RENAISSANCE MAN ROUSE by Seth Colter Walls 4/8/2014
“I always believed—because I’m not a snob—that the structures I was working on were interesting because they could be heard. Not because I could prove they were interesting through mathematics or something, but… where multiple metric combinations would come together and would actually feel like the kind of resolution that you normally get with harmonic resolution.”
Singer-songwriter Mikel Rouse may have concluded his indie-rock touring career 25 years ago, when his band Tirez Tirez—which started by opening for Talking Heads—recorded their last album. But over the last quarter century, Rouse’s productivity has hardly fallen off: in addition to the chamber operas (Dennis Cleveland) and multimedia pieces (Gravity Radio) that have been presented at Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the classically-trained composer has continued to churn out an impressive catalog of rhythmically complex, melodically catchy avant-pop songs. With a host of stellar, independently released albums like the street-sound-sampling Recess and the beat-mad Boost/False Doors, as well as Rouse’s latest run of singles, it’s fair to say the artist is experiencing a late-career renaissance.
Now, even as Rouse is at work packaging up his career archives for the New York Performing Arts Library, he’s also started posting new compositions to Bandcamp, building a vast library of musical material for a planned 13-hour art installation based on a midcentury behavioral science text titled One Boy’s Life.
“It’s at the very beginning stages of the process—and I thought: how am I going to keep myself interested [and] still keep my work out there?” Rouse recently told me, as he put the finishing touches on “Mayan Yours”/“I Dry Gin,” his latest two-song single. “A lot of the music that you might hear from these Bandcamp releases, some of these might be changed for the piece; some of the lyrics might be taken away. You’ll notice for example on ‘The Law of Average,’ I [included] a couple different versions, including an instrumental version. … I can explore this thing, in public, as I play around with it.”
On the three-song Law of Average EP, Rouse for the first time offers up a deconstruction of his famously busy arrangements. Moving from the clattering, use-everything-in-the-kitchen-sink “composite” version, to the largely acoustic “Version 1” and then the beat-focused “Version 2,” makes for a highly enjoyable suite-like experience. Rouse calls this his first purposeful “song within a song” effort, even though “many folks think I’ve been doing this for decades.”
While sifting through his archives for the New York Performing Arts Library, Rouse recently came across an old article from the New York Times “that talked about my pop band’s music as sounding something like multiple conversations in an elevator” going on at the same time. “I think it really has to do with the fact that a lot of the stuff I work with—with isorhythms and polyrhythms—would have multiple tempos going on within the same song. Even if it sounded like a very simple pop song, you could see these different tempos moving together, through time. With ‘The Law of Average,’ I think it’s much more distinct, because one sounds like sort of a strummed, very lush acoustic pop song—and then the other one has all these multi-layered beats. But once the composite version is happening, the different structure points [are] very plotted out on a grid, so it will make sense. … It’s not just as if they were meshed together, as if you heard them both playing in a bar at the same time. But I like the idea that they could be perceived that way.
“As I was working on it, I thought: Wow, I almost could really think of this as two completely separate songs. So in a weird way, the ‘composite’ version of ‘The Law of Average,’ to me, is the most disturbing—because it really, in a way, doesn’t work, to put those two things together. Unless you remember things like Charles Ives, in which case it actually works incredibly well. … It sounds to me like the way New York sounds. You go into a post office or a waiting room nowadays, and you hear two different songs. I was just in a hotel, and they have CNN on the television, but in the very same room they’re playing music over their sound system. So the whole world has become the way I think I was writing 20 or 30 years ago.”
When I told Rouse that, among his recent singles, I particularly enjoyed placing that three-song version of “The Law of Average” on loop, he said that was very much by design. “I think it’s because there’s an internal logic there. And I always believed—because I’m not a snob—that the structures I was working on were interesting because they could be heard. Not because I could prove they were interesting through mathematics or something, but…where multiple metric combinations would come together and would actually feel like the kind of resolution that you normally get with harmonic resolution.”
Rouse’s rhythmic antennae—which seem always primed to hear some new pattern out in the world—went on high alert during a recent trip through the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, Mexico. After listening to a tour guide offer up a series of handclaps that resonated across the ruins in an echoing delay pattern, Rouse read up on how that the partially restored, ancient sports stadium he was touring was built to allow for “very precise numerical acoustic delays, similar to the numeric delays that are used in the buildings to represent workers and gods and all sorts of stuff.”
“The architects and the preservationists that came in and rebuilt the ruins… had no idea about the sound stuff. They were just rebuilding architecture based on what they knew about architecture. But then the NASA scientists come in, and they discover the acoustic phenomenon afterward. And that, to me, is like discovering a 2000 year old audiotape that still works. And it blew my mind.” The handclaps of Rouse’s tour guide figure into the final mix of “Mayan Yours,” Rouse says, while “a lot of the precision of the beats in that song also follows delay patterns based on the 7-beat delay.”
