Mar 032016

It is one of the enduring ironies of classical music that so much of today’s repertoire was written by such a small number of people. This post is the seventh in a multipart Arts Fuse series dedicated to reevaluating neglected and overlooked orchestral music. Comments and suggestions are welcome at the bottom of the page or to jonathanblumhofer@artsfuse.org.

Composer Christopher Rouse. Photo: via nyphil.org

Composer Christopher Rouse. He has an evocative and playful mind, with a sort of diabolical, nihilistic edge. Photo: via nyphil.org.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

“My belief is that music should have an expressive urgency. We spend too much time battling over style – minimal, tonal, atonal; for me the issue is about taking the structure and organizational principles involved and putting them at the service of an expressive goal.”

Few contemporary composers have expressed these sentiments more forcefully, both in words and music, as the author of them, Christopher Rouse. Born in Baltimore in 1949, Rouse grew up, as he describes it, on a healthy dose of classical music and the rock ’n’ roll of the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s proven a potent combination both in his orchestral and chamber music, which often marries the developmental procedures of Beethoven to the harmonic language of Stravinsky and Shostakovich with not a few references to Led Zeppelin thrown in for good measure.

Indeed, for much of the last thirty years, Rouse has proven to be among the most quietly prolific of American composers, building a substantial repertoire that currently counts four symphonies, numerous concerti (his 1992-Trombone Concerto netted him the Pulitzer Prize and his Flute Concerto stands as one of the 20th century’s towering entries in the repertoire), and assorted orchestral and chamber works. Broadly speaking, Rouse’s output can be divided into two types. The first, which covers much much of his music of the 1980s and numerous pieces since, is characterized by driving rhythms, bracing dissonance, and a propensity for glowering.

If not exactly sunny, the second kind of music, represented by a number of pieces from the ‘90s and throughout the new century, are at least a bit less grim. Some, like Thunderstuck, his 2013 concert-opener for the New York Philharmonic, are downright impish. Others, like Compline and Rapture, overflow with ebullience. Friandises, a ballet commissioned by the New York City Ballet and the Juilliard School in 2005, looks back on (mostly) 17th-century dance forms with some nostalgia but also plenty of wit. Then, again, the Symphony no. 3 (2011) offers turbulence and violence on par with Rouse’s earlier compositions, now, though, it’s all a bit more focused: instead of an overwhelming explosion, the attacks are clinical and precise. The more time you spend with Rouse and his music, then, the more evident it becomes that he’s a tough composer to pin down and that stylistic unpredictability has, in part, provided his music notable expressive breadth.

One of his pieces that best demonstrates this trend is Phantasmata, a set of three movements that were composed between 1981 and ‘85. Phantasmata wasn’t originally intended to be a three-movement piece: Rouse composed the middle movement, “The Infernal Machine,” first, as a brief concert opener. The composer Joseph Schwantner, then one of Rouse’s colleagues at the Eastman School of Music, convinced him that “Machine” might also work as the central movement of a triptych; Rouse eventually agreed, framing the earlier piece with a spooky movement called “The Evestrum of Juan de la Crus in the Sagrada Familia, 3 a.m.” and a “nightmare conga” he called “Bump.” The completed piece was premiered by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony in 1986.

You get the sense, just from the movement titles here, that Rouse has an evocative and playful mind. And so he does, though, in Phantasmata, even when the music is at its most mischievous, there’s always a sort of diabolical, nihilistic edge to it. That’s quite true in the harrowing opening movement, “Evestrum,” which is all atmosphere, and a dark, shadowy one at that. It portrays, in Rouse’s words, “a dreamt out-of-body ‘somnambulatory journey’ through Antoni Gaudi’s remarkable Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.” In terms of construction, the movement is remarkably straightforward: above the ominous rumble of a bass drum (which continues throughout the movement, never rising above the softest dynamic level), the orchestral strings build – through a series of churning gestures and glissandos, then a simmering chorale – to a mighty climax, after which the faint echo of glockenspiel, antique cymbals, chimes, and vibraphone provide an eerie response. A few fragments of the nebulous string figures are heard again and Rouse’s vision of this “journey” fades from view with repeated, unison Ds.

