Christopher Rouse: Going to Eleven

Nothing Against Tradition

Frank J. Oteri: Before we move away from the Second Symphony, I wanted to talk with you a bit about your use of the word symphony as a title for a composition. You’ve also written a bunch of pieces that you call concertos, and you’ve also composed a work you call a requiem which was finally performed last year. These are all names that have huge weighted histories behind them. I’m curious about where you see yourself and your music in this tradition, and what you think such a tradition means now, in 2008, in an era when classical music has become marginalized.

Christopher Rouse: Well, honest to god, I don’t see myself anywhere because I just don’t think about it. Sometimes people say, “Where do you think your music will be in 100 years or whatever?” I don’t know. My hope is to write music and to be able to continue to write music as long as I live. And the rest of it is out of my hands. I’m just writing the best music I can based on what I want to write. And I just don’t worry about the other stuff, because it’s not going to be up to me to make those determinations.

I have nothing against tradition. You seem to go through these periods where you throw out all tradition, like the early ’50s or the Darmstadt people, and so forth. And then you re-embrace tradition and then you throw it away again and you re-embrace it. I certainly have no desire to go back and write music in the style of Beethoven or Schumann or Mahler or whatever. But there’s a lot that I can learn and take from that music, and ideally do something to it that is personal enough so that it no longer is overtly related to that composer, unless I want it to be. Sometimes I intend for these relationships to be clear—to Bruckner, or Shostakovich, or whatever.

FJO: Or to Wagner in your Der gerettete Alberich.

CR: Exactly, because of all the quotations and so forth. I think if you try to ignore the past or pretend it doesn’t exist, you’re going to be dead in the water. What composer has ever been able to completely ignore the past?

FJO: I guess one could argue somebody like Harry Partch, but he was really playing around with ancient Greek and Chinese ideas.

CR: And a lot of it sounds like gamelan music. I bet he must have heard gamelan music.

FJO: Well, certainly Lou Harrison, who is also considered a great innovator, was responding to gamelan, as well as many other traditions. He was very tradition conscious.

CR: Yeah.

FJO: In the 20th century, it became very important for composers to create a whole new sound world. You mentioned Darmstadt, but that also didn’t come out of nowhere.

CR: It comes from Messaien, in a way. Messiaen did it first. And Messiaen got the idea from Webern and Webern comes through Schoenberg and Schoenberg comes through Wagner and Mahler. So, all these people had forbearers.

FJO: For a while, back to the curse of Adorno, there was this idea that there was this evolutionary line of music, and you reach this point where tonality had to be broken. We had to go to 12-tone music. And then total serialism sprang from pitched serialism. If you weren’t following this Darwinian evolutionary arc, somehow you were not being true to the Zeitgeist. But I think that way of thinking has broken down.

CR: Sure. But the Adorno approach or aesthetic held sway, I think, in a lot of American music departments and schools in the ’50s and ‘‘60s. On the other hand, though, there’s the example of Stravinsky who definitely goes back and re-embraces the past. That’s the whole point.

FJO: But I brought up this idea of tradition for another reason. A lot of composers feel that they are locked out of the orchestra. Part of the reason is that the orchestra mostly performs old music and isn’t accepting of really experimental musical languages, and the instruments used in the orchestra also stopped evolving at a certain point. Now, you’ve chosen to primarily work in writing for the orchestra; that’s what most of the work you’ve done has been about. So you found a way around that somehow.

CR: Well, again, I guess it does have something to do with tradition. My music does tend to use standard meters and standard notation and so forth. A lot I think has to do with the fact that you just have to be realistic. With a professional orchestra, you’re going to get two-and-a-half hours of rehearsal, if you’re lucky, and then they’re going to play the piece. So if it’s a piece that presents all sorts of challenges and problems, you’re going to get a terrible performance. So either you are willing to adapt to those issues, which are not so much issues if you’re working with a chamber group that may be able to devote 100 hours to your work before they play it. But if you’re not willing to make those adjustments to dealing with the orchestra world, then it’s just not going to fly for you. I think there are all sorts of ways of writing well-written pieces for the orchestra in a variety of languages or approaches, and they’re going to get played. Now sure, audience preferences and so forth enter this a bit. You can’t keep playing the most thorny, most in-your-face music for a standard, major orchestra audience and expect not to pay some kind of consequence in terms of cancelled ticket sales or subscriptions or whatever. But I think a lot of the problem with writing for the orchestra is people who just don’t understand what is reasonable. You cannot write for orchestra the way you write a string quartet. A string quartet can be much more complex. Indeed, the next piece I have to write is a string quartet, and it will be much more complex, rhythmically and so forth, than anything I would write for an orchestra, because they will have as long as it takes to get the piece in shape.

FJO: Well, I guess this begs the question, why haven’t you written more chamber music?

CR: I love the orchestra, and most of the commissions, the requests, have come from orchestras. But that’s really O.K. with me. I always warn my students to beware of typecasting. The danger early on for me was being typecast as a percussion composer. I wrote a couple of little percussion pieces when I was still a student that began to get played a lot and are still played a lot, but I then realized that everyone was thinking of me as “Oh, he writes great percussion music.” And so I purposely have said no for many, many years to any percussion ensemble request because I just don’t want to be thought of as just that.

FJO: Ogoun Badagris is a really, really cool piece. But I love all those pieces, as well as the later one you did, Bonham. In fact, I always thought you had been a percussionist, so I was surprised when you said you had only done it for six months.

CR: Well, it’s longer than I spent with anything else, so I guess by default I’m a percussionist. But I’ve always felt comfortable with those instruments and with the players. When I was a student, I always hung out with percussionists.

