Mikel Rouse: The Way I Am
A conversation at Times Square Recording with Frank J. Oteri
November 15, 2010—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Edited by Frank J. Oteri, Alex Gardner, and John Lydon
Audio/video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan and Alex Gardner
As we enter deeper into the second decade of the 21st century, it has become more and more commonplace for musicians to create music that defies the previous century’s parsing of music into well-defined musical genres. But while many people think this blurring of categories and the advent of performing units described as “bandsembles” are signs of a cutting edge new millennium aesthetic, a man named Mikel Rouse has been making music this way for over 30 years.
While pursuing a schizoid academic trajectory in his home state of Missouri—avant-garde conceptualism at the Kansas City Art Institute and more conservative-minded music theory across the street at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory—he formed a rock band with his art school classmates named Tirez Tirez that wound up opening for the Talking Heads and was so successful they relocated to New York City to connect with the burgeoning new wave scene of the time. Almost immediately Rouse’s music theory training started creeping in, so he formed another band called Broken Consort to perform his more “contemporary new music” oriented compositions. One of those works even used a twelve-tone row! But eventually it became harder to tell one group from the other, except that one group’s material involved words and singing—and at one point both had the same personnel. According to Rouse,
[I]t was just starting to feel too schizophrenic; there was something forced about trying to maintain these two ensembles as separate entities when they were really coming from the same place and the same mind.
Around the same time an economic recession hit, so Rouse decided to disband both groups and go it alone. Pretty soon, however, his “solo” acts evolved into extremely elaborate multi-media gesamkunstwerk-type productions which he called “operas”:
Because I perform in the pieces, write them, and write the lyrics, many people thought, “Why don’t you say it’s performance art?” I wasn’t usually happy with performance art. I usually thought a lot of that, not all of it, but a lot of it was someone who did four things O.K. I want to do four or five things really good if possible, if I could. And so opera seemed to be like the logical thing to call it because in terms of scope and scale, you were taking basically all of the forces that were available to you at this particular moment in time, which was now film and video and multimedia and the relationship between popular culture and art. And you could put all that on a stage.
Whatever term you feel is appropriate to describe them, works like Failing Kansas and The End of Cinematics bring music and staging together in a highly complex way, without ever losing their grounding in contemporary American popular culture. For Dennis Cleveland, which is presented as an episode of an afternoon television talk show in front of a live studio audience, Rouse combined singers with classical training with singers from Broadway as well as the hip-hop world; the result is an extremely effective if somewhat surreal experience. Dennis Cleveland has toured all over the world and still feels remarkably timely fifteen years after it first opened at The Kitchen in downtown New York City.
When he’s not engaging in more elaborate conceptual stage pieces, Mikel Rouse is writing and recording songs—tons of them. Some of these songs, like the ones on Recess (2010), involve elaborate polyrhythmic layering that are as dense as anything being created by the most erudite contemporary music performers. But the other album he just released, Corner Loading, Volume One, is completely bare bones; he’s just singing and playing guitar in real time, albeit always in two different meters simultaneously.
This is a very, very accessible record. But you could dig deeper and deeper. If you don’t want to, that’s fine. But it rewards repeated listening. With singer songwriters out there, I’m not going to make a record with me singing and playing guitar because what would be the point. There are just too many people doing that. But no one’s doing this.
Frank J. Oteri: I’m curious about what you were doing musically before you got to New York City. What was the first music you were listening to, the first stuff you got excited about, and what made you want to get into this whole racket?
Mikel Rouse: Racket is the key word. I was born in St. Louis, but grew up in a small southeast Missouri town called Poplar Bluff. And there wasn’t a lot there. There certainly wasn’t a lot of culture. There was a lot of local culture, a lot of things I really came to really appreciate later in life, like the ubiquity of country western music was everywhere. But there wasn’t much else. Occasionally you could find out about art from seeing Time magazine or something. It was not like today, with cable and news media and the global village being much more available to everybody. It was just a very small place. But it certainly had a huge affect on the music that I would ultimately make simply because of that lengthy exposure to country western and blues.
I was always doing music and visual art, pretty much drawing photographically by the age of four. Everybody thought that was going to be the real thrust of what I did, visual art. I was not bright enough to really understand that you have to apply for colleges to get into a college. So I did one application. And the one application was to the Kansas City Art Institute. And I got in, and I got funding. And then I had been studying music theory. Like a lot of small towns, we had a high school marching band. And the teacher started offering a theory course because he was finding that people who went into music were at a disadvantage because they didn’t know any theory. They could read music for marching band, but they didn’t know any theory. So he started offering a theory course every other year for junior or senior year. So I convinced him to let me take that, and he didn’t know who I was because I was not in marching band. But that probably was the greatest thing that happened because that allowed me to test into the Conservatory at UMKC.
At that time in Kansas City, the Conservatory of Music was across the street from the Kansas City Art Institute; whereas, now it’s on the UMKC campus. So that benefitted me in two ways. I could never really handle the whole university system, but the art institute was very free and very creative. And the interesting thing about the conservatory and the art institute was that even though they were across the street, they were so different from each other. I was learning structure and discipline from the conservatory, and I was learning creativity from the art institute. It was the best possible education if you were going ultimately to do what I did which was go into a wide variety of music with multimedia and visual representation.
And then that’s where we formed the band Tirez Tirez. The whole punk thing had hit in New York. I remember going to see Peter Gabriel play at the Uptown Theater. I always liked Peter Gabriel, but this very strange band came out that was opening for them, and they were wearing black. This doesn’t sound like much now, but you have to remember what that time period was. In the mid-70s and the late-70s, it was dinosaur rock and arena rock, the bloated thing that had happened before punk briefly washed it away. So these four guys come out in black T-shirts and canvas shoes, and the name of the band is Television. And it was such an odd thing to see musicians playing music as opposed to musicians participating in spectacle. And it blew me away. That really started the whole ball rolling about performing your own music, so we formed a band that was not a very good band at the time. But through a series of completely absurd circumstances, our first live show was opening for Talking Heads when they were touring their second record, the More Songs About Buildings and Food tour. And consequently, when they came back through the following year, they called us up. I think Tina Weymouth had said something like, “You were the only band on this tour that didn’t get booed off the stage.” That was happening; people weren’t quite up to what this new wave or punk was doing at that moment. They were still kind of doing the old guard; they all wanted to be Journey or something like that. So that was pointing us in the New York direction. So when school was done, in ’78 I believe, we moved to New York.
FJO: The whole band?
MR: The whole band. We drove cross-country in a van. The van didn’t have any kind of heat, and we were driving through the middle of a snowstorm in fog and stuff. So we devised a thing where we could get a tube from the engine, which I guess was probably pumping a lot of carbon monoxide into the car, and then we would take turns in the back seat putting that tube under our coat so we could warm up. Eventually we ended up in a loft on 14th Street, which was a great place.
That’s actually where [my publishing company name] Club Soda came from, because I opened up a club there in the early ’80s. We did art shows [there] and I premiered a couple of my visual works and early operas, like a piece called Balboa. You could just do things like that in New York at that time. New York was still coming out of the fiscal crisis and a lot of rock clubs were doing a lot of interesting alternative music. And you could actually play gigs of original music and make money at it. CBGBs was there, and Hurrah, and TR3. I’ve forgotten most of them, but there were easily 10, 20, 30 clubs in Manhattan alone where you could just kind of do the circuit and play around. So that was sort of the beginning of the whole thing, getting to New York and starting to have that experience. Rent was cheap, so between that and only needing to do part-time jobs, you could just focus on your work.