Of course it’s far too soon to know how much of the Mayan hand-clap inspiration will be of use to his upcoming art installation project. But for the moment, Rouse knows he just has to start creating enough material to fill up a 13-hour art installation. “There’s going to be a long long arc of theme and variation that goes on with this piece. … I think the section in ‘Ambulance Chaser,’ where you hear the string and choral section, way in the background? Within the context of the installation, that may be an entire wash of sound that live musicians play against or play with.”
“‘Ambulance Chaser’ was the first [single], and I wanted to keep it—at least in my vocabulary—really simple. I think I put some wah-wah guitar on it, but for the most part I was just using programmed beats similar to the programmed beats I used in Boost. But using them you know in a multi-rhythmic way, as opposed to just straight-ahead beats.” With as many as 50 or 100 multi-tracked parts going into some of his recent singles, Rouse is well on his way to having plenty of material to cull and adapt for his half-day-long project. Thankfully, though, Rouse has decided there’s nothing wrong with giving us access to the work-in-progress.
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.
THE MASTERDISK RECORD
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
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.”
Here comes the flood.
Night After Night by Steve Smith
Photograph by Eric Calvi
“Unleashing a Creative Deluge”
The New York Times, December 7, 2010
A preview story regarding the composer, performer and director Mikel Rouse, whose latest stage creation, Gravity Radio, opens tonight at the BAM Harvey Theater with additional performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For many folks, the Thursday performance will be the must-see show, since it comes with a post-performance artist talk conducted by Evan and Andrew Gregory of the Gregory Brothers, the creative force behind the insanely popular web-video series Auto-Tune the News.
Try to imagine doing an important interview and having your subject start to sing, “Those geese are cooked / those geese are cooked.” Yes.
This is, if memory serves, the longest feature I’ve written to date for The New York Times — a very generous word count, especially for the daily — and still there are literally dozens of things I’d like to have included but couldn’t. Mostly these are bits of older history, like the fact that nearly all of Rouse’s Broken Consort music is available from his label via iTunes, since he had the amazing foresight to structure most of his record deals — even the major-label releases by his alternative-rock group, Tirez Tirez — as licensing deals for a finite period, after which all rights reverted to him.
Rouse will surely issue the Tirez Tirez material some day. Meanwhile, go here for an earful of a young Rouse smitten with David Byrne and Philip Glass.
I’d also like to have gone into greater detail about the process by which Rouse’s archive was acquired by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which celebrates its arrival with a visual-art exhibit, “Passport: 30 Years Drawn on the Road,” on Wednesday. That process, an extension of the library’s earlier aquisition of collections from Meredith Monk and Ping Chong, shows the way in which the institution’s staff is learning how to categorize collections from artists whose work transcends genres not occasionally but defiantly, and how to preserve and make available the archives of artists whose work is seldom if ever codified into a score or printed instruction manual.
How great is it that you can look at an online gallery as extensive as this one, by the way?
Some day, it seems, I’ll need to write a bigger, longer and more comprehensive piece about Rouse, whose work, I think, is both popular and underappreciated, immediately comprehensible yet deeply misunderstood. On a different note, I’d love to see Rouse pull out his old Broken Consort charts for a spin; I bet they’d go over well at (Le) Poisson Rouge, the Bang on a Can Marathon or Big Ears. But it might be even cooler to think that some enterprising younger conductor, composer and/or bandleader could go to the library and look them up, too.
Finally, there’s one certain word I didn’t use at all in my preview. See if you can figure out what it was. Here’s a hint:
Right click to download full size image
Mikel Rouse finds a poignant spark in the cinematic jump cut at BAM.
By Steve Smith
FREEZE FRAME Live action and film intertwine unpredictably in The End of Cinematics. Photograph: Dan Merlo
The first image that greets the audience in The End of Cinematics, a new multimedia opera by New York composer-performer Mikel Rouse, is a projected warning: cell phones will interfere with the technology used in tonight’s performance. Such admonitions are a necessary part of every live-performance experience nowadays, but Rouse’s caveat carries a special urgency: His new production—the third in an “opera-verité” trilogy that began with 1994’s Failing Kansas and continued with the groundbreaking 1995 smash Dennis Cleveland—relies on technology to an unusual degree.
Speaking from the streets of Manhattan—via cell phone, naturally—Rouse explains the warning that opens his show, which arrives at the BAM Harvey Theater on Wednesday 4. “There’s so much wireless communication going on between the video people, the robotic camera, the in-ear monitor system that the performers use to hear the prerecorded score,” he offers at a caffeinated clip. “Very often you’ll get interference, and it’s usually the result of some electronic device. It’s no different than what they tell you on an airplane—the chances are slim, and certainly in our case they’re not life-threatening; it just means that something might get shut down.”
