A composer in search of America
Mikel Rouse takes a clear-eyed look at a
crazy-quilt country in “Music for Minorities.”
By Mark Swed
Times Staff Writer
March 18, 2005
The first thing we see after the lights darken for Mikel Rouse’s “Music for Minorities” is a CNN newscast splintered into stuttering repetitions. Under a stammering Wolf Blitzer, a news scroll announces, “God calls it quits.” He can’t compete with humanity. “I made my own religion,” Rouse then sings in a sweet tune eerily familiar (and eerily hard to place), “and that’s my universe.” Calm, cool, collected, Rouse spends the next hour sitting on the stage of UCLA’s Macgowan Little Theater singing smooth songs inspired by ’60s pop and Delta blues. His tools are acoustic guitar (softly amplified), harmonica and video deck. On a screen overhead are projected fractured scenes from life — interviews with people in rural Louisiana, clips of Rouse’s New York
The life is messy. The songs are not. They attempt to connect the dots, as stories of others merge into Rouse’s own stories. The dots can’t, of course, be connected. We are all minorities, at least to ourselves, and we can make only partial sense of our stories. Rouse comes out of a school of composers in New York once known as Totalists. As a term, Totalism didn’t stick. But the idea — that for the post-Minimalist generation, it might not be a bad thing to let lots of things into music — did.
Totalism gave Rouse permission to write in a sophisticated pop style. The conventional tunes of “Music for Minorities” don’t have conventional structures or settings (a drone-like electronic amalgam of overlaid guitars and percussion accompanies them). Counterpoint and asymmetry sneak in. Under the gentle surface of the music are disturbing ripples. You think you know where you are, but you don’t.
The result is a modest detour from a trilogy of operas that Rouse has been creating. Like “Dennis Cleveland” (a TV talk show opera) and “Failing Kansas” (based on Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”), his new piece, which is being presented by UCLA Live and runs through Sunday, finds fascination in many of the troubled, darker aspects of Middle America. It finds, in fact, more than fascination. It finds a curious solace and even salvation in stripping away the veneer of ordinary life and discovering a profound individuality.
If everyone is a minority, if we are all a religion unto ourselves, sacred ground is slippery. Rouse’s worlds are mixed. “Music for Minorities” was made while he served a composer residency in Louisiana. But he also had a life in New York. The images above him show both worlds. His wife, Lisa Boudreau, is a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and she prances amusingly while Rouse, amusingly, sings of “rubber feet.”
Cunningham tells a funny story. Fact and fiction merge. On split screens, sad and moving stories are told.
In one clip, a hick, played by Rouse, sits on his porch and carries on about a “love field.” A Japanese cowboy has his say, although who knows what it is he’s saying.
It doesn’t all add up, and it isn’t meant to. Perhaps what impresses most about “Music for Minorities” is the quiet, understated insight that nobody knows what experiences really mean. For biographers and Hollywood screenwriters, life may be a linear narrative. Journalists love to pick up the pieces and tell a story. On radio, “This American Life” is a frequently sentimental attempt at making sense out of broken lives.
Rouse, on the other hand, takes clichés and dangles them in front of us without ever letting them settle into sentiment. The overworked harmonies in his songs don’t gel. Stories come in fragments. Two voices speak at once, and you decide what to listen to. Lyrics are elusive comments, more general than specific. Rouse rarely raises his voice. A sense of humor, as slippery as everything else in his work, runs through “Music for Minorities.” Parody and tragedy aren’t far apart.
“Music for Minorities” is deceptively simple and straightforward Americana. You take from it as much or as little as you want. No one can really say what it is to be an American these days. But this is a meaningful piece of the puzzle.
‘Music for Minorities’
Where: Macgowan Little Theater, UCLA
When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday
By Natalie Tate
DAILY BRUIN SENIOR STAFF
With the rise in popularity of services such as TiVo and Netflix, it’s safe to say that many Americans center their lives around the expedited and convenient use of media, especially television. For years, musical and performance artists have often lamented this trend, mainly because they worry that the members of a television-based culture inevitably possess a limited attention span and will not want to attend a two-hour performance with only one intermission and no commercial breaks.
Rather than grumble about it, composer Mikel Rouse, who will have the Los Angeles debut of his work “Music for Minorities” on March 16 at Royce Hall, has chosen to embrace his audience’s affinity for the television format. He even caters to it, adopting a unique style of performance he refers to as “romantic channel surfing.”
“People are watching TV and focusing on the media in a different way than previous generations,” Rouse said.
“What I tried to do in a much more subtle and artistic way is emulate channel surfing – maybe you almost finish one program in bits, and maybe there’s a million things you never reconnect or finish with, but that does become a new mode of getting information.”
