Saturday, October 6, 2001 MUSIC REVIEW’Funding’ a Mesmerizing
Mix of Imagery, People
By MARK SWED, Times Music Critic
Mikel Rouse is the creator of the video opera “Funding.”
The Eclectic Orange Festival has, over the last two years, found a small corner in which operatic revolution can brew by presenting Mikel Rouse’s two short operas, “Dennis Cleveland” and “Failing Kansas.” The first is opera as television talk show; the second a meditation on Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Both are provocative studies in the intersection of alienation and mass culture, musically as well dramatically. They are song operas, in which techniques of pop song, Minimalism, traditional aria and experimental music merge.
Sunday at the Orange County Art Museum comes the next step with the premiere screening of Rouse’s video opera, “Funding.” Alienation is again the subject, this time in the lives of five New Yorkers who did not participate in the economic miracle of the late ’90s.
The images of them are often mundane. A dancer wraps her foot. Stock prices flash. A woman rides the subway. A man has a lonely drink in a bar. The Coney Island Ferris wheel turns. There are hints that they all came to New York to find something that they didn’t find and are now thankful just to be surviving. All see through the emptiness that surrounds them. Some are angry, some show quieter angst, all are lonely. They are relatives of the existential characters from the beat literature of the ’50s, the existential characters from New Wave cinema of the ’60s, the existential characters from Robert Ashley’s operas of the ’70s and ’80s, compelling as ever.
As Kerouac did through his prose, as Godard has done through his visual technique, as Ashley has done through his sung poetry, Rouse finds a musical style that makes these shadowy figures mesmerizing. They don’t sing to us but talk over catchy musical lines.
Each section begins simply and becomes enthrallingly complex, with contrapuntal layers of rhythm building to reflect multiple layers of personalities.
Everything in Rouse is about overlay. There are four “cycles” in which Rouse’s voice is overdubbed into chorus, singing songs that present the larger themes of “Funding.” New York is shown in a flux of layered imagery. Cool, liquid images flash by and meld as if downtown were some sort of oceanic world, while Rouse sings of losing neighbors and behaviors in haunting repeated melodic figures that lap like waves across this strange yet familiar landscape.
There are semi-straightforward vignettes of some characters, but each is revealed differently. We never see, for instance, the Frenchman; he talks of his lover, a dancer, and we watch her. Nothing is ever quite explained or needs to be, since these five don’t quite know why they feel as they do. But they all know that funding, the economic machine that drove New York through its recent boom, is the ominous shadow over their lives.
There is much in “Funding,” particularly the interaction between video and music (Rouse directed and edited the film himself) that seems new. And there is much that doesn’t. These are people that we recognize, fragile, maybe damaged, whose survival in a pernicious environment is inspiring. If they can make it, so can we.
And Rouse’s music, the overlapping rhythmic patterns in strings and winds and electronic keyboards are pure sonic encouragement, lifting us all to a higher plane.
“Funding” will be shown Sunday and Oct. 14, 21, and 28, 2 p.m., Orange County Museum of Art, Lyon Auditorium, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Museum admission: $5 ($4 students/seniors). (949) 759-1122. A DVD of it is available at http://www.mikelrouse.com. Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
Week of July 19 – 25, 2000
VILLAGE VOICE Mikel Rouse Launches Three CDs, Among Other Things
One-Man Opera Machine by Kyle Gann
Three steps ahead of the game (photo: Hiroyuki Ito)
Mikel Rouse is the poster boy for composer self-sufficiency. Not that he’s the first to achieve it. Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow led careers independent of other musicians and music organizations, but paid dearly for it: Ives heard little of his music performed until he was in his fifties. Nancarrow waited until age 65 for any recognition at all. But the computer has added vast new vistas to the composer’s landscape of self-driven opportunities, and while many are taking advantage of them, Rouse seems to stay three steps ahead of the game.