FJO: It’s fascinating to hear you talk about forming a rock band on the one hand and presenting operas on the other. There are plenty of people nowadays who navigate seamlessly between musical genres to the point of not really being in any genre, or being in many genres all at once. But you were doing that sort of thing very early. Were you conscious of how transgressive that was at the time? If people went to a conservatory, they certainly weren’t forming rock bands there. You said you grew up hearing country western, and then you formed this rock band. Most of the formative experiences for you as a listener and then as a musician and later as a composer were of American popular music. Where did the other stuff come in? Did stuff come in from going to conservatory?
MR: Well, when I got to both the Art Institute and the conservatory, I realized I had a big problem. Because lo and behold, there were some people there who had actual orchestras in high school. How would I have even known that existed? Beyond that, with the art institute, you had people coming from all over the world who just had benefits of a much better education, so I just felt like I was playing catch-up. I felt like I was really not very smart in terms of not having been exposed to anything yet. So I spent the first two years pretty much buried in the library studying aesthetics, and that’s where I developed my first affinity for abstraction and for modern art. I was very lucky to stumble onto Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns. For me that was the group in terms of inspiring theatrical collaborations. I thought that what they were doing was so unique and intriguing.
Then I had a composition teacher who studied with George Crumb whose name was Raymond Luedeke. I was writing all the things you had to do as exercises to be in theory, composition, and orchestration at a conservatory, but there’s a small window where you can write your own pieces. So I was writing repetitive music, based around listening to a lot of jazz and rock and roll, but he would always give me really good grades for my penmanship. I would be doing these very naïve things; let’s be honest here. Doing visual works and then trying to interpret them—that’s called program music. I was trying to develop what it is I might be doing. And at one point, he probably saved my life by just saying, “I don’t know what to do with you. I don’t know what this is. I don’t know…” He’d say something like, “If you are going to repeat a phrase, it better be a very, very interesting phrase.” Meaning like repeat it once. Not the repetitive nature that would come from either rock and roll or Minimalism. So, at one point, he said, “You know, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help you,” he said. “But I’m going to suggest something. Go up to the conservatory library and check out this thing called Source magazine.”
Beyond all the stuff [in there] like the Cage scores and the fur music, the fact that they were kind of beautiful artifacts as books in themselves which had a huge influence on the kind of visual work I did with books. But it was also interesting because I discovered my first Steve Reich and Phil Glass scores. And oddly enough, they looked very similar to things that I was doing. If you’re studying with a guy who studied with George Crumb, there’s obviously something to do with the complexity of how the music looks on the paper that’s a very important thing. But when you see the first Steve Reich score I saw in, in Source— it might have been like [Music for] Pieces of Wood— it doesn’t look all that startling. This has plagued me to this day with my own music when I show it to musicians. But in fact the violinist or somebody will play, and it’ll be great. And then when you put it together, it’s a much harder thing because metric things are crossing over into different things. So what was interesting about discovering that first Reich score was that it’s not the way the music looked, but the result of these lines that turn into something. So a huge light went off in my head. I’m obviously not alone out in the world. There’s something going on that at least in Kansas City isn’t getting a lot of exposure, but I now know it exists. So I started investigating that.
And as a kid born in the late ’50s, I was lucky that the whole world music thing was starting to happen. We had a couple of good specialty record stores in Kansas City. (The one that comes to mind right now is a place called Love Records and Tapes.) So you could find all this stuff. But while that was happening the whole punk thing was exploding. And I credit that as much as Source magazine because for that brief moment anything went. You had bands that might be coming out of either untrained music or rock and roll, but they were doing incredibly interesting and experimental things. And the whole idea of the Dada movement was hugely influential to the punk thing. So it was just all making sense. It was always interesting to me that the art institute people weren’t listening to much other than rock and roll and some jazz. But the conservatory people were only listening to classical music. So I guess, between the proximity across the street and the things I’ve just described that were exploding, it just became very natural to think that all this stuff could exist together, not that I knew how to do it yet unselfconsciously and seamlessly.
FJO: So what were the backgrounds of the other members of Tirez Tirez?
MR: Rob Shepperson was and is a wonderful visual artist and illustrator. He has a new children’s book out— with 150 illustrations— called The Memory Bank. I highly recommend it. Jeff Burk was a photographer and still is a photographer and teaches photography in Chicago. We all came out of very different backgrounds. But Jeff was a great bass player, still is. And Rob was a great drummer and still is. I think that line up only existed on the first record—Etudes. Then we went in to do other records and had a different line up, with James Bergman on bass who eventually also was in Broken Consort. And a slew of other guest people like Phillip Johnston who was from the Microscopic Septet, and does his own wonderful music scoring now. And Ellery Eskelin, who I think is one of the most vital jazz composers and players. He was in [my] Broken Consort. And Bill Tesar who is one of the most phenomenal drummers that ever lived. New York had that, so it was a great way to take that band and expand it to this idea that was starting to happen.
FJO: Well what’s interesting is Tirez Tirez remained a rock a band, and then you formed Broken Consort. At one point they actually had the exact same personnel, but I think you saw this divide between musical genres then in a way that you no longer do nowadays. There was the rock band, and there was the contemporary, downtown, new music group.
MR: It’s true. It was a very strange thing because people have told me that that Broken Consort was sort of the first band of its kind, even before Bang on a Can. I don’t know if that’s true. But I knew that there was some dichotomy for me about the existence of popular music versus concert music. Even though I thought: What an interesting idea to have the drum set fully scored and to completely change around the parameters of what an ensemble could be. The thing that normally you think of as free and improvisational, like the drums, is fully scored, and in some ways the melodic instruments are subordinate to that. So that was interesting to me, but you’re right on the money. There was something that I wasn’t willing to accept or understand about merging these two things totally. And so they both existed completely separately for a really long time. Now a lot of people didn’t think Tirez Tirez was a very pop band because there was arrangement and composition that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a traditional rock band and some of the same metric kind of ideas that I was exploring in Broken Consort. But maybe the difference was singing and lyrics. But then there was a moment where it was just starting to feel too schizophrenic; there was something forced about trying to maintain these two ensembles as separate entities when they were really coming from the same place and the same mind.
FJO: Social Responsibility has always been my favorite of the Tirez Tirez records. But what was interesting to me when I went back and listening to those records again recently, was I realized that the first track of it is completely instrumental and it’s already doing the Broken Consort-type stuff. Also, there wasn’t much a band on that one. It’s almost all you, playing on all the instruments. You have a bass player, but everything else is you. So in a way, that record also foreshadows what you did with song-based music later on; it’s a direct model.
MR: Absolutely. Also, you have to remember at that early moment in New York when punk and new wave were happening, hip hop was exploding; it was being invented before our very eyes. And so that had a huge influence. Like everybody else in the late ’70s and early ’80s, you were just doing part-time jobs and scraping together whatever money you could to go into a recording studio, usually late hours, and usually never getting completely what you want. When the first prototypes of MIDI and drum machines started to happen, there were incredibly creative moments because this didn’t exist before and they were also really exciting because you could have more control over your compositional process.
