On Christopher Rouse

Even in this very small world of music composition, where everyone seems to have met everyone, I never got around to meeting Christopher Rouse in any professional capacity. I did briefly speak to him after a performance of his beautifully haunting piece Iscariot by the New York Philharmonic a few years ago. Even in that short encounter, he was very kind and gracious to a young composer who was utterly tongue-tied and doesn’t remember a thing he said. That being said, I find it difficult to lend my voice to the sea of very personal remembrances that are being written on social media today. These personal stories only further illuminate my admiration for what I believed Rouse the man to be. I can only speak as a musician and budding composer that looks up to him as a model for what I so desperately want to be. 

There are a small handful of musicians and composers that I can say without a doubt made me want to be a composer in the first place. Mahler, John Adams, Leonard Bernstein, John Corigliano, and Christopher Rouse. When I was in high school, I purchased a library card from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and started checking out tons of orchestral scores from their massive music library. Two of those first scores I checked out were Rouse’s Rapture and his Trombone Concerto. Like a lot of young American composers, there is the perceived notion that there are two composers; the kitchy ones that write “tonal” music and the serious composers that write “atonal” music. Though a completely ancient ideology (if it ever really was), I found in Rouse a compromise of sorts. I learned through those scores and countless others through the years that communication and expression above all else is what is important. Rouse was a true American romantic. Throughout those high school years and up until now (and I’m sure further on), I turn to Rouse as a composer unafraid to express something powerfully. Whether that means placing the thorniest of thorny harmonies into a piece or writing a traditional melody line that’s unapologetic in its simplicity and beauty, all of these are used to communicate and express something important to an audience.

Rouse was a composer of extremes. His music can be completely overwhelming in violence, brutality, and sheer volume (with Ligeti-esque fortissississississississimos) as in his unrelenting Gorgon from the mid 80’s and his recent Heimdall’s Trumpet (check that last chord). I remember audience members literally jumping out of their seats at the sudden whack of a Mahler-hammer at the opening of Iscariot. For god’s sake, I can’t think of a single composer who included a Mahler-hammer in almost every orchestral work they wrote for a solid decade. His music is also some of the most simple and beautiful written in the late 20th century as in the slow chorale from the third movement of his Flute Concerto or in the Agnus Dei from his criminally under performed Requiem. Most importantly, this huge range in harmonic language, formal design, and complexity are all in the service of expression. Rouse’s large toolbox of eclectic musical materials were all at disposal in order to express something, something in order to communicate in the deepest possible way to an audience. 

Combing through Twitter and Facebook these last few hours, I’ve come across some beautiful stories about Christopher Rouse the person. I came across this quote from a 1994 interview with Bruce Duffie that basically puts what I’m trying to say in better terms…

“…simply saying, “Well, I’ve expressed myself, now, thank you. Here it is. I don’t care what you think,” is not enough for me. It’s not enough to be satisfied with just satisfying yourself. There is almost a social obligation that a composer has to create something that fills a need for society. And one hopes it will not speak just to the composer’s own time and place but will be something that is broad-based enough in its meaning so that it will convey important things to successive generations. Beethoven’s music certainly does that; so does Mozart’s, Mahler’s, etc. It is important for us to consider an audience, and if you have satisfied yourself, that’s a beginning, but always keep in mind that we are not simply isolated figures. We are members of a culture, members of a society, and just as a bard had the obligation to sing songs for the edification of his fellow man, so too I think creative artists now need to think in terms beyond simply their own needs. The pithiest way to put it is that I don’t think that the creation of any work of art is purely an act of masturbation. It needs to be a shared act, more like love making than masturbation. It’s important that we recognize that there is an audience and that they’re a very important part of the equation. We need to recognize that we do almost have something akin to a social responsibility on their behalf, though never at the expense of our own sense of integrity.”


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Old-Time Religion

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For the past few years, I’ve made myself (admittedly) ambitious summer reading lists. And for the most, part I’ve done pretty well sticking to it. Last summer, it was the new Rodgers and Hammerstein biography Something Wonderful by Todd S. Purdum, Matthew Desmond’s masterpiece Evicted, Jean Edwards Smith’s big ol’ George W. Bush biography simply titled Bush, and Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law. A noticeable lack of music books, but after a few years or reading solely music biographies, articles, and essays as well as going to music school during the rest of the year, I tend to need a break. However, as is life, pleasure reading makes its way into “work”. Such is the case with this new horn quintet I’m finishing up for my friend (and fellow IU-er) Tyler Taylor.

Late this summer, I started reading a new book by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Frances Fitzgerald entitled The Evangelicals. For whatever reason, I have an immense fascination in the fringe elements of American christianity. My father and I will often get into heated echo chamber discussions regarding our shared frustration with the hypocrisy of televangelists and far right spiritual leaders. My fascination might spur from my own sexuality and a desire to learn where my political oppression is coming from (maybe?). But nonetheless, I picked up Fitzgerald’s book and devoured it. Ranging from the first two great awakenings to Billy Graham to the New Christian Right of Donald Trump, the book satisfied my evangelical cravings. While in the midst of reading the book, I began watching YouTube videos of the giant revivals of the 1950s with Billy Graham and the healing ministries of A. A. Allen (much to the annoyance of my boyfriend).

