Composer  Christopher  Rouse
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Christopher Rouse is one of a select few composers who can be called
distinguished.  His music is played frequently across the U.S.  His works have been premiered by the great orchestras and famous soloists.  Many of his pieces have been recorded.  And he is welcomed not only by musicians but also by critics and audiences.

His official website has all the information about his music, as well as photos and other material.  The detailed biography from that site is reproduced in the box at the end of this interview.

He was in Chicago in 1994 for performances of his Symphony #1 conducted by David Zinman.  We met in a conference room at Orchestra Hall on a day between the concerts . . . . .

Bruce Duffie
:    Have you been pleased with these performances, and how do they differ from the performances you’ve  previously heard of this work?

Christopher Rouse:    The performances here have been wonderful, particularly in that the orchestra had one less rehearsal this week than is the normal case.  So they put it together that much more quickly and they really did a wonderful job.  Of course every orchestra is different in terms of the sound, and interpretation from the person on the podium makes a difference as well.  David Zinman who is doing it this week with the Chicago Symphony has done it many times.  So he can just about do it in his sleep, I would say.  

BD:    He made the recording, did he not?

CR:    Yes, that’s right.  And other conductors have a somewhat different way of approaching the piece.  Christoph Eschenbach has done it several times.  He brings a somewhat different kind of approach to it.  

BD:    More grandiose?

CR:    Yes.  He likes to really milk every measure for all he can get out of it, so his performances tend to be a bit slower.

BD:    Does it please you that the performances change and that the piece changes and grows over the years?

CR:    Any piece can be done more than one way — at least I would hope so — and it’s always good.  As long as one has a sympathetic and understanding person doing the interpreting, I think there are various ways to approach any work.  Certainly as composers we would all say there are at least conceivably wrong headed approaches, but I have not had to suffer through any of those with this work.

BD:    Do you make sure that you put enough markings in your score so that people don’t go too far off the beam?

rouseCR:    It’s funny, I am rather stingy with markings for some reason.  I don’t know if it’s just inherent laziness or whether it’s something else, but I am not someone who throws all sorts of instructions into the score.  I usually give a tempo marking
some kind of general indication such as adagio or allegro, and perhaps an occasional expressive adjective to define a very general sense of the mood.   But other than that I tend not to get too crazed with instructions on the page.

BD:    Do you look forward to seeing what other people will find in your score?

CR:    Oh sure, absolutely.

BD:    Are you ever surprised?

CR:    Some times, some times.  One hopes they will be pleasant surprises rather than unpleasant ones.  Some people go more for detail; some people go more for an overall shape. Some people go more for expressive content; others go more for a clarifying form of the work or something of that nature.

BD:    Is it possible for any one person to go for all of these things?

CR:    Sure, sure.  That’s when you get the best interpretation, assuming you have an orchestra that can respond and can rise to the challenge.  Certainly this orchestra can and does.  So that’s always the best, when you have a completely happy marriage of all the elements.

BD:    You wrote this for the Baltimore Symphony?

CR:    That’s right.

BD:    Did you have those players and their particular abilities in mind?

CR:    In this particular case, not terribly much.  Except for a few comparatively brief passages, it’s a work that is not technically very difficult to play, so I wasn’t thinking so much in terms of individual players in the Baltimore Symphony.  Generally with more virtuosic works, I might play to what I perceive as the strength of the ensemble that’s commissioned it, but in a work like this, it’s not so much of an issue.  I would, I suppose, have to say that it’s important not to tailor make a work so specifically for one group so that it would really only sound good when played by that group.  I don’t want to write music that’s only going to be played by one ensemble or frozen in time somehow by the membership of one group.  I’m the same when writing concerti.  I certainly want to write to the strengths of the soloist for whom I’m composing the work originally, but I also would hope that others will pick up the piece as well, and that requires at least some kind of more general understanding of shared tradition that other players can latch onto.  

BD:    If you write for a world class player, can it be assumed that any other world class player would be able to handle what you ask?

CR:    Presumably, yes.  My most recent premiere was a cello concerto which I wrote for Yo-Yo Ma.  Of course in his case, just about anything you write he can play.  So I felt no barriers, technically speaking, and beyond that he’s such a superb musician, such a great interpretive artist, that I knew he would be able to put across the piece.  It is a very difficult piece and is not a work that I would say that people earlier on in their training, perhaps still in music schools, would be able to play.

BD:    If someone in a music school asked you to write something and you agreed, would you tailor it for that person?

CR:    You would have to make it a bit easier
— not necessarily for that person, but the general level that that person’s stature to that point would represent.

BD:    Does it then become your responsibility to put at least the same amount of
music into the technically less demanding piece?

CR:    Well, for me it is.  That’s probably because it seems that I write these days
and have for some timebig pieces.  So as a result, I want to try to make the best music I can and not toss off things that might result in a kind of throwaway piece.  There are certainly composers who write very, very effectively and successfully for occasional type purposes — works for a high school band or something of that natureand more power to them. It’s just unfortunately not my nature to want to make too many concessions to, let’s say, a technique that is not fully ripened yet.  So my pieces do tend to be, for the most part, pretty challenging technically, but I hope not so difficult that they preclude a number of my performers being able to tackle them.  

