The World Got Away



One of the most innovative composers of his generation, Mikel Rouse is known for a trilogy of operas that includes Dennis Cleveland and a gift for superimposing pop vernaculars onto avant-garde music. This memoir channels Rouse’s high energy personality into an exuberant account of the precarity and pleasures of artistic creation. Raconteur and starving artist, witty observer and acclaimed musician, Rouse emerged from the legendary art world of 1980s New York to build a forty-year career defined by stage and musical successes, inexhaustible creativity, and a support network of famous faces, loyal allies, and high art hustlers. Rouse guides readers through a working artists’ hardscrabble life while illuminating the unromantic truth that a project’s reception may depend on a talented cast and crew but can depend on reliable air conditioning.

Candid and hilarious, The World Got Away is a one-of-a-kind account of a creative life fueled by talent, work, and luck.

Pages: 248 pages
Dimensions: 6 x 9 in
Illustrations: 28 black & white photographs


“Mikel Rouse is an artist in his own league; his creative output is outstanding. As a particular fan of his lyrics, I’m really looking forward to how he uses words in prose.”–Kathy Valentine, the Go-Go’s and author of All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n Roll Memoir

“Mikel Rouse is a composer, songwriter and performer of tireless inspiration, a true maestro. He is also an unpretentious expert at life and how to live it. This delightful book is engaging, funny, a great reflection of and meditation on Mikel’s many passions. But above all, it’s refreshingly candid and specific about how a maverick artist manages a creative life. Where other musicians serve up a lot of ‘look into your heart’ gobbledygook, Rouse gets down to the nitty gritty about putting together his various ambitious projects. It isn’t always pretty. But the work itself–and this book is of course a part of it–is always beautiful.”–Glenn Kenny, author of Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas

“Mikel Rouse offers a dizzying, kaleidoscopic portrait–not of an artist, exactly, but of the scene(s) that surrounded him, made him, and threatened to unmake him. Full of surprising detours (fast food! off-track betting! town rivalries in New Zealand!), Rouse’s memoir goes careering through scenes from his four-plus decades of music-making.”–John Schaefer, host, New Sounds and Soundcheck


To commemorate the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s production of Ulysses Dove’s Vespers, set to Mikel Rouse’s drum machine score Quorum, we offer an advance excerpt from the book.

Quorum (1984) 

I’m sitting at the bar of the Baby Doll Lounge, one of the last few remaining strip bars in Manhattan. It’s December 1987, and I’m accompanied by Jim Bergman, Ellery Eskelin, and Bill Tesar. Why I’m here with three of the best musicians I’ve ever had the privilege to know and work with is easily explained. We’re killing time after a sound check at the Alternative Museum on Mercer Street. This is one of those gallery kinds of concerts with folding chairs that were pretty common in the 1970s and would hang on until the eventual gutting of Soho and the surrounding area. This is the current lineup of Mikel Rouse Broken Consort, and we’re most likely doing stuff from the Jade Tiger album and from the new album, A Lincoln Portrait (pun intended). It’s a reasonably full house and we do a reasonably good performance, and after the set there’s the mingling and glad-handing. I’m approached by a woman who, by the glint in her eye, seems fairly enthusiastic about the set. She introduces herself as Sylvia Waters and says, “Do you realize that the Alvin Ailey company is doing your piece right now at City Center?” Of course I didn’t realize this, so she fills in the details. At some point I get the idea that she’s talking about the music for Quorum, the piece I wrote and programmed for the LinnDrum machine at the tender age of twenty-six. 

I had come up with the idea of writing a piece for drum machine in 1982, and I think I completed the piece in 1983. After a disastrous studio session with an engineer who owned a LinnDrum but had no idea how to program it, I sought to procure one and attempt the programming myself. This is how I met Bill Tesar, who would go on to play drums in both Broken Consort and a later lineup for Tirez Tirez. Billy owned a new company called Toy Specialists with his wife, Rita. When they were starting out, I think they had just two pieces of equipment: a LinnDrum and a DX7. So he gave me a good deal on a rental, and I took the Linn- Drum to my Hell’s Kitchen studio and started messing around with it. As you might imagine, it was all fairly basic stuff and the limitations, in terms of time signatures, were to be expected, based on how these things were being used in pop and hip-hop. You could only program just one basic time signature, like four beats or six beats to a measure. 

