Christopher Rouse: Going to Eleven

Christopher Rouse: Going to Eleven

Christopher Rouse believes music should have a sense of urgency and that the listener needs to bring a certain urgency to the experience of hearing it, too.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Harnessing Extremes

Frank J. Oteri: Before we get into any specifics about what kind of music you were first exposed to, I’m curious to know what first got you excited about music.

Christopher Rouse: My mother told me some years after the fact that she used to put on the Grieg Piano Concerto when I was a baby and it would soothe me; I would stop crying. So apparently I was a Grieg fan when I was six months old. I don’t remember that. The first thing I remember is listening to Little Richard at the beginning of rock and roll, Bill Haley and his Comets in 1955 or thereabouts, Elvis, Gene Vincent, and all of that, and for whatever reason loving that music. And I remember my mother deciding to gently counter that by saying, “That’s fine if you want to listen to that, but why don’t you try this and see if you like it.” And it was a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth. I sat down and listened to it right over there.

FJO: In this house? This is the house you grew up in?

CR: Oh, yeah. That chair was a different chair, but right where that chair is, is where I had my first really big musical experience: Beethoven’s Fifth. One of the expected ones, I guess, but that was a revelation that got me incredibly excited. I’d heard Peter and the Wolf before, but that was the only real “classical” music that I had in my ears at that point. Peter and the Wolf is obviously a special case. But the year after the Beethoven, I just started devouring recorded music. My mother was the one more involved in my musical education. My father commuted to Washington for work, so he wasn’t around most weekdays until dinnertime. We thought maybe I would enjoy some more Prokofiev, and so we went into a store. This was back in the days when they would just open up the recording and you could sample it on earphones. There was a violin concerto recording and a few other things, but then there was this piece called the Scythian Suite. And of course, I’m the only one hearing this on the earphones, but the minute I heard it I said, “This is the one.” So, we brought it home and I put it on the record player, as we used to call it. The minute I put the Scythian Suite on, my mother would high-tail into the kitchen and close the door; it was too noisy for her, modern music back then. But I just loved the barbarity and the color of that piece. The next year I found The Rite of Spring, so I kind of came at this backwards.

FJO: It’s interesting that you came to this music through recordings and not through live music.

CR: Well, in Baltimore there wasn’t an enormous amount of live music going on. There was the Baltimore Symphony, but in those days it wasn’t very good. The Philadelphia Orchestra would come down in those days. I think they’d play ten concerts a year here, because Ormandy loved the Lyric Theater. I would go to those occasionally, but my main source was the library. They’d loan records, and I would voraciously devour everything I could lay my hands on. So basically I learned music through listening to recordings, less than live performances, and certainly not through playing an instrument. There were abortive attempts to teach me the piano and some other things. I had percussion lessons. They lasted six months, which was the longest I stayed with anything. I didn’t like practicing. In my own stubborn little way, I saw no reason that I had to play an instrument to be a composer.

FJO: So you went straight from listener to composer.

CR: That’s what I wanted to do, and yet I didn’t compose anything. I composed a couple of little pieces when I was seven or eight, and then I didn’t compose anything else for about ten years until it was to go off to music school, conservatory. When I was 17, I figured they want me to submit two completed pieces so I guess I’d better actually write something down. So all those intervening years were spent listening and kind of training myself.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear about the initial Grieg in the cradle, then you getting really excited about early rock and roll, and your mother trying to steer you away from that toward classical music. But you kept up the interest in rock, too.

CR: Oh yeah, sure.

FJO: But you never got involved with playing that music yourself in a band or anything like that.

CR: No, I loved rock and roll as a listener, not as a participant. I couldn’t play anything. I could play what I called Grace Slick piano, the pianistic equivalent of rhythm guitar, just chordal kind of things. But that’s about it. I did write a bunch of songs; mercifully I’ve forgotten all of them.

FJO: I wonder if they’re stashed somewhere in this house.

CR: No, I just wrote the lyrics. I never wrote the music down.

FJO: But you don’t remember any of them?

CR: No. Not any more. I remember a couple, but you’re not getting a rendition.

FJO: Rock grew up the same time you did. This was a defining moment in music and a defining moment for you in many ways, in terms of what you wanted to do. Once you got to the conservatory, was rock still a soundtrack in your head?

CR: Very much so. I followed rock pretty closely, certainly all through the ’60s and well into the ’70s. In the latter part of the ’70s my interests began to flag a bit. I think certainly partly because I was getting older and perhaps not as attracted to the music, but I also honestly believe that a lot of the rock of the late ’70s is not the highest quality product that has come out of that musical type, you know. It was corporate rock. It was the era of Styx and Foreigner and Journey; I just wasn’t attracted to it.

FJO: The punk stuff didn’t draw you in at all?