It’s very hard for people to remember what it was like to not be using a tape-based system. I remember getting one of the first two Linn drum machines in New York, renting it from Bill Tesar, at the Toy Specialists, and then starting to compose a piece. It was a great device, but it was obviously very crude. And it was like 2500 bucks. And in 1983, 2500 bucks might as well have been a million bucks. But I got a good rental on it, and I’m sitting there in my bedroom you know, slash studio, in my small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, and I’m playing with this thing. And I finally figure out to, how I can do the kind of metric stuff I do. You couldn’t do much with it; you could program and play in beats. You could quantize. And if you wanted to get a larger metric structure, you could just add up the numbers— you know, three plus five plus nine, or whatever, plus thirteen, find the resultant, and then make a measure that long. So I figured out how to fool the system, and then I make this drum machine piece, Quorum, which was choreographed by Ulysses Dove [Vespers]. And I remember people not getting that piece, really smart people. Record companies saying why would anybody want to put this out? But then it’s been in repertory, a number of companies including Alvin Ailey and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, for twenty-five years. So it’s a pretty amazing thing that that technology was there, and that I wanted to do something really, really different with it. And that just bled into all of the other pieces.
FJO: You talked about having that moment of revelation, seeing those Reich scores and realizing that it doesn’t have to look complicated on the page to have a resultant that’s complicated. In terms of your own compositional process, going back all the way to the very beginning, is that rather than it being this abstract thing on paper, where it then gets realized by other people, a lot of the revelations that happened that would evolve into music that does exist on paper, happened because you could record a track in the studio and layer other tracks on top of that. There’s a very sophisticated process of layering that informs just about everything you do.
MR: I guess I would say that. All of the records that blew me away when I was young, all the Gil Evans arrangements for Miles Davis, I was always amazed at how efficient they were, but how dense they could be. And there was still the clarity. Then think of the George Martin stuff with the Beatles. I got that mono boxed set when it first came out. I really wanted to hear how the Beatles wanted to mix those things. It’s kind of a revelation because a lot of the mono stuff wasn’t really available in the U.S. unless you were a collector, which I wasn’t. You listen to some of this stuff and you’re kind of re-amazed at it. It’s one thing what “Strawberry Fields [Forever]” sounds like in stereo, but to think, “Yeah, we’re making a pop record, and this is what it’s going to sound like in mono with this much stuff going on.” When that’s the music you grew up with, and you just take that for granted, it only makes sense that you’re going to probably gravitate towards very dense music. And then of course minimalist music and the kind of layering and structure they had, getting contrapuntal effects through the addition and subtraction of beats. All that was very attractive. I wasn’t really interested in academia, so I wasn’t going to write the Hindemith book on harmony.
But I was really influenced by Joseph Schillinger. When I came to New York, I became very interested in a harmonic approach through rhythm. The Minimalists were already kind of doing that. They’ve already kind of turned this thing on its head and said you know, instead of it being melody, harmony and rhythm, which had been the tradition for European Western music, we’re going to kind of flip that and say, rhythm’s the most important, you know harmony’s next, and in fact, melody is kind of a result of these two things happening together. O.K., well and good. And I like a lot of that music, but I thought there’s something more that could go on here. And as I started experimenting with using rhythmic permutations as cadence points, I started to realize—and you can really see this in Dennis Cleveland in “Soul Train”—I can get away with different kinds of harmonies having the effect of resolution that you’d normally get in tonal harmony. But they could be completely unrelated in keys simply because the mind will start to feel this cycle spreading apart and coming together. And as they come together, there’s a natural resolve. To me the most exciting part was to take the influence of Minimalism and my love of rock and roll, and actually come up with something that wouldn’t just be about a lot of layers and a lot of contrapuntal stuff happening. It would actually have a structure and a purpose. At very important points within a piece, whether it’s a three- to five-minute pop song or whether it’s a 17-minute choral thing like “Soul Train” in Dennis Cleveland, you’d have this rhythmic convergence that was sort of creating a new way of thinking of harmony. I was really thinking this has got legs; this is an interesting idea and someone a lot smarter than me could probably actually write a book about it and make a theory out of it.
FJO: So was composing oddball layers of fives against sevens or eights against thirteens the result of experimenting with different patterns and hearing what they sounded like?
MR: Hearing what they sounded like and getting used to the rhythm in the flow of periodicity charts. We have digital now; we can do so many things with the flick of a button. But I actually have graphs that are going to be in the NYPL show at Lincoln Center of these 18 pages of periodicity charts that I did by hand. I mean, they’re insane. You look at them and you think this is an insane person. But the only way I could have a chart like that was to make it. And then stripping that down and getting used to each one, just like when you’re at a conservatory you do ear training. But you don’t do rhythmic ear training as much as you do you know harmony and pitch and so I started to get really good at what three against five sounded like and then three against six. Think of Ives when he used to have his kids sing in one key, and he’d play in another. That’s brilliant ear training. And so the same thing was happening for me with rhythm. I wanted to get to know how these rhythms worked together so that that would become a vocabulary so that I could do it completely intuitively and understand how a three will go against a five, or go against a seven. You start to add those together then you add more. But it was never density for density’s sake. It was a real interest in how much you could get into this while still being clear. And again, that clarity came from growing up with the recording of popular music, and how wonderfully dense that could be.
FJO: So decades before digital and the advent of a genre called math rock, you had this band, and they all have different backgrounds. They have art world backgrounds. Could they play this complicated music that you wanted to write? Did this create tension? This seems like a very hard thing even for conservatory-trained musicians to do.
MR: In the last 10 to 15 years, it’s much more common for people to play rock and jazz who are also conservatory trained and can really read well and with good intonation. And they can do more complex rhythm. There used to be this sort of dichotomy where you could get people who could read really well, but the minute it got into any kind of complex rhythm that was difficult. And then vice versa, you know. With Dennis Cleveland, I was taking singers from the hip-hop world, from Broadway, and from classical and combining them. And lo and behold, they all brought different strengths to the piece. But very often the people who couldn’t read music could do the rhythms the best because they just heard and felt the rhythms. They weren’t trying to read this incredibly complex dotted-quarter sixteenth kind of thing going on. In a similar way, in the early days, in the 80s, I was very lucky because I found musicians who could do that. I think Billy Tesar got like the first jazz NEA grant at the age of 21. He’s the guy I rented the drum machine from. O.K., now remember, this is before we know what digital is. So I do the piece, we take it to BC Studio, we record it on 24-track tape because I’m going to be editing all these sections from tape, not in the box. And then I return the box to Toy Specialists, but do I think to erase it or take that off? No. Because I mean this is all, you’re not even thinking this, and then so he happened to listen, he said it was always fun when he got the rental back to listen to what people were doing. And it’s always just boom-psht, boom-psht, boom-psht, back in 1982 or 1983. And he listens to this thing, and he says, “What is that?” So I explain what I’m doing. I said I like the fact that I’m writing it for drum machine, but it could be for 18 percussionists, but I don’t know anybody who could play this. He’s like, “I can.” So I started writing these things for trap sets. And to see Bill Tesar play this stuff was a miracle. The most fun thing you could do was to watch him play and basically form metric combinations with four limbs. It was amazing. And then Jim Bergman on bass, I think he was trained at Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music. So he could play rock music, but he could also play these incredibly intricate bass parts.
