About this Recording
FECD-0026 - ROUSE: Symphony No. 1 / Phantasmata
English 

Christopher Rouse

Christopher Rouse

 

An Interview with the Composer

By Glenn Watkins

 

Glenn Watkins: Could you enlighten us about the movement titles of Phantasmata? For example, does “The Infernal Machine” refer either to Cocteau’s telling of the Oedipus story or to the mécanique energies of the Futurists?

 

Christopher Rouse: Marginally to the Futurists, perhaps, but not to Cocteau, I’m afraid, except that I stole his ‘title! Beyond that, I don’t think there’s anything Oedipal about “The Infernal Machine.” I composed it in 1981 for the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, which was performing in May of that year at the Evian Festival in France and needed a concert opener for one of its programs. Perhaps because they didn’t give me long to write the work, I was quite nervous, and all of my ideas came out as rather scurrying, skitterish little things. So that was how I hit upon using the Cocteau title, but here used to describe an immense selfsufficient machine eternally in motion to no particular purpose. Sometimes it whirs along unconcernedly, at others it throws off sparks and grinds as it changes gears. And like some of Jean Tinguely’s sculptures, it self-destructs at the end.

 

G.W.: How did “The Infernal Machine” become part of a larger set, and do you foresee or even allow the possibility that any of the separate movements will have an independent existence in the future?

 

C.R.: Though I originally intended “The Infernal Machine” to stand alone as a little orchestral etude, which it still can, my friend Joseph Schwantner suggested that it might also work well as part of a larger piece, and it was Leonard Slatkin who arranged to have the full piece commissioned for the Saint Louis Symphony. I chose the title Phantasmata for the triptych, which means “hallucinations created by thought” in the cosmology of Paracelsus. I wrote “Bump” first, in the fall of 1984, and then the first movement in January and February of 1985. “Bump” by the way, was also originally intended to be per-formed as a separate work, and it too can still be played either that way or as the finale to the entire triptych.

 

G.W.: “The Evestrum of Juan de la Cruz in the Sagrada Famiglia at 3 A.M.” is worthy of a title from Satie’s Rosicrucian Messe des pauvres or as a companion to Giacometti’s surrealist The Palace at 4 a.m. But obviously you meant to help set the listener’s mind and ears in advance. Would you be explicit regarding the mood or the setting?

 

C.R.: Well, all three movements were inspired by dream images - hence the hallucination-related title for the whole score. “Evestrum” is another term from Paracelsus; it was his word for what we now call the astral body, the spiritual essence which can leave the resting corporeal body and travel around on its own. So this movement represents an out-of-body experience of St. John of the Cross wandering around Antoni Gaudi’s extraordinary Cathedral of the Sacred Family in Barcelona at three o’clock in the morning. It’s very Spanish in its sense of both surrealism and mysticism, and even the title is reminiscent of some of Salvador Dali’s boa constrictor-like names for his later works.

 

G.W.: And “Bump”? As in “...and Grind?” Do you project this as an update of the conga? I have often heard you exclaim your admiration for Ravel’s music, but does this extend to his Bolero?

 

C.R.: In “Bump,” whose title refers to dance floor bumping, my vision was of a Boston Pops tour performance in Hell. As the orchestra began to play, the various ghouls and demons emerged from the crevasses and began to dance a sort of “nightmare conga” which grew increasingly frantic and chaotic as time progressed. In that sense, perhaps La Valse was more of a spur for the work than Bolero. But beyond my love for Ravel is much that refers to the Latin big band sound as well as to rock and roll - instead of allusions to Bruckner and Shostakovich (which I make in my symphony), here the references are to Led Zeppelin and Canned Heat!

 

G.W: It interests me that your composition (Symphony No. 1), which took top honors in the 1988 Kennedy Center Freidheim Awards, was a symphony. I am also reminded there has been a surge of interest in writing symphonies since the 1970s following a period of several decades in which the genre was neglected and in some quarters judged irrelevant. What suggested the idea of a symphony to you and what musical materials came to you first?

