Minnesota Orchestra, Andreas Scholl, Mikel
By John Fleming, Times Performing Arts Critic
In Print: Sunday, April 15, 2012
Mikel Rouse Album: Boost/False Doors (Exit Music)
Why we care: Rouse is the thinking man’s singer-songwriter. His double
album, released on May 1, includes Boost, which features steel guitar and has a financial meltdown theme combined with trenchant observations
on dating (“At what point in the dating process/Does the guy no longer suck in his gut?” in Hardwired Superstition).
False Doors is “my Buddhist record,” Rouse says.
Why we like it: This is a consummate headphone listening experience; a lot goes on in Rouse’s music, and the lyrics are hilarious.
Reminds us of: Brian Wilson in his Pet Sounds days; the lyrics of Van Dyke Parks (cited in the acknowledgements); the offbeat rhythms of Talking Heads
Download these: Hurdle Rate, Side Pockets, Prosperity Gospel, Face Around
BANDCAMP STAFF PICK 5/29/12
From Boost|False Doors by Mikel Rouse
I seriously don’t know what to tap my foot to, but I dig
A Conversation with Composer Mikel Rouse
By JAMES BEAUDREAU | Published: MAY 4, 2012
Mikel Rouse is a multi-talented, multidisciplinary
artist who’s been a vital part of the
Downtown New York scene for 30 years. He’s
done so much work, and such varied work,
that it’s a challenge to try to squeeze even
part of it into an introduction. So here’s a real
whirlwind pass through some career
highlights: With his ensemble Broken Consort,
Mr. Rouse released several albums including
A Walk In the Woods (which was listed as one
of The New York Times‘s “Ten Best Records
of 1985″). He has written three operas,
directed and scored films, created a CDROM
library of prepared piano samples from John Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes, scored International Cloud
Atlas for multiple iPods set to “shuffle” (commissioned by The Merce Cunningham Dance Company,
the John Cage Trust and Betty Freeman), toured with a production of Cage’s The Alphabet playing the
part of James Joyce, and he has released 29 albums of music.
Boost|False Doors is Mikel’s 30th album — and it’s a double album actually.
Mikel brought Boost|False Doors to Masterdisk’s Matt Agoglia for mastering, and after the project was
done Matt brought it to my attention as something “really special.” And he was right — Boost|False
Doors is a fascinating collection of music.
A couple of weeks ago Matt brought me into his mastering suite to play me some of the music. We
listened to a number of selections (and I have to say it sounded incredible on Matt’s system), and then
Matt gave me a copy of the CD to take away and absorb. Because, as Matt told me, the music works
as an ALBUM. It’s not just a concatenation of tracks: it’s a thought out experience for the listener; a
story with a beginning, middle and end; ups and downs; and a wide spectrum of emotions. These are
the kinds of projects Matt likes to work on. His primary interest as a mastering engineer is in the art of
the album. And he certainly had a satisfying time working on this one.
Mikel and I had the following discussion via email.
James: Hi Mikel. Good to meet you. Let’s start off with some basic background stuff. Where did you
record Boost|False Doors?
Mikel: It was recorded at Center of the Earth. That’s the name of my studio, which during False
Doors and Boost was located at 321 West 44th Street in New York.
James: I read in your piece at the Wall Street Journal that it took 960 hours to record Boost|False
Doors — that’s over 3 months of 10 hour days! Can you describe a typical day working on this
Mikel: For False Doors, it started as a follow up to Corner Loading (Volume 1) which was a solo guitar/vocal record (sort of a country blues approach, hence the title, but with the guitar and vocal often doing intricate counter rhythms). So I recorded the guitar and lead vox
live. But then it seemed to want some other stuff, like the prepared piano samples (I produced a John Cage Prepared Piano Sample
library in 2000 — so I like to use those samples). Then it seemed to want mellotron. Then, quite a backwards way to work: drums and percussion. So I recorded the drums at 321 [West 44th Street] with Rob Shepperson, my old band-mate from Tirez Tirez. Now, I really
exaggerated the tempos cause I thought it was gonna be a solo recording. So this presented a challenge. But it ended up giving the recording a funky loping feeling, similar to those 60s recordings that sometimes laid rhythm tracks after the songwriter had recorded his parts. I like that sound, as it’s odd and could only be done in a studio.
Boost is just the opposite (except for the unique sound of steel guitar with beats) and is a pure sonic
electronic sequenced record. It uses all the kinds of sound so current today, but because of the
shifting metric combination, it’s much more musical and interesting, well, at least to me. You might
also notice that Boost is dedicated to Ron and Russell Mael of the LA band Sparks. They did some
groundbreaking pop music in the 70s including a pop/disco record with Georgio Moeroder.
James: What is your composition process like? Is it connected to the recording process or separate
Mikel: It’s both. A lot of stuff starts with a musical sketch or a lyric snippet. False Doors especially
came out of songs in progress or songs composed while walking down the street. Then I fleshed them
out. Boost on the other hand it a typical (well, not so typical ) made-in-the-studio recording. Starting
with all of the formulaic beats, changing the metric structures and getting some really hard hitting and
solid grooves, and then letting those grooves dictate the guitar and vox. I also continued my interest in
sampling conversations (seen in Recess) and using dialog I overheard in cafes and bars. That whole
diatribe in “The Movie We’re In” is from our local bar Rudy’s [on 9th Avenue].
James: Matt told me that Boost and False Doors were recorded at separate times and were not
initially linked. Can you tell me how they ended up together?
Mikel: Thats correct. I saw False Doors as a recording whose theme revolved around accepting things
you can’t change. And obviously, it’s a more organic sounding recording. But as the lyric content of
Boost started to develop, I could see them, both lyrically and sonically, as bookends. They kind of
reference each other in interesting ways. And I’ve loved the fact that the reviews have been very good
thus far, but some people focus more on one disc than the other.
James: What were your primary tools used in recording the albums?
Mikel: Gear. Lots of gear. You can see from the photo [in the CD package]. I swear by the Barefoot
monitors. The DW Fearn compressor is my go-to compressor for very clean sounds. And I love the
combo of the Cranesong EQ with the Manley EQ. I used 414 mics on the drums. Just two as I wanted
to go for that Ringo Star “swoosh compression” sound on the cymbal/bass drum attacks. I’m
particularly pleased with that effect. U47 mic for the vocals and acoustic guitar. U87 for steel guitar
James: A lot of your music is rhythmically complex, but the complexity is not “difficult” sounding or
academic. Nor does it sound “organic” — one gets the impression, rather, of multiple radios or TVs
playing different programs at the same time. Can you talk a little about rhythm in your work?
Mikel: I love that you notice that. I’ve always been interested in complexity, but through known
vernacular music. So i’d hate it if it sound academic. I would make the argument that it is organic, as I
use multiple metric combination to achieve a new kind of harmonic resolution. So think if you have a
combination of 3 against 5 against 7. It would take 105 beats for all three permutation to come back
together. And if you’re skillful (and lucky) you can make that metric conversion feel like a resolution, in
the same way that a I IV V cadence has a harmonic resolution. I’ve been using this technique in pop
music for 30 years. You don’t have to understand the mechanics (another reason it’s not simply
academic noodling) to feel that something is ‘right’ just as ‘Ti’ resolving to ‘Do’ feels right.
James: I think I didn’t express my thought well in the ‘rhythm’ question, but I love your answer. What I
meant by ‘not organic’ is that the rhythmic layers sound intellectually designed, rather than a product
of chance or intuition or ‘feel’… they’re too consistently orderly and extended for that to be the case.