Rouse’s kinetic, pop-derived music and imaginative stage productions have long been enriched by his innovative use of electronics; The End of Cinematics, a nonnarrative gloss on the commodification of cinema, inspired by writings of Susan Sontag, pushes the envelope further still. “We’ve got a five-camera live shoot that’s integrating prerecorded film shot in Paris with live video,” Rouse says. “The performers are duplicating [characters] in the prerecorded film. There’s a six-panel rear-projection system; the lower panels show a lot of the same scenes that you’ll see in the upper panels, but using CGI, we’ve dropped out the people that were in them, so they can act as set-drops for the performers as they’re photographed live. Then those images are projected on a front scrim, to make this sort of montage.”
Rouse created the ambitious production last year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Key to its gestation was his access to the school’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). “They gave me this fabulous tour of their facility, and turned me on to technology that I had never seen demonstrated,” Rouse says. “One was stereo television, which we could never afford. I didn’t want the entire audience wearing glasses to view this piece, so I came up with this idea of how to ‘fake’ stereo television. Rather than go for the technofest that I could have done by having access to the stuff at the NCSA, it was actually more interesting to me that they inspired something.”
The enormity of the undertaking isn’t lost on the composer. “It’s like the scale of a stupid rock show—minus the stupid,” Rouse says. “When I saw the semi truck that was carrying the show, I thought I’d either arrived or made the biggest mistake of my life.” Even so, audience response assured him that he was on to something new and unexpected. “I wanted to comment on the vapidity of corporate entertainment,” he says. “Inadvertently, I did something completely different, which was to offer an alternative.”
For all its theoretical underpinnings, the sensuous imagery and sleek beats in The End of Cinematics might tempt audiences to simply sit back and soak in it. Not a problem, says Rouse, who refers to the collaborations of John Cage and Merce Cunningham: “What is so brilliant about what they set up is that you’ve got permission to check in and check out.”
Mention of Cunningham is timely—the choreographer’s company will present eyeSpace, a new piece set to Rouse’s International Cloud Atlas, during a Joyce Theater run that opens on October 10. Rouse’s score, provided with the ticket (and one of three new Rouse albums available on iTunes), was created for playback on an iPod in shuffle mode. “Similar to Cinematics, this asks an audience to completely rethink what a theatrical experience is,” Rouse says. “What you have now is a situation where all the audience members have their own secret, their own special version.”
An Opera That’s a Talk Show That’s a Philosophy
By KYLE GANN
Chris Brown A scene from Mikel Rouse’s talk-show opera “Dennis Cleveland” last year in Urbana, Ill.: however much the work may feel like a free-for-all, it is anything but.
Arts & Leisure (April 28, 2002) IF you don’t love me the way I am, then you can go,” shouts a character in Mikel Rouse’s opera “Dennis Cleveland.” But there is no response, just a series of non sequitur emotive sound bites: “My way or the highway, straight up!” “Open up, open up to me.” “I know, but she’s changed on me.” “Dennis Cleveland” is a depiction of an unreal world: it’s an opera in the form of a talk show, and don’t let the word “opera” fool you, because there’s a rock beat throughout. Mr. Rouse himself plays the suave host, Dennis Cleveland: part television Buddha, part snake-oil salesman, part tortured soul.
The piece played to sold-out audiences in its premiere run, at the Kitchen in 1996, and it returns on Wednesday, this time at the John Jay College Theater as part of the Great Performers series at Lincoln Center. In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine about a second talk-show opera, Richard Thomas’s “Jerry Springer,” Marshall Sella called “Dennis Cleveland” “cryptic” and “arcane.” Quite the contrary, the work – at least as it was performed at the Kitchen, and it was said to be the first show there successful enough to attract scalpers – is to conventional opera what a ferris wheel is to sitting in the park. You’re listening in the audience, and suddenly Mr. Rouse, playing the talk-show host, walks up and sticks the microphone in the face of the person next to you, who stands up and sings. Pretty soon you’re looking at all your neighbors with suspicion: did they pay to see the show, or are they in the cast? You might even start to fear that Mr. Rouse/Dennis will stick the mike in your face, and you’ll have to come up with a story for the folks.
In fact, there have been performances – among the productions so far in New York, Los Angeles, Urbana, Ill., and Perth, Australia -in which nonperformers have tried to join the show, jumping in to improvise. Perhaps no other opera has ever so effectively broken down the fourth wall and made the audience feel so vulnerably part of the production. Yet however much “Dennis Cleveland” may feel like a free-for-all, it is anything but. Like the downtown-opera pioneer Robert Ashley, to whom the work is dedicated, Mr. Rouse makes music that sounds free and easy and pop but is actually carefully structured. Large-scale cross-rhythms underpin the entire work. At one point, for instance, you’ll hear a commercial jingle (“And leave off the last S for savings”) repeat every 9 beats as a chant on the word “Money” repeats every 10 beats, the two phrases going out of phase. One scene, called “Soul Train,” is actually a large tempo canon -different voices singing the same, slow melody in two tempos at once -punctuated by percussion phrases recurring every 3, 4, 5, 7, 10 beats.
