Christopher Rouse - Composer

Press and Program Notes



Program Note by the Composer

Seeing owes its nature to a series of seemingly disparate threads that came together in an almost serendipitous fashion. Commissioned for Emanuel Ax and the New York Philharmonic through funds generously provided by Lillian Barbash, Seeing was conceived from the start as something other than a traditional piano concerto. In early discussions with Emanuel Ax, I discovered that he had never publicly performed (and had no future plans to perform) the piano concerto of Robert Schumann, a work he deeply loved but which he felt, due to his extraordinary modesty, unable to do justice to. I immediately resolved to include snippets of the Schumann concerto in my score as something of a "private joke."

The next step in the work's evolution came as I searched for a title that would betoken the piece's somewhat free form. In the summer of 1997, while browsing through discs in my collection of rock music, I came across an album by the San Francisco band Moby Grape, a record to which I had not listened for some years. As Moby Grape '69 began to play, I perused the song titles on the jacket and was struck by the name of the final track, a song by one of the group's guitarists, Skip Spence. The song was entitled "Seeing," and I was struck by the combination of simplicity and vision symbolized by this title. I had the name for my work.

Some months later I was browsing in a bookstore and came across a book detailing the current activities of various figures in the rock music world of the 1960s. As I came upon the Moby Grape entry, I discovered that Skip Spence had for some time been institutionalized as irretrievably psychotic, and this led me to reflect further upon Robert Schumann's own institutionalization for psychosis. These strands now came together and my conception for the composition took form. How do the mentally ill "see" -- not in the purely ocular sense but rather in the psychological and spiritual sense? How do they interpret what they see? And how can a representation of these "images" be translated into sound?

The result is a piece in four connected sections (fast-slow-fast-slow) lasting approximately twenty-eight minutes in which the Schumann concerto continually reasserts itself in a variety of guises, some easily identifiable and some distorted. Virtually all of the material in Seeing owes its genesis to the Schumann in some way, though often the metamorphoses of Schumann are so extreme as to be unrecognizable. The four sections of the work could be said to correspond in the most general way to the form of the standard concerto, though the large slow movement is placed last, after an impassioned allegro, a disembodied and disoriented adagio intermezzo, and an hallucinatory scherzo. It is important for the listener to realize that Seeing is not a narratively programmatic piece. There is no "protagonist" -- real or imagined -- and no series of events is depicted in the music. Instead, it was my plan to explore the notion of "sanity" via swings back and forth between extremes of consonance and dissonance, stability and instability. My intent was to compose a unified and coherent work about confusion. Seeing does not "take a stand" upon mental illness as a social cause; rather, I wished to concern myslf with the tragic toll such afflictions can take upon individual persons and those who care for them.

Seeing is scored for an orchestra consisting of three flutes, three oboes (3rd doubling English horn), three clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, celesta, timpani, percussion (three players), and strings. The battery consists of snare drum, bass drum, tenor drum, bongo, two brake drums, tam-tam, two suspended cymbals, Chinese cymbal, triangle, cowbell, guiro, slapstick, claves, cabasa, two wood blocks, rute, sandpaper blocks, maracas, and hammer. Completed in Pittsford, New York on October 31, 1998, Seeing is dedicated to Emanuel Ax.

Christopher Rouse

The New Yorker

Alex Ross

"...The Rouse piece is no less striking. It draws on the Schumann Piano Concerto and the song Seeing, by the late psychedelic master Skip Spence; Schumann and Spence, it turns out, suffered from similar mental maladies. In a polyglot style that brings to mind the early music of Alfred Schnittke, Rouse makes these disparate idioms ricochet around the hall. The orchestration is often convulsively odd — at one point the trombones hold the bells of their instruments above the timpani — and the Schumann quotations are downright eerie: the piece ends with the first four chords of the concerto's main A-minor theme. Yet the composer somehow puts a shape to this chaos, and, by the end, the piece achieves a weird majesty."

The New York Times

Leslie Kandell

"[Seeing] quotes Schumann, and also the 60's rock band Moby Grape, in good cross-pollination between orchestra and soloist.

" vintage and top-quality Rouse...How the mentally ill might see life was the composer's point of departure. Rich Schumann quotations, Brahmsian passage work and even Gershwin harmonics break into the musical fabric, only to drown under a barrage of rocklike noises suggestive of mental disarray."


Justin Davidson by turns a touching and frustrating work. Luminous, ravishing passages break trough hectic harangues, and the parallel to the alternately lucid and beclouded mind is obvious.

"In several piano cadenzas, thick, crowded chords come at the listener like packed cars swooping by on a highway, each one containing a potential drama of its own. Bits of the Schumann Piano Concerto whip to the surface and then flutter away....