 

C.R.: It seems to me that in general the symphonic form has not been central to the thinking of most of the great innovator-composers since the time of Beethoven. Wagner, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Varèse, for instance, seemed to have very little interest in composing symphonies, and Stravinsky only became interested after entering his neoclassical phase. There seems to be some need on the part of musical pioneers to create new forms and not be seen as loyal to “outmoded” ones. Since the decades after World War II were also a radical period in music, I suppose it isn’t surprising that serialists like Babbitt, Boulez, and Stockhausen would avoid the symphony, just as Cage and his followers rejected it too. But now with the so-called “New Romantic” trend, it seems very fitting to return to a medium which has produced so many great scores over the centuries. Speaking for myself, I find writing a work called “symphony” to be a rather daunting task and one which I don’t take lightly-hence the long time before I actually composed one which I hoped would be deserving of the name. As for which ideas came first, my entire symphony was triggered by a passage of music I composed in 1976 while I was still a graduate student at Cornell University — this is the extended string passage in D major which begins about halfway through the piece. I liked this passage and made plans to reuse it in a later work, and much that happens in the score -which was composed in 1986- comes from

this passage written ten years earlier.

 

G.W: Your recognition that the use of “out-moded forms” was generally spurned by the “radicals” seems to suggest either that you do not see yourself as one of them or that you tacitly acknowledge the advent of post-modernism and the death of the avant-garde, at least for the present.

 

C.R.: I don’t know what the avant-garde is any more, but I’m pretty sure I was never a part of it. The fact that I had my undergraduate training in the late ‘60s meant that I willingly tried my hand at all sorts of avant-garde approaches. But I kept coming back to the notion that the technique involved was less important than my need to express, which must mean that I’ve always been a Romantic at heart! I’ve often been struck by the idealized hero in the Romantic era who either ultimately triumphs over adversity or who, if defeated, in some way ennobles humanity in the process. In writing my own symphony I had the image of a different sort of hero, who is also attacked and besieged and who is utterly destroyed, but whose destruction brings no such ennoblement to mankind. Death without transfiguration, if you will.

 

G.W: I realize that the genesis of your symphony can in part be traced to your tenure as composerin-residence with the Baltimore Symphony. But when did the idea first surface of writing a symphony as an extended single-movement adagio whose overall language is tonal in orientation? And did traditional questions of tonal dialectic enter into your formal solutions for this symphony?

 

C.R.: I’ve always loved artistic extremes and even excess, the idea of pushing something farther than “good taste” or “propriety” would seem to allow. Almost all of my music from the first half of the 1980s constituted an attempt to help bring about a resurgence of the allegro - the composition of the sustained allegro seems to have become almost a lost art these days. So most of my music was very fast and somewhat aggressive in tone, and I tried to see how far I could push the limits of what an allegro could be and do. In 1984 I wrote an orchestra piece called Gorgon, which is seventeen minutes of orchestral mayhem, all at the same prestissimo tempo. By 1986, I felt that I’d explored the allegro enough for the time being, so I set out to compose an equally “extreme” score, but one which would be entirely slow instead. I guess I wanted to see if I really could write an extended adagio. Granted that the symphony is more tonal than a work like Gorgon, for example, but the kinds of large-scale harmonic goals are similar. I actually think of Gorgon and my symphony as a king of yin-and-yang to each other - different responses to the same stimulus, which might be called the issue of human suffering. But while Gorgon is a cry of almost exorcistic rage, the symphony has a more somber and tragic cast to it.

 

G.W.: Did I hear you allude a moment ago to specific masters who periodically directed you in your choice of language for the symphony? And, more pointedly, do any of the passages that might seem familiar to first-time listeners involve quotation?

 

C.R.: Absolutely. I’ve always rather enjoyed paying homage to the composers I admire, and here I’ve tipped my cap to a number of composers I revere as experts in adagio writing. As far as direct quotes go, the clearest is a reference to the opening theme of the Adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, played there and here by a quartet of Wagner tubas. This quotation has symbolic connotations as well as purely musical ones. There is also some use of the D-S-C-H (D-E flat-C-B) motive which forms Shostakovich’s initials and which he used in some of his scores. Beyond that there are buried little nods to Sibelius, Pettersson, Hartmann, and Scriabin, but these aren’t meant to be recognizable as such.

