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Mikel Rouse

There's more of melodrama than drama in the unfettered blabbing of our confessional, confrontational TV talk shows, but you can sort of see the attraction that the medium might present to an opera composer. At present, I know of two "operas" on the subject that came around about the same time. One's a British product from Kombat Opera called, I think, Jerry Springer the Opera by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee. The other is Dennis Cleveland by New York Downtowner Mikel Rouse - the name's a variant pronounced "Michael," an affectation he shares with actor Mikelti Williamson, who integrates it with a middle initial.

The following interview was submitted for publication to - and may or may not have appeared in an issue of 20th-Century Music. In any case, an advance story I wrote on Rouse's rock opera Dennis Cleveland appeared in the OC Weekly in October 1999 and can be accessed through Rouse's website.

Mikel Rouse was born in 1957 in St. Louis, Missouri. The son of a state trooper, he was born Michael Rouse but changed the spelling in third grade. He formed a progressive rock band called Tirez Tirez in his teens and later attended the Kansas City Art Institute and the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He moved to New York in 1979, where he studied African music and other owrld musics and began his study of the Schillinger composition method. Upon moving to New York City, he formed his contemporary chamber ensemble, Mikel Rouse Broken Consort. A composer of New York's Downtown post-minimalist movement, his music is associated with the sub-genre of totalism, which integrates the harmonic complexity of classical European style with the rhythm and texture of African and Asian music and particularly, rock. Other composers in that category include Ben Neill, Art Jarvinen, John Luther Adams, David First, Michael Gordon and Rhys Chatham. Rouse's numerous recordings span a variety of genres from pop to electronic. His piece Quorum for Linn drum machine (1984) was used by the late choreographer Ulysses Dove's Vespers (1987) and has been in the repertoire of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater ever since. A film of this work was shown on PBS Great Performances' Dance in America in 1995 and won two Emmy Awards. In 1989, Rouse began composition of the opera Failing Kansas (1994), inspired by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which premiered at The Kitchen in New York. He has since completed the remaining two works in this opera trilogy, Dennis Cleveland (1996, The Kitchen) and The End of Cinematics (tentatively scheduled for the BAM New Wave Festival 2001). Other works include Book One, a book of nine string quartets; Quick Thrust, a twelve-tone rock piece; and Two Paradoxes Resolved, a piano suite.

I spoke with Mikel Rouse early in October, 1999, a few weeks before his talk show opera Dennis Cleveland was to have its west coast premiere in Costa Mesa as part of the Eclectic Orange Festival.

DB: What got you to setting a talk show to opera?

MR: Well, I guess it really started in '87 or '88 when I started working on Failing Kansas because it was prior to that point I'd been involved mostly in chamber music. I had also been involved in pop music, and they had both sort of influenced each other, but I actually liked to keep them separate. In addition to that, I not only trained as a composer at the University of Missouri, Kansas City conservatory, but across the street, I had also studied film making and painting at the art institute. I decided that I wouldn't give up any of these things, but I'd really devote myself to music and to composition. I did that for about 10 or 15 years. Then about '87 or '88, I read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and was so blown away by the craft of his writing and also by the idea that he had - I don't think he really invented this, but he was one of the pioneers of the so-called non-fiction novel. I wanted to do something that would set the text. I was more inspired by the book than (inclined to) actually use it. What I did was go over to the New York City Public Library and start investigating the murders of the Clutters. As I was thinking about text, it became really clear to me that I wasn't going to be able to set text in a traditional way. My work was already moving further and further from any kind of Western European music tradition. My music has always been highly contrapuntal, so I stumbled on this idea of doing all these spoken voices scored in counterpoint. The sound was really unique to me. I hadn't really heard anything quite like it. So that's the pre-history because that simple decision forced me to look at a lot of other things and possibly close a lot of doors involving me with the traditional New Music community. For the first time, I was starting to go off on my own path. That forced me to look at not just musical construction but the way I think about the world. There's a very conservative approach to music, even new music. There are traditional ways to do it if you want to get the grants, if you want to get the different kinds of exposures, so I was really faced with a dilemma. Was I gonna just keep doing what I thought I should do individually, which might run against the grain? I'd been doing that anyway by using rock instrumentation and by using rock production values. It just came to a head with Failing Kansas. I did the piece with an artist named Cliff Baldwin with a full-length feature film and performed it as a solo piece with my voice, multi-tracked on tape and me performing it. It opened up a lot of doors, so by the time you get to Dennis Cleveland, which I started in about '94 and finished writing in '95 to premiere it in '96, I'm investigating again my life and my childhood. Being someone who was born in the late '50s, it has to do with the influence of television, and the talk shows were the most immediate question at hand. When I started working on the piece, it was much more about the media in general and television in general. Then I started reading this book by a Canadian author named John Ralston Saul, who talked about the ritual of television and how it had come to replace the ritual previously associated with religion. I not only had thought that myself and agreed with that, but I took a more specific example to draw my piece from. He was really talking about television in general, but at the same time you have all these talk shows of a confessional nature. I thought that Saul's ideas are really exemplified in how these talk shows work. As I said, I'd already been working on the music and on the libretto, and I'd already been sampling text from talk shows to use as part of the rhythmic libretto. It was then after I'd been working on the piece for about a year that I thought, "Wait a minute! You should stage it as a talk show." Another thing I'd been really interested in was breaking opera out of the sort of European 19th century mold, both in instrumentation and also in presentation away from the proscenium stage.