BD:    From the offers that come in, how do you decide which ones you’ll say yes and which ones you’ll turn aside?

CR:    I suppose the first thing is whether it’s a project that I feel I can realize.  There are certain instruments that I don’t feel I can write for.  People once in awhile will ask for a piano concerto from me, and not being a pianist, not really understanding the instrument very well, and being in awe of how idiomatically and how beautifully the great composers for that instrument did manage to bring forth their works
people like Chopin or Rachmaninoff or Scriabinit makes me feel all the more inadequate.  So I always turn down requests for piano music as politely and graciously as I can.

BD:    That’s interesting that you would say Chopin and Rachmaninoff rather than, say, Leon Kirchner and Charles Wuorinen.  [See my Interview with Charles Wuorinen.] 

CR:    It’s not really so much an issue of stylistic questions.  It’s not that I think necessarily that Scriabin is a better composer than Kirchner or Wuroinen, but there’s a particular approach, a particularly intimate understanding of the instrument that those composers I named seem to represent to me.  They were of course all great virtuosi themselves.

BD:    Are you a virtuoso on a particular instrument?

CR:    No, not a virtuoso on anything.

BD:    Are you then not trying to be a virtuoso composer?

CR:    Oh, I suppose I’m trying to do that.  But I just never really learned to be a really proficient instrumentalist on much of anything.  I can still give you a good tam-tam blow when the necessity arises, but the closest thing I had to an instrument was the result of percussion study for some time.  But I’m so rusty now that I really shouldn’t be trusted around a drum stick I would say.

BD:    But then you’re asked to write a cello concerto.  Are you thinking cellistically, or are you thinking musically of a single line?

CR:    You have to do both.  You have to think of the music and then decide whether it really is music that is appropriate for the cello.   You always have to have in mind what is right for the instrument, whether it be a solo instrument or an orchestral instrument.  Is this really the right material for this player or the instrument that he or she plays?  Sometimes it isn’t, in which case, if it’s a good idea, you save it and maybe reuse it or use it later on in another work.  But I really think it is very important to try to write idiomatically for instruments.  Younger composers particularly tend to write for the viola just as a slightly larger violin.  They almost never write parts that use the C string, the lowest string of the viola. The whole part is in treble clef, for example, as opposed to the lower alto clef.

BD:    That’s the richness of it down there on the left side.

CR:    Exactly, exactly.  But they’re not really thinking for the viola.  They’re thinking of it as really a violin piece but they happen to be writing for the viola because a viola-playing friend asked them to, and I don’t think that’s really the right way to approach composing such a work.

BD:    Should a composer, especially a young composer who is going to write for a few instruments, pick up the instruments and see what they will do, and maybe take a few lessons?

CR:    Not necessarily.  I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but I sometimes think that one can actually be limited by playing an instrument rather than be inspired.  Obviously there are always exceptions to any general statement, but some of the greatest pianist composers were also some of the weakest orchestrators.  Chopin, for example.  Schumann is a marvelous orchestrator in some ways and not so good in other ways, and right on down the line.  Conversely, the composers who did not play the piano or indeed didn’t play any instrument very well, are often regarded, historically, as the finest orchestrators
people like Berlioz or Rimsky-Korsakov.  There is something almost shackle-removing about not being able to use an instrument as some kind of crutch for a composer.  And when you are an instrumentalist, you will tend to write for your own instrument in a way that is limited to your own abilities.  So, as an orchestrator I’m helped rather than hurt by the fact that I’m not an instrumentalist.  Of course orchestration is not by any extent the whole ball of wax and one still tries to make something that’s musically coherent.  There are marvelous pieces of music that I would say are not particularly well orchestrated.  Musically though, they are so strong that that overrides whatever weaknesses there may be in the orchestration per say.  Again one thinks of Chopin piano concerti.

BD:    When you’re looking at the blank page, do you think linearly of a line and then orchestrate it, or do you think vertically in terms of blocks of sound?

CR:    It’s pretty hard to answer that.  Berlioz made the interesting comment that ideas occurred to him initially already orchestrated, and I would have to say that’s true for me as well.  I don’t think of orchestration as something that’s applied after the fact to a musical work that’s already been conceived or even set forth in some kind of reduced format on the page.  I think of orchestration as something that’s innately part of the initial creative act.  So it’s not really a matter of thinking linearly or thinking vertically; it just kind of comes to me already orchestrated at least in some broad based way.  

BD:    Does it come to you and then you transfer it to the page, or does it come to you and then you have to work it out?

CR:    It comes to me and then I work it out mentally rather than on the page.  I’m not physically a sketcher; I’m a mental sketcher, so the only thing I ever write down actually is the final score.  

BD:    In ink?

CR:    No, no.  I worked in ink once and found it so frustrating that I still work in pencil.  The final manuscripts are all just pencil manuscripts.