But the score for Quorum was extremely intricate, with multiple meters. The themes for the piece were developed through the synchronization of the three generators 3–5–8, whose complementary factors yield counterthemes. Power series are then applied to produce harmonic contrasts from the original themes. So it dawned on me that maybe I could add up all the combined meters and make the common denominator “a measure,” which became a 120-beat measure. It was arduous, but it worked. It’s hard to describe how thrilling it was to have this machine just keep playing as I added parts. Prior to this type of programming, most of the work was all done on tape. Play, rewind, fast-forward. But here was a device that just kept looping. It obviously sounds pretty common now, but to me this nonlinear approach was a very different thing that I hadn’t experienced, and it stood in stark contrast to all the record- ing I’d done before. 

I programmed all the parts in small sections and decided I wanted a warmer sound than the raw LinnDrum, so Jim Bergman and I went to BC Studio in Brooklyn. I’d known of Martin Bisi from the downtown scene and would go on to do five records with him. We transferred all the individual outputs of the LinnDrum to a 24-track tape machine. Then we would run the sequence and, following the score (with six hands at the ready on the mixing desk), we would pop the various percussion instruments in and out. Once we did one small section, we’d rewind the 24-track and do it again. The final composition was then edited from the various 2-track masters to form the final complete master. Maybe it was the naive hope of youth or blind ambition, but I really thought I was onto something. Consequently, I made a bunch of cassette copies and set out to land a record deal. I have a memory of getting a meeting with Jonathan Rose. Somewhere along the line I’d heard he liked some of the Broken Consort material. I remember sitting in his office at his jazz label, Gramavision, and after some informal chitchat, I handed him the cassette and excitedly waited for his enthusiastic response. After a few minutes, he turned off the machine, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Why would anyone want to put this out?” 

I love this story now, but you can imagine at the time it was a letdown. Several of my earlier records were available through Carla Bley’s New Music Distribution Service. I decided I’d make my own pressing of 200 copies and distribute it through NMDS. I remember wanting an audiophile pressing, so I had it mastered by Howie Weinberg and pressed it at Europadisk. Jeff Burk, the original bassist of Tirez Tirez, did the stunning black-and-white cover photo. The release was a 12-inch single, with only parts 1 and 2 of the total thirteen parts. 

The record got lots of good press in places like the Village Voice, Percussion Magazine, Option, and Rockpool. I got postcards from both David Byrne (he had also picked up Jade Tiger) and Steve Reich. David thought both were great. Steve couldn’t understand why there were no pitched percussion instruments. To this day, almost forty years later, I still get correspondence from all over the world asking if this is the first techno/electronica record. My answer is always the same: probably not, but how did you get this number? And that was that. Happy with the piece and happy I got it out there. 

But now I had to buy a ticket and see what was going on at City Center. It turns out a choreographer named Ulysses Dove had taken this recording and made a ballet called Vespers. It featured six amazing female dancers and a breathtaking lighting design by William H. Grant III. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune of having my music used by several great dance companies. But Ulysses’s intuitive understanding of the structure and accents of the music was uncanny. I’m not sure if he read music, but the energy of his choreography with the high-volume drum machine was electric, and the audience responded by constantly jumping to their feet and yelling approval. This was clearly a breakthrough piece. Ulysses was a dancer in both the Merce Cunningham company and a star with the Ailey company back in the day. I have to believe Vespers helped fuse his classical structures with the pure emotion that I was always drawn to in music, dance, and film. 

I can’t remember if we met on that first night, but shortly after we became friends and I had him over to dinner. We also met at his favorite restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, Chez Napoléon. It’s still one of my favorite places, and he introduced me to their cerises jubilée. Vespers was originally commissioned by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and premiered in 1986. The Ailey production premiered in 1987. I never brought up that no one had asked me about rights or permissions to use the work. But he did tell me how he discovered Quorum. Judith Jamison, a principal dancer and muse to Alvin Ailey, had used Quorum in a piece she set for the Houston Ballet. I eventually saw a video of this piece. Ulysses pleaded with Judith to let him use the music. I later learned that there is a kind of honor system in which choreographers don’t lift the music of someone else’s dance—at least not from each other. This story was also confirmed by Judith herself when she came over to my apartment in early 1988. I was excited to have her over, and I remember telling the impresario Jim Fouratt (Danceteria, Peppermint Lounge) that she had spent the afternoon with me. His excited response was, “You had all those arms and legs in your apartment?!” 