If you were to chart out all the rhythms on graph paper, it would look like something out of Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps.” Yet while Mr. Rouse’s subtleties create a large-scale liveliness, most audience members will presumably remain oblivious to them, swept along by the 4/4 pop beat on the surface. Mr. Rouse, 45, who was born in rural Missouri and has lived in New York since the late 70’s, represents a high point in a new type of artist that has emerged only in recent decades: the composer as sound engineer. Increasingly in his music (his recent CD “Cameraworld” on Exit Music is a particularly intricate example), there is a surface structure indistinguishable from that of a pop song: rock beat, lyrics, verse, chorus. But underneath are layers and layers of other music in growing complexity: conflicting rhythmic patterns, samples, additional lyrics by different singers, echoes and anticipations of the surface music.
That such complexity doesn’t turn to muddy chaos is a tribute to Mr. Rouse’s skills as a producer. Through digital recording technology, he has a way of making textures transparent and locating sounds in aural space so that it becomes possible to follow several streams at once. Listeners to “Dennis Cleveland,” for example, may notice a layer of samples (recorded excerpts) from actual talk shows that Mr. Rouse recorded: “Geraldo,” “Ricki Lake,” “The Gordon Elliott Show.” This ability puts Mr. Rouse at the forefront of a movement among composers of his generation, especially those in New York, that has in some circles acquired the contentious name Totalism. The idea is that -unlike composers a generation before, who tended to set their works off in a world uncontaminated by pop culture – the Totalists want it both ways: they want their music to be immediately appealing to the average person (usually defined as “pop music fan”), but they also want to invest it with all the intricacy of jazz, serialism, Indian and African and Indonesian styles. For the Totalists, the answer is usually to keep the harmony simple (though not necessarily consonant) and store the complexity in the rhythms and tempo structures, often in the background. For Mr. Rouse, working more with electronics than with acoustic musicians, that background is many-layered.
Ultimately, so is the meaning of “Dennis Cleveland.” On the surface, it’s a talk show, and there is the fun of watching couples argue onstage or audience members make stupid points and spout grotesque confessions. (Listen for risque snippets of Rouse autobiography.) Yet like the music itself, the narrative is couched in a deeper structure. The opera is Mr. Rouse’s response to a book that had wide influence after its publication in 1992, especially outside the United States: “Voltaire’s Bastards,” by the Canadian novelist and polymath John Ralston Saul. Mr. Saul diagnosed the ills of Western society as an overreliance on reason, method and management techniques at the expense of emotion, spirituality, humanitarianism and common sense. (Mr. Saul, a controversial figure in Canadian politics, attended the 1996 premiere of “Dennis Cleveland” and is said to be planning to attend again.) Like Mr. Saul – but more elliptically, because he is speaking in lyrics rather than arguments – Mr. Rouse goes through one sector of society after another, cutting deeply into the very culture of money, celebrity and hype that he pretends to celebrate:
This time the murders that you worship from afar Gonna join you in the bedroom, maybe meet you at the bar. . . . This time the finger that I put into the pie ‘Sgonna be the last reminder of the simple corporate lie.
“Dennis Cleveland” undermines commercialism by pretending to flow with it. Still, by the opera’s end you get a sense that the title character is deeply troubled by his own emptiness, even though it is that emptiness that makes him such a facile receptacle for the fantasies of his talk-show guests. It will be interesting to see whether Lincoln Center can maintain the work’s aura of unpredictability. Mr. Rouse, for his part, has moved on to other projects, and is turning out operas, music theater works and even films faster than he can get them produced and screened: “The End of Cinematics,” “Cameraworld,” “Funding.” These new pieces are sometimes subtler, more multilayered, perhaps deeper. But “Dennis Cleveland” remains a populist high point for a composer many believe to be the best of his generation. Dennis Cleveland John Jay College Theater, 10th Avenue at 59th Street. Wednesday through next Sunday. Kyle Gann, a composer, teaches at Bard College and writes about new music for The Village Voice.
October 31, 1999 The Talk of the Town?
Composer Mikel Rouse has elevated the lowly TV talk show
into an avant-garde opera.