And yet the result is a very natural “feel” anyway. Having worked with rhythm this way for a long time
do you do it ‘off the top of your head’? What is your process of working these rhythms out in your
Mikel: It’s become pretty intuitive now. I actually think of music this way. If I hear a tune on the radio,
I’m always harmonizing to it in a different meter. I can play guitar and sing in a totally different meter
and it feels natural. Like rubbing your head one way and you stomach the other. So I hear the
‘resultant’ combinations in my head and sort of write them down or program them from that.
James: Can you tell me something about your approach to mixing?
Mikel: I’m going for a very understandable sonic signature. I want the mix to sound clear, like a good
pop production. That’s no small challenge, as my mixes are usually incredibly dense with metric
information. Even with False Doors, which feels organic and acoustic and open, there’s a ton of metric
stuff going on. Check out the acoustic guitar counterpoint in “Blow Dried Bodies.” It all locks together
and has a nice warm analog feel to it. But listen closer and you see that the guitars are circling each
other. It has to sound as normal as two acoustic guitars playing together even though it’s much more
complicated than that. It took me a long time to figure out how to make the mixes non-fatiguing.
James: What led you to choose Matt Agoglia for mastering?
Mikel: I got to know Matt through the 3 years i was over at 321 W 44th St. [Matt’s mastering suite is
down the hall from where Boost|False Doors was recorded.] I liked his very wide knowledge of music.
I’d always wanted to do something with him, and as Boost was recorded quickly I thought it would be a
great opportunity. He did a test of “Hurdle Rate” which I loved so I had him do the record. Then, when I started thinking about combining Boost|False Doors, I thought it would be great to get his take on
False Doors. Also, as the two recordings are somewhat different, I thought a similar sonic stamp from
Matt would help bring them together.
James: What are you working on next?
Mikel: Working on a score for a new piece starring the actress Olwen Fouere based on James Joyce
text. Also working on a new theater piece with Ben Neill and Bob McGrath called The Demo, based on
the 1968 demonstration given by Douglas Englebart which accurately predicted the work of personal
computing and the internet. Also and always, working on the next record. Number 31.
Read more about Mikel Rouse at his website www.mikelrouse.com
Read more about Matt Agoglia and check out his discography at the Masterdisk website.
To book Matt to master your next project contact coordinator Zan Sabini at firstname.lastname@example.org or
CAPITAL NEW YORK
Trust David Byrne: ’80s downtown
veteran Mikel Rouse still has lots to say
BY SETH COLTER WALLS
2:43 pm May. 18, 2012
Musician Mikel Rouse moved to New York in 1979, at least partly on the advice of David Byrne and the rest of Talking Heads, for whom Rouse and his new-wave band had recently opened when Byrne & co. swung through Rouse’s hometown, Kansas
City, Mo. “They were just very encouraging of us coming to New York,” Rouse, now a three-decade-plus resident of the city, remembered. “And then when we came to New York and played our first gig at CBGB’s, David came, so there was a buzz in the audience because he was there.”
Plenty of writing about Rouse— whether about his band of that period, Tirez Tirez, which (along with R.E.M.) called the label IRS home, or
about his solo work as a postminimalist composer—has made
mention of this Byrne connection. It’s happened often enough that it’s natural to wonder how close the two men became.
“He’s come to almost every major show I’ve done in New York, but he doesn’t ever say ‘hi,'” Rouse told me, while sitting at a coffee counter near his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen last month. “People just say he was there. So I just take that as a nice note of confidence.… Back in the day when there was no Internet, I’d get a postcard here and there: like, ‘I just got Quorum’ or ‘I just got Broken Consort: Great records!'”
You can trust David Byrne’s ear on this one. Mikel Rouse (his first name is pronounced like “Michael”) has made dozens of great records since coming to New York. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts acquired his archive in 2010—making it the easiest place for the public to see video recordings of Rouse’s modern operas, like Dennis Cleveland, that have played at Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in recent decades.
“I wanted to have the structure that I loved in classical music, but I wanted it to sound like pop music, or vernacular music,” he said of his breakthrough works—some of which take the form of genre-breaking
multimedia operas, while others are content to merely exist as great, 40-minute pop records.
Because the collection at the New York Public Library is a “living archive,” Rouse will be adding to the trove over time, as he makes his digitized way through an archive that runs back to the glory days of
Downtown Manhattan’s late ’70s–early ’80s heyday. Right now, the Tirez Tirez catalog—his most direct pop-music work—is mostly out of print; eventually, Rouse will have those titles up, via his self-distributed
Exit Music label, on iTunes and Amazon, along with his newer works.
But Rouse isn’t finished creating either. His 2010 C.D. Recess was one of the best of his career, marrying, as ever, his love for postminimalist rhythmic complexity with pop hooks and well-crafted folksong imagery based on field recordings the composer made while walking through New York and Missouri.
“Orchestrating those field recordings is the idea [of Recess],” Rouse said. “You know, cicadas from Missouri: could that be the rhythm track for the steel guitar? That was the most fun record I’ve done in
years because I would walk around with an [Roland] Edirol recorder about the size of an iPhone. And I have headphones on, so everybody just assumed I was like every other phone monkey walking around, but
I could walk right up to somebody and they wouldn’t know I was there. And I would get the conversation of the couple arguing in the park. … There’s something about New York. People use these devices to tune
out the city, and I wanted to find a way to bring the city into the recordings. And walking around the city with headphones on is just a beautiful Cage-ian experience.”
His 30th release, out this month, is actually a double album, titled False Doors/Boost. The first disc Rouse calls his “Buddhist record.” The latter is a quasi-concept album about “the anticipation of love
through the metaphor of hedge funds and banking.”
Both rip past you in under 80 minutes, courtesy of Rouse’s shockingly profligate gift for orchestrating rhythms and melodies. Percussion on False Doors was provided by his ex-Tirez Tirez bandmate Rob
Shepperson (their first collaboration in 20 years). The beats on Boost were all programmed by Rouse himself, in the midst of what he describes as a “techno percussion” mood. But unlike a lot of his early,
complex programmed percussive work, the beats on “Boost” authentically sound every bit as slick as their simpler brethren in the pop world.
“The early records weren’t [well-produced pop records], because I couldn’t get that density to sound like a real record. I could get that density to sound like interesting music—but I couldn’t get it to sound the way records sound,” he said of his earliest song-based works. (Though he’s perhaps being a bit hypercritical; the Tirez Tirez album Story of the Year sounds very much a product of its early-’80s milieu, even as it points forward to something new.)
“One of the reasons pop records sound the way they do is because they’re not very complicated,” he said. “So you can really luxuriate in the sound of a snare drum or a voice or whatever. And you can use
compression in all sorts of wonderful ways.”
To get a sense of what he’s up to with the programmed rhythms on one of his new records, Rouse advises listening to the track “Orson Elvis.”
“You’re getting to rhythms that most people who are influenced by minimalism would never be able to comprehend. You’re talking Elliott Carter kind of complexity. But no one will get that because it’s not
attached to classical instruments: it’s all sort of techno percussion. And that’s the thing that’s been so interesting about how conservative certain press outlets have become, is that they hear a record and
they don’t listen any deeper. So if it sounds like a pop record—’well, why would we review this in classical? It’s a pop record.’ And I just say: ‘Okay!’ The people who get it, get it.
“I’m not doing complexity because I want to say ‘look how clever I am,’ I’m doing it because it’s interesting to me. Those sounds in ‘Orson Elvis,’ when these rhythms compete with each other, tear my head off. And that is an interesting feeling to me—it’s like having a food or a spice you’ve never had before.” (A free-tostream
version of both new albums is available on Rouse’s BandCamp page, for anyone who’d like to sample all those spices.)
