Thursday, October 22, 2009

Somewhere at the Bottom of This Post Is a CD Review

The first time I heard the music of Mikel Rouse, I had the sense of an enormous door opening. I'd always had the sense that it should be possible to apply Reich-like techniques to popular music, but inexplicably I'd hardly ever seen it done. Why not? Why wasn't everybody doing this? But here was Dennis Cleveland, here was a whole opera constructed in vernacular forms—made out of pop songs, staged as a talk show—but with immense rhythmic and structural interest as well conceptual sophistication.

It was at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and as my friends (one Greg and a Chris) and I took our seats, the piece's conceptual ingenuity was already paying aesthetic dividends. The black-box theater was set up like the studio for a talk show taping; before the piece started, an audience wrangler coached us on applause, etc., the way a real studio audience is coached. Throughout the performance, the cameras passed over the audience, so that (as in a real talk show) we could watch ourselves on monitors; members of the audience turned out to be plants, standing up when the "host" (Dennis Cleveland, played by the composer) approached and asking questions of the other performers (as in a real talk show).

And as is ever the case with artworks that break down the fourth wall, all of this carefully choreographed "interaction" served to make me more awkwardly aware of the imaginary and yet very real boundary between audience and performer. The same way that holding a baby fills me with an irrational fear that I will suddenly be seized by the urge to drop it, or standing on a rooftop makes me suddenly afraid of jumping off (have I just revealed myself to be totally, dangerously insane?), I became terrified of disrupting the performance when an actor suddenly revealed himself just a few seats away, and Mikel Rouse pointed a microphone at him; the awkwardness was thrillingly heightened by the presence in the audience (only-in-(Greater)-L.A.!) of Actual Hollywood Celebrity Keanu Reeves, and my Greg wondered afterwards if "Keanu's people" had made special arrangements for him not to be caught on camera during the piece (sample refrain: "Celebrity all the time / Celebrity all the time").

But the talk-show trappings were only a jumping-off point for the drama, the way that (f'rinstance) "Puzzling Evidence" from David Byrne's True Stories
uses the rhetoric of the sermon as the framework for an aesthetic that would actually seem to owe a lot to (f'rinstance) the work of Robert Ashley.

So what I don't understand is why, ten years or so after I saw it for the first time, I don't enjoy Dennis Cleveland a lot more. After I moved to New York, I picked up the disc at ye Tower Records Outlet, back when there was such a thing, and was oddly unmoved to hear the music again, out of context.

Why? We might find a clue in the review that inspired me to buy my copy of the disc. [Now, this is a bit awkward, since that review was written by a critic who, uh, hates me, and has asked me not to mention him again, but he's easily Rouse's most important champion, so let's just call him Thinskinned Critic ("T.C.") and move on.] T.C. was responding to a review by Anthony Tommasini, who missed the point somewhat—ignoring the theatrical elements almost entirely, waving aside the complexity of the score, and complaining that "the layered elements are mostly drowned out by the blaring surface stuff. When some inner element does come through, it's often not much more than a lame rock riff"; Rouse's "rhythm tracks are intended to stimulate your medulla oblongata, which in turn provokes an involuntary tapping response in your foot. But the music bypasses the brain receptors that register auditory pleasure."

Harsh! At this point, I was as ready to dismiss Tommasini as he was to dismiss Rouse—and then I read T.C.'s response. This is how it begins:

To take one of many examples from Mikel Rouse's talk-show opera Dennis Cleveland: There is a passage in the final "Madison Square" scene in which Rouse, as Dennis, is rapping, "I've been waiting for this, a potential arcade," and so on, and the chorus enters with a chorale heard earlier in the opera, in a different meter, key, and seemingly even tempo. The effect is much as though you're sitting in the opera house listening to and watching "The Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walkure and quietly the "Magic Fire" music from a different part of the opera enters superimposed, so that you're listening to both at the same time. Through the end of the scene, the music adds layers of already-heard material, until you're listening to at least four at once.

The fact that, in Rouse's work, you can hear those layered musical passages at the same time without their getting muddy is not because Rouse has secretly crafted them to work together harmonically, the way Mozart did his three dances in different meters at the climax of Don Giovanni's Act I.
Again, that's how the column starts. In the first two paragraphs, T.C. compares Rouse to arguably the two greatest achievements in the history of Western music-drama. "Well," I said, "I loved Dennis Cleveland, but my experience of it wasn't like that at all." Because there are a few essential differences between these works, some of the greatest ever conceived by man, and Dennis Cleveland.