BD:    Do you ever go back after a piece has been performed and revise?

CR:    Occasionally I make little touch-ups; nothing too major.  If a work has a few little problems, I try to fix them.  If it has big problems, I withdraw the work and just chuck it.

BD:    You don’t save anything out of it?  

CR:    There have been a few cases.  For example, the First Symphony has a chunk of music that originally was part of my doctoral dissertation.  The rest of the dissertation deserves the oblivion that it’s fallen into, but that one excerpt I wanted to reuse, and ten years later I did.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re both teacher and composer.  How do you divide your time between those two taxing activities?

rouseCR:    I compose when I’m not teaching, essentially.  I’m a summer composer.  I find it mentally very draining to teach, so when classes are in session, I don’t actually compose
at least physically.  When I have free time I might do a lot of the mental work, the preparation work, but not the process of actually writing out the score, at which juncture there are still many, many decisions that need to be made on an ad hoc basis.  That’s something I really pretty much reserve for summers.  So it’s always a race from the minute the last class has ridden off into the sunset until Labor Day when school starts up again; I’m kind of racing the clock to try and get whatever the project at hand is finished in time.  

BD:    When you start a project, do you know about how long it will take to complete?

CR:    Usually.  Occasionally I’m surprised.  Sometimes things go more quickly than I anticipate.  There have been times when I get stuck and have to delay completing the work until perhaps the Christmas break or something of that sort.

BD:    When you get started on a piece and you’re working on it, do you know long it will take to perform?

CR:    I try to have a pretty accurate sense within about five minutes of the performing duration.

BD:    You say you don’t write for a specific person.  Do you have an audience in mind when you’re writing music?

CR:    Not a specific one, but a kind of general audience; an imagined audience of what I call “open-minded lay listeners.”

BD:    Do we have enough open-minded lay listeners around?

CR:    I don’t know.  I would like to think that we could make more of them.  The lay listener of course refers to the notion that I think it’s important to address concerned, caring music-loving listeners who are not necessarily musically trained, who are not in a position to be able to analyze in a theoretical sense what they’re hearing.  And open-minded, of course, refers to those who are willing to listen impartially to a new work.  There’s not much I can do about those people for whom La Mer is the last work of music they will accept, and they will close down instantly when they see that they’re going to be confronted by a work by a living composer.  They have made up their mind in advance, and there’s not a great deal that I can do about them.  

BD:    In the
60s and 70s there was so much very complex and dense music being written.  We seem to be coming out of that period.  Is this a good thing that we’re writing music that’s more accessible?

CR:    I think so, I really do.  I think that there became an attitude almost of arrogance on the part of some composers, certainly not all.  But the notion that music existed in an ivory tower and was intended to be appreciated only by others who had been
initiated into the mysteries of understanding the construction of the work and the various elements that went into constructing the piece on a technical level, and the audience be damned, they’re all philistines anyway.that kind of attitude.

BD:    We’re getting away from this?

CR:    I think so.  And with that we’re getting away from the idea that the primary purpose in composing a musical work is simply to explore organizational techniques, mathematical or otherwise.  You were referring to the period from several decades ago.  I remember that what passed for program notes often was simply an analysis of the piece.  Nothing else was said.  The average concertgoer didn’t know what any of that terminology meant, so it was a very alienating experience for people to listen to compositions of that sort, or that exercised that kind of approach.  People will perhaps think that I’m talking about what’s sometimes referred to as the
uptown style, the total serialistic approach or totally serialized approach.  It isn’t exclusively that.  There were a lot of composers in the 1950s who maintained an interest in writing a kind of tonal music, but still were just as concerned with the organization of the work as being the raison d’être for composing it, and not having the technique be the servant of some kind of communicative or expressive goalwhich to me is the ultimate import that any good work of art needs to have.

BD:    Let me zero in on this then a little bit with a big question
— what is the purpose of music?   

CR:    I believe the purpose of music is to convey something meaningful, nourishing, enlightening from the human spirit that speaks of the creator of the work to the listener, the viewer, the reader, to other human spirits about what it is to be alive.  And I think that how you organize your material is really just a means of making that expressive or emotive meaning coherent, more logical.  For example, of all the great composers I would say none wrote more complex music than Alban Berg.  It’s just layer upon layer of all sorts of incredibly dense interrelationships and so forth.  And yet Berg himself said, “I don’t care about my listeners finding any of this.  This isn’t what they’re supposed to be hearing.  They’re supposed to be moved by the dramatic and expressive elements of the work.  All of the other things are simply there to make me feel as though what I’m saying will make sense on some subconscious level; that it will sound all of a piece in some way.   But good grief, I don’t want listeners to actually listen for these things.”

BD:    Does it help to make a piece of music great if it can be appreciated on a superficial level, and a deeper level, and the deepest level?

CR:    One hopes.  Sometimes I think the danger is if by the deepest level we mean by the most complete understanding of the nuts and bolts.  Sometimes that can actually diminish our understanding of the work’s meaning on a more expressive level.