In his performances, Rouse incorporates and blends various types of performance-based media, including live music, film and spoken word. Rouse received earlier acclaim for “Failing Kansas,” a multimedia performance that attempted to convey the ideas in Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood” in a form unique from the original narrative. With his next piece of similar magnitude, “Dennis Cleveland,” Rouse actually created a talk show-based opera, with a television studio setting and even limited audience participation.
His newest work, “Music For Minorities,” continues in the same tradition of a multimedia show, but on a slightly smaller scale. Inspired by time he spent going back to his Southern roots, “Music For Minorities” reflects the trademark blues style of music from Louisiana and the Southern Delta. Rouse means “minorities” to imply the lack of individuality in the current offerings of corporate media, not to be confused with its racial connotation.
Rouse performs “Music For Minorities” in its entirety as a one-man show. In the piece, he fuses guitar-based songs with films of interviews with people in both Louisiana and New York City – all of his own direction and composition – to convey disparate stories and ideas.
“It’s tough to pull off, but the integration between playing the songs and underscoring the film and the stories of the film ties everything together,” Rouse said. “Some of them are really meaningful; some of them are not meaningful at all, just like television. When all that comes together, there are moments that are quite unique.”
Yet Rouse is quick to point out that while “Music For Minorities” is a one-man show, it cannot be classified in the same category as performance art. Its uniqueness lies in its devotion to music as its primary structure.
“Even though there’s a real performance element, even though there’s an element of integration with media, at the end of the day, the structure of music and how it integrates into all the other aspects is my primary goal,” said Rouse. “It’s the structure of the music that gives you a sense that it’s not just hopeless, but that there’s something bigger going on.”
With “Music For Minorities,” Rouse ultimately continues his entirely original and affecting method of storytelling that has been compared by critics to the experience of listening to Bob Dylan for the first time, in terms of a different sound or approach.
“Along those lines, I would like to think that a piece like ‘Music For Minorities’ provides a performer, whether it’s a songwriter or a performance artist, with a new way to tell stories,” Rouse said.
by Alan Rich LA WEEKLY
In adjacent rooms in a UCLA theater complex last week, one could, on successive nights, sample the musical approximations of human banality and human carnality. Score one, this time around at least, for the humdrum.
Mikel Rouse is not so much a man the theater; he the theater. A few years back, alone on another local stage with harmonica and guitar, he turned himself into a pair of Kansas
murderers, their victims and their retribution. This time, in the Macgowan Little Theater, he and his tunes became the interlock of small points of view into which you and I and everyone we know somehow fit. His tunes achieve a simultaneous boredom and hypnosis. His video images — cast onto a screen behind him — are achingly everyday. He is like with cayenne instead of
SX NEWS – MINORITY RETORT
Thursday, 11 May 2006
Composer, performer and film-maker Mikel Rouse is bringing multimedia music theatre to Sydney. Katrina Fox previews his two shows.
On split screens, moving stories are told in fragments as Mikel Rouse plays guitar and sings songs inspired by ’60s pop and delta blues in the first of his two works, Music for Minorities.
Accompanied by a soundscape of percussion and multiple guitars, Rouse weaves stories and interacts with synchronised video cut from interviews with a range of personalities from his home town of New York. He refers to the work as “romantic channel surfing”, in which he explores the troubled, darker aspects of middle America and offers a voice to the ‘Silent Minorities’ of the media age.
Rouse’s second work is inspired by In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel. Failing Kansas is a rock opera based on events surrounding the 1959 murders of the Clutter family and the execution of their killers. Rouse performs solo with his own voice multi-tracked on tape together with pre-recorded electronic music. The libretto is composed of actual transcripts and testimony from the case, as well as fragments of verse, songs by one of the killers, and the text of Pentecostal hymns of the 1950s. This technique, which Rouse calls ‘counterpoetry’, aims to take audiences into the minds of the killers.
Born in Missouri, 49-year-old Rouse studied theory and composition at the University of Missouri Conservatory of Music, and film-making and painting at the Kansas City Art Institute, before moving to New York in 1979 where he
studied African and other world music as well as classical. He formed a contemporary chamber ensemble, Broken Consort, consisting of keyboard, electric guitar/bass, woodwinds and percussion. Among the recordings he produced with the group were A Walk in the Woods, which appeared on The New York Times list of the 10 best records of 1985. His electronic piece Quorum was used for Ulysses Dove’s Vespers and presented by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 1987 to the present day. In the spring of 1995 a film of this work won two Emmy Awards.
Rouse has spent the past 25 years creating multimedia performances exploring ideas about how America looks at religion and spirituality, underscored with music genres of the past 50 years including jazz, world music and classical.
Music for Minorities (May 23-28) and Failing Kansas (May 30-June 4), The Playhouse at Sydney Opera House, times vary, $45/$35. Bookings: 9250 7777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com/adventures
Rouse will take part in an Artist’s Talk on May 28 post-performance. He also appears as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival May 27-28. Details at www.swf.org.au