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.

So Much Time

Frank J. Oteri: You’ve said that the kinds of pieces you’ve written all come from people asking you for a piece, but there are certain kinds of pieces that you seem to have decidedly not written. Like there’s no opera.

Christopher Rouse: Oh, boy. You’re right, there’s no opera.

FJO: Is that intentional? Is that a desire?

CR: We’ve been talking about tradition. I know I’m terribly, terribly quaint and out of it, but I want to actually hear the music and the singing and not be distracted by some stage director’s usually totally off-the-wall vision that more often than not has really nothing to do with the opera. I think a lot of the stage directors either know nothing about opera, or they hate it and they’re really trying to distract us. To me, what the composer wants is important. If the score says a rocky mountain pass, give me a rocky mountain pass. And if the stage director wants to do something, teach the singers to act it a little better, because they’re usually not very good actors. That’s what I want to see. I don’t want to be distracted at the beginning of Rheingold. In the opening scene, you have four minutes of that incredible E-flat major chord, which to me is every bit as important as the Tristan prelude. (Everyone gets all excited about Tristan, but the opening of Rheingold is every bit as radical as anything Wagner wrote.) Then the Rheinmaidens come in and the directions are very specific. You’re supposed to see such and such. So when we get three hookers on a hydroelectric dam, that distracts me and detracts from the actual experience of the opera itself. Now I realize, as I said, I know I’m bucking the tide here.

FJO: Don’t you think if you worked with somebody, as a living composer, you’d be able to have some say. Wagner’s not around to defend himself.

CR: But someday I won’t be around to defend myself. And a composer can get in a situation where the director still takes over; the management of the house supports the director or whatnot.

FJO: You’ve certainly done pieces that had other elements which were out of your control. You wrote a ballet score.

CR: But that was O.K. because the whole thing is about the symbolism of dance. It’s not as specific as the stage directions for an opera.

FJO: I find this so strange considering how much I know you love Wagner’s operas.

CR: I love opera.

FJO: So if you had your druthers, if you were able somehow to get what you want out of a production, could you be persuaded to write an opera?

CR: You know, I’m still not sure.

FJO: Is this a tradition thing?

CR: Now look. It’s so much work. You spend years on this sucker. Then you have to deal with casting, and you have to deal with all of the egos and all of that. And yes, indeed, you do have to work with the singers, you have to work with the stage director, you need to work with the scene people, the lighting people, the musicians, the conductor, all of these extra people. And then it probably will be staged once, get ho hum reviews, and disappear forever. Uh, I don’t know. There are other things I guess I’d rather be doing. I’ll never say never. Would I? Look, yeah, you give me a Charlie Kaufman libretto and get William Friedkin to direct, who does direct opera and he’s very good. Get me Friedkin as a director and a Charlie Kaufman libretto, and I’d be pretty tempted.

FJO: Since you mentioned all the years it would take you to write an opera, I’m curious about how long a piece takes you.

CR: About a year. I need to take a year for each piece, which doesn’t mean I’m writing every day, not necessarily even every week. I can’t write when I’m teaching; on teaching days I’m just too wiped out. One of the things I think even composition students don’t realize until they become composition teachers is how completely draining it is. I don’t mean to sound sorry for myself, but in essence what we’re doing, is every hour when that student comes in, we have to become them. The point is not to teach them how to write our music. We need to try to be them, and help them write their music the best way they can. And when we say goodbye to them, the next one comes in and so then you have to switch gears again and become the next student.

FJO: It’s almost like being a psychotherapist.

CR: It is. And yet even a psychotherapist can keep more of a distance, I think, than I or any composition teacher who’s actually really getting down and saying “No, this is what you should have done. This is what you should think about. If you want to do this, then X, Y and Z.” Rather than just saying, “What do you think about that? How do you feel about that?”

FJO: So in terms of studying composition and compositional influence, influence and influencing, you studied composition with some of the greats—Karel Husa, George Crumb. I hear the influence of Husa more than I hear the influence of Crumb.

CR: I had to actually consciously de-Crumb myself. I love his music dearly, and I love George dearly. All through the ’70s, I wrote crypto-Crumb. It took me many years to realize that the only person who really did Crumb well was Crumb, and that I should stop trying. So I had to make a conscious effort to just stop anything that was Crumb-like, I had to just prevent myself, forbid myself from putting it on the page. If you heard some of the stuff from the ’70s, it all just sounds like bad Crumb.

FJO: But I do hear Husa in there. And I say this in a good way.

CR: I certainly admire a lot of his music. There’s a certain kind of influence that’s an overt musical one. Then there’s a certain kind of temperamental influence. Berlioz will always be the great temperament for me, although I’m not sure that one’s going to find too many specific moments in works of mine where you say, ah, Berlioz. The more overt relationships would, in my mind, be to Orff, to Varèse, to Karl Amadeus Hartmann (not as well-known perhaps), William Schuman, Ginastera, Shostokovich certainly. These are composers that I’m conscious of drawing from and drawing on in one way or another.

FJO: But none of those people were your teachers. Husa was the one person who was your teacher. When you enter teaching mode, you’re not interested in creating an army of Chris Rouses out there?

CR: Oh god no! No, and there are very few of us who are. Hindemith was one that was, but most of us aren’t. It’s easier to teach somebody how to do you. Actually, I take that back, because we don’t always have a very good insight into whatever it is that makes us; if we have individual or recognizable voices, we don’t always know.

I’ll tell a little story, a talk I had with John Harbison, who is a very good friend. Some years ago, a recording of his second symphony had just come out; it’s very different from John’s other pieces in some ways. What I love about a lot of John’s music is the sense of proportion. There’s a certain Apollonian quality. It’s not inexpressive at all, but there’s a certain Bostonian coolness to his work. But the second symphony is white hot; it just really screams at you, and yet it’s still clearly him. So I told him that. And he said, “Really?” And I said, “Well, yeah, you do this and this and this.” I listed probably four or five Harbisonisms that were still in that piece, harmonic things and so forth. And I said, “Be glad, because you at least have these things that you do, unlike me. I’m not aware of anything that I do that kind of makes me sound like me.” But John said, “Are you kidding? You do this, you do this.” He listed six or seven things. But that’s the thing. I’m not aware of them, just as he wasn’t aware of the things that he did that made his voice recognizable. So we’re not always the best judges of what we do that makes us sound like us. If there are things that I do that sound Rouse-like or whatever, that’s wonderful.