BD:    Does one actually miss a lot being brought up to appreciate it?
CR:    You are talking about being able to appreciate the technique?

BD:    Mmm-hmm.

CR:    I think sometimes.  I often think, for example, regarding the way that music theory has developed in our century, that those who become very, very much enamored of music analysis after awhile begin to feel that the analysis of the piece explains the essence of the piece.  They feel very proud, and justifiably so, if they’ve cracked the code, or once they can really understand how every note relates to every other note in kind of a schematic fashion, they really come to feel that that is the piece.  It is much more easy to elucidate those elements in a work than it is to really talk about emotional content and meaning.  As a result, I think academia has, or at least did, cease to even consider those feelings after awhile, and composers began to think that a good piece of music should be about that analysis.

BD:    So they had the cart before the horse?  They were doing the analysis first then making the music fit that rather than writing the music and then seeing how the analysis works?

CR:    Exactly, exactly.  I’d say that’s a pretty good summation.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Now let’s look forward.  Where’s music going these days?

CR:    [Shrugs]  Got me!  I don’t know.  I think that there are a variety of approaches out there now.  Certainly there are composers who write serial music; there are some composers who write conceptual music; there are minimalist composers; there are the so-called New Romanticists, people who have re-embraced tonality.  I think a variety of approaches is all to the good rather than one true way that we must all follow in lockstep
which was a danger several decades agoat least that’s what we were being told in our training.  Now there are a variety of ways.  A composer can feel free to even change his or her approach as he or she develops.   That composer may feel, “Well, serialism is not for me any more, perhaps I’ll try tonality, something that’s tonal.”  I think that’s wonderful.  As to which will ultimately triumph, I can’t honestly give you a certifiable answer for that because I don’t know.  Perhaps in the near future we’re going to continue this pluralistic approach.

BD:    Shouldn’t we have several parallel lines going along?

rouseCR:    That would be nice; we have really for some time.  Since the time of Beethoven there have been several different approaches going.  Everything seems to be kind of coalesced into Beethoven.  Although even there, there are composers of Beethoven’s time who really did an end run around Beethoven.  I would say Rossini might fit that description, but for the most part everything kind of feeds into Beethoven.  But out of Beethoven comes one line, the more classically oriented 19th century branch of Schubert or Mendelssohn and Brahms.  Then on the other hand you have the line of Weber, Berlioz, Wagner and so forth.

BD:    Are we getting one big fat line, or several lines coming out?

CR:    Now I think that we have lots and lots of different lines.

BD:    Do you feel that you’re part of a specific lineage?

CR:    I don’t know.  I actually find that if I think too much about these things I get very self-conscious, so I really don’t think about it so much anymore.  Certainly what I think about the issue of expressiveness would be viewed as a romantic approach in some way, although the dissonance level in a great deal of my music is higher than in the work of a number of other composers who are called New Romanticists.  To me, the issue of dissonance has nothing to do with the issue of expressivity; that somehow one can only get back to expressing something if one re-embraces tonality.  That doesn’t seem to follow.  Again, using the example of Berg, I can think of no composer whose music is so filled with very profound, emotive content, and yet it’s also music with a very high dissonance level.  So the notion that these two things are completely opposite I think is wrong.  

BD:    You come from a rock-n-roll background?

CR:    Sort of.  It’s just the music I listened to as I was growing up.  I think we all retain a fondness for the popular music that we heard as younger people.

BD:    But you teach courses in the history of rock-n-roll.

CR:    I discovered that I knew enough or had retained enough to be able to do some kind of history and repertoire.

BD:    There seems to be this huge gulf between the classical and the popular, including rock.  Are you trying to bridge the gulf or narrow the gulf a little bit?

CR:    Not these days.  I was in composing various works in the 1980s.  Now I’m really kind of away from that.  There are certainly other composers, younger composers, who are very much involved with using the influences that they retained from their rock periods as young people
perhaps even playing in bands or whateverand they bring that to the music they’re composing for symphony orchestras.  I was perhaps more involved with that 10 years ago than now.  

BD:    Should we try to get more of the rock audience coming to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

CR:    We’ve got to get audiences coming in just generally, and programming is a very important issue in terms of attracting listeners who are not traditionally symphony-going audience members.  One interesting thing we just did in Baltimore a few weeks ago was called a dance mix program which was entirely music by American composers that was based on popular music idioms; pieces by established names such as John Harbison, John Adams, Michael Torke, people of that sort.  [See my Interview with John Harbison.]  These are composers whose credentials are already established as so-called “art-music composers” or whatever kind of appellation you want.  It was meant to bring in a younger audience, many of whom had never been to a symphony concert before.  There was a light show and dancing; we had a DJ in the lobby in intermission and people were dancing out there.  The house was filled with young pop music enthusiasts.  Now does that necessarily mean that they are all going to subscribe next year to the Beethoven/Brahms/Tchaikovsky programming?  Probably not, but maybe a few will.

BD:    Should we perhaps do a series of Bruckner Eighths, one with light show?

