Gravity Radio

Conceived, written and directed by Mikel Rouse
Set & video design by Jeffery Sugg
Sound design by Christopher Ericson
Lighting design by Hideaki Tsutsui
Musical direction by Matthew Gandolfo

Gravity Radio is a song cycle interspersed with actual radio reports taken from the AP Newswire and is inspired by physicist Raymond Chiao’s experiments with superconductors and gravity waves—which exist in theory but have eluded detection. The songs meld Rouse’s affecting vocals and guitar with his band, a string quartet, shortwave radio frequencies, and spoken radio reports performed by Claire Kenny.

“I took the elusiveness of gravity waves as a springboard for a song cycle that would float and mutate through a combination of sound and visual ether,” Rouse explains. “Perhaps it is an attempt to recapture or update my first memory of radio in the late 1960s—Motown and British rock fading in from a faraway Chicago station as the local news faded out on my transistor radio, which I put between my head and the pillow late at night.”

“Mikel Rouse’s musical and theatrical repertoire has its roots in the high art-meets-popular culture, mix and match aesthetic of the early 80s downtown Manhattan music and art scene from which he emerged. As the Toronto Globe and Mail puts it, Rouse’s music has brought “comparisons to Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich and occasionally Talking Heads, though Rouse’s love of complex rhythmic patterns far exceeds them all.”

But music is just a part of what he does: His pieces also build a hypnotic effect through their nonnarrative approach and the use of surreal film images. The Los Angeles Times notes, “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.” And after the premiere of Rouse’s multimedia opera The End of Cinematics, The New York Times reported, “Sometimes built on heavy, repetitive beats, and sometimes couched in Beatle-esque psychedelia, the songs are vivid, pleasingly visceral and often engagingly harmonized, with amusingly off-kilter lyrics.”

The live performance of the song cycle incorporates multichannel video representing a visual kaleidoscope of earthbound images. The AP Newswire reports and the written commentary that highlights the connections between the song lyrics and the reports are customized for each performance, taken from that day’s local and national news.


Photos by Stephanie Berger

Gravity Radio is a song cycle of 14 songs structurally interspersed with six actual radio reports utilizing stories taken from the AP Newswire and is inspired by physicist Raymond Chiao’s experiments with superconductors and gravity waves—which exist in theory but have eluded detection. The song cycle is approximately 65 minutes in duration.

Instrumentation is modular, ranging from one singer/guitarist, shortwave radio, newsreader, and string quartet to a larger ensemble of strings, brass, woodwinds, bass, drums, keyboard, and chorus. While it was necessary to create full scores for the string quartet, the recording incorporates various forms of improvisation.

Gravity Radio continues my interest in utilizing complex structures within the framework of vernacular music. Conventional tunings as well as open G and drop D tunings are used in the first half of the cycle, and the songs move through A major to arrive at B-flat major for the song The Gravity of New Orleans. The culmination of the song cycle reharmonizes earlier material up a whole step to A major and returns to open G for the final song. Similarly, identical metric patterns of 5, 7, and 9 are used to link songs in the cycle.

The radio reports’ musical function is to introduce this material in a retrograde fashion so that the reports and songs form an arc with the two parts meeting roughly in the middle (for the medley Blue Book/Star Chamber/Rose Woods). In a similar use of foreshadowing, key fragments of lyrics from the songs are folded into the actual radio reports, thus anticipating their arrival later in the cycle. Because the radio reports change daily with each performance, multiple meanings and inferences are created in combination with the stationary text/lyrics.
— Mikel Rouse

Additional credits:
Music and lyrics by Mikel Rouse
Gravity Radio film produced and directed by Mikel Rouse
Gravity Radio film edited by Jeff Carpenter
Production manager William Knapp
Newsreader Claire Kenny
Conductor/newsreader assistant/vocals Matthew Gandolfo
Guitars and vocals Mikel Rouse
Violin Kristi Helberg
Violin Nanae Iwata
Viola Kyle Armbrust
Cello Julia Maclaine
Vocals Sarah Emley
Vocals Eryn Murman

Gravity Radio was commissioned by and made possible in part through the financial support of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Luminato Festival, The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and Carolina Performing Arts. Additional support for Gravity Radio was received from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, the Walton Arts Center, Juniata College, and Cuyahoga Community College. Thank you.