Let's take apart T.C.'s example. First, we have Dennis, rapping about a potential arcade. This is not a good rap—"Instead of crossing what lingers in the state of lip balm," goes one couplet, "And saluting the mentors kind of capturing calm"—and Rouse, strictly as a vocalist, does not deliver it especially well on disc. Then the chorale enters, and it is not a very good chorale. The series of pitches sounds a bit arbitrary, as if they were chosen for their contrapuntal possibilities over any kind of appeal they might hold as an independent melody—which, one imagines, they must have been.

Now, there are of course many passages in the Ring in which Wagner brings together a number of distinct leitmotifs in a lucid contrapuntal texture. The great difference is that the Magic Fire Music, to use T.C.'s example again, is exquisitely composed and orchestrated, and the Ride of the Valkyries is one of the best-loved and most distinctive melodies in the history of classical music. And as for Don Giovanni, one of the most dazzling aspects of the Ball scene is that each of those three dances—each in a different meter, all at the same time—still sounds like Mozart. Dennis Cleveland is all process, no materials. And even Steve Reich will tell you that it's really all about the materials.

And so I went back to Tommasini. Was he right? In some respects, yes! The rock riffs are, in fact, lame. And while the layers of rhythm do add up to more than the sum of the parts (they could hardly add up to less! ba da bum! ok sorry that was a cheap shot), none of them is calculated, individually, to provide auditory pleasure.

Anyhow, here is a short promotional reel with clips of the opera, so you can make up your own damn mind:It's an interesting piece! However flawed, it is a worthwhile piece of theatre. I wish it were on DVD.

So, fast forward. I'd heard a few tracks from Mikel Rouse's more recent work, and it sounded very different from the now-dated (though somehow highly appropriate) Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis sound. Now the feel is more like recent Lindsey Buckingham:which sounds like a diss, but is it really? I wouldn't buy a Lindsey Buckingham CD, but I'm not going to go around saying he's a musical idiot. And it doesn't seem valid for me to say that Mikel Rouse's music is somehow lacking because it is insufficiently voguish.

But I do feel, and this is confirmed by listening to an advance copy Rouse's new disc, Gravity Radio, that Rouse's attempts to buck a certain modernist fallacy—the one that surfaces are unimportant, that every dimension of the music must be dense with information to the point of obscurity, that re-listening is all, and that casual listening is to go unrewarded (or even punished)—have drawn him into a counterfallacy in which the opacity of the modernists is replaced with a sort of blankness. Dig just beneath the surface, and yes, Rouse's music is quite sophisticated, but a casual listen offers meager rewards: banal tunes, familiar sonorities. The vocal delivery is the Adult Contemporary singer-songwriter's knowing rasp; the lyrics try too hard to hint "casually" at hidden depths; the melody to every single song seems to be built around a stepwise descent, to the point where I begin to wonder if there's some connection to the album's title—Gravity, get it?—or if it was just another underexamined pop cliché. (Hint: if you have to wonder, the answer doesn't matter.) Process is elevated above materials and, ultimately, results.

There is a lot to like about this album. It's hard to overstate the subtle intricacies of its rhythmic construction. The song "I'm So Blue" is a standout—the tension between the 7/8 meter and passages of syncopated 4/4 is appealingly realized and richly orchestrated. And I still have that sense, listening to his music, of a great door opening—I sense that Rouse is an important artist, and one worth hearing and seriously thinking about.

(Hence this enormous, meandering review; Rouse is not a famous composer, and if I thought he wasn't an important one, I'd feel comfortable dismissing the work I didn't like.)

But his work is also profoundly flawed. While Rouse has packed the album with the sort of careful detail that distinguishes a great rock album from a good one, he's neglected to include many of the elements that separate a good rock album from a bad rock album.

Think of it as a challenge to composers interested in creating a music that owes as much to rock as to Reich: he has opened the door; he has pointed to a potential art; now's your chance to step across the threshold.

You can hear the album live at tomorrow night's release concert at Galapagos Art Space, 8 p.m., $15 admission ($20 at the door), featuring that ACME ensemble you love so much; the disc itself drops November 3.


Anonymous said...

I found this a very perceptive commentary, though you seem to find more to like in Rouse than I do. I don't really care if his melodies are metrically the square root of his countermelodies, it still sounds like mediocre pop music. The only way he rivals Wagner is in the self-esteem department.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of another problem patient awaiting analysis, might you review "Untitled?"

Anonymous said...

Interesting coverage of an even more interesting piece. But, even though conceptually interesting, when I ended up watching the clips, I knew that I wouldn't be able to sit through the entire thing. I don't know if it's the most palatable combination of opera and main stream media.