CR:    I don’t know.  I suppose that I would say there is a certain point where one is in danger of robbing the Bruckner Eighth Symphony of a certain type of integrity.  I should have a strong opinion on this but I don’t.  I do get concerned sometimes that we may be getting so desperate to attract listeners that we sometimes do some things that despoil the dignity.  And by the
dignity I’m not talking about the notion that we all have to dress up for concerts and the orchestra needs to be in tails and white tie.  I’m not sure that’s terribly important, but the minute that one does something that somehow distracts from or detracts from the music itself, then we’re in danger of doing more harm than good.

BD:    In music, either your music or concert music in general, where’s the balance between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

rouseCR:    I don’t know.  I honestly don’t know.  The idea of
entertainment is a loaded one and a very complex issue.  Is one entertained by the Mahler Sixth Symphony?  Is it an entertaining work?  I would say my definition of entertainment does not suffice to describe what my reaction is to the Mahler Sixth, which is a meat grinder of a work.  One feels like one has really been put through the wringer at the end of that.  If by entertain we simply mean that the listener’s attention is held, that they are somehow wrapped up in the experience of hearing this music, then I would hope that all good music is entertaining and all performances are good enough to get that aspect across.  I was in Cincinnati with the orchestra there some years ago and during a pre-concert thing a lady said, “Well, if it’s not pleasant, it’s not music.”  Then another one said, “I love after a hard day’s work to get into the bubble bath and relax to the Beethoven Ninth Symphony.”  I tried respectfully to propose that the Beethoven Ninth really isn’t bubble bath music.  If that’s what we mean by entertainment, then I think we’re in a somewhat murky area.  We should not have to do all sorts of zippy things to sell the Beethoven Ninth.  It should sell itself rather than having all sorts of other things involved.  If you want to have a light show, do the Scriabin Prometheus.  

BD:    The composer prescribed it to be done!

CR:    Exactly, exactly.   Or have living composers who are willing to give thumbs up to the idea.  So there is kind of this dichotomy in me.  I’m all for pop culture.  I’m all for the healthy interaction between pop culture and high culture, but at the same time, I think that the great achievements of the past in high culture need to be treated still with some degree of respect rather than just dumbed down so that everybody can get it.  Potentially everyone can get the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, but I don’t think light shows and bubble baths are the way to do it.  

BD:    Potentially can everyone get the music of Christopher Rouse?

CR:    Potentially I would hope so.  Potentially everyone can get everything.  Conversely I would say potentially a lot of my colleagues who profess to despise rock-n-roll, were they to sit down and really listen to some of it, would find some they like.  Of course no one is going to like everything.  Good grief, there are all sorts of works of classical music that I can’t stand, even some very well-known ones.  We all have our likes and dislikes, our idiosyncrasies, our blind spots.

BD:    Do you find those blind spots change a little bit and that something you hated a number of years ago now is something that you really like?

CR:    Oh sure, sure.  

BD:    So you evolve.

CR:    Particularly when you’re younger, when you’re a student, there are certain composers that one is expected to turn their nose up at.  When I was a student in the late 1960s, actually there was a great deal of music that I loved and for which I was looked upon as some kind of mental defective.

BD:    Bet you it was Tchaikovsky!

CR:    Tchaikovsky was one; I’ve always loved Tchaikovsky.  

BD:    Me too.

CR:    I was a great fan of Sibelius.  People say, “Sibelius???  Come on...”  Copland and that whole generation of Americans was very out then.  One was expected to worship at the shrine of Webern.

BD:    Is it good now that we’re looking back at Piston and Hansen and Copland?

CR:    You bet.  And people like Prokofiev and Ravel.  Others say, “Well, we don’t really take them seriously.”  Well, I did.  Then there are other composers that I was just too young to understand.  Bruckner came to me a bit later. I don’t think it’s very easy for someone at the age 14 or 15 to really mine the territory that Bruckner is traversing.   You can get a certain amount, but not the whole depth.  Same for Wagner.  I loved Wagner as a kid, but I love him in a much different and more complete way now because I think I understand what Wagner is after.

BD:    There are composers that hit you in the gut, and then later you realize what all is underneath.  

CR:    Yes, you bet.  And there are certain composers who hit you in the gut as a younger person, and then you realize later on that perhaps there wasn’t much more to it than surface appeal.  But for example, a composer I used to be very suspicious of was Richard Strauss.  Now I just adore that music.

BD:    So you’re pleased that you’re on the program with him?

CR:    Oh, you bet.  I’m always happy with Rouse and Strauss.  The Cello Concerto I mentioned actually has a passage that reminds David Zinman somewhat of the Alpine Symphony.  So he said that he really wants to program the two pieces together some time.  And I said, “Well, if you do that, there’s a wonderful symphony in C Minor by the 18th century composer Josef Martin Kraus.  So we could do a Kraus /Rouse/Strauss concert which might be fun.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What effect on you has been the winning of the Pulitzer Prize?