FJO: So the Tirez Tirez stuff was as notated and fixed as the Broken Consort stuff?
MR: Not as notated, but a lot of the arrangements. You know, especially like interplay between bass and guitars. If you think of some of the things like on Against All Flags, like “One Way Down,” you can hear, guitar and basses are kind of floating in this one metric combination while the song is sort of rolling along under that little rhythmic drum pattern. There was a little bit more freedom in terms of the arrangement with the pop stuff with; whereas with the Broken Consort stuff, it was completely notated.
FJO: And for Broken Consort, you even composed a twelve-tone piece.
MR: Yes, Quick Thrust was a twelve-tone piece.
FJO: What made you write that?
MR: I was coming from a conservatory where we were all being forced to study and try to write dodecaphonic music. While I liked a lot of that, it certainly wasn’t the music that I was interested in writing. So then I thought, well I’m interested in these metric combinations and seeing how they work together. What would happen? I break the rules a bit in terms of strict, twelve-tone composition, but if you think of each instrument as a separate entity—which is how I thought of it—and each instrument doesn’t repeat a tone until the whole row has been established, then that would be a really interesting way to think. And then the drum part complements the melody and harmony simply because of the rhythmic devices used, because they’re all sharing the same rhythmic devices. So once again, the trap set is kind of conveying the metric structure of the piece while the twelve-tone stuff is happening.
FJO: I’d like to learn more about that moment when you reached the point where it was too schizophrenic to think of your rock band and new music ensemble as two separate groups, as separate.
MR: We’re now living through my third recession as an adult, but there was a big one going in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was touring with both bands a lot, and we’d had some success with Tirez Tirez being on a couple of major labels: Sire, as well as IRS. Remember IRS? It was the original label of R.E.M. and people like that. And so we were doing a lot of touring. Plus I was doing a lot touring in Europe with Broken Consort or variations of Broken Consort. I moved to Brussels for a couple of years because a couple records were coming out, I hooked up with Blaine Reininger, and we were doing tours together. So there was a lot of touring, and then all of a sudden it stopped because of the recession. I couldn’t afford to take musicians on the road. I simply couldn’t do it; I couldn’t afford to pay them. And I had to figure out a way to stay in the game. That coincided with this nagging feeling that I had gone to the art institute and studied all this stuff like filmmaking, and made a number of films while I was in school. But when I came to New York I wanted to excel in one thing, so that’s why I really focused on music. That was planned, but there was something gnawing at me: Why aren’t you doing something with that?
That’s where Failing Kansas came from. It was just like, O.K., what if I write this piece and I multitrack my own voice, and I find a way to get back in the game. And so there I was, back on the road with a video deck—and I mean a VHS video deck that would synch to a DAT player—and I would go out and do these shows. Then that led into a bigger question of not only directing multimedia pieces myself, but also incorporating filmmaking and multimedia. With Failing Kansas, I worked with an artist that I’d met at the Kansas City Art Institute, Cliff Baldwin, and he did this wonderfully abstract film. I gave him a few pivotal points where there needed to be an edit, just enough so that that there would be a link between the music and the visual. And what he came up with was not only brilliant, but it’s frighteningly surreal because of the imagery that he chose and because of me interacting with my prerecorded voice. My friend who’s a painter, Tim Steel, calls it the hamster in the cage. If we’re studying Buddhism, we’re trying to calm down that voice. But it’s there. And when I was experimenting with Failing Kansas, I felt like I was stumbling on to a way to structure the kind of conversations that go on in my head. And that was the overwhelming comment people came back with, “You got inside these guys heads and you found a way to structure that element.” I should also mention that as I was doing that, I was doing a lot of experiments with this technique that I was calling “counterpoetry,” which in its strictest sense was unpitched voices in metric counterpoint. You know, the idea of, of counterpoint, but just spoken as opposed to sung. So I did a lot of experimentation with that.
For the record Living Inside Design, I was making sketches to understand how this spoken stuff worked. But they were turning into songs. I remember having one of those great revelatory moments; you get them a couple of times in your life. I was sitting there, and nobody really cares if you live or die. They don’t. This is a very cold city. They don’t know you’re there. And I thought, I don’t have to do this any other way other than the way I want to do it. It’s probably not going to sell. No one’s going to care anyway, so just do this thing. And that became Living Inside Design. And I think it’s one of the best records I made because it was the moment where it was no longer a pop band or a concert band. It was this new thing. I don’t care what you call it. You could call it structured pop music, or you could call it something else. It was that moment where I was transitioning and also understanding that I really respond to the sound of music that comes from the rock and jazz world. And I respond to the structure of classical music. I think a lot of people in the ’80s and certainly in the ’90s decided to rock out a little bit—the rocking-out string quartet, the rocking-out classical ensemble. But for me that wasn’t as interesting as the structure of the music. And I think that’s been very confusing for people. Sometimes I think people have sort of blamed me for doing my job too well because a lot of the records sound like bona fide pop and rock records. But if you strip down what’s actually happening in the music, it’s quite complex.
FJO: Well it was funny going back and reading the Trouser Press reviewers’ comments on the Tirez Tirez records chastising you for “over-educated structuralism.” And in a review of Dennis Cleveland in The New York Times your music was derided as an “amplified mush of rockish vamping.”
MR: For better or worse, I made that choice. But I’ve paid for it; there’s no doubt about it. I’m 53 years old, and I still don’t fit in any genre. And it cuts you out of a lot of things in both worlds. At the same time, I’m happy with the work I’m making. I’m happy with what I’m doing. And so what are you going to do? You’re kind of stuck with making a choice that you really feel strongly about. But it’s also been incredibly gratifying. With the Quorum record, I get letters and e-mails still to this day. About 15 years ago, I started getting letters from techno artists and from musicians, and especially from fans, saying, “Is this the first techno record?” But when I was trying to put that record out, most composers couldn’t understand why anybody would make a record based on a drum machine. There is something to be said for following what it is you think you should be doing even though you know intellectually it’s probably suicide.
FJO: As long as we’re talking about genres and not knowing where to fit in what genre, you made a clear reference to a genre in how you described Failing Kansas. You used the word opera. That’s a very charged word that has very specific associations for people. But Failing Kansas doesn’t sound like other operas, and it doesn’t look like other operas.
MR: It’s funny because I came up in a time which many people won’t remember, but it was sort of a very glorious time possibly never to be repeated again where Phil Glass was playing in rock clubs like the Peppermint Lounge and Arthur Russell was booking The Modern Lovers at the Kitchen. And so because of all that, you weren’t thinking in terms of traditional Western classical music anymore. I remember Robert Wilson’s quote about why he called his works operas. And I remember even having a conversation with Robert Ashley, I said this opera thing’s killing me. I used to say opera to adults is like vegetables to kids. They’ve never tried it, but they know they hate it. And so the problem is that you put that on there, and there’s still to this day a real expectation of what that’s going to be which is really coming out of the European Western classical tradition. But I’m coming out of New York, and I’m seeing Robert Ashley pieces and I’m seeing things like Einstein [on the Beach].