One morning, around 2am after putting down Fitzgerald’s book hours earlier, I had a Hollywood Style Composer Moment. The one that crops up in every film about creating music in which the protagonist suddenly gets the idea (!), the music rushes in (!), and the inspiration arrives in full force (!). “The Great Work Begins”! But I quite literally woke up at 2am from an “eureka” moment and started working on a new structure for this struggling horn quintet. The work became one in which the horn would act like a fire and brimstone, Pentecostal preacher with the string quartet acting as a congregation.

The new and improved horn quintet, The Revival, is at its core about manipulation. The piece begins with a call to action (The Message), in which the horn sounds out a four note gospel that will remain its core musical material throughout the work. The second section (Thus Saith The Lord), has the horn, desperately trying to relay its message to a seemingly unwilling and reserved string quartet. After a fire and brimstone cadenza (The Sermon), the string quartet beings to take up bits and pieces of the horn’s spirited call and “speak in tongues” (Glossolalia), a danse macabre in which the players ecstatically perform in a series of unorthodox ways. Finally, in the concluding section (The Revival), the string quartet, now seemingly brain washed, repeats almost everything the horn gives them, expressionless and hypnotized.  

The work also has a great deal to do with the works dedicatee, Tyler Taylor. Aside from his phenomenal chops on the horn, Tyler is also an astounding composer (the man has it all, folks). Tyler’s music has a tendency to treat individual instruments like people, with their own unique quirks and personalities. These instruments, in Tyler’s musical world, are also subjected to some of the darker elements of the human experience; they are manipulated, restricted, and rejected. I thought a great deal about his music when writing a work for him and wanted to, in a way, pay homage to his composer side while on the surface level highlighting his performer side. 

The Revival will be premiered later this year….

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Gone West, Young Men

I’m at the tail end to my first trip out west (I’ve embarrassingly kept to the east coast for all of my 25 years). The topography alone took me a good week to fully get used to after initially feeling like I had landed on Mars. There is a sort of violent strangeness to the nature, with branches (and roads) bending in radical formations and mountains seemingly coming out of nowhere. Even at the end of a second week, I am still awestruck by the beauty of it all.

Of course, no trip is complete without pillaging for used books and records, eating at a bunch of local favorite spots, and going on a few hikes to burn off eating at a bunch of local favorite spots. As with the nature, the used bookstores and record shops, particularly in Berkeley, are something to be in awe of. Moe’s, with its four stories of used books and miscellany, and Rasputin, with its largest collection of classical recordings (apparently) in at least the US.

As summer winds down, I ramp up on a new horn quintet for Tyler Taylor as a companion piece to the Mozart Horn Quintet K. 407. Though I love being asked to write something that I know will sit alongside some sort of standard repertoire on a concert, this piece has little to do with Mozart. Actually, I has perhaps more to do with Mahler due to the fact that Tyler, like anyone with brass in their blood, loves himself some Mahler. More to come on that in the near future…

Now of course some photos:

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Daily Grind

 

I’ve heard many mixed things about Harrison Birtwistle the person, but Harrison Birtwistle the composer is someone I love and this video is an amazing document of his own writing process but also the universally mundane task of writing music in general.

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Concerto

I’ve been doing a fair amount of pondering these last few weeks about THE CONCERTO. Not my concerto necessarily but the general idea of THE CONCERTO. Currently, I’m sitting at coffee shop in Raleigh, scrunched between (count ‘em) two different Bible study groups (how did I ever get so lucky). With me is my copy of the full score to the five Beethoven Piano Concertos and my pencil which, when I get the necessary arm space, vigorously scribbles down a few of my findings. All of this is in preparation to begin work on my own piano concerto slated to be premiered in the spring of 2019. 

Now I’m not one to sit and think a great deal about the “philosophy” of a piece. Meaning, I don’t take a lot of time asking myself questions a la David Lang like “why is an audience at a concert” or “what is silence” etc.. Lang does ask these types of questions and comes out the other end with very fine pieces that seem to question the very structures of classical institutions. But the practice just isn’t quite for me. However, it’s different for me when it comes to this concerto. The concerto, more than almost any other classical genre (if that’s even the word), carries the most philosophical baggage, historically speaking. In almost every era of classical music, composers have had a unique take on what the role is of an instrumental soloist in relation to an orchestra. In the late Baroque and early classical era, the soloist jumped through musical hoops with dazzling virtuosity while the orchestra’s role was to lay out the themes in which the soloist would elaborate. With Mozart and especially Beethoven, the soloist almost takes on the role of an individual in musical dialogue with a large ensemble. After the First World War and onward, the concerto took on a much darker, political tone with the individual (soloist) attempting to stand up to the masses (the orchestra) with the masses eventually violently taking over the soloist. And now in the twenty-first century, like a lot of things, everything is musically up for grabs. This leads to a composer (yours truly) musically drifting out in open waters. So what is one to do with THE CONCERTO?