CR:    I still am not really certain what the effect has been.  Different composers will tell you very different things.  Some will say that it made their careers.  I think that’s particularly true in the case of certain wonderful composers who really were not very well known, and the Pulitzer brought their music to a broader attention than it had ever achieved to that date.  From there they were off and running.  Other composers, particularly more established ones, it’s a wonderful feather in their cap but they already had arrived anyway.  I know one composer who says the Pulitzer actually hurt his career.  So, it really depends on the circumstances and depends on the type of music the composer is writing and so forth.  

BD:    For you it’s still too recent to realize?

CR:    Well, yes.  It’s only been a year.  With a new piece, it usually takes two years to find out what is going to happen to that piece in the following five to ten years.   Orchestras usually program a year and a half or two years in advance.  So when my Trombone Concerto was premiered in the middle of the 1992-93 season, there was already no opportunity for anyone to program it for the 93-94 season because everyone’s calendar was filled; it was booked, completely mapped out.  And indeed many orchestras were already well along on 94-95.  So it takes awhile for pieces to find their legs.  I think perhaps the Pulitzer is the same way.  It takes awhile to see what the fallout might be.  I will say this
— my sense is that a few conductors who had no previous track record performing my music might find their curiosity piqued a bit more should a work of mine cross their desk.  They might be a little bit more inclined to really give it a look-see compared to the pre-Pulitzer days.  

BD:    So you’re not just one of many composers now, you’re one of a few composers?

CR:    Rightly or wrongly that’s the way it seems to be.  The Pulitzer still seems to be the most prestigious prize in most people’s mind for music in this country.  Certainly there are richer prizes, but the Pulitzer has the most name recognition.  People tend to think the Pulitzer prize-winning-composers are some kind of special breed.  I’m not sure I’d agree with that, but now having one I guess I won’t complain if someone wants to consider me a member of a special breed.

rouseBD:    A lot of composers find that it’s fairly easy to get first performance but not so easy to get a second performance.  Do you find that also?

CR:    I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.  That is the biggest problem, though.  A lot of composers think that getting the commission and the first performance is the toughest thing, and really that’s not as tough as getting the second performance.  What ultimately will happen if the work is a good work, if it makes some kind of impact at its first performance and if a composer gets a tape that he can send to others, that will engender future performances.  We always have to remember that our time is no different than any other time in the sense that most new music or most premiered works probably aren’t that great.  They’re not going to have a long life.  That certainly was true in the 19th century and in the 18th century.  Look at the list of operas commissioned and premiered by the Paris Opera, and see what a tiny, tiny percentage of them are still in the repertoire, or even were staged after their initial staging.  Most of them dropped out sight immediately.  They’re by composers whose entire life’s work dropped out of sight.

BD:    Is this something composers are perhaps too fixed on today
writing a masterpiece?

CR:    The masterpiece syndrome is a problem, but we all have this enormous body of masterpieces staring at us from on high.  It can be rather imposing to have to think about that.  Some composers can’t help but think about it.  Other composers don’t worry about it.  Some worry about it intermittently.

BD:    One last question
is composing fun?

CR:    No.  

BD:    No???

CR:    No, it’s not.  I’ve spoken maybe to about half a dozen colleagues and not one of them likes to do it.  I’m sure there are those who do, who love the challenge of finding answers to problems.  Not being a woman, I don’t know what it’s like to be in labor, although I’ve been with my wife in the delivery room so I know it’s not at all pleasant and I’m not going to try to literally equate the two things.  But in a way, composing is for me what I would imagine giving birth is like.  It’s not quite the concentrated physical pain, of course, but one is straining to get something out.  

BD:    So there’s anguish.

CR:    Enormous anguish.  I perspire a lot.  I realize that because my wife tells me that I am gritting and wincing.  I’m not even aware of all the kinds of facial contortions that I make as I’m composing.  It isn’t fun.  

BD:    This is as you’re composing.  Do you make these same contortions when you’re listening to the premiere?

CR:    Oh no.  When I’m listening, I’m just kind of sitting there realizing it’s out of my hands.  There’s nothing I can do now except to worry about the bow.  

BD:    So then the composing is the birth and the first performance is like the graduation?

CR:    I suppose that’s a good way of looking at it.  That’s right.  And as the proud parent, all I can do is hope that my kid doesn’t fall on the stage as he’s getting his diploma.  Really, I find myself very dissociated from my music in performance.  I rarely even get wrapped up in the piece.  It’s simply that this was a piece of music that I composed and there it is, and all through my life I’ve heard piece after piece where I could say to myself, “Geez, I wish I had written that.”  And a few times in your life you can say that to yourself and then instantly say afterwards, “Hey, I did write that piece.  I don’t have to wish I’d written that.  I did!”  You hope to have that a few times in your life.  A wonderful colleague of mine, the greatly talented composer Steven Stucky, who is now the composer in residence with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said once that we all have to aim as high as Beethoven.  We all have to aim to be Beethoven, but most of us know that we will feel ourselves very, very fortunate if some time in our lives we write a few measures that are as good as Massenet.  I think Massenet is a wonderful composer and so does he, and neither one of us would put him up there with Beethoven.  But there’s marvelous, marvelous music in Massenet.