"The most affecting moments are the slow episodes of inward muttering and lyrical melody. While the piano plays melancholy music, a little crowd of double basses huddles in the low register, each mumbling its own thoughts. Elsewhere, the trombonists get up and cluster around the timpani and play sliding notes down into the drum, creating an eerie echo chamber for the piano's slow rhapsody. The final bars are breathtaking: the piece ends decisively in mid-thought — an unfinished phrase from the Schumann Concerto hangs in the silence.

"...Every piece lives in its own world — all music is psychotic, in that sense; but Seeing is more lucid than most."

The Washington Post

Tim Page

"Rouse's Seeing (1999), for piano and orchestra, is a work of dark, brooding fancy. Rouse was among the first classical composers to admit the same sort of debt to rock music that so many of his predecessors of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s owed to the jazz of their day.

"The bravura part for solo piano was played forcefully and cogently by Emanuel Ax, who managed to remain musical even when bludgeoning his instrument at full strength.

"Slatkin, who conducted the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere three years ago, led this first Washington performance with conviction and authority. Seeing closes with the first three chords of the first theme of the Schumann Piano Concerto, played, as in the original, by unaccompanied piano, with a radically different effect on the listener. As T.S. Eliot once wrote, "In my end is my beginning."

The Classical Source

Richard Whitehouse

" Christopher Rouse has built a reputation over the last decade for orchestral works of depth and impact. Concertos have formed a central part of his recent output, though his approach to the genre is refreshingly unorthodox - never more so than in Seeing (1998), written for and dedicated to tonight's soloist. What the composer describes as a 'meditation on madness' runs continuously for just over half an hour — there are four main sections framed by an assaultive series of exchanges between soloist and orchestra which feature the work's material in essence..." To read more of this article, click here.

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The Classical Source

Colin Anderson

Meditation on Madness - (Preview Prom 6)

"Thus Christopher Rouse describes Seeing, a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax. [On 25 July 2001, this 30-minute piece received] its European premiere at the Proms. The original performers from May 1999, Ax and Leonard Slatkin, [were] present, the BBC Symphony Orchestra taking over from the New York Philharmonic.

"I'm looking forward to hearing Seeing again. I've heard a tape of the premiere: words such as eerie and disturbed came to mind. As Christopher Rouse told me: 'When I agreed to do this, I was talking to Manny, I mentioned that I'd never heard him play the Schumann concerto. He said 'it's such a wonderful piece, I don't think I can do it justice'. So I thought 'you're going to play it for me!' At least he can say he's played a bit of the Schumann.'

"Seeing is freer than a more conventional concerto-form might have allowed — 'I didn't want to call it concerto or fantasy. I was looking at some of my rock records, 'Moby Grape 69', the last song is Seeing; that's a nice title. Twenty-four hours later, that's my title.'...

"For those that don't know — I didn't — Moby Grape was "a San Francisco acid-rock band of the late 'sixties," the song written by the late Skip Spence, one of Moby Grape's guitarists. Rouse had read a book about rock groups of the 'sixties and discovered that "Skip Spence was a ward of the state in a California asylum, irretrievably psychotic. That got me thinking: seeing — psychotic — Schumann — asylums. Everything gelled about expressing mental illness through what a mentally ill person sees; the music shifting in and out of all sorts of different styles."

"All sorts of music have been a part of Rouse's life from early on. "I was told by my mother that the Grieg Piano Concerto seemed to have a marked effect on me when I was an infant; I would stop crying if she put it on. The first thing I remember in terms of classical music was the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. I also remember some early rock and roll — Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Just being bitten by the bug, I began to voraciously listen to everything I could get my hands on."

"Thus Christopher Rouse's composing adventure begun — "I knew right from the start I wanted to be a composer and I wrote a few little pieces when I was seven. Then I did nothing more; I just listened for years". In his late teens, Rouse, born 1949 in Baltimore, "realised I'd better have some music to submit; the real composing began."

"His 'opus one' (Mitternachtslieder, 1979, for baritone and orchestra) took some time. "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 organisational principles involved and putting them at the service of an expressive goal". Rouse has dallied with "serial, conceptual, graph pieces and electronic music — always it was meant to be emotive in content."

"I'm not sure now what piece of Rouse's I first heard; it might be The Infernal Machine, which Leonard Slatkin included in a Philharmonia Orchestra concert of American Music in 1994. Fast, busy, energetic, The Infernal Machine communicated, and a quote from Beethoven's B flat String Quartet (Op.130) not only raised a smile, it seemed to belong. "This was a sudden commission, I had three weeks to write it. I drew the barline and thought 'what's coming next?' Then I remembered the Beethoven, which is the same speed as Infernal Machine, so I wrote them in and went on."