The composer’s committed fan base, indeed, will get this music. But it’s almost frustrating to think about how many more people might sing along with the bluesy vocal canons of “Words Are Missing” or burn some
time off a treadmill run with the kinetic, competing beats that work against one another in “Professional Smile”—if only they knew about them. Rouse’s music has utilitarian uses in addition to meriting close study. It feels generous and multipurpose: willing to meet you where you are, and able to stir interest over the long haul.
One change over time in New York’s contemporary music scene, Rouse noted, is the way that art is talked and—and written about—in town. When speaking about the period from 1979 to 1985, after he first moved
to New York and before his work was well known to any significant audience, Rouse admits to a certain romanticism—though it’s hard not to get carried away, along with him, when he describes it.
“There was a thing going on in New York City where there really were no categories. For a second, they really were broken down. You came in as a young person and thought: that’s the future of art, culture
and music. Like Arthur Russell is getting fired for booking the Modern Lovers at The Kitchen. Philip Glass is playing, you know, the ‘Spaceship’ from Einstein on the Beach at the Peppermint Lounge, at rock volume. Robert Ashely’s doing a show at Danceteria. It was just everything like that. It was just this beautiful moment.”
Here, Rouse pauses for a second, thinking about the way the city has changed. “I obviously still love it even though it’s like, talking about that five years, it’s like the girl that you fell in
love with and no matter what happens—you can even have a better life, you may have kids or whatever— but it’s like that’s the one that broke your heart. And New York City between 1979 and 1985 is the city
that broke my heart. And it’s probably very naïve of me. And everybody you talk to will go: ‘Oh, I see what your problem is: you thought the New York Times was always like this. They were never like this
before and they will never be like this again.’ … Nobody wanted to be here; New York was coming out the fiscal crisis, with a depressed economy. People like Giuliani would say people like me romanticized it, but they never had to live through it—but I did live through it. And it was a very scary city to be in, but it was just so creatively exciting.”
Fittingly for someone who is still writing love song-cycles filled with banking and hedge-fund metaphors, Rouse’s analysis of the spirit of the city does come down to a spiritual understanding of money and
“I don’t think most artists [in the late ’70s] had the expectation that they were going to be famous,” he said. “It’s no different than the real-estate bubble. If you lived in New York in the ’80s, as an artist or whatever, all of a sudden there’s this expectation that ‘I’m going to be a millionaire by the time I’m 25.’
Well that’s not the way Willem de Kooning thought; he didn’t become even known until his forties. … I don’t know if you read the Patti Smith memoir, but in it she said something that could easily sound like
she’s just being cool or whatever, but I don’t think so. She said ‘we didn’t come here to be famous; we wrote this for each other.’ And I believe that sincerely.”
On the one hand, Rouse needn’t worry about long-term reputation. His value to New York culture is already signaled by his archive’s location in the city’s Performing Arts library. His contributions to modern
contemporary composition are noted and recorded in various music textbooks. And his future projects, including various stage works currently in the planning stages, are likely candidates to pop up in future Next Wave festivals at BAM. But even if all that weren’t also true, it would be gift enough to see Rouse remaining in town, sincerely writing his own complex-but-vernacular pop music, and self-releasing it for his fellow city dwellers.
RELATED TAGS: CULTURE ’70S AVANT BAM CLASSICAL MUSIC DAVID BYRNE
DOWNTOWN MIKEL ROUSE MUSIC POP TALKING HEADS TIREZ TIREZ
Why Does Vinyl Sound The Best?
A Chat With A Musician Who Knows
By Seth Colter Walls | May 21, 2012
own a turntable, like any proper trend-piece-generating/hating Brooklyn-residing arts-interested person, but I don’t listen to as many releases as possible on it. Sometimes, twirling around a piece of audiophile-approved, 180-gram, 12-inch plastic, before commencing with the nervous hovering of the tone arm whilst wondering if the needle needs replacing, I’m as apt as anyone to think: “oh for the love of Steve Jobs, let’s just press a button marked ‘play’ and get on with life already.”
But despite all that “the cloud” has promised us, not all music of interest has made it over into a digitized format just yet. For example: one of my favorite “new wave”-era bands is this group that called themselves Tirez Tirez. They opened for Talking Heads quite a bit; like R.E.M., they called the IRS label home for a part of the 80s;
they sometimes used interesting/irregular metric patterns and syncopations, and even when not, had great melodies, which were written by frontman Mikel Rouse. Yet only their last album as a working group, Against All Flags, was ever put out on CD. It’s the sort of minor tragedy that sends one to eBay and Amazon Marketplace, ready to pay too much for the original vinyl pressings.
Rouse, who after the band’s demise became a producer of various pop and classical things, has a handle not just metrical complexity and the like—but also about why it is that vinyl hits our ears in a particular way that CDs can’t.
It’s something he’s been thinking about a lot lately, given that, in 2010, the New York Public Library acquired his archive. Since then, Rouse has been at work digitizing his back catalog of analog material. After Tirez Tirez, Rouse went on to have rather a successful career as a writer of multimedia modern operas (or “stage pieces,” if you get all in a swivet about the word “opera”) that have played at Lincoln Center and BAM, such as Dennis Cleveland, and Gravity Radio. (I interviewed him recently about his excellent new song-based double album,
Seth Colter Walls: Mikel, what are all the reasons for vinyl
being a bigger deal now than it was, say, in the last two decades?
Mikel Rouse: Of course the obvious thing to many people is that analog sounds better than numbers approximating analog. And I don’t think one can dismiss the tactile nature of a record and the aspect that you
can actually perceive time passing. Also, due to the time constraints of fitting sound onto a vinyl disc—a 15- to 20-minute limit per side—you actually get a pretty good time frame for human attention, as opposed to the extended time of CDs, around 70 minutes, and the perceived need to fill that space, whether one has enough good material to fill the space.
Personally, I think one of the main reasons folks think vinyl sounds better is the limited frequency range a disc requires to fit the sound on the disc. Digital doesn’t have this limitation, and while that theoretically should be a good thing, our ears have had 70 years of conditioning to the limited frequency range of vinyl discs.
Let’s listen to an example by streaming some music-on-vinyl that you own the rights to. This is your 1983 single “Under the Door,” which is one of my favorites from your catalog. I think I also like my particular vinyl “rip” of the song. Is there a good reason for that? Anyway, I like being able to listen to this song and all its zig-zagging synth ostinatos while out and about, which is why I have it on my phone.
I think your vinyl transfer might sound better to you for the reason I [just] mentioned—because the frequency range on the vinyl is rolled off a bit in the highs and lows. This can make the music seem more “rounded” toward the middle frequencies. This single was also recorded to 2-inch tape, and tape compression has a big effect on the sound quality of analog recordings.
You’re now in the process of remastering and digitizing your boxes and boxes of old analog tapes and vinyl recordings for your “living archive” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Has
that process taught you anything about old analog formats like vinyl versus the digital “future” everyone’s always talking about?
Archiving the analog masters was a real eye opener. Of course, I mainly wanted to preserve some historic recordings before the analog tape degenerated too much. Most of the tapes had to be “baked” in order to be played and transferred to digital. But I was also hoping to unearth some distant gems I might have forgotten.
(That didn’t happen as much as I would have hoped!) But something else did happen. Even if there was a so-so tune or questionable mix, there was still this truly familiar sound quality to all of the recordings. And that sound was the sound of tape compression. I’ve had the
good opportunity to work with a number of great recording engineers over the years, like Martin Bisi and James Mason. These engineers knew how to “hit the tape” in such a way that the tape acts as its own kind of compressor. So after hearing this, I set about to upgrade my studio with more analog/tube eq’s and compressors.