 

G.W: As you have noted, many of your previous works placed a high premium upon percussion, energetic rhythms, and frequently high dynamic levels. Do you agree with some commentators that your new symphony suggests the emergence of a “new Rouse”?

 

C. R.: There are some who feel that there is something “deeper” about this piece compared to some of my earlier efforts, but I’m not sure I agree. I would say that these people may not have found the expressive sub-text in those earlier works which I hoped they would.

 

G.W.: Do you anticipate that there is a Symphony No. 2 somewhere in your future?

 

C.R.: I certainly hope to write more of them. As a matter of fact, I have a second symphony in mind already, one which I hope can reconcile the worlds of Gorgon and my First Symphony in the same score. We’ll see what happens.

 

 

Symphony No. 1

 

Completed in Indianapolis, Indiana on August 26, 1986, my first symphony was composed for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, whose Composer-in-Residence I was from 1986 to 1988, under the auspices of the Meet the Composer Orchestra Residencies Program.

 

The initial impetus for the work came through the desire to use in a new context an excerpt for strings which I composed in 1976 (the music commencing at measure 219 of the symphony score). Though this music had originally been composed in response to a dream, I came to associate it with the Pieta and came to refer to it frequently by that name.

 

It was not until I began the actual manual composition of the symphony that I realized it to be something of a companion work to my Gorgon (1984). At first glance, however, the differences between these two scores might seem to outweigh the similarities. Gorgon is an astringently dissonant, entirely fast-paced orchestral showpiece, while the symphony is cast in the form of a single-movement adagio of considerable proportions whose overall language is largely tonal in its orientation. Both, however, are works of the blackest night, with Gorgon‘s exorcistic rage here replaced by a mood more somber, even tragic, in tone. Both works, moreover, concern themselves with a series of human issues which have increasingly occupied my thoughts over recent years. In a sense, Gorgon and my first symphony are a kind of yin and yang, very different responses to essentially the same stimuli.

 

In my Symphony No. 1 I have attempted to pay conscious homage to many of those I especially admire as composers of adagios — Shostakovich, Sibelius, Hartmann, Pettersson, and Schuman, for example — but only one is recognizably quoted (the famous opening theme from the second movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, played both in the original and here by a quartet of Wagner Tubas). The work is scored for two flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), two oboes (2nd doubling both oboe d’amore and English horn), two clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), four horns (all doubling Wagner Tubas), three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players), and strings. It is dedicated to my friend, John Harbison.

 

- Christopher Rouse

 

Baltimore Sun, Stephen Wigler

“When the music history of the late 20th century is wrtiten, I suspect the explosive and passionate music of Rouse will loom large. If so, this recording will have the kind of historic value possessed by the best of Bruno Walter’s Mahler or Toscanini’s Verdi.”

 

The Gramophone Collection

“Looking for American symphonies of recent years with real staying power, I nominate those of Christopher Rouse (No. 1, 1986, a tribute to the great adagios of symphonic history, and No. 2 of 1994)...”

 

 

Phantasmata

 

Though The Infernal Machine was originally intended to stand alone as a brief concert opener, I was convinced by my friend Joseph Schwantner that it might also function well as a movement of a larger work. It was in this way that Phantasmata came about, with The Infernal Machine serving as middle movement to the triptych. Both The Infernal Machine and Bump, Phantasmata’s final movement, may be performed separately.

 

The work as a whole was completed on March 22, 1985 — four years and a day after The Infernal Machine was finished — and was composed on commission from the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra through a fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The title comes from the writings of the great physician and occultist Paracelsus, who refers to phantasmata as “hallucinations created by thought.”