"The Infernal Machine is the middle movement of Phantasmata, which is on an Elektra/Nonesuch CD with Rouse's Symphony No.1 — that's a half-hour piece, black and tragic. Listening to it again I thought it a bleak, subterranean response to a 19th-century ascetic. That may have something to with the quote from Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. There are some shattering dynamic contrasts along the way and the work ends in uncertainty — an aura of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony prevalent. "On several occasions there are passages in my works that parallel the Shostakovich Fifth, which for some reason I've subsumed into my sub-conscious; actually I think I've invented these little licks until somebody points out the quote."

"When Rouse mentions the Bruckner 7 quote, I couldn't remember hearing it — I've found it now, at 22'57". Again it's so naturally accommodated and becomes a focal thinking-point, as do the rather Wagnerian Siegfried-like timpani. Symphony No.1 is also rather Sibelian I think. "I love Sibelius. I'm not the best judge on what's influencing me; everybody's an influence on me — I guess there's not a lot of Bellini! Usually a quotation does have a symbolic reason like the Bernstein [in the Trombone Concerto], and the Bruckner Seven — that is the inversion of the main motif of my piece; my idea was to turn on its head the nineteenth-century notion of heroism, so I turned around my principal motif and it becomes Bruckner, which is music for the death of his hero, Wagner."

"These hallmark quotations, and allowing his music shares a similar orbit to Mahler and Shostakovich, shouldn't deflect us from responding to and assessing Rouse's output on his own terms — which is, in my opinion, thrilling and moving, passionate and consolatory, wonderfully organised and sounded; though most of all Rouse wants to communicate: "You bet!"

"And, boy, does he. With a number of CDs now available, I need do little more than reflect on some of Rouse's pieces and share with you my thoughts on them — in the hope that if you're not already following Rouse's music with interest and enthusiasm, then this could be a good starting-point to do just that.

"The 1992 Trombone Concerto is a good beginning. Recorded twice, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, it is dedicated to Leonard Bernstein who had died in 1990, the year that Aaron Copland also departed. "I had started the Trombone Concerto before Bernstein died. When he died — he had said he would like to conduct the premiere — the last movement became a funeral march; then some 'clickings' — the quotation from Kaddish, his faith theme". For the record, another Leonard, Slatkin, conducted the first performance.

"In reviewing the RCA CD of the trombone piece in 1997, I commented that the concerto's 'elegiac outer movements carry a great emotional burden; the explosive second movement unleashes maximum fury'. Of the orchestral Gorgon on the same CD: 'torrents of sound — loud, exciting, aggressive, but never gratuitous; Rouse exorcising some personal demons perhaps'. And of Iscariot — 'its meditative and speculative stance extends Ives's The Unanswered Question'. I concluded: 'This is Rouse — a fondness for extremes, a preoccupation with death, and intensely communicative'.

"He has his lighter side! The so far unrecorded Violin Concerto I recall as being lyrical and airy — a good companion for Samuel Barber's concerto perhaps. Beethoven's Seventh infiltrates — "it's a joke because it turned out that the tempo for the 'capriccioso' section becomes dum-da-da-dum-da-da-dum very easily; it's just one of my silly, sick sense of humour-type things."

"Also unrecorded is Karolju, for chorus and orchestra, a series of multi-lingual "musical Christmas cards," and "by a country mile the work audiences respond to the most".

"In conversation, Christopher Rouse is humorous — he has a healthy laugh — and business-like as to his work; he's keen that composers shouldn't be perceived as people who "walk into walls," rather that they are "down-to-earth, talk about football and the stock-market". His music can be optimistic too as his recent orchestral Rapture testifies. Lasting thirteen minutes or so, Rapture — premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony and Mariss Jansons — seems to me to be heavily nostalgic in it shadowy but elevating opening. The initial solo wind and brass lines are pure Americana; as momentum and jubilation gather the music soars — the strong kinship with William Schuman only strengthens Rapture's appeal. The keenly awaited London premiere is hopefully not too distant.

"Even more recent is Rouse's 20-minute Clarinet Concerto written for the Chicago Symphony's Larry Combs. Its premiere just this May, Christoph Eschenbach conducting, reveals an unpredictable piece, the soloist released, I thought, into a disco with some crazy lines to play — fantastically difficult by the sound of it — a part of Rouse's quixotic, rampaging, even obsessive orchestral terrain; it's a musical maze with some touching interludes. Listen several times and one has a different reaction to what underlies this piece — I would not have thought of 1950s' game shows!

"But to return to Rouse's music that is commercially recorded. The recent guitar concerto, Concert de Gaudi, is just released. Its riotous opening bars — Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez may be in there somewhere — transport us to a vibrant and seductive world, an aural reflection of Antoni Gaudi's architecture. Rouse seems to have absorbed 'The Spanish Soul', certainly flamenco music, and has crafted a wonderfully still, distant-world slow movement, one with a glorious expanse of wonderment near its close.