By KRISTIN HOHENADEL
It was a lifetime of slavish devotion to the almighty tube that led Mikel Rouse to his divine revelation. The New York-based composer had long been ruminating about our search for “salvation” through celebrity worship, media confessionals and the mass marketing of popular culture. Wanting to find a vehicle to use music and lyrics to explore those ideas, he’d begun to compose some melodies and was singing them one day to himself in Central Park, when the epiphany descended: Why not make his next opera in the likeness of a TV talk show?
“Hey, man, did you ever see the Richard Bey show?” Rouse, 42, asked one recent afternoon in L.A. “That was the craziest talk show that ever existed. He was really a precursor to Jerry Springer, but he was much crazier. There was a moment in the late ’80s or ’90s when the talk shows were really doing what could only be called avant-garde theater. Karen Finley was doing it for 200 people at the Kitchen, and these people were doing it for a million people. And not your artistic types, but a guy in Iowa. So this was a very populist idea. I saw it as avant-garde theater for the people.”
The result is “Dennis Cleveland,” a multimedia opera that premiered at New York City’s the Kitchen in 1996 and travels to Orange County, starting Tuesday, as part of the Eclectic Orange Festival.
Rouse had long been interested in crafting music that combined an accessible beat and melody with extravagantly layered formal composition. A talk-show-cum-opera could work the same way: combining the lure of an ostensibly simple and familiar form with, potentially, grand opera theatricality and even social comment.
The title, he says, came to him in a dream. Naming his work after a character has many operatic precedents–Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” for example–but in his case, the particular name would also embody his desire to make “real opera for real people,” he says. “[Dennis Cleveland]–it’s innocuous, it’s Midwestern, it’s simple.”
Rouse acknowledges that using a talk show as a model was a risk for a card-carrying member of the avant-garde. But critics called the idea inspired and praised the execution. The Village Voice, for one, called Rouse “the premiere innovator in the radical restaging of opera.”
“Rouse’s music can be as tensile as minimalism, as sensuous as good disco, and as uncanny as velvet rap,” the Voice continued. ” ‘Dennis Cleveland’ meets the ‘American Bandstand’ definition of a hit: It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. But it also unfolds like a real opera.”
Another Voice writer put it in a larger context: “No goal has been dearer to composers born in the 1950s than to fuse the intellectual with the physical, to melt down all those complex procedures their teachers taught them and reforge them into art that enchants and engrosses and entertains people in human and emotional, not merely technical, terms. A piece that achieved that goal any more fully than ‘Dennis Cleveland’ would probably scare people to death.”
The highest accolade might be one that didn’t come from the critics, though. By the end of its brief run, there were scalpers outside the Kitchen selling tickets, a rare occurrence at a downtown production.
In the three years since, there has been talk of an off-Broadway opening and a film; neither has so far materialized. But Eclectic Orange Festival director Dean Corey, head of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, kept his eye on “Dennis Cleveland,” waiting for an opportunity to present it. Its sophisticated musical content, wrapped in mass entertainment values, made it the kind of piece that Corey believes can foster a taste for the new and unusual, which he says is still a hard sell in Orange County.
“It looks a bit loose and free,” Corey says. “It’s very accessible and appealing, but he’s worked [the music] out quite formally.”
Rouse directs “Dennis Cleveland” and stars in the title role, as well as writing the music and libretto. During the show, he wanders the stage, reading from cue cards and soliciting “confessions” from actors and singers planted among the audience. The audience–not sure
of what is real and what is orchestrated (seemingly spontaneous in parts, the work is in fact carefully scripted)–sits beneath the glare of studio lights and watches Cleveland and close-ups of their own reactions via TV monitors, as if they were in a real talk-show audience. A chorus populates the stage, and prerecorded music and samplings from real talk shows are broadcast over loudspeakers.
Doesn’t the audience resent the blurred lines, the aura of participation, their implied complicity in the proceedings?
Rouse doesn’t think so. “If it was just a parody, then that could be aggressive,” he responds. “You are really getting a lot of information;
no one goes away feeling just used. The biggest compliments I got–and [from the] hard-core avant-garde, used to hearing like screeching sounds for three hours–said this is the most entertaining thing I’ve ever gone to in New York avant-garde theater, and it was the most disturbing.”
As the piece progresses, the talk-show illusion unravels, and it becomes clear that the seemingly unrelated confessions about love, sex, identity and the meaning of life actually add up to a bleak summary of Cleveland himself. In the commentary are some searing
indictments of mass culture and the vapid collective memory made by television. But Rouse insists that he isn’t judging the role of television in our lives, just looking to illuminate it.
“I think it’s an American experience,” he says. “A lot of people write operas about things they don’t really understand. I can say I live it. The work I’m doing is not divorced from who I am.”
Lest we think him a couch potato, it should be pointed out that at least some of the time, television for Rouse is background music. “When I first moved to New York,” he says, “people would think I was insane, they’d come by and I’d have a television on, a radio on and I’d bewriting music.”