BD:    Obviously then, though you say it’s tough and it’s hard and it’s not fun, it must be worth it.

CR:    It is if I feel that I have provided that sense of meaning to people.  If I feel I’ve made a difference in their lives for some brief instant of time, that’s what makes it worthwhile for me.  To me, composing is not simply a matter of expressing yourself and I do it to answer some inner need.  Of course that’s the initial point from which one starts.  One has to do this.  People say, “Well, if it’s no fun, why do you do it?”  Because I have to.  Not
have to from the standpoint of paying the mortgage with royalties, but have to in the sense in that that’s what I do.  I have these things in me that I’ve got to get out.   

BD:    You’re paying the mortgage on your soul?

CR:    I guess, yeah.  But simply saying, “Well, I’ve expressed myself, now, thank you.  Here it is.  I don’t care what you think,” is not enough for me.  It’s not enough to be satisfied with just satisfying yourself.  There is almost a social obligation that a composer has to create something that fills a need for society.  And one hopes it will not speak just to the composer’s own time and place but will be something that is broad-based enough in its meaning so that it will convey important things to successive generations.  Beethoven’s music certainly does that; so does Mozart’s, Mahler’s, etc.  It is important for us to consider an audience, and if you have satisfied yourself, that’s a beginning, but always keep in mind that we are not simply isolated figures.  We are members of a culture, members of a society, and just as a bard had the obligation to sing songs for the edification of his fellow man, so too I think creative artists now need to think in terms beyond simply their own needs.  The pithiest way to put it is that I don’t think that the creation of any work of art is purely an act of masturbation.  It needs to be a shared act, more like love making than masturbation.  It’s important that we recognize that there is an audience and that they’re a very important part of the equation.  We need to recognize that we do almost have something akin to a social responsibility on their behalf, though never at the expense of our own sense of integrity.  I keep referring to Beethoven and I don’t know why.  I love Beethoven, but…

BD:    He’s probably THE towering figure.

CR:    I suppose.  Many people would choose Mozart or Bach.  My desert island composer is Berlioz, but nonetheless, certainly Beethoven did it on his own terms.  He was very concerned with having his music appreciated by those who heard it, and having it provide real sustenance, real meaning for the spirit.  But clearly he was going to do it his way.  He had the genius to be able to bring his listeners along with him.

BD:    And he was right?

CR:    And he was right.  That’s always, ultimately, going to prove to be the right way.  You have to do it on your own terms.  

BD:    Thank you for being a composer.

CR:    Oh well, I wish everyone felt that way.  Let me give you a list of critics who wouldn’t agree...

BD:    You’re in academia, but you’re out in the real world.  You’re not just writing pieces for academia, you’re writing pieces for various symphony orchestras with world class players.  So that’s a different kind of thing.  It gives you a different outlook.  

CR:    It really does.  There is a danger of being too inbred if you simply exist within and for an academic environment.  I don’t think it’s real healthy.  There’s kind of an incestuous quality to that.  It’s important to draw the best and the most useful and useable lessons you can out of both academia and the music world that exists outside of the campus.

Christopher Rouse is one of America's most prominent composers of orchestral music. His works have won a Pulitzer Prize (for his Trombone Concerto) and a Grammy Award (for Concert de Gaudí), as well as election to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters. Rouse has created a body of work perhaps unequalled in its emotional intensity. The New York Times has called it "some of the most anguished, most memorable music around." The Baltimore Sun has written: "When the music history of the late 20th century is written, I suspect the explosive and passionate music of Rouse will loom large."

Born in Baltimore in 1949, Rouse developed an early interest in both classical and popular music. He graduated from Oberlin Conservatory and Cornell University, numbering among his principal teachers George Crumb and Karel Husa. Rouse maintained a steady interest in popular music: at the Eastman School of Music, where he was Professor of Composition until 2002, he taught a course in the history of rock for many years. Rouse is currently a member of the composition faculty at The Juilliard School.

While the Rouse catalog includes a number of acclaimed chamber and ensemble works, he is best known for his mastery of orchestral writing. His music has been played by every major orchestra in the U.S., and numerous ensembles overseas including the Berlin Philharmonic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney and Melbourne Symphonies, the London Symphony, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Stockholm Philharmonic, the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Gulbenkian Orchestra of Lisbon, the Toronto Symphony, the Vienna Symphony, the Orchestre National de France, the Moscow Symphony, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony, the Bournemouth Symphony, and the Orchestre Symphonique du Montreal, as well as the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the radio orchestras of Helsinki, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig, Tokyo, Austria, and Berlin.