I’m not sure, but I think by that time she might have been co-artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, as Alvin Ailey was in poor health. At any rate, it took years before I figured out what to do about a license, which came to a head with a new production of Vespers in 1994. At this point I also met Calvin Hunt, who I believe oversaw touring and production. I truly came to love Calvin. He saw that a couple of wrongs had happened, and he set out to right them. We came to an agreement on licensing, including past performances, and he made sure that with the new production, I’d have my overdue acknowledgment with Ulysses onstage opening night. Calvin passed away in 2014 and the entire arts community felt the loss. I remember sitting backstage with Ulysses, who had been an accomplished member of the Ailey company. As we sipped champagne, we could hear the faint strains of the gospel score of the Ailey classic Revelations, and hilariously Ulysses said, “If I hear that music one more time, I’m gonna puke.” 

This seems like as good a time as any to speculate on why the music worked so well, beyond Ulysses’s vivid choreography. I’ve always hated canned music in dance performances. It always feels like I’ve been a bit cheated. But what made Quorum so different was that it was composed for a digital and recorded medium. And I feel that, even before the rise of DJ and electronica concerts, the audience somehow intuited this. It was as it should be, not a recording of something that would be more authentic performed live. 

Which brings me to the Great Performances airing of the film by David Hinton, Two by Dove, in which the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Royal Swedish Ballet performed two works by Ulysses, Vespers and Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven. This was a film experience—not simply a view of a proscenium performance—shot from many angles. I think this was frustrating for Ulysses, but I always thought that David was not only honoring our work, but also bringing along a more inclusive vision for a film realization. Enter Margaret Selby, who was working with Ulysses at the time and, I believe, was a producer on the film. Margaret was a unique and sometimes difficult collaborator, but she was a pit bull for Ulysses, and I both respected that and probably secretly wished I had that kind of support as well. I think Ulysses was lucky to have her, especially since he’d been diagnosed with AIDS and was struggling. The time spent with Ulysses in the sound studio was valuable time. I had already lost many friends to AIDS, including the composer and songwriter Arthur Russell. 

Two interesting things happened during those post sessions. The first was that for the film, I wanted the highest quality master possible, so I went back to the original analog master for the editor to use. We made the transfer and they got to work. Days into the process, we were listening to the sync track, and Ulysses thought something was wrong. He thought it sounded “too clean” or too “digital.” We went round and round about this until we went back and played what he had been listening to and what Ailey (and numerous dance companies) were using. It turned out that Ulysses had made a cassette from the vinyl release and had gotten so used to the low-fi quality that he couldn’t “hear” the actual master. I was pretty upset, but I held it together, thought for a minute or two, and said, “Quorum is mine, but Vespers is Ulysses’s. Use the version he wants.” I could see from his face that he was grateful. The second issue was an editing problem with the film. There needed to be a brief cut in the music to sync with the way the performance footage had been edited. Normally I’d put up a fuss, but after the cassette issue I figured in for a dime, in for a dollar. 

To Margaret’s credit, she and others worked hard to give Ulysses a fitting tribute before he passed. “For the Love of Dove” was an amazing tribute at New York State Theatre, intended as both a fundraiser for AIDS as well as a retrospective of Ulysses’s remarkable legacy. Because I donated the music for the event, I was invited to the $2,000-a-plate dinner. I took as my date the remarkable Jean Vong, a gifted artist and photographer. The next day I went to see my neighbor and fellow Hell’s Kitchen artist Mark Lambert. He asked how the event was, and I expressed my dismay at how I couldn’t afford the expense of a $2,000-a-plate dinner. He asked why I thought I would have to pay to attend, as I had previously told him that this invite was the result of my fee waiver. I said, “I know. I simply couldn’t enjoy it unless I had doled out the money I can’t afford.” Go figure. 

The film was a great success and won two Emmys. The audience hysteria at City Center lasted easily for five years, and the piece has been in repertory with Ailey for over thirty years as well as being regularly performed by numerous other dance companies. It still elicits an excitement and enthusiasm that feels vital all these years later. In 1997 I was invited to a Merce Cunningham benefit at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I met my future wife, Lisa Boudreau, who was a Cunningham dancer. When she asked me what I did and I told her I was a composer, she thought, “Sure, you are.” When I told her I wrote the music for Vespers, she lit up and said, “Oh! You really are a composer!” I was that certain that she would know this seminal work. Having been seen by over a million people, I guess it’s not a bad legacy for a record no one would want to put out. 

From The World Got Away: A Memoir by Mikel Rouse. Copyright 2024 by Mikel Rouse. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.