Newlywed Composer Christopher Rouse On His Encoded Musical Love Letters

Sep 28, 2016
Originally published on September 30, 2016 9:19 am

Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 3, which appears on his latest album, contains many levels of meaning. It's an homage to the Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev, whose Second Symphony serves as a structural model for the piece. It's an encoded musical portrait of Rouse's wife. And it's an engaging piece of music even for a listener who possesses none of this background knowledge.

Rouse, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and former composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic, tells NPR's Robert Siegel he wrote the piece in a musical code. "I have a system that I use — sometimes, not in all of my works, but in some — that equates letters of the alphabet with musical pitches," Rouse says. "And so, if I wish to spell out names or places or events or whatnot, I just take the letters of the words and convert them into musical notes."

In this case, Rouse wanted to talk about his wife, Natasha. At several points during the symphony, the code spells out her name over and over again; the variations are intended to make up "a kind of physical portrait of her," Rouse says. "It's a way of setting myself kind of an artificial challenge and then seeing if I can fulfill it successfully, if I can make music out of it," he says. "For example, the letters of her name are the letters of her name, and so I have to use the pitches that come out of that. And it's just something that kind of keeps me on my toes a bit more."

Rouse admits that Natasha also inspired another composition on the album, titled "Odna Zhizn," which is Russian for "a life." "I've never actually 'fessed up to that," Rouse says, "but I will now, because we did get married earlier this year, so she seems to be willing to let me let the cat out of the bag."

It's not always the most pleasant-sounding piece of music. The sound is turbulent –- just like the difficult life it describes. "[Natasha] was sexually abused as a child," Rouse says. "So she ran away from home at 16 and decided to hitchhike out west. One of the people who picked her up held her for three days and raped her repeatedly. She ended up in Arizona in Tucson and she was homeless, so she was living under a bridge and eating out of dumpsters. And all of that before the age of 18."

To emerge from such a childhood in any condition is a feat. "I certainly couldn't have survived that, I don't think, and I'm not sure most people could either," Rouse says. "But that's why the fact that she is this warmhearted, wonderful person is all the more amazing."

Rouse hopes the mood of struggle in the composition will be legible to those who don't know the story behind it. "You hope to write something that even people who come in cold without any knowledge — you still hope that somehow the music will speak to them," he says.

The New York Times has called Rouse's music "some of the most anguished, most memorable music around." But he doesn't necessarily come across as anguished in person.

"Well, there was a time of my life — particularly, the later '80s and early 1990s, where it seemed that every time I had a new piece to write, somebody died whose death really had a big impact on me," Rouse says. "And so there's a whole series of pieces that are responses to deaths. And those are generally pretty dark works."

His music from the early '80s, Rouse says, gave him a reputation for fast, loud and violent compositions. "That was kind of my shtick in some people's eyes," Rouse says. "You know, if you do something three or four times, even though you may do it in different ways each time, some people will begin to typecast you as 'Well, he's the doom-and-gloom composer' or kind of the 'wild child composer.'"

Rouse believes it can be useful to consider these characterizations. "It's good sometimes just to stand back and say, 'Do I really want to be typecast in that way?'" he says. "And if not, you make a conscious attempt to go at what you do in a different way."

So now, perhaps, he'll be pegged as "the 67-year-old newlywed composer."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Here's some music by composer Christopher Rouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ROUSE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

SIEGEL: This is the start of Rouse's third symphony which is on a new album. The symphony operates on different levels. It's an homage to the Russian composer Prokofiev. It's also an encoded musical portrait of Rouse's wife, and it's a very engaging piece of music for a listener who is unaware of either of those levels of meaning.

Christopher Rouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. He was composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic which we hear on the album. And Mr. Rouse joins us. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTOPHER ROUSE: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Your symphony, as I mentioned, is encoded. Can you explain that one?

ROUSE: Well, I have a system that I use sometimes, not in all of my works but in some, that equates letters of the alphabet with musical pitches. And so if I wish to spell out names or places or events or whatnot, I just take the letters of the words and convert them into musical notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ROUSE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

ROUSE: Right here, my wife's name, Natasha, is spelled over and over and over again.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ROUSE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

ROUSE: I kind of call this a games for me. It's a way of setting myself a kind of - an almost artificial challenge and then seeing if I can fulfill it successfully, if I can make music out of it. For example, the letters of her name are the letters of her name, and so I have to use the pitches that come out of that.

And it's just something that kind of keeps me on my toes a bit more. I don't expect anyone to hear the messages or understand what's going on. It's just a little challenge I set for myself.

SIEGEL: I mentioned Prokofiev. Your symphony is structured like his second symphony, and like that piece, yours begins with a series of brass notes as we heard at the beginning of the conversation. And let's move to another section of that piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ROUSE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

SIEGEL: Christopher Rouse, what's happening here in the symphony?

ROUSE: Well, my wife's name, Natasha, goes through the entire piece, and the set of variations actually was intended to be a - kind of a physical portrait of her. This particular one you're playing refers to her eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ROUSE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

SIEGEL: Another composition on this album is called "Odna Zhizn," Russian for "A Life." Here's how it starts.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ROUSE'S "ODNA ZHIZN")

SIEGEL: Again, the Russian title now makes me assume Natasha's life.

ROUSE: Yes. I've never actually fessed up to that, but I will now because we did get married earlier this year. So she seems to be willing to let me (laughter) - let the cat out of the bag.

SIEGEL: It's not the most always pleasant piece of music. It suggests a life has been, you know, a turbulent time.

ROUSE: Well, she has had a very difficult life. Particularly her early years were very hard. She was sexually abused as a child, so she ran away from home at 16 and decided to hitchhike out West. One of the people who picked her up held her for three days and raped her repeatedly. She ended up in Arizona, in Tucson, and she was homeless, so she was living under a bridge and eating out of dumpsters and all of that, you know, before the age of 18.

It's a kind of nightmare that I think most people - I certainly couldn't have survived that. I don't think - and I'm not sure most people could either. But that's why the fact that she is this warmhearted, wonderful person is all the more amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ROUSE'S "ODNA ZHIZN")

SIEGEL: And the difficulty of the music, the struggles that we hear - I hear what you're talking about now.

ROUSE: That's what I hope. You hope to write something that even people who'd come in cold without any knowledge - you still hope that somehow the music will speak to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ROUSE'S "ODNA ZHIZN")

SIEGEL: The New York Times said that you write (laughter) some of the most anguished, most memorable music around. Memorable is a wonderful word. Anguished - you don't sound at all anguished to me as a person.

ROUSE: (Laughter) Well, there was a time of my life, particularly the later-80s and early 1990s, where it seemed that every time I had a new piece to write, somebody died whose death really had a big impact on me. And so there is a whole series of pieces that are responses to deaths. And those are generally pretty dark works.

Some of the music that I was writing in the earlier-80s was known for being fast and loud and violent. That was kind of my shtick in some people's eyes. You know, if you do something three or four times, even though you may do it in different ways each time, some people will begin to typecast you as, well, he's the doom-and-gloom composer or the - kind of the wild-child composer.

So it's good sometimes just to stand back and say, do I really want to be typecast in that way? And if not, you make a conscious attempt to go at what you do in a different way.

SIEGEL: So now you're the 67-year-old newlywed composer.

ROUSE: (Laughter) That's right. Yes, the old guy with the new wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ROUSE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

SIEGEL: Christopher Rouse, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Composer Christopher Rouse - his new recording is with the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert conducting.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ROUSE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.