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Oprah as Opera 

Mikel Rouse's music of the anti-media

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999
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Photo by Steve Singer
AT 8, MICHAEL ROUSE CHANGED HIS FIRST NAME TO "Mikel" because, he says, he liked the spelling. At 15, he ran away from home -- in the "boot-heel" area of southwestern Missouri -- and joined a carnival. "I did all kinds of odd jobs," he remembers. "I ran the carny tricks, handled the fake hoops, painted, worked out front once in a while. It wasn't the traditional kind of work, and when I decided to become a composer, I didn't do that traditionally, either."

How untraditional? That will easily be proved next week (November 2­6) in the Founders Hall of Costa Mesa's Performing Arts Center when, as one of the highlights of the Orange County Philharmonic Society's Eclectic Orange Festival, Rouse's opera Dennis Cleveland gets its first West Coast performance. It's an opera, says Rouse, "because you can't call it anything else." Actually, it's an operatic takeoff on another indigenous, entrenched art form, the television talk show -- yes, talk show, as in Oprah, Sally or Jerry.

And why not? After all, wrote the astute Peter G. Davis in New York magazine after Rouse's opera had a well-received run at Manhattan's The Kitchen, "The whole talk-show ritual, with its aggressive confrontations and confessional aria-and-ensemble format, is already operatic by nature." In Dennis Cleveland, the invited "guests" form an eight-member chorus onstage, while the eponymous host, played by Rouse himself, talks to the bank of video cameras, which then project his image onto the various monitors and screens in the "studio." Dennis roams the aisles and spars with other cast members spotted through the audience who stand and hurl challenges at the guests. One member, a Japanese tourist, antagonizes the crowd by insisting on playing his harmonica. Tension mounts; the guests onstage bare their souls-in-torment; the whole audience hankers to join in, and some do. Haven't you ever wanted to stand up and vent your spleen at Don Giovanni's duplicity, or perform some CPR to save Aida and Radamès from death by suffocation?

It's more than just talk, of course; Rouse's jack-of-all-trades music keeps participants on edge, and could do the same for you. To the background of a rock combo heavy on percussion, the four onstage couples, all of them trapped in an assortment of emotional crises, set their voices into conflict in a complex and tortured ongoing counterpoint. At many points Dennis himself, not quite the master of his destiny, joins them in soul-searching arioso. At the end, as his guests hail their 90 minutes of salvation through the privilege of purging their innards on camera, Dennis is driven to confess that televised reality, shallow though it be, is reality enough for most people. "And the line that I walk is just to calibrate/all the time I spend alone and out of date . . ."

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OVER SAVORY NOODLES IN WEST L.A.'S "LITTLER Tokyo," the 42-year-old Rouse -- neatly shirted, shod and necktied, strange getup for a composer known to be most at home among the shaggy hordes of Lower Manhattan -- ticks off his own musical origins, which are widespread. "I've been everywhere, at least briefly: Thelonious and Miles certainly at the start. Then there was Stravinsky. Then, John Cage -- not so much for the music, which nobody can imitate, but for the permission to do anything, everything. Rap has been a definite influence. I would go so far as to claim hip-hop as the most interesting of all music right now. I've never been what you'd call a minimalist -- I think my music is too complex harmonically -- but Steve Reich's music also had a big effect on me, the way he can use rhythm as a structural base for even a long piece."

The son of a Missouri state trooper, Rouse followed his carny career with studies in music and art in Kansas City, formed a band, moved to New York in 1979, studied African drumming and the controversial, math-based compositional methods of Joseph Schillinger (who had also taught George Gershwin). In the mid-1980s his new ensemble, known as the Mikel Rouse Broken Consort (keyboard, bass, drums, and lead guitar or MIDI saxophone), had become a staple of the downtown scene, a strangely suave but exhilarating conflation of Schillinger, atonality and rock. By 1991, Rouse had begun to stir poetry -- his own, of course -- into the mix.

The renegade Robert Ashley had by then demonstrated that the term "opera" could signify other things than fat sopranos and large orchestras; some of his abrasive scores involved little more than a reading with tape and a few miscellaneous voices. For Rouse, these vocal philosophies became a role model; Dennis Cleveland is dedicated to Ashley. The work is actually the second in a trilogy, each of the three short "operas" set into a frame that reflects the miasmic spread of media madness. Failing Kansas, the first, is based on the true story, novelized in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, of the senseless murder of a small-town Kansas family, and the tracking-down, capture and execution of the perpetrators. The work is performed by Rouse alone, assuming the roles of the two murderers and the society around them, reading his convoluted, tortured "counterpoetry" (his own description) on a multitrack tape against a taped counterpoint of unpitched voices intoning a jumble of images, all to a film by Cliff Baldwin projected in a multidimensional environment.

Dennis Cleveland advances the anti-media attack through the addition of "live" technology, the video cameras grouped on designer John Jesurun's TV-studio set, which transmute the flesh-and-blood of the human participants into media-ese. "What I'm trying to show here," says Rouse, "is the way television has become the kind of ceremony we once associated with religion. You could say, in fact, that television is the closest thing to religion that we have today."

The End of Cinematics, the final work in the trilogy, slated for performance in 2001 as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, is set in an idealized movie theater, and again the line between performers and audience is dimly defined. The participants witness a live performance, actually a number of simultaneous performances taking place, but all of these elements are being filmed and fed onto a large movie screen, blended into other, prerecorded images to create a counterpoint of violent contrasts, of conflicting images that somehow relate to the same action.

The future? "When we talk about technology," Rouse says, "most people think 'computers' or 'the Internet.' As with television, the medium takes precedence over the message. In rushing to claim the latest innovation, too often these days what you see is only the technology at work. If it's a good painting, you shouldn't notice the paint . . .

"There's always some kind of breakthrough, to bring music back to life," he continues. "Jazz did it; jazz proved that you could have serious musical aspirations and still attract an audience. Minimalism did it; so-called 'serious' music was strangling on its own complexity, and the minimalists returned music to simplicity and made it work. In both cases, the timing was just right. Now there's technology, and I've come to regard my recording studio as a musical instrument by itself. Just recently I took a set of string quartets that I composed in 1985, and I sampled them on the computer and recast them as whole new pieces -- investigating my own past, you might say.

"There'll always be concert halls and opera houses, functioning as museums. For me, though, the only valid music is what I can do myself. I come from a background of playing my own music. Now, with my studio, I can go one step further and record my own music. My music is my world, and I live in the middle of it. If I can take it out on tour, as I'm doing now, that's fine. But the other way, handing the music off to someone else to perform and relinquishing my own role as performer -- I would find that pretty exasperating."

"Isn't that a kind of isolationism?" I wonder.

"Maybe it is for now," says Mikel Rouse, "but I'm still young -- for a composer, that is. There's plenty of time."

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