Rouse Passion Wheels: The Music of Christopher Rouse

Not the first stop for the curious, perhaps, but a fine survey of Rouse’s music from a couple of decades ago, impressively played

Author: 
David Gutman

Rouse Passion Wheels: The Music of Christopher Rouse

  • Ku-Ka-Ilomoku
  • Concerto per Corde
  • Rotae Passionis
  • Ogoun Badagris

This is the second time Marin Alsop has devoted an entire disc to the music of Christopher Rouse, the eclectic American composer possibly still best known for pioneering the world’s first academically respectable course on rock’n’roll at the Eastman School of Music. A percussionist himself, Rouse has withdrawn virtually everything he composed before the age of 30, so Ku-Ka-Ilimoku (1978) and Ogoun Badagris (1976) are rare examples of his hedonistic early manner, variously drawing upon rock drumming, Hawaiian music, Voodoo ritual, Edgar Varese and the example of his own teacher, George Crumb. More recently, Rouse has claimed the highground in no uncertain terms: ‘I’m not going to talk about rock’n’roll anymore. It doesn’t need my help. It’s not that I no longer like that music, but I feel the wagons have been circled, and I’m going to stick with my high-falutin’, elitist, dead white European male brethren and, if necessary, go down fighting.’ Rouse does not write his music on a computer, either; he uses a pencil.
Of the two large-scale pieces in this new collection, Rotae Passionis (1983) is more the sort of thing one expected to hear at new music concerts in the 1980s. While Carl Orff is a surprising presence, Olivier Messiaen certainly isn’t. Rouse the younger has little truck with tonality here, relying rather on busy, virtuosic effects and extended playing techniques from his mixed ensemble of seven. The austerity of more conventional evocations of the Crucifixion is deliberately eschewed, until the extreme stasis of his final panel, ‘Christus in Somno’.
Concerto per Corde (1990), largely reworked from an earlier string quartet, brings us the death-haunted, neo-tonal composer familiar from the magnificent Trombone Concerto on Alsop’s previous Rouse CD (RCA, 8/97 – nla). Heavily influenced now by the example of Shostakovich, this is a major statement, formally coherent, frankly emotive and just a little grey. There are three movements: a mournful, DSCH-derived Adagio, a furious, vaguely Bartokian scherzo, and a substantial Largo with a clinching transfiguration of uncommon tonal warmth (only partly undermined by the current ubiquity of such effects in everything from Lindberg to MacMillan).
Rouse’s music is not easy listening – any resolution offered at the end of the Concerto per Corde is provisional and clouded – but its motivic, harmonic and structural workings are always readily assimilable: ‘I certainly believe in a lingua franca that many of us understand, ways of instantly expressing certain emotional states.’ It is difficult to imagine a more intensely committed performance than Alsop gives us here, working with her usual US production team and the excellent ensemble she founded in 1984. Koch International provides helpfully full booklet-notes as well as unimpeachable sound.
The present disc may not be the best place to start a Rouse collection – it is a pity that David Zinman’s ‘Meet the Composer’ compendium on Nonesuch has never reached these shores – but Marin Alsop is, as ever, a passionate exponent of this repertoire.'

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