"The dark, introspective Concerto per Corde strips away the 'extras' of wind, brass and percussion. It's difficult not to relate this piece directly with Shostakovich, not least for Rouse's use of the DSCH motto, Shostakovich's musical signature, using German nomenclature, the notes D, E flat, C and B. Desolate and enigmatic, Rouse searches out an almost unbearable inner-torment — something feverishly exposed by the nightmarish 'Allegro molto' that follows - and augmented by the lamenting final movement, which transfigures to something ascendant.

"These moments of release, or of naked emotion, are memorable facets of Rouse's Flute Concerto and Second Symphony — two great works on the same CD. In the concerto, the middle 'Elegia' reflects on Jamie Bulger's death. Beginning and ending with an almost entranced soundworld, the flute masquerades as a leprechaun in this Celtic-inspired piece — folk-like, darting scherzos, microscopically scored; but that long elegy, with its grief-stricken, yet simply intimate hymnody from 3'07", a deeply touching moment, is literally the concerto's heart. The first movement of Symphony 2 seems to me one of Rouse's finest achievements, busy, lucid, transparently scored, and a handsome exhibition of contrapuntal mastery and instrumental refinement.

"The Cello Concerto contains an initially combative David and Goliath-type slanging-match, and is followed by the second movement's frozen wastes, Monteverdi and Schumann intoned, and a death-rattle in attendance. (There's a wonderful piece by Leon Kirchner on this Sony CD.)

"Rouse has a "loyal band of interpreters" — the A-Z of conductors if you will, including Marin Alsop, Christoph Eschenbach, Leonard Slatkin and David Zinman. "One of the nice things — I tell you I'm a lucky guy to have four people like that, and the other wonderful people who've done my music - is knowing that I'm in good hands; if it's a new piece, it will be understood."

"I plan to write a 'part two' on Christopher Rouse (there's too much of our conversation unused). Meanwhile, let's look forward to Seeing. If you're not a Rouse-convert, I hope you'll take the plunge: try the Trombone Concerto (I suggest Joseph Alessi's recording; the piece was written for him) and Telarc's Flute Concerto/Second Symphony CD.

"As part of my 'studies' for this article, the re-listening of Rouse's creations has confirmed my previously positive reaction — here is a body of work that demands and repays attention, for it is fantastically communicative, a musical counterpart of "what it's like being alive today."

Article reprinted by kind permission of The Classical Source

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Fashion Planet

Allen Ruch

"[Christopher Rouse's] expressive works are full-blooded with passion, known for explosive passages of barbaric intensity as well as slow movements of ethereal loveliness, and some of his more fiendish passages have been known to drive some faint-hearted concert-goers out of the hall...

"[Seeing] opens very strongly, with the strings piling up the tension to almost unbearable levels as the piano explodes in a thunderous cascade of desperate notes. Although not exactly program music, it is impossible to escape the theme and symbolism of the work, and one immediately gets the impression that the piano will carry the consciousness of the "mad composer," and the orchestra will represent the forces out of his control — his distorted perceptions of the world and the capricious fluctuations of his illness. The orchestra and the piano play against each other like wind and rain in a tornado, ratcheting up the tension until Rouse's trademark brass and percussion come in at full blast, releasing a tremendous amount of energy that threatens to overwhelm the soloist. This tension finally breaks as the first movement slides without pause into the second..."

"The middle of the piece is the most "tranquil," although its bleak beauty, being suspended between the violence of the beginning and the impending sense of doom lurking on the horizon, has a brittle quality that is emotionally uncomfortable. Here Rouse calls forth his more subtle artistry, using the orchestra as a palette to produce some wonderfully delicate and highly innovative effects."

"The third and final movement gets underway as the orchestra wakes up from its uneasy rest, and again we have a rising wave of violence and tension. More than anywhere else in the piece, the piano appears heroic in its struggle, and a sense of despair and horror are clearly conveyed as any attempts at reason or beauty are snatched up and trampled by an orchestra lurching out of control. The percussion enters again with a vengeance, and the whole piece comes to a powerful climax with the impact of the "Mahler hammer," a massive mallet which is crashed down on a large wooden block. Here, it may be the sound of extinguished hope.

"A wonderful and difficult piece, difficult to absorb and difficult to play...Emanuel Ax played brilliantly, full of command, passion, and awareness, completely in touch with the demanding music at both its most turbulent and its most delicate...At one point during a particularly raucous passage his hands left the keyboard, flipping the page with a fury that filled the sudden, shocking silence with the angry sound of flurried paper — a particularly human and dramatic noise that was immediately destroyed by a new barrage of notes. I thought it was a fitting moment that symbolized much of the piece itself, blurring the lines between passion and frustration, creativity and madness, performance and possession."

To read more of this article, click here.

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