Watching him hold court on a quiet Sunday afternoon in the courtyard of the Del Capri Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard near UCLA, it’s not hard to imagine this scenario. There is something positively interactive about Rouse as he seems to carry on several conversations at once, interrupting everyone in sight, pursuing a runaway enthusiasm for any number of eagerly delivered opinions, anecdotes or lively observations. Tall, pale and dressed in all black, he has an exhausted look– dark circles, a weariness in his ever-furrowed brow–the perfect ironic counterpoint to his boundless energy.
Despite what he says, Rouse’s childhood was not pure TV extravaganza. There was a time, during what he describes as “a very boring childhood in the rural South and Midwest,” when he used to jump from a moving horse to a moving train just for fun. And there was evidence of a budding aesthete: “You go through a pretentious phase when you’re in like third grade,” he says, “and everyone called me Mike but I wanted to be called Michael.” But he was puzzled by the phonetics of his first name, so he decided to start spelling it the way it sounded: Mike. L. Mike-L. Mikel.
“Then I went through this other pretentious phrase where I would sign all my drawings with this kind of art nouveau lettering style, and that’s when I realized that Mikel looked really cool in print.” So he kept it.
He studied art, music and filmmaking in Kansas City, Mo., and after college moved to New York, where he pursued composing. He formed a contemporary chamber ensemble called Mikel Rouse Broken Consort and began to get some pieces recorded. In 1987, choreographer Ulysses Dove used one of his works as a score to “Vespers” for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
From the start as a composer, he went for the mix, which placed him in a genre called Totalism in New York. “Musically, I always was in a dilemma, ” he says, “because I grew up hearing rock ‘n’ roll and country and western, and jazz and that’s the music I loved.
But of course [in college] you get to hear the Western canon, the European music, not to mention world music; you get this whole vocabulary, and then you have to negotiate your place in that world.”
It wasn’t until the late ’80s, he says, that he began developing the distinctive compositional style he calls counter-poetry–in which
sung or spoken voices are latticed in intricate, echoing, rhythmic patterns. He unveiled it in “Failing Kansas,” his first opera, which was inspired by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
“I was very interested in American speech, and English always sounds dopey in opera,” he says. “I wanted to know why it doesn’t sound dopey in the hands of Stephen Sondheim or Robert Ashley or the Beatles?”
So he began experimenting. “I knew that I was onto something because I didn’t like it,” he says. “I had to force myself to understand it because it wasn’t pleasing. You’d like to think that maybe five times in your life you can reach a new place.”
But he kept working on it. In “Failing Kansas,” Rouse played all the parts in addition to writing the music and assembling the libretto
from court documents and reported interviews about the famous murder case. But in “Dennis Cleveland,” the second in a planned trilogy of operas, he wrote the libretto himself and composed a more complex score that can accommodate as many as 30 roles.
He emphasizes that he has struggled to keep his music accessible. “Any artist worth his salt–no matter how adventurous or far ahead his work was–the bottom line was that he was communicating with people. It wasn’t this ivory tower stuff where, ‘Oh, 20 people understand my stuff because it’s so intellectual.’ I mean that’s boring to me. I want to participate with an audience, not alienate an audience.”
The last piece in his trilogy, “The End of Cinematics,” about corporate-driven entertainment, will premiere in fall 2001. He is once again fielding interest in a movie version of “Dennis Cleveland.” And he is hoping that after the Southern California run and another in Philadelphia next spring that “Dennis Cleveland” will tour North America and Europe.
Rouse says that he is ever more convinced that making use of multimedia in presenting opera is the way to reach today’s audiences.
“I guarantee I walk out on the street and stick a mike in someone’s face and they’ll know what to do,” he says. “That puts us, I think, in a very unique position that I don’t think society’s been in before. There’s people who go to college, and there are people who live in
trailer courts, but there is a comparison to where they are because of media. There’s kind of a chance that we’re all catching up with each other.”
But is a culture united by Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer a step forward for humanity? Maybe not, he acknowledges, but he prefers to dwell on the transformative potential of art.
“Take a movie like ‘Taxi Driver,’ ” he says. “There’s nothing really hopeful that you could say about that, but it’s through the craft of what Scorsese accomplished in that film that you walk out feeling elated–and hopeful because you know there are fellow human beings roaming the earth that could put that information together. And you don’t have to be an artist to recognize that, because that movie captured the imaginations of a lot of people who weren’t artists.”
In creating an operatic reflection of the TV wasteland, Rouse thinks “Dennis Cleveland” can have its own kind of saving grace. “Obviously there’s social critique going on in [it],” he admits. “But I’m more interested in finding out why [talk shows] fulfill a need in society. I really believe [“Dennis Cleveland’s”] redemption and its higher level comes through music. It’s the music that makes it hopeful.” “Dennis Cleveland,” Tuesday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Orange County Performing Arts Center,
600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, $25. (949) 553-2422. Kristin Hohenadel writes on arts and culture.