DB: How does Cleveland fit into the trilogy concept together with Kansas and Cinematics?.

MR: I think that they all share a couple of things. They all share different explorations of this vocal writing technique I was talking about that I call counterpoetry. From a purely formal and technical standpoint, I wanted to have a big structure to explore those things. I've done a number of solo records and smaller pieces that are also experiments with this technique, but these were the three pieces (to do that exploration). And then I think the three pieces are also linked by a number of things which have to do with specific American iconography, how America looks at religion and spirituality which is all over Failing Kansas. Not only the spirituality of the Clutter family - the murdered family - but also of Perry Smith, one of the murderers - being brought up by nuns in an orphanage and the whole warped sensibility he got of God and Jesus and the whole deal. I think that what runs through Dennis Cleveland is a certain kind of spirituality that's seen through the prism of popular culture. Is that an answer? Thinking of Saul's idea, is the media the new spirituality? Is the repetitiveness of television fulfilling that ritualistic aspect that you used to get from a Chinese ceremony or a Catholic mass? I think that if you go into The End of Cinematics, we take that one step further and talk about the nature of corporate-driven entertainment. So I think that they're all tied together through those two ideas.

DB: And they were conceived at the same time?

MR: Failing Kansas happened first and took the longest. I did a lot of research at the public library and was really stumbling with this technique. I did a lot of sketches that I didn't like and got thrown out - so in the actual writing of the piece, Failing Kansas took about five years. There were other pieces in between, but I stood by my idea that I was not going to rush. I was just going to let it go (at its own pace). By the time I'm almost finished with Failing Kansas, I've already conceived of Dennis Cleveland and The End of Cinematics as a connecting trilogy. And by the time I had premiered Dennis Cleveland in October, '96, I had finished about half of The End of Cinematics. So in a sense, they were all written together at the same time but Failing Kansas having the longest stretch and being its own piece before the other things came into being.

DB: Has The End of Cinematics been completed and performed?

MR: We've done workshop performances of it. I finished the libretto, the music and the concept for how I wanted to stage it by '96 or early '97. I had hired a set designer named John Jesurun to do the set design for Dennis Cleveland. He's a well-known director in his own right, so I asked him to come on as a collaborator. It's kind of odd because I'd actually had the concept for The End of Cinematics and also finished the music and libretto, but then asked him if he would write a screenplay because we're gonna stage this. My idea was to stage this as a feature film. We're doing it in separate locations, and what the audience perceives is basically a movie, so we shoot a live movie every night. That piece is big, it's very expensive and so we've done a couple of workshops. I did a workshop performance without John in San Francisco for a month at a place called the Zeum, which is sort of like an art place for teenagers. And then we did a workshop performance in May in New York.

DB: And that's building up to a more formal premiere of the finished product?

MR: It's supposed to premiere at the BAM Next Wave Festival in the year 2001. And then because of my interest in that piece and presenting - again, a big part of my stuff is finding unique ways to present these pieces in terms of the staging. Ways that include the audience or make them feel comfortable. For example, in a talk show environment, you can hit them over the head with a lot of other ideas because in a way, they feel like they're already in an environment they're familiar with. So the new piece I'm working on is called Camera World and that's gonna be another piece that's gonna be staged in similar ways. I'll be doing that with the same artist. I'm really looking forward to working with this artist again because he did the film for Failing Kansas, and his name is Cliff Baldwin.