 

The first movement, “The Evestrum of Juan de la Cruz in the Sagrada Familia, 3 A.M.,” also makes use of Paracelsian terminology — “evestrum” is Paracelsus’ name for the astral body; thus, this opening movement represents a dreamt out-of-body “somnambulatory journey” through Antoni Gaudi’s remarkable Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Scored only for strings and percussion, it is followed by The Infernal Machine, which employs the full orchestral apparatus. This constitutes a darker hallucinatory image, as the immense juggernaut, eternally in motion for no particular purpose, is represented by a perpetuum mobile wherein the leviathan sometimes whirs along in mercurially unconcerned fashion but at others groans or throws off slightly hellish sparks, grinding occasionally as it changes gears.

 

The Infernal Machine was composed for the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra’s European tour performances of 1981 and was completed in Ann Arbor, Michigan on March 21 of that year. Dedicated to my friend, Leslie Bassett, it was first performed at the Evian Festival (France) on May 9, 1981 by the above-named orchestra under the direction of Gustav Meier. Since that time it has been programmed by numerous orchestras, including the Berlin, Stockholm, New York, Buffalo, and Rochester Philharmonics, the Minnesota, Cleveland, and Louisville Orchestras, and the Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, Detroit, Baltimore, Houston, Cincinnati, National, and Milwaukee Symphonies.

 

The work takes its title from the eponymous play by Jean Cocteau, though that drama’s retelling of the Oedipus myth had no influence on the piece. Rather it was my intention to compose a brief orchestral showpiece inspired by the vision of a great self-sufficient machine eternally in motion for no particular purpose. But while this machine is not specifically satanic, it is more than a little sinister. The score is a perpetuum mobile wherein the monster sometimes whirs along in mercurially unconcerned fashion, while at others it sputters or throws off slightly hellish sparks, occasionally grinding as it changes gears.

 

At the suggestion of my friend Joseph Schwantner, The Infernal Machine now also functions as the center movement of an orchestral triptych. Phantasmata surrounds The Infernal Machine with The Evestrum of Juan de la Cruz in the Sagrada Familia, 3 a.m. and Bump. Both The Infernal Machine and Bump may still be performed separately.

 

- Christopher Rouse

 

Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein

“Rouse...has created an exhilarating piece of musical clockwork that is not only colorful and cannily crafted, but great fun to listen to. The score takes off in a prestissimo whirl of chugging, twittering, grinding, slithering sounds that give way to the delicate shimmer of crystal goblets, which the flutists and oboists are asked to rub near the end of the 5-minute work. Here is one contemporary piece you wouldn’t mind having encored on the spot.”

 

Bump was completed in Baltimore on January 22, 1985. Commissioned by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra through a fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it functions both as the final movement of the triptych Phantasmata and as a separately performable work in its own right.

 

Bump is a “nightmare conga” characterized by a bass drum stroke on every fourth beat whose oppressive obstinacy adds to the overall feeling of menace. The title, referring as it does to dance floor bumping with hips or buttocks, may imply a certain impish quality to the movement, but the harrowing surrealism of its execution should belie any suspicion that it is largely “light classical” in orientation; if I had a corresponding visual image for Bump, it would be akin to a gala Boston Pops performance in Hell.

 

My original concept of Bump was akin to “La Valse meets Studio 54,” but as it was ultimately to possess neither waltz nor disco elements, I chose to fashion it as a “nightmare konga.” Accurately speaking it is not a konga at all, in that the konga’s characteristic accent on the third beat’s fourth sixteenth is here displaced squarely to the fourth beat. Each fourth beat throughout the music is played by the bass drum (the climactic coda is in double time), and this serves not only to furnish the work’s title (which refers to dance floor bumping with the hips or buttocks) but also to lend the music a sense of oppressive obsessiveness. Though the score abounds with jazzy syncopations and “big band” brass writing, its harsher harmony and sinister mood act to keep the piece within the larger context of Phantasmata.

 

All three movements of Phantasmata were therefore inspired by dream images — the first mystical, the third secular, The Infernal Machine somewhat more amorphous in origin - hence the work’s hallucination-related title. “The Evestrum of Juan de la Cruz in the Sagrada Familia, 3 A.M.” is dedicated to Joseph Schwantner, The Infernal Machine to Leslie Bassett, and Bump to Leonard Slatkin.

 

- Christopher Rouse


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