Composer Christopher Rouse is Baltimore through and through. The Charm City native grew up in Baltimore, currently resides here and is an ardent Orioles and Ravens fan.
Rouse's recent work Prospero's Rooms, which the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform this weekend, channels the work of another Baltimore writer, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” In Poe’s story, Prince Prospero and his guests hide from a fatal plague know as the Red Death by walling up within an abbey to throw a masquerade ball. Each room in the abbey is decorated entirely in a single color — though never red. A party crasher carrying the plague makes their way into the abbey, dooming Prospero and his subjects.
Rouse is known for his expressive and clever orchestral writing. In 1993, his Trombone Concerto was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He studied with composers George Crumb and Karel Husa, and he has had many notable students including Michael Torke, Nico Muhly and Kevin Puts. Rouse has been the Composer-in-Residence for the New York Philharmonic since 2012.
You’ve said before that you do not enjoy the “creative labor” of writing music but you enjoy having written. What was it about “The Masque of the Red Death” that you found compelling enough to want to take through that difficult and lengthy process of composing a piece?
I've always loved the story. I love the story of these rooms. He describes them and the color scheme so beautifully. At one point, I referred to it as an overture to an unwritten opera. If I were going to write an opera, I would love to do a “Masque of the Red Death.” I suppose technically it is more of a little tiny tone poem. But I wanted to just imagine that part of the story.
The only programmatic part is the very end where Prospero meets his fate at the hands of the Red Death in the black room. The clock was the important thing. Poe makes a big deal out of the clock. So getting the sound of that clock was the first thing that I had to do because [in the story] you could hear it throughout the entire castle, and every time people would hear it they would stop and freeze. I actually went down with the principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic and fooled around on various things. I knew I would recognize the sound when I heard it, so it became a composite sound of low gong in C pitched two ledger lines below the bass staff, a bell also pitched in C and tam tams struck in the center.
Once I had the clock, I was able to go from there. It begins with a set up of the mood of the castle and then a voyage through the five rooms. Each which is exactly the same number of beats so you spend no more time in one room than the others. I don't have synesthesia, but I tried to imagine what those colors might sound like. And of course the last room is separate from the first six. So the tempo slows down there and we have Prospero's final moments with a blood-curdling scream at the end.
You are often very deliberate in your approach to the kinds of music you want to write. You’ve previously said you had five-year plans. When you wrote a series of pieces related to death you wanted your follow-up in the piece Rapture to move away from that and to be life-infused. Or after you had written a few pieces that were, as you said “fast and furious,” you didn’t want to be typecast and responded with Symphony No. 1, which was a 30-minute adagio.
It’s looking in the rear view mirror. It’s not planning ahead so much as [asking myself] what have I been doing the last five years, and am I getting myself in a rut and do I want to try something else?
Do you find it creatively useful to set up that kind of structure for yourself that might push you in different directions? And do you still think in terms of five-year plans?
Well, yes. I will say it's not as though every five years I sit down and make a firm plan. It just kind of happens that every five years I stop and take stock and look back. There's been no plan since 2000. I still look back. I don't want to repeat myself, but I find that the pieces [I write now] are very different. In each of those 5-year groupings, it turned out those pieces had a lot of similarities. It wasn't something I planned, but it was something I discovered while looking back. Whereas now, everything seems to be different. I'm still looking back but I'm not finding as much consistency in what I'm doing to decide that I have to move in a different direction.
You often talk about wanting your music to be more expressive and visceral rather than driven by a high concept.
Technique is there to make coherent the expressive intent of the piece. If a piece is not expressive or has no intent to be expressive, it's not of much interest to me.
That probably wasn’t a popular sentiment when you were starting as a composer.
No, it wasn't.
Given that, what went into making the decision that this was the direction you wanted to go?
It wasn't really a decision. It was just something I really believed. You can use all sorts of approaches or techniques. You can write an extremely dissonant piece that is very emotive. It's not a matter of whether it's minimalist or maximalist, or whether it's consonant or dissonant or whatever; it's whether it's expressive or not expressive. Or at least intended to elicit an emotional response, which is what music was throughout it's entire history up until the post-war period, and then suddenly music became about the mathematization or the systemization of pitch and rhythm and so forth — and that for me was a rather arid period. Granted I grew up during it, but already when I was an undergraduate, the reaction was beginning to set in during the late 1960s with the beginning of the new Romanticism.
How do you feel about that term since it’s one you’re often linked to?
Whatever. I prefer that to the term neoromanticism because neoromanticism was more Samuel Barber and Howard Hanson and the people earlier in the century who maintained sort of a Romantic stance after the onset of modernism with Schoenberg. Those are properly called neoromanticists. So new Romanticism is probably a term I'm happier with, but I don't particularly care.