The Australian-Monday, January 29, 2001
OPRAH MEETS OPERA IN PERTH
PUBLIC fascination with confessional television talk shows so inspired New York composer Mikel Rouse that he used the scripted format to write one of the world’s most unusual operas.
Dennis Cleveland, which opens tonight at the Perth International Arts Festival, uses all the melodrama, confrontation, aggression and conspiratorial rituals devised for the successful TV formula.
Rouse, who wrote it as part of a trilogy that began with Failing Kansas, inspired by Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood, says he is always looking for new ways to stage theatre and opera.
“The talk-show format was a great way to break the mould of non-narrative work,” he says. “It was the impetus to redefine what they could look like in the 21st century.”
Rouse says the opera reflects the current obsession with the media and its role in coontemporary life. “We thought that the best grand opera had been the largest, most powerful art form of its kind…No one in the 19th century could have predicted this.”
It is the first time Dennis Cleveland has been performed outside New York, where it debuted at the Kitchen in 1996 to sell-out audiences and rave reviews. Critics claimed it was the first new music event that they had seen attract ticket scalpers. Festival directors from around the world are flying to Perth to watch the performance, in which Rouse plays Dennis Cleveland, the voyeuristic talk show host.
The University of Western Australia’s Octagon Theatre is transformed into a TV studio, with live camera operators and TV screens automatically reflecting audience reactions. Each show is taped live layering the visual imagery as the show progresses and making the audience part of the performance.
Perth Festival director Sean Doran says his programs have concentrated on presenting non-traditional forms of opera and attracting new audiences. Last year was the marathon Chinese Peony Pavillion and this year he predicts Dennis Cleveland will be the hit of the festival-especially amongst the younger generation. “It will be the popular hit of the festival, but it’s the puzzle of the festival as well,” says Doran.
“Because on one side it’s termed as opera, on the other it’s been described as a 90-minute pop song.”
This rock opera will have traditional followers in a conundrum, but Doran has urged them to sample the opera, which comes “only from America”. Doran says Rouse’s ability to write an opera on a contemporary subject in the pop-culture style is an extraordinary achievement and encapsulates a new future opera. “This work should not be underestimated.”
Although ticket sales have been slow, Doran is confident word of mouth will lift numbers once the season opens. Already, walk-up sales to the previews have been better than expected.
Local actors recruited to join the New York cast say the show is something most Australians would not have seen before.
Actor Gibson Nolte says the format could reshape the future of performance arts. “It just may be that straight narrative is dead. What’s the point of it when that’s what TV is for?” he says.
Monday, November 13, 2000 WEEKEND REVIEWS / MUSIC REVIEW
A Twisting, Frightening Trip Through Rouse’s ‘Kansas’ By MARK SWED, Times Music Critic
Although Kansas and the surrounding Midwestern states have added a prized flat twang to American popular music, it is a musical accent America’s more art-minded composers from the Midwest have typically worked hard to lose. And yet, that same sound can make our opera its most authentically American. Virgil Thomson, from Kansas City, Mo., invented a national opera style in Paris, writing cosmopolitan works with Gertrude Stein that were musically plain-spoken and replete with the songs and hymns of the Great Plains. Robert Ashley has invented the newest and hippest form of American television opera that incorporates the stories and spoken language of the Midwest.
Mikel Rouse’s haunting opera “Failing Kansas,” based upon Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” is a further step in this arresting tradition of Midwestern opera. Like Thomson, Rouse is from Missouri and has become a sophisticated New York composer who has never lost his musical roots. His earlier opera “Dennis Cleveland,” which merges high art with television talk show theatrics, made a powerful impression when produced last season as part of the Eclectic Orange Festival at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. “Failing Kansas,” performed in the Center’s Founder’s Hall over the weekend, follows “Dennis Cleveland” as the second part of a projected trilogy.
“Failing Kansas” is modest theater. It consists of nine songs with music and lyrics by Rouse and wonderfully sung by him. The accompaniment is electronic, all of it realized by the composer in his studio. The only foreign element is a background black-and-white film by Cliff Baldwin, which is cut to the music but contains images only tangentially related to the texts. Rouse, in a dark suit, alternates between the four corners of the bare stage and sings. * * *
And, yet, genuine opera this is–and an exceptionally powerful example of the form. Opera is the distillation of drama, and its value is in its ability to capture the atmosphere of a time and place and the inner feelings of characters in a way no other art form can. Rouse does just that in “Failing Kansas.” Mesmerized by Capote’s celebrated novelistic retelling of the coldblooded murder of the righteous Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., in 1959, Rouse seems to enter into the world and mind of the killers in this 75-minute musical monologue.