Rouse's Symphony No. 1 (1986), commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and winner of the prestigious Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, was rated by the Boston Globe as "probably the most completely successful symphonic composition yet written by an American composer of his rising generation." The Symphony No. 2 (1994), commissioned by Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony, has found equal success, earning praise in both its premiere and in European tour performances. Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony have recorded the Symphony No. 2 for Telarc, on an all-Rouse disc that also features the Celtic-inspired Flute Concerto (with Carol Wincenc as soloist) and Phaethon, one of several Rouse scores inspired by mythology. The disc earned a 'Diapason d'Or' award from the French magazine Diapason, and Gramophone magazine credited the performance of the Flute Concerto with "plenty of quietly cathartic spiritual affirmation." RCA has also issued a CD devoted to Rouse's music, featuring Marin Alsop leading the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in Gorgon, Iscariot, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Trombone Concerto, with New York Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi as soloist. Alsop also conducts on "Passion Wheels," a new recording for Koch containing Rouse's Concerto per Corde, Rotae Passionis, Ku-Ka-Ilimoku, and Ogoun Badagris. The CD has won "Best of the Year" designation for 2000 from both Gramophone magazine and Fanfare magazine.

Over the past decade Rouse has gained particular notice for his concerti. Among these are his Violin Concerto (1991), commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival for Cho-Liang Lin; his Violoncello Concerto, given its premiere in Spring 1994 by Yo-Yo Ma, with David Zinman leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and his Flute Concerto (1993), the most frequently performed of his concerti, commissioned by Carol Wincenc and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The Violoncello Concerto elicited cheers from the audience and a glowing review from The New York Times, which called it "a strongly conceived elegy....Rouse's music [has] been acclaimed by both audiences and critics and is among the most intriguing orchestral music now being written....One is drawn into Mr. Rouse's emotional universe and is moved by its craft as well." Ma has recorded the Violoncello Concerto for Sony Classics, accompanied by David Zinman and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

One of Rouse's more recent concerti is Der gerettete Alberich, a "fantasy for percussion and orchestra on themes of Wagner," commissioned for soloist Evelyn Glennie by a consortium of four leading orchestras: The Cleveland Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Christoph von Dohnányi conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in the work's debut in January 1998; the Cleveland Plain Dealer described Rouse's transformation of Wagner's narrative as "a fresh burst of creative imagination....[a] brilliant melding of romantic and contemporary idioms."

Rouse's extraordinary series of works for soloist and orchestra continued. January 1999 brought the premiere of Kabir Padavali, an orchestral song cycle commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra for soprano Dawn Upshaw, with texts by the 15th-century Indian mystic poet Kabir. David Zinman, a staunch advocate of Rouse's music, conducted the premiere. Seeing, a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax and the New York Philharmonic, made its debut in May 1999 under Leonard Slatkin, another champion of Rouse's work. A meditation on madness, Seeing was inspired by the tragic stories of Robert Schumann and Skip Spence, the Moby Grape guitarist and songwriter who from the late 1960's until his death in 1999 suffered from schizophrenia. The New York Times called Seeing "a poignant, tragic work...[a] brilliantly eclectic imagining of an inventive musical mind gone off the rails."

Concert de Gaudí, a guitar concerto for soloist Sharon Isbin, won a 2002 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. The concerto was commissioned jointly by the NDR Symphony Orchestra (Hamburg) and the Dallas Symphony. Concert de Gaudí drew inspiration from the exotic and fanciful designs of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. Isbin has recorded the work on the Teldec label. A new orchestral work is Rapture, which depicts "a state of spiritual bliss, religious or otherwise." Rapture was commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. It was recorded by Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic on an Ondine disc that also included Der gerettete Alberich and the Violin Concerto with soloists Evelyn Glennie and Cho-Laing Lin.

Rouse's most recently premiered concerto is the Clarinet Concerto, which debuted in May 2001 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Larry Combs as soloist. John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune wrote of the piece, "Just as this music tests the virtuosity of the does it dare the audience to hang on tight as it takes them on the high-energy roller-coaster ride of their lives." The Clarinet Concerto has been recorded for BIS by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra with Martin Fröst on clarinet and Alan Gilbert conducting (BIS-CD-1386).

Christopher Rouse's accomplishments as a composer were honored in 2002 with his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Most of 2001 and 2002 were taken up with the composition of his massive Requiem. Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times hailed it as "the first great traditional American Requiem" following its 2007 Los Angeles premiere. Rouse then composed a brief and lighthearted concert opener for the Boston Pops, premiered in 2003. The Nevill Feast takes its title from the enormous and elaborate feasts mounted in England during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Rouse, who now lives in Baltimore, Maryland, recently completed a dance work entitled Friandises, jointly commissioned by the New York City Ballet and the Juilliard School, and which was premiered in February 2006. Also recently completed was Wolf Rounds, a wind ensemble piece commissioned by the Frost Wind Ensemble of the University of Miami, which premiered in March of 2007 at Carnegie Hall, and Concerto for Orchestra, which premiered in August of 2008 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. Rouse is currently working on a commission from the New York Philharmonic and a string quartet.

© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on April 29, 1994.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB later that year and again in 1999.  A copy of the unedited audio tape was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcript was made and posted on this website in 2009.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.