Unleashing a Creative Deluge
By STEVE SMITH
Published: December 6, 2010
If artists, like illusionists, manufacture their own realities, then the New York composer, performer and director Mikel Rouse just might be unveiling his magnum opus this week. At the heart of his endeavor is “Gravity Radio,” a recent staged song cycle by Mr. Rouse, which receives its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Tuesday night.
Mikel Rouse performing “Gravity Radio,” which has its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Tuesday.
But Mr. Rouse’s real feat is subtler and more profound. Like most artists, he has been affected during recent seasons by recessionary woes, including canceled engagements. As if in response, he is offering a veritable deluge of creative activity this month, with “Gravity Radio” as its focal point.
On Monday an exhibition of Mr. Rouse’s notebooks, manuscripts and video art opened at the Margarete Roeder Gallery in SoHo. On Tuesday he releases two CDs, “Recess” and “Corner Loading (Volume 1),” on his decade-old label, Exit Music. On Wednesday “Passport: 30 Years Drawn on the Road,” another exhibition of Mr. Rouse’s sketches and watercolors, opens at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, honoring the library’s acquisition of his archive. A film retrospective opens at the library on Dec. 15, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater revives Ulysses Dove’s “Vespers,” set to Mr. Rouse’s “Quorum,” on Dec. 16.
Mr. Rouse, 53, is no stranger to ambitious undertakings. Prominent in the New York downtown scene of the 1980s as the leader of Broken Consort, a new-music ensemble, and Tirez Tirez, an alternative-rock group, Mr. Rouse helped to pioneer what would now be deemed postclassical music more than three decades before the term was coined, fusing the sound, instrumentation and volume of rock with classical music’s complexity and scale, and the repetition of Minimalism.
He is best known for a trilogy of operas on popular culture and mass-media saturation: “Failing Kansas” (1994), based on the murders in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”; “Dennis Cleveland” (1995), inspired by television talk shows; and “The End of Cinematics” (1996), a dreamlike elegy for art-house film.
Like those works, the 14 songs of “Gravity Radio,” issued last year on Exit Music, have a pop-inspired directness and surface sheen that can disguise their contrapuntal and metrical intricacy. Interspersed among the songs are simulated news reports read by an actress, with lines borrowed seemingly at random from the song lyrics — an effect paradoxically unifying and disorienting. Adapting the album for the stage, Mr. Rouse explained during a recent interview in his Times Square studio, partly had to do with economics.
“I simply was not going to be able to put a 13- or 14-piece ensemble on the road, especially if there was going to be a video component, because you have to have tech and crew,” he said. “This is probably one of the simpler shows I’ve done, but I like it to have a look. And I like the video to be integrated with the lighting design, so that it’s not just video slapped up on a screen.” Film shot by Mr. Rouse is meant to provide a dreamy backdrop, with a computer program adjusting luminosity according to the music’s volume.
Mr. Rouse was also spurred to revisit “Gravity Radio,” he admitted, by listeners and critics who deemed it a pop album. Rearranging the songs for voices, acoustic guitar and string quartet to accentuate their structure, he added, helped him to approach the project anew. “You think about Bob Dylan going out and doing different versions of his songs because he wants to stay interested,” Mr. Rouse said. “Basically, if you know the record, you’ll know all the songs. But it’s a completely different piece now because of this.”
The news reports are updated for each performance, adding a bit of chance, with only the phrases borrowed from the songs remaining constant. “The lyrics were written in such a way as to be intentionally vague, so that if it’s a story about the New York Yankees or a story about Obama, or whatever, it can still be reflective of the song lyrics,” he said. “Audience members connect the dots in very different ways and see a parallel between the song ‘I’m So Blue’ and a news report about Rwanda, and it becomes a kind of a beautiful combination of elements.”