I’ve also used two-track tape with a sync tone to get a tape sound that I then transfer to a digital workstation. When we were talking about one of your two new records, Boost, you were mentioning how you ran all
the electronic percussion material through some vintage tube amps, I think? Your recent records really have had an amazing “sound” to them, quite apart from the intricacy of the various parts. Can you describe a bit your learning curve on this end, in making the complex density of things on a song like “Professional Smile” (David Foster Wallace fans take note) sound like pop music? Or on a song like
It’s a great question because over the years I’ve really tried to mix my love for complex metric structures with my love for classic pop production techniques. The problem is, much great pop music is fairly stable metrically and much of the instrumentation is vamping or enhancing a similar structure—this is obviously an overgeneralization,
but you get my point.
So you can love that luxuriating sound that pop music can build up with layers reinforcing each other. But my work uses layers of great complexity that are crossing and contradicting each other. So common pop techniques like compression have to be used very carefully or everything just turns to mush. The idea isn’t to use complexity for complexities sake. It’s because in a track like “Professional Smile,” I’m digging the tearing-yourhead- off effect that these multiple meters produce. And when those kind of unexpected metric combinations
collide with very current, formulaic techno sounds, it becomes both familiar and unknown at the same time. I like hearing “Professional Smile” in a club or a bar because everyone is talking over it, and it just sounds like a lot of the typical stuff you could hear due to the production value. But then when people notice what’s actually
taking place in the music, it kind of throws them a curve. And a lot of people seem to get that. It’s not a trick; it’s offering a tune on a combined number of levels. Tap into any level you like.
“Orson Elvis,” for example, has a multi-tempo rhythm going on that could be a similar effect to the two tempos one can experience in dubstep music. But because these multi-tempo rhythms in “Elvis” are also cycling around each other, rather that staying within the same 4-bar structure, the effect is quite remarkable. Also, adding the
steel guitar and vocals circling around all of this controlled chaos sets the mood for the lyric content. So the metric guitar/vocals/sequencer combinations are there to set the text and kind of illustrate or orchestrate the text meaning:
Every hit on line
Takes its toll in time
Time you don’t get back
Running with the pack
What we really need
Takes us off the grid
Back to where we live.
Part of the song is about the life lost from social media. And the juxtaposition of the tempos heightens this
feeling of instability. Can you tell us what is even going on with the rhythms in this song, exactly? (We enjoy weirdly specific
knowledge of things.) After a vocal entrance of two cycles of 3 and 7, “Orson Elvis” starts with this sort of loping 7 meter phrase on percussion doubled by steel guitar. This is an accompaniment to a short vocal narration. But beginning with the sung phrase: “If Hollywood instinct is right on the money,” a faster electronic percussion pattern in 5 comes in propelling the vocal entrance.
But this isn’t simply a metric juxtaposition of 5-against-7, because the two patterns are in different tempos. So where a simple 5-against-7 phrase would mean the “5 phrase” repeats seven times and the “7 phrase” repeats five times to complete one full cycle. In this case you have the moment of periodicity after the “7 phrase” has repeated eight times. It’s basically a tempo canon, but in conjunction with the techno beats, it’s an arresting effect.
I’m pretty into it. Anyway: thanks for talking about this and vinyl and everything else!
Rouse: Boost/False Doors
Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: CD Review, Jay Batzner, Mikel Rouse, postminimalism, Vocal
Mikel Rouse has done it again. Today the two album set Boost/False Doors is released and once again both albums deliver powerful and unique listening experiences which couldn’t be created by
anyone else. Last time Rouse released two albums simultaneously, Recess and Corner Loading Vol. 1, those albums were treated as separate entities and for good reason. While both discs capture
quintessential aspects of Rouse’s musical vocabulary, each album obsessed on totally unrelated issues. It was as if there were two Mikel Rouses for a while, each doing their own thing. Boost and
False Doors, being packaged together, show how these two halves are gradually being brought back together. Each disc is a world in and of itself but these two different halves are binding with each
other. The glue is Rouse’s omnipresent steel guitar.
Boost is the manic dance-party side of Rouse’s nature. Tight beats and crisp percussive sounds provide the foundation for his vocal layers of “counterpoetry.” Melodically, tracks shift between catchy
sung tunes and spoken word. In many ways, the musical language is similar to Dennis Cleveland but updated to more contemporary dance music aesthetics and production values. There is an oblique
narrative through-line as one might expect from a song cycle but what mainly catches my ear is the frenetic beat energy. The opening thoughts in “Hurdle Rate” draw you in quickly and I’m also partial to
“Side Pockets” as a great stand-alone track.
No matter how the melodies float by, no matter how the harmonies freely drift, Rouse’s beat creation skills are the star of the show. I’m reluctant to call them “grooves” since Boost is driven and
propulsive, never lazy and funky. Even slower-paced moments like the opening of ”Orson Elvis” don’t dally long before beats take over. There is still a lightness to this disc, though, and these beats are
clearly more than simple loops. Rouse’s metrical/rhythmical bag of tricks has been compressed into these crisp metallic pulses. He makes the stuff they play in dance clubs sound even more shallow and
lifeless than it already does. Everything that Boost is, False Doors is not. This is not to say that False Doors is in any way inferior.
On the contrary, I listen to this album significantly more frequently than Boost. The pacing of this disc is slower and more contemplative which suits my own personal tastes. “Sky Sprites” is especially
striking with a singular guitar lick that punctuates his sung melody (this lick returns in a most perfect way in “Come From Money”). In comparison to Boost, events are drawn out and repeated more
obsessively. The poetry in the lyrics is more raw and plainspoken. “God Said No,” for instance, sounds a bit like Rouse is channeling a lost Simon and Garfunkel song with his own peculiar lyrical
slant. A song like “Thumb Skills” sets you up lyrically but then twists the expectations ever-so slightly for more dramatic weight.
The opening track “Words are Missing” sounds like a direct outgrowth to the phasing techniques featured on Corner Loading. If Corner Loading was Rouse’s most spartan work, False Doors adds in
just the right parts of what he had taken away. “Homegoings” is also just a perfect microcosm of everything that makes Rouse’s music what it is.
Should these be two separate releases? I don’t think so. Recess and Corner Loading were two clearly separated bits of work. Boost and False Doors represent these two parts of Rouse’s music coming
back together. Boost is young people’s music: quirky dance beats (my daughter prefers Boost) yet Rouse’s steel guitar gives a slightly folky/country tinge to it all. False Doors is more adult: the music is
more about contemplation and nostalgia. Many of the songs sound almost too personal to hear.
Again, the guitar provides the soulful through-voice to it all. Any way you hear these two discs, each
disc relies on the other to create a complete picture, though, and that picture is completely worth your
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Folky Strokes, With Dabs of News, Video and Static
By JON PARELES
Published: December 8, 2010
Mikel Rouse adds performance arts flash to his searching compositions.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Mikel Rouse, the composer, guitarist and songwriter, performing “Gravity Radio” at the Harvey Theater.
For a composer generally described as contemporary classical, Minimalist or avant-garde, Mikel Rouse has recently been getting almost folky.
His 2009 album, “Gravity Radio,” and two he has just released, “Recess” and “Corner Loading, Vol. 1” (all on Exit Music), are collections of verse-and-chorus songs featuring his voice and guitar picking: songs about the state of America, love, aging and uncertainty. Within the songs and connecting them are the patterns and metrical structures Mr. Rouse has always enjoyed.