Whatever is to be made of that vision is fleeting and enigmatic: it leads, without pause, into “The Infernal Machine” and “Machine” offers no respite. Rouse writes that the movement “constitutes a darker hallucinatory image, as the immense juggernaut, eternally in motion for no particular purpose, is represented by a perpetuum mobile wherein the leviathan sometimes whirs along in mercurially unconcerned fashion but at others groans or throws off slightly hellish sparks, grinding occasionally as it changes gears.”

Formally, it’s something of a rondo, the refrain being the short, driving moto perpetuo with which the movement begins. The “sparks” and “grinds” Rouse writes of come and go quickly: percussive spurts, brassy squeaks and growls, glistening moments for harp and celesta. At one point a snatch from Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 130 pops up. In the central trio-ish section, we hear the groans of a quica (a special Brazilian drum). Throughout, the writing is almost manically motivic, though, while Rouse certainly develops his materials, the focus of the music is more on the affect created through incessant, often highly aggressive, repetition: surely there are few scores in which simple scales and trills take on a more menacing character.

And the menace, touched now with some sly humor, continues in the finale, “Bump.” Rouse writes that while the title “may imply a certain impish quality to the movement…the harrowing surrealism of [the music’s] execution should belie any suspicion that it is largely ‘light classical’ in orientation; if I had a corresponding visual image for ‘Bump,’ it would be akin to a gala Boston Pops performance in Hell.”

This movement bears not a few similarities with Ravel’s La Valse, itself a piece with a fairly harrowing and surreal subtext. First, all we hear is the steady beat of a bass drum being struck every fourth beat. Then, bassoons enter, followed by low strings, clarinets, and low brass. Each group of instruments plays its own collection of pitches and, rhythmically, none line up together: a sense of a beat there may be, but the underlying pulse is obscured. Slowly, things begin coming into focus. Trumpets and flutes introduce a short riff. Violins take up their own and, gradually, everything starts swinging together. It’s all quite grotesque and sounds a bit demented, but it’s also kind of whimsical and, soon enough, this section of the piece passes and a new one begins.

Starting over a pedal point made up of low strings, horns, harp, and celesta, this interlude offers a series of wind solos in rich counterpoint before leading to a new chorus, this a variation on the earlier violin theme. Another series of breakdowns and buildups follow – all of it highly syncopated, of course – before the final, hellish romp, filled with driving rhythms and vigorous counterpoint, brings the whole piece to a roaring close.

So, what might we be left to make of Phantasmata, filled as it is with moments of pessimism and ambiguity? First, that it’s not all grim. There are moments of lightness and cleverness. Plus, Rouse’s brilliant handling of the orchestra not only dazzles the ear but also offers interludes of sly humor. But it’s hard to escape the music’s incessant pounding, its pummeling energy. To these ears – which, admittedly are perhaps too eager to tease out deeper meanings in not-so-serious music – the last two movements might be read as a disturbing commentary on the countless, mindless reiterations of daily life and our society’s desperate reliance on technology. Thirty years on now, for many, our day-to-day existence has become increasingly monotonous, driven more by machinery and formula than ever before. In this reading, Phantasmata, in a small way at least, suggests the futility of such a culture, at least when that “way” is an end in itself.

Of course that is just one reading of the piece and a highly subjective one, at that. But there’s no denying Phantasmata’s expressive urgency, a trait that can be readily found in virtually all of Rouse’s other works, too. That his catalogue speaks with such immediacy and endures the test of time so well is both a testament to his craft as a composer and a vindication of his stylistic creed. It makes its own case for being discovered, played, and heard, and that, at the end of the day, is what great music is supposed to do.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.


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