Mikel Rouse: Narrative Biography
For the last fifteen years, composer and performer Mikel Rouse has been developing a technically and thematically adventurous trilogy of multimedia operas that have played in theatres and festivals around the world. He’s putting the finishing touches on the final installment of this series, The End Of Cinematics, in anticipation of its September 17th premiere at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Rouse’s musical and theatrical repertoire has its roots in the high art-meets-popular culture, mix-and-match aesthetic of the early ‘80s downtown Manhattan music and art scene from which Rouse emerged. In Dennis Cleveland, his most celebrated work (and the second part of his trilogy), he transformed the landscape of trash-talk TV into opera. Rouse himself played the rabble-rousing host, a character who, it turns out, is not so much holding a volatile show together as falling apart in front of the cameras. This provocative piece of environmental theatre, in which cast members were planted amongst the audience and the audience itself was featured on video monitors, blurred the lines between performance and reality in the same way the “Jenny Jones”/”Jerry Springer” type talk fests confused personal confession with popular entertainment. Dennis Cleveland began its life with a sold-out run at tiny New York City avant-garde venue the Kitchen, where theatre-goers had to turn to scalpers to nab hard-to-come-by tickets, and returned to Manhattan years later in more full-blown form, for a critically acclaimed engagement at Lincoln Center. Village Voice critic Kyle Gann called it “the most exciting and innovative opera since Einstein on the Beach.”
Rouse was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, “Michael” became “Mikel” at an early age, when Rouse decided to spell his name the way it sounded – and realized it looked considerably cooler in print like that. He attended both the Kansas City Art Institute and the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, simultaneously fueling his interests in the visual and the musical. He may have acquired some of his theatrical smarts even before then when, as a teenager, he briefly ran away to join a carnival. Relocating to New York City in 1979, Rouse explored African and other World Music and began studying the math-based Joseph Schillinger Method of Composition. Through Carla Bley’s New Music Distribution Music Service, which at the time was the avant-garde music community’s most effective conduit to forward-thinking consumers, he released albums with his contemporary chamber ensemble, Mikel Rouse Broken Consort. He recorded more overtly rock-oriented material with another combo, Tirez Tirez, through a deal with new wave indie label, IRS.
Rouse started working in 1989 on the first piece in his operatic trilogy, Failing Kansas, inspired by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. This piece was performed solo by Rouse and employed multiple, unpitched, prerecorded voices in counterpoint to each other and to Rouse’s own vocals, a technique he dubbed counterpoetry that would become central to his work. Failing Kansas, which premiered at the Kitchen in 1994 and continues to be mounted internationally, examined the perception-altering and manipulative power of media as well as Americans’ approach to religion and spirituality, themes that re-emerge in both Dennis Cleveland and the forthcoming The End Of Cinematics.
While New York City may have been his artistic incubator, it was on the campus of the University of Illinois that Rouse has fully able to put his remarkable imagination to work. As Rouse explains, Krannert director Mike Ross has been fostering the sort of interdisciplinary dialogue that would not have been out of place in Manhattan back in the day, “trying to get artists, teachers, scientists, philosophers to intermingle and realize that their goals are not dissimilar.” Which meant that Rouse wound up in, of all places, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, where he was introduced to “new technology, hybrid technology, CGI stuff they’re doing with computers, motion sensing, stereo television.” Collaborating with NCSA scientists, Rouse dreamed up a high-tech framework for The End Of Cinematics that turns Hollywood-style special effects inside out. Rather than placing actors in computer-generated landscapes, he has removed the images of actors from a film he shot on the real streets of Paris, so that live performers can take their place on stage and, in a sense, on film. Via panels, scrims and real-time video projections, The End Of Cinematics will become a “hyper-real” live-action 3-D movie.