Actually, monologue is not quite right. “Failing Kansas” contains many voices, all heard within a single one. Rouse overlays himself on the taped tracks, and they fracture into a counterpoint that he has called counterpoetry. Indeed, what makes Rouse’s music so fascinating is that it completely merges speech and song into a rich overlay of textures. The songs have a lush pop music texture (some have noticed a seeming Rouse influence on Beck). The melodies are immediate but complexly structured like poetry; his beautiful lyrics are highly musical in tone and rhythm. There is always a bite to Rouse’s music in its layered richness, but there is also a melodic sweetness that comes from the subtle absorption of hymn tune into the texture. It ends with a song so unforgettably effusive that one could almost imagine it given a schlocky arrangement and turned into a hit for Andrea Bocelli.
And yet all of this stylistic variety is aimed at a very private and troubling vision. Rouse does not retell “In Cold Blood,” (that’s been done often enough, including at the movies); he instead mulls over it, imagines what the killers feel, tries to understand them. It is a frightening experience to enter into such minds, and the genius of “Failing Kansas” is to break down our defenses through its deceptively flat, cool, understated Midwestern tone. The film helps, too, by its lack of specificity. Images of travel (cars, trains and planes) and images of people and relationships give a kind of real quality to everything without tying the imagination down to specific characters or journeys. We understand the killers’ quest for mythic expression lost in an everyday world.
Glittery, starry new American operas, such as Jake Heggie’s recent “Dead Man Walking,” tell stories we already know and tug at heartstrings well prepared for tugging. “Failing Kansas” doesn’t tug. It makes us think and try to feel as we never have felt. And it does so with music as memorable as the best pop, but better made. This is a profound and considerable achievement. Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times
November 24 – 30, 2000
A Lot of Night Music: All-American by Alan Rich
Mikel Rouse: Irresistible force
Once again, as a year ago, the smartly conceived Eclectic Orange program included one of the hard-to-define, almost-operatic, close-to-magnificent stage works of near genius Mikel Rouse. Failing Kansas is actually the first of the trilogy of multimedia works of which Dennis Cleveland, heard here last season, is the second. This time Rouse was alone in the enveloping black box of Costa Mesa’s Founders Hall. On the screen was Cliff Baldwin’s collage of images: themes of travel, fugitives on the lam, crime and punishment somehow interwoven to relate to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood.
Out front Rouse sang, spoke, played his harmonica, all in near darkness; a further collage of voices moved in and out. Somehow, you grasped the shape of a tormented drama unfolding with irresistible force. Leaving, you passed the Performing Arts Center’s main hall, where Mozart’s Magic Flute held the stage -delightfully, I’m told. That work, too, demands a certain suspension of disbelief. Both works bring together sight, sound, music and words, and arrive onto an artistic level far beyond any of its parts.
An Energetic, Electric, Eclectic Orange By Alan Rich
MusicalAmerica.com November 14, 2000 COSTA MESA, Calif. —
When last we visited California’s Orange County, that high-property-value enclave just to the south (and far to the right) of Los Angeles, the Orange County Philharmonic Society’s first “Eclectic Orange” Festival had run its course. Local audiences may have seemed surprised at their having survived (and even derived a certain prickly pleasure) from a month’s exposure to music very old and very new, experimental, and challenging, but the best news is that they came back for more.
The second run began with high decibels on Oct. 13 (Philip Glass’s new Fifth Symphony in its West Coast premiere and ends on a
similar volume level with worthier fare (Mahler’s Second), on Dec.1. In between there has been something for everyone, at least for everyoneendowed with proper tolerance for horizon-stretching and high musical adventure.
By accident or design, “Eclectic Orange 2000” bore striking resemblances to its predecessor. Once again, there was one long and useless evening-filling symphony (the reconstructed Elgar Third last year, the Glass Fifth this year). The marvelous early-music ensemble Anonymous 4 joined forces with instruments in a new venture into spiritual affectation (last year’s “Voices of Light,” this year a new commissioned work by England’s Sir John Tavener). Downtown New York composer Mikel Rouse, whose astounding media opera “Dennis Cleveland” drew cheers last year, drew more of same this time with another new work, “Failing Kansas.” Like “Cleveland,” “Failing Kansas” is an opera mostly because its composer says so. Its story line is the famous murder of a Kansas family in the 1950s, the capture and execution of its perpetrators, as retold in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” One live performer, Rouse himself, speaks and sings material relevant to the story; other voices on tape create a panoramic collage of ordinary lives invaded by horror.
On screen, Cliff Baldwin’s films invest the drama with a visual counterpart. Why it works is not easily explained, why the power, the tragedy – even the beauty – combine for a compelling 75-minute drama. But it does.