You’ve got two choices. You can invent a new term. Because I perform in the pieces, write them, and write the lyrics, many people thought, “Why don’t you say it’s performance art?” I wasn’t usually happy with performance art. I usually thought a lot of that, not all of it, but a lot of it was someone who did four things O.K. I want to do four or five things really good if possible, if I could. And so opera seemed to be like the logical thing to call it because in terms of scope and scale, you were taking basically all of the forces that were available to you at this particular moment in time, which was now film and video and multimedia and the relationship between popular culture and art. And you could put all that on a stage. And again this is the same thing I was saying about being more interested in the structure of classical music than the sound. I was interested in how all this stuff related to each other and how it looked. And for me, that was the term. But it’s a loaded term and it’s another thing that I paid for.
FJO: We’d been talking about visual art and the impact it has had on you, but another very key component in all of your work is language. All the words for your music have been your own, from the beginning, and in your music the words also have often played a significant role in determining what the music is that goes along with them. But with Failing Kansas, you took it to another level. The words are of paramount importance, not just because of what you were doing with counterpoetry, but also because this piece has a narrative arc. Also, it was inspired by an important literary work, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which was a very revolutionary book in its time—he created a whole new genre, the nonfiction novel, with that book. But the text for Failing Kansas is not Capote, it’s Mikel Rouse.
MR: And trial transcripts. I did a lot of research at the New York Public Library. I think it’s as close as I’ve ever felt to academia. I got access to the Capote archives, and I decided to use the trial transcripts. I basically used a lot of the information that was available to Capote to use to do a very different piece. Richard Brooks had already done that brilliant film of In Cold Blood, so I wasn’t interested in making a literal interpretation.
The thing that really blew me away about Capote was not only that he was such a great writer, but that his dream, manifested in In Cold Blood, was to come up with a genre that would allow him to take all the things that he had learned about writing from reportage to the novella, to novel, and combine them into what he called the new art form. A lot of people, like Joseph Mitchell, were doing something like reportage, so he may have been overstating his case. But it was pretty inspiring to me. I had the same desire. I wanted to try to invent something that would allow me to bring in all the things that I was.
Failing Kansas was the piece that allowed me to do that, because I not only was bringing in elements of music that I had heard—harmonica, guitar—but I was finding a way to structure it. I was really finding a way to have my cake and eat it, too. That moment that we were talking about when this stuff converged was Failing Kansas, which took place over that five-year period. It was a great moment for me and it also solved my recession problem. But then it led to getting deeper and deeper involved into commercial media and figuring out how to stage works, and set works that were going to require enormous amounts of technology to pull off.
FJO: And Dennis Cleveland, your next project after Failing Kansas, involved a lot more technology to coordinate the communication between all of the cast members. But it started out the same way as Kansas with you doing all the parts. In fact, on the commercially released recording on New World, you’re doing all the parts. And if people don’t know it before they listen to it, I’m not sure they can tell.
MR: We’ve toyed for many years with doing a cast recording. I’ve actually recorded performances at Lincoln Center and other places, and I think the piece in some ways would benefit from a re-recording. But I was broke. I was paying for this piece on credit cards. So as much as I am proud of the recording and the fact that I’m multitracking 40 voices, that’s probably not the best to have realized that record. But you do what you can do. And I wanted that record, and that music to be available as a commercial release, especially going into the performances.
FJO: And what’s amazing is it was released by New World Records, so it has a very official contemporary classical music stamp of approval.
MR: Right, right. Yeah.
FJO: But to get back to where I want to go with this is, you did this all yourself, and then you worked the cast, and then you came up with all these ideas you call counterpoetry. I’d like to flesh that out a little bit more because you said that it’s counterpoint, only you’re speaking so it’s not pitched. That’s not quite true; speech has its own melodic shape. It’s not a monotone. And looking at the score that you put together for Dennis Cleveland, it’s fascinating to see how you notate it on a regular staff and even include sharps and flats, but no clef. But that score is mostly a realization score. How did the singers learn this material?
MR: This was a perfect example of taking the technology and using it more than just in presentation, but using it as a educational tool as well. I went to shows like Gordon Elliott, a show that filmed in New York, Geraldo, Sally Jesse Raphael, not only see how the shows went down live, but to see how they used amplification and used music going in and out of sequences, so that I could come up with a very realistic thing. That forced me to use pre-recorded technology for the show. It just seemed to me like it would be too arty to have live musicians, or a string quartet, or something like that when this incredibly weird phenomenon of confessional talk shows was sort of exploding. But I was taking samples from talk shows and finding the natural inflection of their pitch: If you don’t love me the way I am, then you can go. That already sounds sung. But unlike later where we have the technology to auto-tune or to change things around, that technology didn’t exist in ’94-’95 when I was writing the piece. So I had to build my pieces and my harmonic changes around the relative pitch of what the prerecorded voice from the talk show was saying. Then I would have the singers either double that, or harmonize it. But since I had that, I could record my own guide tracks and then teach the singers from that guide track. Especially the rhythmic inflection which would be written out, but it would be approximate. That’s not going to be completely perfect. You’ve going to have to lilt here, or do this here so that it has a natural inflection. That was important to me because American vernacular speech has a certain sound to it. And that was a big part of what I wanted the counterpoetry to be about.
When I was writing Failing Kansas, I was very concerned not to stand there and read this stuff like a typewriter. It’s going to be flat. You’re going to have to perform it. I never considered myself a performer. I totally did these pieces out of the fact that there was going to be nobody that could do them that I could afford. There are definitely people who could do it better than me both as a performer and a talk show host. But I was going to be doing two things. With Dennis Cleveland I’m conducting, making it look like I’m a flamboyant talk show host, and doing the music and the counterpoint myself.
FJO: I can’t let you get away with that comment about not being a performer, because you’d spent a decade and a half as a performer touring with Tirez Tirez.
MR: Yeah, but remember that what was great about that time period was that because we had gotten away from the flamboyance of arena rock, people were just performing their songs. Do you remember the bands that had amazing stage presence because they had no stage presence? That’s what I thought I was doing. When Failing Kansas came, I looked at it really long and hard. I did a lot of rehearsing and, and working on it and realized that I could do this. I’m counting like mad, but then I started realizing that that was almost conducting the audience so the audience could be privy to even more of the rhythmic layering that was happening. And that became a very interesting thing to me.
With Dennis Cleveland, now you’ve upped the ante one more. Because it’s like you’re going to have to have a really weird, almost messianic personality to get the Elmer Gantry quality that you want for this piece. I’ll never forget when we premiered it at the Kitchen. Ben Neill, who was the director of the Kitchen, was a big supporter. He booked both Failing Kansas and Dennis Cleveland. It almost went Off-Broadway. It was such a successful run. I thanked him for booking it. And I said, “You really believed in it when it was really hard to get anybody interested in this piece.” And he just looked at me and he smiled, and he goes, “I have a confession.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “Well, I really thought you had a chance to just flush 15 years of work out the window.” Because it was such a bizarre idea that I was doing. And he said, “If you didn’t pull it off, you would have looked like a fool.” And I’m really glad he didn’t tell me that before, because when he said it, I was petrified. When you’re into an idea, you’re just so absorbed. It was like a Reese’s peanut butter cup. You know, chocolate and peanut butter. Talk show opera: it just made sense. I used to say I’ve got to do this now because somebody’s going to do it and it’s too good an idea to miss. And seven years later, somebody [else] did. So I didn’t want to lose that moment, but it never occurred to me how ridiculous I could look, and I’m sure to some people how ridiculous I do look, doing that role.