DB: In reading about Cleveland and then listening to the CD, I get the feeling that listening to the CD is nothing like the experience of sitting through it. I found myself wondering how it plays out. Was this a music-driven production from the word go or a staging-driven one? I know you have a graphic arts background.

MR: I think that everything I do pretty much starts with music, even the text. I mean, I was talking to Robert Ashley about this a couple of years ago. His text is probably some of the most brilliant I've ever read, but it's interesting that he always thinks of it as music first. Words come to him through the idea of music. I think it's the same for me. People were amazed that I write these librettos and were very complimentary ­- not only about how poetic but also about the ideas expressed. But if you just said, "Sit down and write a poem," or "Sit down and write text," it comes to me through the idea of how it relates to the music. Dennis Cleveland is a good example because as I said, I had actually already started writing the piece, knew it was going to be about media using the talk shows as a springboard, but I was six or seven months into the piece before it even occurred to me that I would even stage it as a talk show. So obviously the staging is very important, and I think that that's something that - not only from my ensemble work but my solo work - I've always been very involved with how the pieces look and how they're presented to an audience. But Dennis Cleveland is a perfect example of something that from the very start was all starting with the music. The End of Cinematics as well. I knew The End of Cinematics was going to be about corporate entertainment, and I already had a lot of the music written and recorded, but I don't think it was until '95 or '96 when I was, again, about halfway through with the recording that I realized the idea that it would be staged as a feature film.

DB: When you go to school, they teach you how to write off the top of your head. But when you write in what is essentially a new idiom, let's say the counterpoetry idiom, how much playing around and experimenting and sketch work - how much junk do you have to throw out before you have a finished product?

MR: A ton. I was telling someone else this recently. I was really happy with the music I was writing. I think it was very influenced by Steve Reich and minimalism. I thought that I was doing something that was slightly different or more unique for my age group. Next generation. I was using rock instrumentation, using different kinds of rhythmic techniques to shape the harmony, using multiple metric sections that forced a kind of resolution. So I thought I was in good shape. But when I started working on Failing Kansas, and the idea of the piece demanded a different kind of approach - you know, it wasn't just absolute music anymore - it was really stressful because I had started to build a reputation with my chamber ensemble, Mikel Rouse Broken Consort. Things were going okay, and now I'm in this dilemma where I'm really gonna make a big left turn. With Dennis Cleveland, it was even a bigger left turn. There were so many people who were supportive, but they thought, "You're gonna take a 15 or 20 year career, and you're gonna just flush it down the toilet. You could really end up looking foolish." The fact of the matter is I think you have to follow through with what you're doing. With Failing Kansas I remember making these experiments and just hating the way it sounded. Now it seems like the most natural thing in the world because I've been doing it for at least ten years. But when I first did it, I trusted the fact that there's a lot of great music out there when I was younger, I didn't like instantly when I heard it. I didn't get it. So I kind of trusted the process - maybe you don't like this because you've fallen into a rut and you're very good at what you do but you're kind of doing the same thing. This really forced me to think differently. But I'll tell you, when I got past that hurdle, which took a long time, I got thrilled about music again. You know, just the idea of word combinations, the idea of how syntax and meaning can change. There's a section in Dennis Cleveland called Soul Train where the group sings, "I'm glad if you're glad, I'm sad if you're sad.” But because they're singing it in two different metric combinations, they're not singing anything different. They're always singing depending on what meter they're in "I'm glad if you're sad," or whatever it was. But the thing is because of the two metric things combining, you get like four different meanings going on. So it's not just a musical thing. It's how you're changing the psychology of what the words mean simply through rhythmic permutation.

DB: The idiom is very heavily rock. Is rock your usual idiom or is it just for some of these pieces that you've done?

MR: I don't know if you've ever heard any of the chamber music by Broken Consort.

DB: I'm afraid Cleveland is my one and only exposure.