Unleashing a Creative Deluge
By STEVE SMITH
Published: December 6, 2010
Perhaps not, but both his new CDs — the dizzying “Recess,” on which Mr. Rouse incorporates sounds of the outside world into the music’s structure, and the spare, bluesy “Corner Loading (Volume 1),” in which his voice and guitar shift in and out of phase almost imperceptibly — were recorded entirely in his one-room studio. Inspired one evening to make a video for “Great Adventure Jail” (a track on “Corner Loading”), Mr. Rouse shot in stark black and white from five angles, edited the clip and uploaded it to YouTube in roughly five hours — entirely with his iPhone.
Mikel Rouse: Recess
Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of ExitMusic Recordings, Mikel Rouse is releasing two new discs. It might make sense to talk about these two discs (Recess and Corner Loading Vol. 1) together since they share some connective tissues except the exteriors of the discs are so drastically different it can be hard to believe that one man is the creative voice behind both.
Recess is a dense and mesmerizing collage of disperate sonic elements elegantly tied together by Mikel Rouse’s signature vocal style, harmonies, and metrical/temporal play. Where Gravity Radio‘s aesthetic was closely aligned with a “radio-friendly” sound, Recess drifts back across the complexity spectrum adding layers of audio collage and found sounds on top of the immediately understandable grooves and hooks. The iPod experience with this album plays on the blend of the ambient recorded sounds with your own environment and often I had to question whether what I heard was “live or Memorex.” The sonic space of the album is huge and I think frequent iPod listening would be a mistake. This album sounds BIG and the production level of the disc is a technological and artistic marvel (a marvel which is not properly communicated as mp3s). Recess is such an immersive experience that I have a hard time doing anything else but listen when it is on.
The disc begins with what sounds like a cash register scanning an item and this ubiquitous bleep from our society quickly morphs into a rapid-fire texture. It is as if the disc takes me sonically backwards to its purchase and then distorts and expands the sounds until the relaxed groove of “Dolls & Dreams” starts up, making this a delicious 21st century updating to Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Since this album and Corner Loading Vol. 1 were recorded between October 2008 and November 2009 one would expect the topic of finance, wealth, economics, and retirement to be on the front burner.
Everything you want and have come to expect from Mikel Rouse is there in Recess. Sophisticated and nuanced textures and grooves are the DNA of this record. Poignant lyrics and spoken text elements are also in play. Recess might be quoted less as Facebook status updates as Gravity Radio but there is a lot to be said for these lyrics which are consistent in their truth and profundity. Rouse’s word play in “Cutting Class” is especially present with the lines “Being old is like being young, but not as young today” and the inverse “Being young is like being old, but not as old today.” ”Failure” contains lyrical gems such as “You make me believe that the problem is me and not you,” and “I wake up every morning/Cheating death most of the time.” The sentiment of “Courage just got laid” in the final track helps close the disc in a lighter, brighter place than where we began.
This album’s density is one of its most mesmerizing features. Where Gravity Radio and International Cloud Atlas were certainly thick it is safe to say that Recess ramps things up a notch further. The spoken elements often found in Rouse’s works are woven more directly into the musical fabric instead of being used as focal or relief elements. Rouse fragments speech and transforms it into musical motives similar to Reich’s Different Trains except the adoption and transformation of these spoken elements happens at turbo speed. Mundane phrases such as “I like the bread, the bread likes you” become earworms of the highest degree. The number of times I’ve woken up with that specific phrase running through my head cannot be counted.
The thick layers of the album are carefully managed. Songs have their own life and growth and tracks play well off of each other. If you are overwhelmed by the first few tracks of the album, Rouse relaxes the tensions with “Plug Nickel” and its quirky three-bar phrase verses and metrical modulation chorus; a good tune that is the kind of thing I wish was on commercial radio more frequently. After the soundscape “Family Dollar,” “Coward” begins with a mellow, spacey choral sound reminiscent of “Soul Train” from Dennis Cleveland. Once the title emerges in the lyrics in a pseudo sing-song name-calling manner, Rouse hits us with the line “Everyone’s a coward until they get around to it.” Couple that with the chant “Everybody’s waiting around” and you’ve pretty much described the human condition.
Cyclic elements are also threaded through the disc. ”Empty Nest” launches off the lyric “We end up where we started” and brings back a groove reminiscent of the “Dolls & Dreams.” The connections from beginning to end are not necessarily as strong as those found in Gravity Radio which makes Recess more of a linear sonic journey than a rounded whole. The entire album works well as a single composed event but there are ample opportunities to drop in and pick up different subsections of the work as well as songs that lift out independently.
The album is being released on December 7 but you can get at it now via Bandcamp.
Mikel Rouse – Recess – ExitMusic
Pop music for the post-millennial era.
Published on November 27, 2010
Mikel Rouse – Recess – ExitMusic 1013, 64:57 [12/7/10] ****:
(Mikel Rouse – vocals, arranger, composer, producer; includes field recordings from various locations).
Media manipulator, post-millennial composer, pop imagineer and audio technician: there really is no single role artist Mikel Rouse fits into. The modernist uses whatever he can find to re-examine the obsessions, nightmares and promises of humanity and mirror them back to us in his divergent viewpoint.
This year has been a busy one: Recess is one of several studio or stage projects Rouse has released or offered. Recess is an urban conceptual pop album for those familiar with Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters and others who have tried to cope with information overflow in the present-day age. The twelve tracks embody a concentrated collage of found sounds, re-contextualized conversations and other sonic components tied together to form a loosely connected post-modern pop parable. Rouse breaks up and recombines speech and transmutes spoken word splinters into musical patterns similar to Steve Reich or Nico Muhly, fellow artists who also have adapted and distorted oral elements into speculative works.
Hearing Recess on an MP3 player while strolling down city streets, or in a car stereo while driving, can be disconcerting. Songs such as “Dolls & Dreams” and “What You Want” mix birds, traffic noise, covertly recorded chats and Rouse’s often overlaid Gabriel-esque vocals into a schizoid template where a listener cannot tell if sounds come from the outside environment, inside the headphones or from speakers. Tunes like “What You Want” can suddenly veer from lightly ambient to pounding electronics, which adds to the unsettling nature.
Lyrics are a fusion of surreal and strangely poetic. The dense “Designing Women” employs wordplay and juxtaposition. Rouse solemnly intones, “So my computer crashes when I crash it” or “And here’s a lesson: what’s more is less than. Less than waking up dead.” In Rouse’s perspective, there is a dizzy logic where reality is skewed but hyper-real.
If there is a thread through Rouse’s tilted pop narratives, it’s the hopes of desperate people who try to maintain sanity in an oversaturated, unfocused world. “Family Dollar,” for example, merges a blues motif, a repeated chorus, multiple overlapped voices and an indie rock arrangement while phrases about money, health issues and leisure time tumble in and out of the mix. The lengthy piece “Coward” – which is comparable to Philip Glass’ most pop-oriented ventures – utilizes repeating acoustic guitar, strings and Rouse’s chorused singing to survey the choices individuals make that may lead to terror or violence. While Rouse’s 64-minute undertaking is meant to stand as a single entity, each track can be listened to individually and that is one way to approach Recess: heard together the music can be a taxing experience, but there is beauty and perfectly-honed pop music unveiled within the hour-long structure. For instance, “Failure” is a refined number with an elegant arrangement and album-ending “Courage” has a mid-1990s Pink Floyd-like framework (think Pulse or The Division Bell.)