FJO: You have a very important role in it, but there are all these other characters as well. It’s a cast, and you toured. Could Dennis Cleveland be done with somebody else playing Dennis Cleveland besides you?
MR: I think so. A lot of presenters have booked the piece because they want me to be in the piece, but I do think it could be done by somebody else. It would be like any other thing. You’d really have to have ample rehearsal time, because the person playing that role is not only performing complex music and counterpoint, he’s also kind of keeping the ensemble together. I had to find a way to write this thing so that I could rehearse it in a very limited amount of time and know that it would work. We were also dealing with old technology back then, so we had to find a way to have the prerecorded stuff and the confessions from the audience be seamless at that moment in time where you couldn’t start and stop things with sequences on computers. The only way that I could conceive of doing it was just to put it all on one DAT. So that DAT runs continuously through the show. So those confessions that looked completely improvised, and that look like they’re happening in a natural flow, are timed to, to a precise moment. And we had all these subtle cue points. If I’m talking to a person in the audience, and she’s slow, or she’s fast, I could give her a tap which looks like the talk show host giving the person the tap, which says this means speed up, this means slow down. We had all these visual cues so that we could keep together, but only one guy knew the sequence inside and out, and that was me. And that’s what would be required. With new technology, you could now adapt this into a new thing. And I could certainly see another production of Dennis Cleveland happening with the general idea staying the same but maybe being presented in a slightly different way.
FJO: The final part of your opera trilogy, The End of Cinematics, is perhaps the most abstract of the three and in some ways the hardest to understand. In a way, that’s kind of what it’s about, not being easily understood. How do you create a work to make people get a message that’s about them not being able to understand what they’re getting?
MR: Well, with The End of Cinematics, I was actually trying for two things. I was trying to remember the glorious feeling I had of seeing early abstract work in New York, especially Robert Wilson’s work, the long pieces, certainly Einstein [on the Beach]. I was also trying to recapture or think about the power of cinema back at a certain moment where, before it had gotten so controlled by corporate media. That’s why the Susan Sontag essays were so important, because she was talking about cinephilia and that idea of how people talked about cinema and went to coffee shops and obsessed about it and what that felt like and how the corporatization of media was slowly changing that ratio. She got a lot of flack for focusing on American cinema. I don’t think she was disregarding other cinema; she was just talking about that moment in America in the early ’70s when the Hollywood system was mixing with art and the wonderful combination that that made. I was very intrigued by that, obviously the kind of work I’m doing could have the potential for crossover because of its populist approach or its love of the vernacular. But at the same time, obviously the structure makes it something different. So with Cinematics, I thought, we could use the film-editing techniques that allow you to do foreshadowing and allow you to do things and bring people back to film in an abstract nature, the way Murnow was making music films. Films were becoming something else. But this is what I think was so confusing. We got a lot of great reviews for Cinematics, but the confused reviews had to do with, once again, especially because it’s an opera, with the expectation that if it’s inspired by Susan Sontag, I’m going to tell that story. I’m totally willing to admit that I failed, but I’m doing something different. I think I’m actually providing you with one, not the only one, but one answer to those essays. Critics aren’t used to the art being the thing itself. They want the art to be about this thing. The work that I was naturally drawn to was about itself.
You can say what Einstein on the Beach is about, but what I love about it isn’t because it’s about Einstein, or about the theory, or any of the things you could say about it. I love it for the unconscious responses that it provokes in me that make me have to figure out how my head works. Hollywood’s very good at manipulating. Girl breaks up with guy, dog dies, you know, really good directors know how to manipulate those emotions and make you feel a certain thing. I was much more attracted when I felt emotions and couldn’t explain it. Why does the bed scene in Einstein on the Beach almost make me cry every time? It’s just a piece of light going up with an organ cadenza. I don’t know. But that’s really interesting to me. So with Cinematics, it was the same idea.
FJO: Taken as a whole though, these three pieces—Failing Kansas, Dennis Cleveland, and The End of Cinematics—are extremely different pieces. So what made you decide to lump them together as a trilogy?
MR: They originally had to do with the counterpoetry technique. I wanted to find a number of ways to explore this technique. It started off as this very pure, abstract thing of unpitched voices and counterpoint. And as you pointed out, it changed. There’s singing. There’s all sorts of stuff. I didn’t want to be limited by my own idea. I wanted it to expand. And certainly Living Inside Design helped me do that. Because I got to see it work in other contexts other than the stricter way I was using it in the beginning of Failing Kansas. So the counterpoetry technique unites the three. Then all three share common themes in terms of exploring spirituality, or the lack thereof. Or what spirituality means in a culture that we live in today. Certainly the confessional nature of the talk shows, and the ritual of the talk shows, I feel like with all three of those pieces, there’s a lot of ritual involved.
John Ralston Saul was a huge influence on Dennis Cleveland. And I loved how he talked about the replacement. He wasn’t talking about talk shows in particular, he was talking about television. He said it sort of becomes a ritual replacement for religion. When I thought about that, it was very helpful. Everybody thought when they heard I was doing Dennis Cleveland that it’s going to be a spoof. It’s going to be a hoot. And I thought no. I hope it’s fun, you know, we’re asking the audience to participate. But we’re doing that for a reason. We’re saying, “What will you do?” And, and why are you doing that. I remember a woman leaving the Kitchen and saying, “That was the most entertaining and disturbing thing I’ve ever seen.” And that was the goal. Anybody can entertain. Well, not anybody. I’m not saying it doesn’t take talent to entertain. Or you can do a really artsy piece downtown and have five people in the audience. I really wanted both. I didn’t want people to be afraid to be entertained, or to participate, but I also wanted to maybe walk out questioning why they’re so willing to participate in a culture that maybe they don’t even believe in. So with Dennis Cleveland, a big part of the gig for me was taking a very serious topic, which was that repetitive ritual, and taking it seriously.
FJO: Gravity Radio in some ways also addresses these issues. But you think of that as a completely separate work.
MR: Well I certainly don’t think of it as an opera. Gravity Radio is a pretty simple piece in a lot of ways. It’s a song cycle. It incorporates short wave radio sounds to emulate my memory of radio when I was a kid. I used a small transistor radio in that small town Poplar Bluff. We were surrounded by country and western stations, and the farm report, and stuff like that. And at around 10 o’clock or 11, those radio stations all along the east going up to Chicago would slowly shut down. And about 10:30 or 11 o’clock, you’d slowly start getting the static strains of the WLS coming in from Chicago. And being from this small town, it might as well have been coming from Mars. I had no idea what Chicago was, all I knew was Motown and the British Invasion and all these incredible sounds, unlike radio today, were being played on the same radio station. So there’s a part of me that wanted to recreate that memory of things drifting in and out of your consciousness. So we came up with the idea of the news reports and the idea that the AP newswire reports would be read fresh. We’d update them every day. Like a lot of pieces, it is asking something of the audience. I mean, as simple as I may say Gravity Radio is, there’s three or four things going on at any one time. And one of them is definitely a comment on infotainment. You know, orchestrating the news. How is it that CNN has a theme the minute a war breaks out, or the minute that there’s a hurricane? Is that a good way to receive the news? I think it’s a beautiful thing in the performance. I think to hear this news orchestrated by string quartet is really beautiful. But I think that’s possibly more appropriate. So it’s a comment on infotainment and a comment on news media.