But behind that appeal is a more serious concern: the notion of news as “infotainment,” as Mr. Rouse put it, “which is CNN orchestrating the news — how the minute there’s a Katrina or something, they have a theme song for it.” He added: “No matter how factual the news is, you’re being manipulated. Part of the idea of these news reports’ being orchestrated by a string quartet was to highlight that aspect, but at the same time, hopefully, to let you reflect on it: ‘O.K., this is kind of beautiful, but is this really how I want to receive my news?’ ”
As if to emphasize his point further, when Mr. Rouse was asked to choose an interviewer for a postperformance conversation on Thursday, he picked Evan and Andrew Gregory, the Brooklyn artists and brothers behind the Internet series “Auto-Tune the News,” in which television news clips provide fodder for wickedly funny music videos.
Mr. Rouse e-mailed Academy executives a link to “Auto-Tune the News #8,” which he called the Gregorys’ masterpiece. “While I think they’re very humorous, I really think that it’s some of the better stuff going on right now in terms of mixing media and actually being really musical,” he said. That the work was created on a shoestring budget only increased his admiration.
“I really don’t think there’s any excuse for someone not to make great things,” Mr. Rouse said. “There used to really be one, even 10 or 15 years ago, in terms of financial limitations. But you don’t need this”—he swept a hand across his imposing recording console—“to make a great record.”
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.
The speed at which Mr. Rouse works at least partly explains the size of the archive the Library for the Performing Arts is making available to the public.
“There’s a lot,” the executive director, Jacqueline Z. Davis, said, “but thankfully, not only is he creative, extremely talented and very successful — he’s also organized.” The collection, she explained, is arriving in four waves: analog master tapes; scores, manuscripts and programs; digital media; and, finally, sketchbooks, diaries, contracts and correspondence, some of which are in the exhibition.
As for Mr. Rouse, who spent the better part of two years making new projects and sorting old ones while waiting for the economy to improve, the time was right to resurface.
“I feel a little bit like it’s going to be like the groundhog,” he said. “I’m going to raise my head out, see my shadow and go back in for another two years. Or I’m not going to see my shadow and I’ll kind of get back out in the world, do some touring and get the thing going.”
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. Around them, onstage, were video projections and current news readings when “Gravity Radio” was presented on Tuesday night at the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it continues through Saturday.
Mr. Rouse was accompanied by a string quartet, two female singers and the sounds of shortwave radio static; he played a National steel resonator guitar or an acoustic guitar, singing in a rusty voice. “When you think the worst is over/You know the worst has just begun,” one song counseled.
Between every few songs, a woman read some of the day’s Associated Press reports — tax legislation, Iran’s nuclear program, Wikileaks, Oprah Winfrey in Australia — ostensibly to change the context for the songs. The video images were footage by Mr. Rouse that was often blurred or shown at disorienting angles; it presented landscapes, streetscapes and people, brightening or darkening with the volume of the music.
The trappings gave a Laurie Anderson overlay to “Gravity Radio,” suitable for the performance-space circuit where Mr. Rouse has been touring with it. But they barely affected the songs, which didn’t need any theatrical help. Melding the sinewy stoicism of folk tradition with Mr. Rouse’s structural tweaks, they pondered disappointments and diminishing expectations, personal and political, reaching pensive conclusions in succinct choruses: “The world got away with me,” concluded the last tune.
With the steel guitar’s tinny bite, the music hinted at blues and old-time country, while the acoustic guitar moved it into folk-pop. But the string quartet and backup vocals added convolutions: harmonies leaning toward polytonality, staggered vocals that gently concealed the beat. Meanwhile, Mr. Rouse was toying with the rhythms, using odd meters that made the music skip and spring ahead so that it was never quite as cozy as the arrangements might seem.
If Mr. Rouse had built his career in a different era, he might be playing these songs to indie-rock fans alongside bands like Dirty Projectors or an earlier Sufjan Stevens. But maybe it’s for the best — the classical rubric makes for quieter audiences.
Mikel Rouse performs through Saturday at the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene; (718) 636-4100, bam.org.
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