Audiophiles will appreciate the mixing and engineering. Rouse’s arrangements exploit the sound spectrum in sometimes complimentary and sometimes contrasting manners where voices, instruments and field recordings pan left, right, up and down and where portions rise and fall: determined listening is often the best way to absorb Rouse’s hallucinatory vision. TrackList: 1. Dolls & Dreams 2. Cutting Class 3. What You Want 4. Plug Nickel 5. Designing Women 6. Everything 7. Family Dollar 8. Coward 9. Is That Money 10. Failure 11. Empty Nest 12. Courage – Doug Simpson
Mikel Rouse – Corner Loading (Vol. 1) [12/7/10] – ExitMusic
Conceptual acoustic blues that is straightforward and entertaining.
Published on November 28, 2010
Mikel Rouse – Corner Loading (Vol. 1) [12/7/10] – ExitMusic 1014, 36:03 ***1/2:
(Mikel Rouse – writer, arranger, producer, guitar, vocals, harmonica)
The last thing someone might expect from composer, performance artist and multimedia exploiter Mikel Rouse is an acoustic blues release but that is what he has created for his newest venture, Corner Loading (Volume 1), a 36-minute, 13-track album of country blues. In typical Rouse style, there is more than meets the ear here. Rouse’s version of Southern blues examines early microtonality, shifting polyrhythms and off-the-beat cadences instead of the constraints of 12-bar blues. It is a reconceptualization of Depression-era blues akin to keen artists such as Mississippi John Hurt or Charley Patton who later influenced other forward-thinking musicians such as John Fahey or Robbie Basho.
Rouse’s blues has a refined simplicity that is transparent – his voice and acoustic guitar are upfront and nothing is hidden by dense orchestrations or digital maneuverings – but there is subtle intricacy beneath the graceful surfaces. On initial listening, Rouse’s originals appear no different than material by Keb’ Mo’ or Corey Harris. But listen closely and Rouse’s technical inventiveness comes to the fore. “Active Denial” is one example. Rouse sings his opening line in harmony with a six-string blues motif. Then, as he repeats the guitar riff, he vocally adds a beat pause between his lyrical phrases, which slightly puts his voice out of sync with his guitar. Rouse then elongates his melodic line by another beat so everything comes back into the same time signature when he reaches the chorus. Rouse deftly undertakes variations of this same rhythmic evolution on other tunes. During “My Tide” he sings a cappella with handclaps as the sole rhythmic accompaniment and again changes the beat: it’s the equivalent of patting a hand on your head in one tempo and a rubbing your stomach at a somewhat separate beat. Try it, it isn’t as easy as it seems.
Lyrically, Rouse takes a mostly secular approach – without denying religious hope – while dealing with themes of faith and belief. This is apparent on the call for peace, “Busy Humanist,” where Rouse states, “Take a lonely road on the way to amnesia/In a country where they let go of all reason/It’s like a swan dive into a sea of confusion.” On this and other songs, Rouse’s earnest and unassuming voice echoes the personalized political and social discourse championed by early Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs or Woody Guthrie. Rouse’s character studies are equally compelling. He discharges quick lyrical stabs on “Lonesome Shoeshine,” which combines surreal lines (“Hail this magic moment, put your hot wings on hold”) with rapid blues licks. The first-person tale of the “Ad Man” has a slicing harmonica, the record’s most furious guitar parts and a confessional Madison Avenue profile, “I am an ad man and I’m drowning people every day/Making sure every inch of airspace promises to pay” and the telling couplet, “I am an ad man and I broke the bank to buy more time/Packaging children I’ll do anything to make a dime.”
Rouse’s interpretation of acoustic blues may not convince die-hard blues fans – he’s a long way from being Robert Johnson or Eric Clapton – but Rouse’s measured blues experiment is musically and lyrically persuasive, is undeniably rich in context and he hits his mark even with an underlying conceptual method. Potential buyers should be aware that a digital download is already available via http://mikelrouse.bandcamp.com/album/corner-loading-volume-1, which is also the only place Rouse’s lyrics reside: it would have been nice to see them included with the CD as well.– Doug Simpson
Mikel Rouse: Corner Loading (Volume 1)
Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner,
The second half of ExitMusic’s 10th anniversary celebration, Corner Loading (Volume 1), will be released on December 7 alongside the album Recess (my review of Recess can be read here). Where Recess lives and breathes with Rouse’s density and complexity, Corner Loading is a lean, mean, stripped-down exploration of his musical core. The musical language, on the surface, sounds like a fairly straight-ahead country/blues singer/songwriter but as soon as you listen past that surface you are rewarded with an intimate portrayal of what makes Rouse’s music really tick.
Each song features Rouse as a solo performer, usually voice and guitar, so at first listening Corner Loading sounds like something you can comfortably put on in your local coffee shop. The only problem with that scenario is that this isn’t passive music. Rouse’s language has a way of focusing your attention the same way that a magician makes you wonder how it is all being done. The layers which Rouse usually uses are right there in Corner Loading but in a much more transparent package. It is easier to hear deep into the musical structures of this recording and that exposed nature makes the disc even more hypnotic to me. You hear exactly what he is doing and it still fascinates and draws you closer into the music. If this was on in a coffee shop I don’t think I could do much but sit and listen in slack-jawed fascination.
An example of this elegant simplicity hits you right up front with the track “Active Denial.” Rouse sings the line “Maybe I want to do it again” in melodic and rhythmic unison with the guitar. He then repeats the lick on the guitar but inserts a single beat rest in the voice between phrases shoving the voice out of phase with the guitar ostinato. Even better, instead of keeping this phase process as a gimmick for the song, Rouse finds important times to stretch out his melodic line by a beat so he can come back in phase with the guitar for the chorus.
This phasing procedure gets used throughout the disc but in enough deft variations that no track sounds stale. Regular and irregular phrases are spun out in a natural manner. Accompaniment patterns change and break up any possibile monotony. A few tracks, like “My Tide” and “Great Adventure Jail” are accompanied by simple clapping (which isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds). Great care has also been taken towards the pacing of the CD. The more repetitive songs “Be Real Bad” and “Trouble Making” are followed up by the quick-fire verses of “Lonesome Shoeshine.” Songs are very short and focused. They create their world, do it very well, and then get out. Tension is also built throughout the disc, too. The final track “Ad Man” has the thickest and most frenetic guitar texture and the most driving harmonica interjections which makes this song sound like a culmination of all that came before it.
Rouse’s husky vocals are expressive and perfectly matched for this sound world. There is soul and emotion in each track. Rouse’s gift in lyrics is also spread all over the songs. Unlike Recess, Corner Loading doesn’t include the lyrics in the physical disc (they are available on his website) but this never troubled me. The intimacy of the disc makes the lyrics and their poetic meanings rather clear. His ruminations on the current societal conditions are just as targeted, poetic, and salient as you would expect.
The whole disc has an immediate appeal that I find runs throughout all of Rouse’s music and there is not an ounce of pretention on the record. This is a disc I spin a lot. Beyond the deep post-minimalist structure that is driving each song, the tunes are just damned catchy.
Mikel Rouse – Corner Loading (Vol. 1) – ExitMusic
Oliver di Place Musings on music. New Discoveries and Old Favorites
Published on Thursday, February 24,2011
Let’s talk about the blues for a moment. Before World War II, many blues musicians played guitar and sang, maybe they accompanied themselves with a harmonica, and that was it. Blues was a musical form that was still taking shape. The conventional 12-bar structure we know today had not yet taken hold, so these old-time blues players were free to manipulate time in their songs. Lightning Hopkins, for one, used to add or subtract measures, stretching or condensing time as the mood struck him, but in a way he always controlled. Also, there were blues songs that had numbers of bars, or even time signatures, that just wouldn’t make sense to today’s blues audience. Think also about John Lee Hooker. Most of his music was made after the war, and he mostly used the 12-bar structure. Hooker would play intricate patterns on the guitar, but a pattern would go on unchanging for the length of a song, without even a key change. In the hands of many artists, this would be deadly dull to listen to, but Hooker makes the repetition insistent and powerful.