I guess all the pieces on some level have been a comment on social media and on society. But then in addition to that, it’s this—I hope—seamless integration of the songs into the news reports. The lyrics are written in a very intentionally vague way, so that every time we slot in new news reports, they can still somehow refer to each other. And one of the most gratifying parts is that people come up and they think we just improvised that show that night. How else could you have done that? How could that lyric have so seamlessly mirrored what that news report about the New York Yankees was? But again, à la Cage-Cunningham, the beautiful thing about a piece like Gravity Radio is you’re setting up certain parameters where the audience can make these connections. Maybe connections I wouldn’t have intended, but connections that not only draw them into the piece, but allow them to see things that view that world in their own special way.
FJO: So why is it a song cycle and not an opera?
MR: I think when I called those pieces opera, I was looking at the totality of the experience in terms of the staging, in terms of the direction, in terms of the incorporation of film. There’s a full-length film that’s incorporated in Gravity Radio, but it’s really much more of an environment. It’s to help set up the visual environment of radio. It’s a film of earthbound images. And we take that film, and we manipulate it through a program called Isadora. We don’t even project on the screen. We just project into any of the back-wall space of whatever particular theater that we do it at. And the film is triggered by the amount of sound coming from the stage. So, it’s always kind of fluctuating based on the volume of the music, or the volume of the news reader. It’s sometimes almost completely black. It’s not even a film intended to be seen as a film as much as it’s to be seen as a light environment. And then I incorporate the lighting design with that so that it becomes almost an installation. And at least in my head, that’s a different approach. All the pieces in the opera trilogy are tied together in a certain kind of structure where they refer to each other. And while there’s a theme and variation that certainly takes place, and recapitulation that takes place in Gravity Radio, it’s not to the same level that’s required in those pieces to make them work.
FJO: The Cage-Cunningham collaboration has surfaced in this conversation a couple of times already. At some point, after Cage’s death, you created a score for Cunningham which is an even further-out exploration of the notion of two independent creations co-existing in time. You had everybody in the audience wear iPods and hear different music. It’s the same score, but it shuffles. When I first read about this, I thought, how did he create a completely different score for everybody? I thought they were completely different pieces of music, which would have been amazing, but it would have been 2,000 hours of music.
MR: Well, actually, they ended up being completely different pieces of music because the dance piece was 20 minutes long, but the music I wrote was a full-length record, 60 minutes. So in point of fact, you can be sitting next to your partner, and hear a completely different score that night. So in a sense, it is a completely different score for most people. And there’s something like over three million permutations possible. I was very proud of that piece because I got to know Merce through [John Cage Trust executive director] Laura Kuhn [who was in the original cast of Dennis Cleveland]. And my wife Lisa danced with Merce. Most people know that his dances and the music and the décor were created separately. But what I didn’t even know, until I met Lisa was that they always rehearsed in silence. Even if there’s a piece that now has music set to it, that’s not how they’ve rehearsed it. Everything is basically timed by a stopwatch. That’s the internal clock that they have.
I was really honored that Merce asked me. We’d taken him to see Vespers ten years before, and he said “We’ll work together some day.” Gratefully it finally happened. And utilizing this new technology was really interesting. But it was actually a really big problem-solving thing for me. Because, although there had been some exceptions in the last ten years of Merce’s life, most of the music [for Merce's dances] was completely arthythmic. So I was very nervous about a music that was going to have rhythmic pulse for the dancers. And so the iPod solved a couple of problems. I could write the score with songs, with lyrics, exactly what I wanted to write. The dancers aren’t going to hear it, so it’s not going to affect their performance. And it gives me the chance to write songs and lyrics and sing because we’re kind of creating a theatrical environment. And once again, the director in me probably thought, I also am very interested in exploring the difference between a public and a private experience. Everybody’s on the street with their iPods. Everybody’s tuning out the world. I like the idea that we’re going to put you in a place where you’re usually having a group experience, and you’re going to have a private experience. What happens if someone yells fire? Some people found that incredibly disturbing, maybe even scary. For me, it was the perfect way to solve one or two technical problems, and at the same time do a complete homage to Cage. One critic said it was Cage-Cunningham on steroids. Because now it’s not just that the music and the dance are being created separately, but now every single person in the theater is having a different musical experience while they’re watching the dance. Again, similar to Dennis Cleveland, many people right off the bat say, “Oh, it’s a gimmick.” If I read that someone was doing a piece for iPods, I would have thought the same thing. The real trick is to try to make it not a gimmick, to try to actually say, “I want to utilize this in such a way that it can actually be a really important function of how the piece would be perceived by the audience.”
The beautiful thing about International Cloud Atlas, which was the music for Merce’s eyeSpace, was it led to the idea for Recess, which is capturing all these city sounds and then incorporating them into songs. To me one of the most glorious experiences is going out into the city with your iPod to listen to that record, but I almost put a warning label on the record. First of all, don’t drive and listen to this record. It’s just too dangerous. And if you’re going to walk through the city and listen to Recess, please watch where you’re going, watch intersections. The experience of listening to Recess in a crowded city is three dimensional because you’re hearing these songs, you’re hearing these sounds, and then you’re hearing the real sounds of the city. Most people want to tune out their environment with an iPod, and I kind of wanted to find a way to invite the environment in. I think if you played my music to anybody in the world who was familiar with John Cage, they would just say there’s no direct connection. But in point of fact, there’s just been a connection for 30 or 40 years.
FJO: Well one very real connection besides International Cloud Atlas is Love at 20, an album you did which used prepared piano samples on every song.
MR: Yeah. I went to Laura Kuhn and I had this idea. I didn’t know anything about how to author a sample, but I did a lot of sampling in terms of making my own. I would hire musicians, and I would record them, and I would make my own sample because at the time, string samples, brass samples, and percussion samples just weren’t very good. So I would just make my own. And so I approached her and I said, “What would you think about doing a prepared piano library?” I explained to her what it was, and she was like, “You can do that?” And I said yeah. We would go into the studio, and we’d take a pianist.
And so we got Nurit Tilles and we used the actual Cage preparations that were part of the archive. People in studios are afraid because they think you’re going to damage the piano which, as you know, doesn’t happen. But we found a place that understood the project, and we recorded the project, then we had it authored. Cage wrote 40 or 50 pieces that require different preparations, but we chose the Sonatas and Interludes as our base for the preparations because that was the most performed and most famous piece. And then we sampled the whole piano. Not just the keys that would be used, because the whole piano has to jibe. It was the probably the most bizarre recording session I’ve ever been involved in, because you want to give the programmer enough material so they’ll be able to make this seamless loop, you know, one minute on a note, two minutes on some of the longer sustained notes. You just have to sit there and hope that something doesn’t squeak. But Nurit did an incredible job. Her sense of dynamics was so consistently throughout the recording session.
I thought it was a really great homage showing how Cage continues into the 21stCentury. I loved the idea that this would make it possible for people who maybe don’t have the wherewithal to prepare a piano, to be able to play the Sonatas and Interludes. I loved that historical contribution. But I also love for composers and music enthusiasts that this library would be available to compose with. And I couldn’t wait to use it. But it was only available for Akai samplers and maybe Kurzweil, I can’t remember. Software samplers weren’t around yet, so I had this beautiful two-CD set of this prepared piano library that I coproduced that I couldn’t use for a year and a half until I got a software sampler. And then I did. I think maybe the first piece I used it on was Love at 20. I have a thing from Love at 20 that’s my ring tone. Those prepared piano sounds sound good on the phone.
