For American composers, over-exposure is a rare and grand accomplishment, especially for someone like Christopher Rouse, whose music is neither pretty nor minimalist. So prolific was he during much of the 1990s that he suffered the typical suspicion: Can anybody write so much, so quickly and still be good?
Luckily, there’s a second act in this American life. How could there not be with a composer whose voice is so distinctive? Rouse has been Alan Gilbert’s composer in residence at the New York Philharmonic, and the conclusion of that was celebrated so fruitfully that you’d think the composer was having some landmark anniversary. His 90-minute Requiem, a work easily as ambitious as Britten’s War Requiem, was part of Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music festival May 5 and broadcast on radio (how I heard it ). The world premiere of Symphony No. 4 .ended the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial on June 7, which is when I heard it live at Avery Fisher Hall.
Together, those works cemented his position, at least in my mind, as America’s most truthful and characteristic post-9/11 composer. Long before 9/11, Rouse was a composer who truly embodied the yin/yang extremes of modern life, often with music whose lack of dissonance might be initially reassuring in one way or another, but always implied something lurking under the surface or around the corner, something gruesome, like what lies inside the infamous Room 101 in George Orwell’s 1984 where victims, lulled into a sense of well-being by rest and good meals while in confinement, suddenly face what they fear the most.
9/11 signified many things, among them, the death of certainty, that illusion that on any given day you’re not going to look up at the sky and see New York’s largest building raining down upon you. Long before that, Rouse’s music wrestled with illusion, revealing what it was and often crashing through that mental membrane with music influenced by Led Zeppelin.
Rouse didn’t reinvent music like his avant-garde predecessors, but found radically different emotional inferences for familiar kinds of gestures and harmonies. What normally sounded nice was a prelude to danger, and when danger arrived, there was always the relief that comes with knowing what it looks like. Horrifying as it sometimes is, Rouse’s music urges me, at least, to learn to live with everyday horror of most every sort.
That happens right off the bat with the Requiem, which begins with an account of a boy going to the funeral of his four-year-old brother – made all the more terrible by the fact that the coffin measures one foot for every year of the boy’s life. Even when heard without the benefit of reading the score of any pronted program, the choice of texts is so thoughtful and so right, but the glory of the piece is the ceaseless invention of the choral writing. Rouse’s idol in that respect was apparently the Berlioz Requiem, and was not to be outdone by the older work’s fantastical effects. Rouse being Rouse, he treats the “Dies Irae” like Breughel with modern colors and a level grotesqueness that’s only possible in an era of zombie movies.
No doubt audiences felt similar terror at the hands of the Berlioz and Verdi requiems when premiered. But the noise of modern life – plus the magnitude of the 9/11 tragedy – demands that the ante be upped. Having done so in this Requiem, the music heard later on in the piece plays opposite card, becoming perhaps more disturbing with ambiguous, disembodied harmonies accompanied by odd percussion that suggest a journey through the wastelands of some alien netherworld.
Not all is grim. The “Agnus Dei” feels like the best Christmas you ever had with female voices in high register accompanied by finger cymbals and serpentine bass. The message for me was the redemptive power of certainty illusions. We need them. They keep us going.
The Symphony No. 4 isn’t necessarily a lesser work, but it’s smaller scope might make it seem so. The two-movement diptych is perhaps his most frankly American work (especially if you count the Led Zeppelin influences as being British), with a first movement that’s full of Coplandesque certainty. Of course, none of Rouse’s gestures move with with the kind of refracted folk inflections of Copland. Rouse probably hasn’t a folksy bone in his body. But the first movement absolutely burbles with content. Certainly, there must be double meaning in there, some sort of dark undertow, but I didn’t hear it.
The decisive but unbroken transition into the second movement is still within Coplandesque territory, but has an increasing absence of content suggesting the Edward Hopper-esque nighttime of Quiet City – after a nuclear holocaust. In his program notes, Rouse resists revealing programmatic underpinning. But in the increasing disappearance of thematic content throughout the course of the movement, I felt the end of…well…pretty much everything. Unlike Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, this act of winding down didn’t lose tension but gained it as typical thematic content waned.
Conductors rightly fear ending programs with symphonies that end quietly. This one ends quietly indeed but in a way that feels so momentous that an anti-climactic concert wasn’t a possibility. Such masterful musical subtraction isn’t the sort of thing that makes or breaks a composer’s reputation. I think of Rouse’s 4th much like Beethoven’s 4th or 8th symphonies – works that weren’t out to challenge the world but are great to have in our midst. And wouldn’t it be nice to one day look back at this symphony as part of a full set of nine?