Mikel Rouse shows, on his album Corner Loading Volume 1, that he knows this history, and that he has the skill to apply it in his own work. On two songs, Rouse accompanies himself only with handclaps in unusual rhythms. For the rest, It’s just Rouse and his guitar, plus harmonica on two songs. Unlike any of the music I featured in my last post, all of these songs could be recorded in one take, with no overdubs. And here we learn that Mikel Rouse is a great guitar player. He creates intricate patterns and plays in a rhythmic style that frees him from the need of a band. So Corner Loading can be considered to be his first solo album. (Technically, as I discussed last time, that would Quorum, but Corner Loading is the first album I have heard from Rouse that would require neither a dance troupe nor other musicians to perform live). The rhythmic experimentation of the early blues artists is here, and so is the insistent power found in John Lee Hooker’s music. Years is one song that sounds more like early jazz to me, with its clustered notes making unusual close harmonies.
The lyrics are another matter. Rouse is not one to tell his own story, as blues musicians do. Rouse can filter someone else’s story through his own perceptions, or he can create a character and tell his story in a long form work. But Rouse is usually looking at a bigger picture, even in these cases. Corner Loading is not a long-form work, but simply a collection of songs. So here, Rouse is not telling a story at all. Even so, these songs are heartfelt. Beginning with Active Denial, and ending with Ad Man, Rouse is commenting on the state of the world. He is interested in how people are able to deceive themselves, or be deceived, so that they can pursue their self-interest, and somehow not see the pain of others. Lonesome Shoeshine has wealthy and powerful men wondering why the man who used to shine their shoes cannot now find work. The chorus is a single line, and the only mention of the title character, but it gives the song all of its power. Made Up, Oh Lord is the lyric that is closest to the blues in the lyric. The song is a prayer and a cry of pain, and Rouse’s performance really puts it over. There are two songs that have minimal lyrics, and they are together on the album. The only words to Be Real Bad are, “ You know I ain’t gonna be real bad ,” sung over several times. This has a certain hypnotic power, but I could see someone adding additional lyrics for a cover version, and that could really work, because Be Real Bad does have a great melody. The lyrics of Trouble Making are slightly less skeletal, but the shifts in musical mood are what make this one work. Elsewhere on the album, Rouse shows himself to be an economical but eloquent lyricist.
The last piece of the puzzle on Corner Loading is Mikel Rouse’s voice. This is an album that Rouse could not have made when he was younger. His voice used to be high and smooth, and that would not have worked. But now, Rouse’s voice has deepened somewhat, and it now has a gravelly quality, and that is what this album needs. Rouse sing s these songs in his weathered voice, but with great emotion. The title of the album implies that there will someday be a volume 2. Rouse’s career indicates that there may be several fascinating detours before that happens. Either way, I will be looking forward to seeing what he does next.
Volume 33/Number 354 , October 22, 2010
CHRIS SPECTOR, Editor and Publisher
Copyright 2010 Midwest Record
EXIT MUSIC RECORDINGS 1013
MIKEL ROUSE/Recess: Take the journalism art rock of Phil Ochs and move it into a real art realm with backing from an uber art patron (when it serves their purpose) and you have what this east coaster is all about. Taking this opportunity to reflect on the crumbling state of the world, it’s earnest and hard hitting but not for the listener that likes to keep it light. Almost folk music for the electronic age, this young vet could be the voice of a new generation of malcontents that want someone to do the heavy lifting for them.
Best known for his cycle of edgy multimedia pop-culture operas (Failing Kansas, Dennis Cleveland and The End of Cinema), Mikel Rouse scales things down a bit with Gravity Radio, a beguiling, melancholy new song cycle newly issued on disc by Rouse’s Exit Music label. Rouse’s singing and songwriting here amount to heady but approachable pop songs, played by his band with a string quartet and a constant din of shortwave radio interference. New-music cognoscenti will relate to the ambitious construction and provocative themes; for pop explorers, think of Rouse as the next step past Mark Everett.
Rouse: Gravity Radio
By Jay Batzner November 23, 2009
“For those who lunch alone, welcome to radio.”
Mikel Rouse’s Gravity Radio song cycle is instantly understandable yet inexplicably hard to explain. I was incredibly psyched to get this disc and have listened to it quite regularly over the last 6 weeks or so. It is a favorite of mine (and the whole house, for that matter, but I blogged about that already). Playing this album for some of my students, they asked “Who is Mikel Rouse?” I think the best answer would be “Mikel Rouse is today’s Schubert with better operas.” That just about covers it.
“Love comes to those who wait. Those who wait for me.”
The songs that make up this cycle all sound like effortless, high quality popular music. Why songs like “Wait For Me” and “I’m So Blue” aren’t on the radio, I’ll never know. Binding the songs together are several AP new reports enmeshed with lyrics and other wonderful statements spoken with perfect inflection by Veanne Cox. There is a veritable Gordion Knot of material here. The disc is cyclic with melodic, textual, and rhythmic returns of events.
“If you multiply my disappointment by the world, you’ll see what I mean. Multiply that by the animals eaten.”
The sound quality on the disc is amazing. What sounds effortless is actually some of the most nuanced and intricately orchestrated music I’ve encountered recently. Every listen brings out something new, like Christina Pawl’s trumpet playing. There are times when you hear the trumpet but there are times when she is tucked into the texture. With the exception of those that I’ve already mentioned and Penelope Thomas’ backing vocals, Mikel Rouse performs everything. Not only is he Schubert, he rivals Wagner in gesamtkunstwerk.
“I look at human beings and I see a freak show.”
The best thing about this music is how complicated the songs are without sounding Complicated. “I’m So Blue” is a rather weird song in many respects but you don’t know that when you hear it. Rouse’s lyrics are so smart and tight in the verses that when the chorus is a simple “I’m so blue/that I love you” you can rest assured that he has exhausted any other way he might have had of saying the same thing. “I’m So Blue” is also in a 7 beat meter but I didn’t realize that for about a month of repeated listening. Other favorites of mine are “Wait For Me,” “Silence of Sound,” “Star Chamber/Rose Woods,” “Stay in School,” and “The World Got Away.”
The songs are catchy, appealing, and detailed that you will be singing them to yourself for a while (my 4-year-old daughter was singing “Silence of Sound” in the tub the other night). You will also be mining the lyrics and such for Facebook and Twitter posts. Chuck Norris wins. Some songs are harder to get into. “Yawn Factory” was a tough sell on my ears but I’m into it now. I’m not a fan of “Blue Book,” but I couldn’t quite tell you why. When I try, I end up telling you everything that I LIKE about “Star Chamber/Rose Woods.” Galen Brown’s testimonial from last month can shed more light on this excellent disc.
“I’ve traded knowledge for tape decks and beer.”
I will point out that, with the holidays coming up, you have a music lover that would dig this disc a lot. Everyone knows someone who will love this. Do them the favor and pick up a copy for yourself. Chuck Norris wins.