The End of Cinematics was inspired by a pair of essays on movies written by the late Susan Sontag and is intended as a commentary on the vacuity of corporate entertainment. The score has a pronounced Beatles-esque feel at times (think trippy, Revolver-era Fab Four) and a definite, electronic-edged, hip-hop influence at others. The music from the piece, which will travel to the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis after its Krannert debut, is collected on The End Of Cinematics, available via iTunes.
But Rouse doesn’t only think big: he’s also been able to operate on a more intimate scale as a solo recording artist and live performer, traversing the United States like a 21st Century Mark Twain with a surreally beautiful song-and-video storytelling piece called Music For Minorities. He’s now made the soundtrack to this “suitcase tour,” as he calls it, available via iTunes and CD, along with its audio prequel, Test Tones. This isn’t just another easily downloadable collection of material, however, but a fourth wall-shattering theatrical experience all its own. His elegantly arranged, subtly spiritual songs constitute a portable performance for audiences on the go, guaranteed to transform even the most ordinary of daily journeys.
This material, while as theoretically complex and technologically sophisticated as his operatic work, is easily accessible, emotionally compelling and utterly personal stereo-worthy. He dedicates Test Tones to Brian Wilson and Steve Reich, which may seem like an odd pair to name-check together, but says a lot about the nature of Rouse’s music and the breadth of his influences. Layers of gorgeous harmonies, multi-tracked by Rouse in an affecting, Harry Nilsson-like voice, float above rigorously structured, hypnotically repetitive tracks. Lyrics are terse, epigrammatic, sung over and over like mantras, as fragmented -- and riveting -- as the content of dreams. The arrangements on Test Tones feel more experimental, angular, urban; Rouse employs instrumental versions of these tracks to underscore the video portions of his Music For Minorities live production. The actual songs he performs in the piece, accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica, are collected on the Music For Minorities disc. They have a gentler, almost-folk-ish quality; the arrangements, on the surface at least, seem more traditional, and there’s just a hint of the blues.
Music For Minorities, commissioned by UCLA Live, was shaped, sonically and conceptually, by the time Rouse spent in rural Northern Louisiana at a college artist-in-residence program arranged by Meet The Composer, Inc. along with the North Central Louisiana Arts Council, Louisiana Tech University and Lincoln Parish School Board. As Rouse explains, “I got to know some of these really old delta blues guys. I kind of got back into playing guitar more and hanging out with them, just playing music. I think you can see the progression from Test Tones to Minorities. You can still hear the sort of metric combinations I like to use, but the flavor starts to change. There’s a progression with those two records as I got further and further into the delta and further back into playing guitar.”
On the visual side, too, Music For Minorities mixes talking heads from rural Louisiana, some sporting accents so thick they need subtitles, with snippets of Manhattanites enlisted from Rouse’s own circle of friends and colleagues (including choreographer Merce Cunningham). No one from either locale quite gets to finish a story, but their dialogue is edited into a kind of music, their images into visual poetry.
“I shot the film over two and a half years, doing interviews with people I knew in the Delta during my residency and in New York,” he explains, “I wanted to come up with a different way of working with film and live performance. I started to focus on how people actually consume media nowadays. Channel surfing – to me, that’s how people live with television. Part of it is because television is so bad, part of it is because it’s a new vocabulary. You can go around 500 channels in 20 minutes. The whole non-narrative thing is really natural to me. I like to think of Music For Minorities as romantic channel surfing. Some stories almost resolve, but it’s like when you’re watching movies around the TV dial. You might find one whole movie, but usually it’s just twenty minutes here, twenty minutes there, it doesn’t matter. You still realize whether the guy gets the girl or when something else happens. You see some infomercials, you see some news, you see a number of things. I’m taking that exact same experience and presenting it from a different perspective.”
Test Tones and Music For Minorities (along with the new releases International Cloud Atlas, House Of Fans and Love At Twenty) are available via iTunes. Music For Minorities is packaged as a CD/DVD two-disc set, containing both the music and video imagery from the live piece.