This past summer, I traveled to New Jersey where my boyfriend lives and in preparation for what I knew would be a fair amount of commuting in and out of the city, I picked up a book from a local bookstore before leaving Indiana. I bought a copy of Matthew Desmond’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted. The book follows eight families through their experience of desperately trying to pay rent and eventually dealing with chronic homelessness in Milwaukee during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In Milwaukee, families whose last move was involuntary (due mostly to evictions) are 25 percent more likely to experience long term housing problems. Eviction is to poor, mostly black woman and children what prison is to black men; a constantly revolving door which is difficult to leave once one has been trapped. As Desmond puts it “Black men are locked up, black women are locked out”. Contrary to popular republican belief, evictions and homelessness in the United States are not entirely due to a lack of work ethic or “bootstraps”. Most Americans are one car accident, medical emergency, or paycheck away from having to choose between paying rent or paying a life saving expense. This is due to extractive markets. When a landlord sets up shop in a less than desirable neighborhood, the landlord, by taking individuals in with bad credit or prior evictions, can set their rents at a higher price than necessary to financially balance out taking in high risk individuals. So in mid sized cities where evictions are rampant, a poorly maintained house that’s not up to code in a crappy neighborhood can cost as much as a nice apartment in downtown. This is how families who are evicted are kept in the revolving door. 

As I read Evicted, I would be on a train passing through Trenton or North Philly or Newark…these were the environments I was reading about...literally right outside window. Living in the midwest for the past year, I had forgotten that these places still exist. It’s amazing how that can happen…

So what does this have to do with THE CONCERTO? Once I had finished Evicted, I started to think, for whatever reason, about sonata form. Simplified, a composer introduces a musical idea and drills the motive or melody into the listener's ears (sounds painful but the goal is to get the tune implanted). This material is referred to as A. Then the material has a life of its own, as it were, and changes and is put into different contexts and moods and develops. This playing around with the tune is referred to as B. Finally, to bring a sense of closure, the A material comes back in its original, tried and true form. The ABA form is not merely a musical device as much as a dramatic one. It's the form of almost every story we know. Dorothy is in Kansas (A), Dorthy does some crazy stuff in OZ (B), Dorothy is back in Kansas (A). It’s the idea of home and back again. This turned out to be my lightbulb moment. 

The A material in sonata form is often referred to as home. Tonic, in music, is also often referred to as home. Home, musically speaking, is meant to be familiar and comfortable which is why it is related to the first thing a listener hears in a piece of music. With Evicted on my mind, I made a literal and metaphorical connection with the idea of home. What if, for this piano concerto, I restricted the opening A material for the end. Even though I have a lot of writing left to do for this concerto, I want the soloist to be searching for this material throughout the piece…getting closer and closer as the piece progresses. Needless to say, I’m working backwards. Currently, I’m writing the ending and will subliminally place the “motive” throughout the rest of the piece. 

It is difficult to write music about something when there is no text. The only device I have to convey a concept is a collection of pitches and rhythms. Chords can't depict homelessness. A motive can't depict homelessness. But what I think I can do is write an emotional piece that is inspired by something I care about and incorporate concepts that bridge the gap between music and Matthew Desmond's book, in this case the form of the piece.   

My piano concerto, Shelter, is being premiered spring of 2019 at the Boston Conservatory. The wonderful Kevin Madison is both the commissioner and soloist. More to come…

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Neck of the Woods

Early this morning, I ventured out of the Bloomington bubble to Columbus (Indiana not Ohio; population est. 40,000). This small city is unique due to the absolutely insane amount of midcentury modern architecture that seems to be about everywhere. In the mid-1940's, J. Irwin Miller, the CEO of Cummins Inc. (a large local diesel engine manufacturer), instituted a program in which the Cummins Foundation would pay the architect fees if a local client selected an architect from a list compiled by the foundation. This is practical and community based modernism at its best; designing local churches, public schools, newspaper offices, etc. instead of exclusively serving wealthy clients. So, I took some neat pictures...

First Christian Church (designed by Eliel Saarinen)

First Christian Church (designed by Eliel Saarinen

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North Christian Church (designed by Eero Saarinen)

Fire Station No. 4 (designed by Robert Venturi

Fire Station No. 4 (designed by Robert Venturi)

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The (former) Republic Newspaper Building (designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

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Robert N. Stewart Bridge (designed by J. Muller International)

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The Inn at Irwin Gardens (built by Joseph I. Irwin in 1864)

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The said Gardens of The Inn at Irwin Garden

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