FJO: But in a way, it’s the hardest stuff to write for because in some ways it’s the least controlled. In a way, sometimes you have to be a choreographer as well as a composer to really make it work.

CR: You have to understand what’s needed in terms of changing sticks. A lot of people don’t realize that you can’t use the same pair of sticks for all percussion instruments. It takes time to change sticks, it takes time to move from one instrument to another, and you have to build that into the composition of the piece. You have to take that weakness, if you will, or the weakness that a flutist has to breathe a lot, or the various issues that different kinds of instruments pose, and you need to make music out of those. That’s the challenge. You don’t just pretend the weakness doesn’t exist or try to sweep it under the rug. You find a way to use those silences or those moments where something else is going on that’s just a purely practical issue and still find a way to make music.

There’s a section in Der gerettete Alberich where the player is dealing with a snare drum, and he is going to go from snares off to snares on, but he needs a free hand to do that. And so I had to find out after all of this stuff, what can he do with one hand—not on the head, because we have to have the head free to move from no snare to snare—what can he do with one hand and still make it sound like it’s not just some kind of weak vamp, but that it’s really meant to be there? So I set up this thing with steady eighth notes [demonstrates] so that he finally ends up playing on the rim with this click, click, click, click, click, click, click eighth notes and has the other hand free to turn on the snares. So then click, click, click, then he suddenly goes drrrr back to the head. People are really surprised. How did he do that? How did the instrument change the sound like that? And then later on, he has to turn the snares off. He has to go in reverse again.

Those are the challenges. First of all, you’ve got to be aware of them. If you’re not, you’re not a professional. I place a high value on professionalism. You’ve got to know the instruments that you’re writing for. You have to know how they work. You can’t just say, “Oh, they’ll find a way to play it.” That’s dangerous. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t. But this idea that, “Oh, I don’t need to worry whether what I’m doing is playable or not,” I think is pretty irresponsible. It doesn’t mean you don’t push them—my god, I push them as hard as anybody—but you still have to understand the issues involved. And sometimes, yes, wind players have to breathe. Too bad, but they’re human. Unless they circular breathe—particularly flutists, they’re the ones who have to breathe the most—you’ve got to be aware of that and write for the instrument in such a way. You can write for the oboe completely differently. That passage you were mentioning should be playable by anyone except an oboist who maybe has smoked away half of his lungs. It’s a really long, held note, but because the oboe is just the opposite of the flute, you should be able to hold that note for 30 or 40 seconds without a breath. And so you have to include that in the way you write for instruments.

FJO: What you write is usually very idiomatic and comes from having an intimate understanding of all of these instruments. And yet you are not a performer on any of them. A lot of people who don’t know what a classical composer does will ask what instrument you play, and if you say you write for orchestra, they’ll usually say, “Does that mean you play all those instruments?”

CR: I get that in concert hall Q & A. A lot think that I must be able to play all these instruments. How could I write for them if I don’t play them? Or how could I hear the music when I don’t play the piano? Since I don’t play the piano, I don’t compose at the piano.

FJO: When I walked in here, I was looking around for the piano. There’s no piano in here.

CR: Well, there’s this little Casio thing.

FJO: That’s it. So it’s all in your head.

CR: It has to be. It’s not that I’m proud of it, but I cannot play the piano. So I cannot work at the piano and use that as a tool.

FJO: And you also don’t use a computer. It’s all hand-written.

CR: No, I’m too much of an old fart. I don’t understand all the MIDI-ing and so forth. I feel terribly out of it.

FJO: Singers more than any instrumentalist frequently take issue with what can or cannot be written idiomatically for the voice.

CR: “It might be idiomatic for the next lyric coloratura, but I’m a lyric coloratura who can’t do this. My B-flat isn’t as good as her B-flat.” That’s a problem. Do you write something that’s so tailor-made for one specific person that essentially nobody else can ever do it as well? I don’t. I try to write something that can be done by other people, and would be comfortable enough for others to do. I haven’t written a lot of vocal music, as you know. Not because I have anything against it, just because I haven’t been asked. I love the voice, and, at least in a general sense, I feel that I understand the voice.

FJO: In the Requiem, I was stunned at how, when the text is in English, how completely clear the prosody of it is. It’s a really rare thing for the music to truly serve the words.

CR: Well, thank you. I actually like setting English. But I also like the distancing of another language. I set English in the Requiem mainly because most of the texts that I love that were appropriate happened to be by English poets.

FJO: That’s unusual, too, because the tradition of composing a requiem is to set a specific pre-determined liturgical text in Latin. You created a different kind of a piece by doing what you did.

CR: Well, there’s Britten.

FJO: Well yeah, and Brahms.

CR: Brahms sets an entirely different text. Britten takes the Latin but keeps troping it with all of these other texts, and that has become almost de rigeur now. It seems that nobody can write a requiem with just the Latin text anymore. John Harbison did, but he’s about the only person I can think of. Everybody else seems to add other texts to the Latin. Danielpour adds other text; oh my god, there are so many. Now I think the unusual thing would be to write a requiem with just the Latin.

FJO: Looking through all of your scores, I noticed that you end every single one with the words “Deo Gratias.”

CR: Habit. You know, Haydn always ended every score with “Laus Deo.” I saw “Deo Gratias” in something; I don’t even remember what it was. But I thought, “That’s a nice thing to say, thanks to God I have finished this.” So it became a habit with me. It just became a regular thing that I would put at the end of every score. Am I a devout person? No, I’m not.

FJO: So how important is that in terms of translating it to the musicians?

CR: Not important at all. It’s not even in their parts, so they don’t know it’s there. The only person who knows it’s there is the conductor, and I’m not even sure all the scores maintain that from my manuscripts.

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