Consider: In 1995 he produced, on his computer, an opera he could perform by himself with a microphone, a harmonica, and a CD player, Failing Kansas. This gave him the experience to write a more ambitious opera with a larger cast, the popular Dennis Cleveland. He’s been touring that work while completing another opera, which will eventually be presented at BAM, probably in fall of 2001, The End of Cinematics. But booking operas in big spaces is a slow process, and Rouse hasn’t twiddled his thumbs. To kill time he’s made a computer film-with-music called Funding (named for something he’s gotten very little of, and thus the drive to self-sufficiency), which can exist either as a full-performance production with cast, simply as a DVD, or as anything in between. And in recent weeks, he’s officially launched his own record label, Exit Music, with three CDs of his latest music appearing at once. Whew. The last composer who churned out operas at this pace worked for the Archbishop of Salzburg.
The new CDs continue what I like to call Rouse’s simulation of normalcy, his suave rock surface, which, when you listen into it, is highly structured via unusual rhythmic devices: slow seven-beat background patterns, phrases passing each other at different lengths and tempos. Of the three, The American Dream contains the music from The End of Cinematics. The song “Men Are Women” opens with Rouse repeating the words “Stay, whadaya say, on the way-hay” in a five-beat pattern. He then overlays a more pop-sounding four-beat version over this, and adds the words “I didn’t think, I didn’t dream” in a three-beat pattern, so that we finally have three-, four-, and five-beat patterns all going at once. If you made an analytical diagram for this music, and another for Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, they would look identical at some points, but the feeling could hardly be more different. The sampling is inventive, too, uniting the songs globally; in a song “G.O.D.O.O.C.” (standing for “God out of control”), the words “I can’t” sung over and over in the background turn out to be the stuttered beginning of the next song, subliminally etched in your brain.
Surprisingly enough, the second CD, Return, was made by recomposing a set of nine string quartets that Rouse had written back in the ’80s. In some songs you can hear those quartets running through the background, sometimes reorchestrated for winds or brass. In “You Know Why I’m Here,” for instance, the original odd-rhythmed cadences, in crazy parallel fifths, run over and over beneath a rock beat they don’t fit with. Stockhausen himself would envy the number of lines and textures Rouse can seduce you into listening to all at once, and the success of that depends on Rouse’s amazing ability as a recording producer to locate all these levels in a virtual audio space deep and transparent enough that they don’t get in each other’s way.
Cameraworld, the third CD, is perhaps Rouse’s most stripped-down, almost-conventional rock disc yet, though it is still filled with opaque lyrics running in counterpoint. Computer lingo abounds; the first words are “Visit my page,” and the song “Bounce to Disc” goes, “Light break down to number/Digitize your slumber/Life becomes a fresco out of movies/Dumb and dumber.” I wish I could recommend which disc to get first, but my favorite cuts are scattered on all three. I find that I sometimes can’t sell hardcore rock fans on Rouse; he sounds superficially like stuff they’ve heard before, and they’re not used to listening on the deeper structural level on which his most original effects take place. Call it avant-rock for classical fans if you want, but it’s the most complex tonal music around. And your best bet for finding it, for now, is through his Web page, www.mikelrouse.com.
Lee Hartmen Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Mikel Rouse’s film, Funding was the first concert event of the conference. A graduate of both KCAI and UMKC, Rouse credits KCAI with allowing him to be creative while studying with Stanley Brakhage and UMKC (and LeRoy Pogemiller) for providing him with technical skills and discipline. The non-narrative Funding is a series of “musical meditations on New York City” and sounds like “very popular music but not for anyone who buys popular music.” The style of the cinematography was influenced by French New Wave auteurs with shots people on the street, in restaurants, in their apartments, or on Coney Island rides. Musically, Rouse was correct in his description of this as “pop music” as some of the same layering effects are used by Imogen Heap, Björk, and Death Cab for Cutie. Rouse wisely brought images, musical ideas, and dialogue back at certain points; this repetition grounded the work and drew new associations within each occurrence. Heavily anti-Wall Street while exploring issues of loneliness in a big city, Rouse created a relevant feast for the ears and eyes.