DB: I would say all the way back to 1980, prior even to the Bang on a Can kind of stuff, I was doing rock instrumentation, but the stuff was very contrapuntal. I did a piece called A Walk in the Woods, which was a chamber orchestra record, and a number of chamber records for my group, which could be anything from instrumentation for a jazz quartet or quintet. But everything was fully scored right down to every single part of the trap set so that it sounded very much like modern chamber music. The rock element there had more to do with the instrumentation. It wasn't until Failing Kansas when I started investigating this new vocal writing technique that I really felt, again, a lot of doors opened. And I also felt I really had to address where I came from. Because you go to a conservatory and it's great and you get information and you come to New York and you want to be sophisticated and fairly intelligent, so you sort of absorb all these ideas and these influences. But at the end of the day, whether you know it or not, you're either trying to escape from what you really are or you're trying to ignore it. There's so many people I know in New York who come from the South or the Midwest who do great work but in a certain way, they become New Yorkers and they kind of don't want to be reminded that they came from simpler beginnings. And so for me, I came from a place that was a lot of rock music, a lot of jazz, country and western. It was starting with Failing Kansas that I really started to allow that to come into the work while I still maintained my interest in structure. Now with Dennis Cleveland and also with The End of Cinematics, there's also much more of a rock feel, but that's mostly because of the necessity of the piece, which is that when you're in the talk show environment, I wanted everything to come through the loudspeakers. I mean I went to a lot of talk shows when I was doing research for the piece, and I wanted everything that came out of the loudspeakers - even though you have huge choral sections and like a ten-minute Money chant and all this weird stuff - I still wanted the overall production effect to sound like something you could almost imagine hearing out of the loudspeakers at a talk show. So consequently, that sort of hip-hop driving beat that's there, there's form and function to it and part of this function is that it would actually be believable in that setting.

DB: I can definitely hear the sort of urban groove throughout the music. In addition, of course, complex harmonies and an almost Gothic feel to the chorus. I was wondering - I'm not real good at my rock labels. Can you describe it as, say, progressive or trip-hop or house?

MR: I don't know. I mean, it's got elements of things that I listen to. I would say probably the music that I like the most right now in the last five years is hip-hop. I think it's the most innovative pop music that's going on since I was a kid - and I was listening to pop music in the '60s - in terms of what it's brought to a certain culture. Hip-hop was probably the first music since I was a kid that made people say, "Well, that's not music." When I was a kid, people thought the Beatles weren't music. You know, the generation before that. So I trust that response to mean that obviously hip-hop has had a huge cultural effect. So I think there are elements there because that influence is there. I think there are certainly elements of jazz and rock in terms of harmony. But I wouldn't compare it to too much progressive rock because that always had a funny connotation to me. People who were into a certain kind of fusion. Anybody who's going to try to add elements of the structure of classical music to rock or whatever is going to be faced with the fact that he's doing some kind of fusion. But for me, it's just trying to acknowledge - unselfconsciously - trying to incorporate elements of the kind of music that I listen to. And that might not necessarily be the kind of music that you love, but that is where you came from.

DB: What did you grow up listening to?

MR: I'd say the most sophisticated stuff would have been jazz. I could hear things like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and stuff like that. But then there was a lot of country, which I hated as a kid, but again, doing Failing Kansas and re-investigating, realized that actually there's parts of me that really loved that. I was probably rebelling against it, but it was all around me so it's almost like you can't really totally hate what's all around you even if you tried to pretend it wasn't there. And then a lot of rock and a lot of Motown. Mostly from WLS in Chicago. We'd be getting this radio station out of Chicago really late at night, and that turned you on to all the sounds that were happening at that moment and they were really big on Motown.

DB: A lot of today's pop artists are conservatory-trained musicians. What was your intention when you went for music training? To go pop? To go classical? To be a behind-the-scenes professional guy?

MR: I always knew I was going to perform, and I always knew I was going to write music because I've been writing music ever since I was a kid. But I also painted, so again the whole idea that I would do sort of a double major at the conservatory and the art institute I think was a good indication of wanting to do something different. And when I graduated from there, I was really faced with a dilemma and I decided to pursue music because I thought that was - I was actually a better visual artist in terms of technique, but I didn't have really anything to say in that regard. I still paint and I still do all sorts of stuff, but music seemed to be the place where I was really able to do unique things. The interesting thing to me after doing music and getting my act together over a period of like 15 or 20 years is how, starting with Failing Kansas but really with Dennis Cleveland, I got to bring all of the art stuff back. It was always in the back of my mind, "Well, what was that for? You still do it. You don't pursue it as a career but what is that? What is the fact that you directed films when you were in school and you continued to pick really good visual artists to work with?" And directing Failing Kansas and then Dennis Cleveland, I realized, "Well, this is it!" It just took me a long time to figure out how all that stuff would be incorporated. But once it did, I think it really served me well because there are so many composers I know - really good composers - who don't have a feel for words or don't have a feel for visuals or presentation, so therefore, they rely on other people and sometimes, the mix doesn't work. I think that's why you get so many bad operas because you've got a great musician who gets with somebody who maybe never wrote a lyric in his life although he may be a great writer, and then he writes some kind of albatross setting and then the composer's just scrambling to try to figure out how to set this stuff to music. Everything in my being tells me that that's not the way you set music and words.