CR: Oh, it did. That was a good moment when that came along. There was a lot of interesting music there. But then by the mid-’80s, I think I just had enough and haven’t followed it nearly so closely the last 20-odd years.

FJO: So in your formative years as a listener—on a purely visceral, experiential level rather than a technical level—what would you say were the defining differences for you between listening to a classical orchestral piece versus listening to a really powerful rock band?

CR: I’m tempted to say that there’s something more visceral about rock, but not necessarily. It depends on the music. It depends on the band. It depends on the composer. It depends on all sorts of things. Sure, Led Zeppelin is more visceral than Couperin. But on the other hand, Air Supply isn’t as visceral as Ginastera. So it’s not a matter of viscerality. And another dangerous word is complexity. Adorno has ruined that word for us, I think, forever. I don’t think that there’s anything inherently good about complexity. I even believe that the best music—or the greatest moments in concert music—tend to be the simplest ones, when everything is reduced to something absolutely primal—not in the screaming sense, but in a sense of first things. The moments that are the most jaw dropping to me are also those that are the least complex.

FJO: Also rock in the early ’70s—groups like Gentle Giant or Van Der Graaf Generator or King Crimson—got pretty complex.

CR: It did. And I love some of that music, particularly when it still rocks. I love Gentle Giant because they still rock. Some of the earlier King Crimson sounds rather self-indulgent to me, and it doesn’t really rock. But the later, ’80s King Crimson, with Belew and Levin and those guys: fantastic, I love that King Crimson.

FJO: So there is rock music in the ’80s that you kept up with.

CR: Oh, sure. I certainly kept up with the bands that were still together. Or the people that I had admired since the ’60s, like Paul Simon. I think he made some of his best music in the ’80s; Graceland to me is a masterpiece on any level.

FJO: Now this is interesting, because in terms of the rock music that I would associate you with—just in terms of where it might have ultimately influenced you as a composer—I would imagine it would be the most visceral rock music, to return to the viscerality question. I think it would be fair to describe your music as visceral.

CR: It can be. I think that’s what a lot of people associate me with. I will certainly agree with that.

FJO: But to my ears, your music doesn’t sound like rock at all. What it shares with rock is a visceral energy.

CR: And sometimes the volume level and the fast tempi and the wildness. But no, it’s not terribly often that I actually make some kind of reference to rock in an overt way.

FJO: Intensity takes many levels in classical music. It’s not just volume. It could be somebody singing way, way high in their tessitura or even really, really quiet. Really quiet sound can be as intense as really loud sound.

CR: It’s really extremes that I find interesting. Music that is just kind of safe does not appeal to me. I used to call it the moderato-mezzo forte style, where it’s not too loud, not too soft, not too fast, not too slow; it’s just all nice. It doesn’t matter to me if a piece is tonal or atonal or what the organizing system is or even if there is one. All that matters to me is if there is a sense of urgency in the expression and that the listener needs to bring a certain urgency to the experience of hearing it, too.

FJO: But nowadays we’re really saddled with this PR campaign of classical music being relaxing.

CR: Oh, yeah. And that’s what you hear on classical public radio. They play music that is light and that isn’t meant to really make you think, make you feel, or make you work. And I’m not just talking about 20th-century music. You don’t hear a Bruckner symphony on classical radio except maybe at 2:00 a.m. And everything is short. If they’re going to play a symphony, it’ll be a movement of a symphony.

FJO: But ironically what makes classical music so exciting, and I think what could make it really appeal more to younger listeners than it currently does, is the fact that it can take you to this other level. This music isn’t about complacency. The stuff that younger people are excited about—whether it’s Radiohead or, ten years ago, Nirvana—is not about complacency, either, and that’s its appeal.

CR: Was pop music ever about complacency really? Early rock and roll was wild, crazy stuff. I shouldn’t say crazy, but you know, it all comes out of rhythm and blues, and the expressivity is raw. It’s certainly not polite music. Certainly that’s what appeals to me. I’m not really a jazz fan, but some of the things I have enjoyed the most are some of the out, really nutty stuff like late Coltrane things with Pharaoh Sanders.

FJO: You can’t just casually listen to music like that. You can’t listen to it and have dinner conversation. It can’t be playing in the background. It’s music that demands your full and undivided attention.

CR: It ain’t the Four Seasons of Vivaldi, that is.

FJO: Yeah, Vivaldi, as opposed to Frankie Valli. Talk about going to the extreme—Frankie Valli’s high tessitura is kind of startling when you hear it the first time.

CR: You can’t tune out the “cry-yi-yi.”

FJO: Let’s go back to what you said about your mother being terrified of Prokofiev as you were getting all excited about it. When you finally started composing the music that you wanted to write, what did she think of it?