Tuning in to Gravity at Galapagos
Posted by Galen H. Brown in Contemporary Classical, Downtown, Minimalism, New Amsterdam, New York, Post Modern
Last Friday I finally made it down to the new DUMBO location of Galapagos Art Space to see the release party/performance of Mikel Rouse’s haunting new album Gravity Radio. Mikel Rouse, whose album Gravity Radio may at first glance seem like a straight-up rock record, but which has deep roots in the classical music and theater traditions as well. Mikel himself is clearly comfortable in the netherworld between pop and classical, moving effortlessly more into one area and then into the other. In 1978 his band Tirez Tirez opened for the Talking Heads in Kansas City; in New York in the 80s when postminimalism’s highly rhythmically and structurally complex offshoot Totalism was emerging, Rouse was at the center of the movement along with composers like Kyle Gann and Michael Gordon. In 1984 he wrote a 12-tone piece called Quick Thrust for a rock quartet, which features dizzying polymeters that somehow seem tightly controlled and completely haywire at the same time. Mikel’s rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic instincts all seem grounded in rock, but he tends to deploy those materials much more like a classical composer than like a popular song writer.
Take “Black Cracker,” which is track three on Gravity Radio. First, almost all popular music in 4/4 time has four-bar phrases, but for Rouse’s lyric that fourth bar is unnecessary and he leaves it out. The whole song is perfectly seamless, and yet because every cycle is one bar shorter than you expect the whole thing feels constantly off-kilter. Then part way through he cuts the tempo of the descending hook “When I’m bored I can’t be bored with you/When I’m blown I can’t be blown in two” by half. After establishing the half-tempo version he brings back the full-tempo version over top of it, making the chorus into a prolation canon. That half-speed hook then becomes background for the next verse. Later an ascending scale adds yet another counterpoint to the mixture, and the whole thing fits together like a puzzle.
The danger of emphasizing these elements of complexity, of course, is the risk of sending the message that complexity is inherently virtuous, or that the complexity in this music somehow “elevates” it above other less complex popular music. Writing in Gramophone, Ken Smith once said that Rouse’s music is evidence that “pop music can sustain serious interest with the right person at the helm”–the implication that most pop music can’t “sustain serious interest” is the kind of thing that tells me the writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The complexity in Gravity Radio is interesting and enjoyable, and connects the music to the classical tradition, but ultimately the music has to stand or fall on its surface qualities, and in this case it stands tall. I’ll take a well-crafted Britney Spears tune over a tortured post-serialist brain-dump by a composer who cares more about combinatoriality than musicality any day of the week, and while I haven’t asked him I suspect Mikel Rouse would feel the same way.
If it sounds like I’m avoiding telling you what Gravity Radio is, exactly, the truth is I’m not sure what to call it. It’s part song-cycle, part concept album, part theater piece. It’s a series of thematically and musically related, country-inflected, infectiously memorable rock songs of ambiguous but evocative lyrical content, connected by interludes of spoken recitation of news headlines and fragments of lyrics from the songs delivered in an astonishing newscaster-kunst voice by Veanne Cox. It has something to do with superconductors and gravity waves. It’s abstract and catchy and deep. It’s 52 minutes and 14 seconds long.
The beauty of the internet is that I can just tell you to go here to listen to portions of it and read Mikel Rouse’s description and the lyrics. The performance at Galapagos was a stripped down version with just guitar, string quartet (members of ACME), Mikel singing, Veanne reciting, and some background sound effects. It worked well even in that format, and the absence of drums and other rock elements showcased how deeply integrated the string arrangements are into the composition. The band fought a little against the acoustics of the space, which had a tendency to muddy up the sound, but overall the performance was tight and intense. Rouse modestly sat among the ensemble rather than standing front and center like a rock frontman. The headlines in the news recitations were updated with recent news, as they will be for each leg of the international tour that begins in January.
Gravity Radio ends with one last set of news reports from which I draw one final observation: Almost any statement is improved by the addition of the phrase “Chuck Norris wins.”
Avant-Garde in the City – Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and Mikel Rouse by James C. Taylor
One other avant-garde figure to make a welcome return recently was Mikel Rouse, who’s latest work was seen and heard for one-night at the new Galapagos art space in DUMBO. Rouse’s operatic works, Failing Kansas, Dennis Cleveland, and The End of Cinematics, were seen around town a few years back, but in recent seasons, he’s been touring with those large-scale theater-pieces across the continent. His latest, Gravity Radio, mixes news wire feeds (read with ram-rod straight, just-the facts conviction by actress Veanne Cox) and jaunty, melancholy songs of love. This “unplugged” version was captivating, but it whet the appetite for one of Rouse’s full-blown stagings—hopefully to be experienced at a familiar theater soon.
Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone Blog
Mikel Rouse unveils Gravity Radio at Galapagos
November 1, 2009 ·
Mikel Rouse, the Saint Louis-born composer who lives and works in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, probably is best-known for his multi-media operas, particularly his trilogy of Failing Kansas (1995), Dennis Cleveland (1996) and The End of Cinematics (2005). So it was a bit of a surprise to get a first peek at the songs for his latest show Gravity Radio, in a stripped-down concert format at Galapagos Art Space in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn on Oct. 23. (Sorry it took so long to post this!) It was a special CD release party that turned into a well-mannered, deeply affecting chamber-rock concert.
The CD is officially released this Tuesday, while the full-blown Gravity Radio show will go on tour starting in January, hitting New York at a yet-undetermined date. The songs that make up Gravity Radio are interspersed with dialogue (read at Galapagos and on the CD by TONY nominated/OBIE Award winning actress Veanne Cox) ripped from the news of the day, touching on topics like Afghanistan, the tanking economy and such. (When the full-blown show hits the road, these news dispatches will be altered and updated with the news of the day).
The material has a topical feel, like all of Mikel’s work that I’m familiar with. But each number is shaped more conventionally like a song — which creates a different feel, more of a song cycle than a through-composed work. Gravity Radio is crammed full of memorable tunes, the most memorable of which is “Wait for Me,” a jaunty tune that on the surface is a devilish seduction song. The CD is chock full of tunes that the audience could easily leave the room humming. That’s marked contrast to the songs from Mikel’s ambitious operas, which although I loved them, were not nearly a full of discrete songs, but were more through-composed pieces. That’s not to say that Gravity Radio won’t take on a different aspect once it’s fully staged, but the songs themselves are essentially in their final form.
Mikel presented the new material in an intimate setting, with members of his band and string players from ACME seated in a line onstage, with no set decoration or videos. When the piece is fully staged next year, you can rest assured that it will involve many more people (in the pit and onstage) and will include videos and other multimedia features. “Perhaps it is an attempt to recapture or update my first memory of radio in the late 1960s – Motown and British rock fading in from a faraway Chicago station as the local news faded out on my transistor radio, which I put between my head and the pillow late at night,” Mikel says of Gravity Radio’s concept.
John Fleming’s CD picks: Mikel Rouse
By John Fleming, Times Performing Arts Critic In Print: Sunday, October 11, 2009
Album: Gravity Radio (Exit Music) In stores: Nov. 3
Why we care: Searchers for the elusive nexus of classical and pop will want to check out Mikel Rouse’s latest production. Actually, there isn’t much classical, but the best of the pop is catchy and brainy.
Why we like it: Rouse does it all, singing (in excellent soulful style) and playing almost all the instruments in a control-freak studio tour de force reminiscent of John Fogerty’s one-man show, The Blue Ridge Rangers. There’s a wash of psychedelic Beatlemania to the sound texture that is remarkable. Unfortunately, Rouse’s song cycle is broken up by tiresome radio news reports meant to constitute a commentary of sorts on media culture and politics.
Reminds us of: Laurie Anderson
Download these: Wait for Me, Star Chamber