DB: When did you know that you'd arrived as a composer? Was it having your music performed at The Kitchen? Was it a certain piece like Quorum?

MR: Well, Quorum is probably one of my fondest memories because I've gotten so many - you know, you were asking me some of the influences. That piece was written a good 15 to 20 years before there was even a thing called techno. And now I get calls from people in England saying, "What is this piece? Did it just come out last year or something?" and it's actually the first piece of its kind ever written for a drum sequencer - through the original Linn drum sequencer - which is one of the reasons it sounds so cool. And nobody in their right mind in 1983 or '84 when I was shopping that record would even look at it. And then Ulysses Dove choreographed this piece that went on to be seen - I mean, it's been in Alvin Ailey's repertory for 10 years, it's been seen by over a million people, it was filmed for PBS Great Performances. So that was a real victory because it told me that everybody says, "If you just do it a little more this way or a little more that way, you have a bigger audience." The fact of the matter is audiences like good stuff. The problem is you don't get a chance to do it. So I think Quorum was a big moment for me for all those reasons. Sure, playing Lincoln Center with Broken Consort was great, but even after having done that for 15 years and written music that I'm very proud of, I really don't think I was getting on top of my game until I was about 40. Until I started doing these new pieces with text.

DB: Well 40 was about two years ago.

MR: Yeah, I guess maybe 38, 39, 40. Failing Kansas but then Dennis Cleveland, I think, kind of sealed it as well.

DB: What is totalism, and is that your own concept? Where does that word come from?

MR: The first person I heard write about it was a critic in New York named Kyle Gann.

DB: Oh, okay. One of your big fans.

MR: Yeah, he's a very big fan. He's a big fan of some of the Bang on a Can guys and me and Ben Neill, who's a really great composer. A couple of other people. It's just a term that I think got started getting used that referred to this group of composers born in the late '50s, kind of fusing classical elements but rock instrumentation, a whole combination of things.

DB: I've heard other music described as having the rock influence and I hear those pieces and I just don't hear it in the way that I hear it in Dennis Cleveland.

MR: Yeah, I think that it's really blatant, and I think that's one of the things that made me feel out of touch with some of my peers. I talked to those, and they all came from very similar background, but I just think that there's a tendency to want to stay - they want to be bold and dynamic, but they want to stay with a safety net so they won't just all out do it. I think that I got very lucky. I had a piece that demanded it. Actually for my taste, it would have been ridiculous to try to make something more chamber-like and then make people actually believe that this could be something that they would be hearing or be seeing.

DB: Well, conversely, do you think composers of your generation or the last 20 years missed the boat by not fully embracing rock and its language?

MR: That's a good question. I really think it depends on where you came from and what you heard. I think where you miss the boat is if you don't find a way to incorporate what you heard. And so if that's the question, then yeah, maybe so. I think, as I said, that they all try to find some very - what I find they do most if I have any criticism of some of my peers is that they're pretending that they're embracing it, but what they're really doing is finding incredibly clever ways to skirt the issue. It's not like I'm saying rock's great. I mean, they have lots of problems with it. In fact, quite frankly, I wish it was dead because that was music from my generation. I think one of the reasons I liked hip-hop so much was because it felt like the first time that we were finally getting away from this sort of consumer strangulation that rock and pop culture has put on the society. But that being said, I feel very compelled to figure out what my place in the world is, considering that that's what I grew up with and that's what I heard. So if I can take that and do something with it, in my case, I think a lot of times I use it, not only just the sound of rock but also the production values like the staging of Dennis Cleveland so that it brings people in. They hear it and go, "Now that sounds familiar to me. I'm used to that kind of drum sound. I'm used to that kind of production value." But then all of a sudden, they're getting this 17-minute chorus, the Apparent Money piece. Somehow I think it seems believable to them.

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