CR: Well, to be honest, and I know it sounds terrible, she never really liked what I wrote. She wasn’t that musically oriented herself. She learned a bit about classical music during the ’50s culture boom. The Book of the Month Club had a music appreciation record series and so forth. But she was never somebody who was really very wrapped up in music. My father was completely not, not interested at all.

FJO: And you’re an only child so you didn’t have a musical sibling, either. So it’s rather unusual that music became so important to you. How supportive were your parents of your decision to be involved in music?

CR: They were very good to me, in that they didn’t try to talk me out of it or discourage me. They cut me a lot of slack and let me just go ahead and do this for all those years, I think, expecting that when I applied to Oberlin that I was going to be rejected and then I would have to face reality. So I think they were very surprised when I was accepted there. I really had the fire in the belly, but that’s when I really had to start writing music. As an undergraduate, I was all over the place. In the late ’60s, you did everything. And almost everything that I did, I did badly. But you were encouraged to try all sorts of stuff. So I did some serial stuff, I did graph pieces, I did conceptual pieces, I did all sorts of things. I also did stuff with rock influences. The only thing that got me in trouble, interestingly, was when I wrote a tonal piece. That was not acceptable in 1968 or thereabouts still. Although Rochberg was doing it at that point, it was still very controversial. People could accept the idea of throwing darts at Milton Babbitt, at a poster. I didn’t do that; somebody else did that. I had a piece where you played ping pong on the piano lid and another piece whose performance consisted of announcing that the piece wouldn’t be performed. Somebody comes out and says the title of the piece: “Christopher Rouse’s Mmmmmm will not be performed this evening.” And that was the performance. It was very West Coast.

FJO: It’s also very Fluxus, actually.

CR: But the only thing that really got eyebrows raised was doing something tonal.

FJO: Of course that made you want to do it all the more.

CR: Well, I was still pretty unsure at that point what I wanted to do. I hadn’t taken some strong aesthetic position. I still was willing to try. The one unifying principle for me was expressivity. Music had to have something to say on that level. It couldn’t just be an intellectual exercise.

FJO: Now in terms of this energy we’ve been talking about, one of the wonderful contradictions in your music is that there’s all this visceral energy, but it’s so meticulously thought through. I look at your scores, and they are so carefully notated. Your instructions for players go beyond things that are in most people’s scores. I’m thinking about one of your orchestral scores in which an oboist has to hold a note for a long time, and you say that this can’t be divided between players. It has to be this person, and if there is to be a breath anywhere, it can only happen in this measure. And the oboe is one of many people playing at that time.

CR: You can certainly want primal energy and be a control freak at the same time. I really think a composer needs to take responsibility for the music he or she composes, and the credit if it comes out well and the blame if it doesn’t, assuming the performance is a good one either way. And so I want to try to make my intentions clear. It doesn’t mean there’s no room for other approaches. I just heard Leonard Slatkin do my Second Symphony a couple weeks ago in D.C., and his performance was absolutely what I wrote. I never heard what I wrote, and it was wonderful. It was very refreshing. I heard the piece for the first time in that sense. He kept all the tempo relationships absolutely exact. Now, that does not mean that the ways David Zinman or Marin Alsop do it are wrong. They handle things a little differently. The one that’s the most different is Christoph Eschenbach, who really makes the slow movement this huge Brucknerian adagio that doesn’t have the tempo relationships that I had thought of when I was writing the piece, but has something else instead. What I wrote doesn’t necessarily have to be the last word. I try to be open. But it’s nice once to hear what you wrote.

FJO: For pieces of music to have a life, they have to be interpretable. You can’t create things and say, O.K., I’m putting this in a lock box. You must follow exactly every little detail as it is. It has to breathe. It has to live. The emotions, too, are not just in what’s on the page, but what comes out when somebody reacts to that page. Once again, what’s so interesting about the Second Symphony is its extremes: the outer movements are so fast and the middle movement is so slow.

CR: Yeah, but it’s all the same tempo. The whole piece is [snaps fingers to demonstrate]. And even in the slow movement that’s still there, only it’s sixteenth notes now instead of quarters. Under Leonard, it sounded faster, but it still was good to hear it that way. I really enjoyed it; it was dusting off the cobwebs.

I must admit, though, there are times—fortunately not frequently—where something is, as far as I’m concerned, just wrong. It’s just not at all anywhere near what I had in mind. But then you need to decide as a composer, am I just going to get out of the way—just let the piece go off into the world and let people make whatever of it that they will? Or am I going to come in here and say, “Mmm, hold on. This is just too far from the mark.” I tend to do the latter, I’ll admit, because ultimately it’s me that’s going to be judged. The people are going to decide if the piece is any good. And so getting back to the original thing, I would rather take the credit or the blame through a performance that has some relationship to what I wanted, rather than be judged on a performance that is not at all what I intended.

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