FJO: Do you know if other people have been using those samples?
MR: It’s really bizarre. A lot of people have, and it’s really starting to creep into film scores. So like I’ll be minding my own business and there will be a film on TV, and all of a sudden, I’ll hear a sample. That’s it. That’s the prepared piano library.
FJO: Albums like Recess and Love at 20, despite some of the unusual studio techniques you’ve described that went into their conception, are still essentially song albums, unlike these giant gesamtkünstwerk projects we’d been talking about. Your most recent song album, Corner Loading, Volume One, isn’t even filled with unusual studio techniques. All these multiple layers are gone and it’s just you singing and playing guitar, and maybe clapping here and there. It’s like a straight-up singer-songwriter record. It’s so spare it almost feels like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
MR: I thought that [Nebraska] was an incredible artistic achievement. Starting with Gravity Radio, I really got back to analog recording. I really wanted to get back to that sound, so I went towards really vintage microphones, tube microphones, and produced Gravity Radio and went into making Recess which became the record I’ve always wanted to make. But because they’re so dense, a lot of people sometimes miss the complex relationship of the metric structures. So then I thought, what would happen if you just went completely opposite, and you just broke it down to two lines. So with Corner Loading Volume One, I got really interesting in thinking: if you broke it down to two lines that are still sort of metrically opposed to each other, could you play that? I rehearsed for like three or four months, and figured it out; it’s like watching Bill Tesar play the drums. To most people’s amazement, I can play these songs in a different meter than I’m singing. So it looks like the guy who can rub his stomach and rub his head at the same time in opposite directions. So that became fun, but it also became a real interesting way to say look, this is at its absolute basic core. This is part of what I’m doing. I’m interested in how these things change as the rotations take place and how resolution happens when the metric structures start to come together and how that for me, and I think for many people, creates a certain kind of release factor. The absolute bare-bones structure of it is kind of startling. And I like that sound. That’s why it’s volume one. I’m hoping to do volume two.
FJO: So have you done any of this material in a live gig setting yet?
MR: I’m not sure when that would happen. But I think that would be a great project, and certainly in these tough economic times, going out solo is a lot easier than going out with a band. Even though a lot of the things I was telling you about doing solo work in the late ’80s and early ’90s came out of trying to stay in the game during a recession, there was something really interesting about only being responsible for yourself on the road. When you’re responsible for 20 to 30 people on the road, it’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of stuff to deal with. So I could totally see going out on the road with Corner Loading.
FJO: But to get back to what we were talking about earlier in the conversation about your not being in either the contemporary music camp or the indie rock camp and floating somewhere between those two. A record like Corner Loading has all that metric stuff going on, but it’s still essentially a pop singer-songwriter album.
FJO: Yet on a MySpace page you have, you describe it as contemporary classical music. You said at some point that opera is like spinach for adults. Why are you destroying your potential market for this record by calling it classical music?
MR: I don’t know that I called it classical music. I do think that there’s a paragraph floating around, maybe on the press release or something, about Corner Loading. It does describe what I’m doing metrically. That is what I’m doing. I drew a reference to my interest in early country blues and how before blues became tied to 12-bars because you needed a structure to keep the musicians together. Before that happened, a lot of solo artists could add phrases. They could add the length of a measure, because why not? That subtlety in early country blues was so fascinating to me because in a sense, there’s no metric structure because they’re just slipping and sliding the way they want to. Corner Loading, for me, was well beyond this thing of combining the two metric structures and stripping down what I do to the basic element of two voices. It was what would have happened if country blues had continued to progress and not come under the constraints of bands, and therefore having to be under a very binary structure. In that sense, that probably could come across as an intellectual exercise. But as you pointed out, it doesn’t sound that way. What I love about Corner Loading is you can put it on and it sounds like you’re getting all the sign posts. You hear the guy’s voice. You hear the guitar playing and you think this is a very, very accessible record. But you could dig deeper and deeper. If you don’t want to, that’s fine. But it rewards repeated listening. With singer songwriters out there, I’m not going to make a record with me singing and playing guitar because what would be the point. There are just too many people doing that. But no one’s doing this.
FJO: But why use the words “contemporary classical music.” Why announce to people that those things are there? You’ve mentioned that the Beatles had all those things on their records, they were not being marketed as “contemporary classical music.” That’s not why women were screaming in 1964 when they first came here, or what got their records selling millions in supermarkets.
MR: Yeah, and what did get those women screaming? Because I don’t think I have that either.
FJO: I think you do, though. And I think that there are lots of people on both sides of the fence that do, too. But it’s all about how it’s marketed.
MR: Well, I don’t have that much to do with the marketing you know. But I do try to get the work out there. And for better or worse, over the years I’ve probably gotten more attention from classical critics than from pop critics. There was a time when those genres weren’t so distinct. And in the late ’70s, early ’80s, The New York Times and places like that were writing about everything. It didn’t seem like everything was stuck in categories quite so much. I feel like we’re in much more conservative times right now. And also pop music has changed so much. What I consider popular music is so different than what is played on pop music radio now.
FJO: Except at the same time you know, within pop music, there are all these people. Pop is a giant umbrella, the same way classical is a giant umbrella. You know, there are all these people in hip-hop doing really, really sophisticated things, which is related to things that you have done.
MR: Oh, absolutely.
FJO: And then at the same time, there are all these people in so-called classical music you know, all these sort of younger composers now doing these things they’re calling “bandsembles.” They’re breaking the borders between indie rock and classical, as if it never happened before, because all the stuff from late ’70s was before they were born.
FJO: But since you’ve been consistently mining this territory for decades I wonder why you haven’t been more embraced by people on both of these sides.
MR: I can’t answer that. I get great letters from people and they say some of the things that you’re saying. But I think there was a big conservative swing going into the ’90s. I think categories became really important again. Not to me, but to the world at large. There’s not much I can do about that.
FJO: But that was 20 years ago.
MR: Yeah, but we’re still there. I still feel like we’re in a very conservative environment artistically. Certainly in the sense that these categories are pretty set. So, I don’t know.
FJO: So then a word that got used in the ’90s to describe this stuff you’re doing, I’m wondering how you feel about this term. Totalism. What does that term mean to you? Is that a term you embrace?
MR: Well, I’m very familiar with the term but I don’t call the music I do totalism. It was there for a second. Was it LaMonte Young who said the Fluxus movement ended when we named it? My understanding is it was people looking for something so they wouldn’t be called post-minimalists. And so I think it embraced a generation of people who grew up listening to rock and roll, and had the benefit of listening to world music, jazz, classical music, and finding a way to incorporate it. I think the part that was the real kicker for me was incorporating it unselfconsciously. You have those wonderful third stream experiments, Gunther Schuller and all that kind of stuff. And some of the stuff didn’t work because they were trying so hard to make it work. Where’s that moment where you’re not trying to do something, but it’s just natural? And I think for composers, or any artist for that matter, that grew up in the late ’50s or the ’60s, that became more possible. Certainly now it’s a lot more possible, which is why I would wonder why it’s not happening more often.