By Ricky O’Bannon
Baltimore native Christopher Rouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose works will be performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Nashville Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic during the 2014-2015 concert season. Following a BSO performance of his work Rapture, Rouse sat with BSO Music Director Marin Alsop and took questions from the audience.
Q: How old were you when you wrote your first piece?
Seven. I wrote a march, that I figured out on the piano was in C major. I had seen music from other composers that had all these weird sharps and flats. And so I kind of put them in after the fact, not really knowing what they did to the music. So this little C Major march became totally destroyed and polytonal. And I figured I better learn more about what sharps and flats were before writing other pieces.
Q: Do you write for yourself or do you write for the world?
Most of the world isn't interested in what living composers do, and I have to accept that fact. I don't write just for myself. I find that's not an adequate enough reason to want to create. So there are pieces sometimes I know that might be difficult to handle for the listener, but I'm always thinking of the listener when I write. Not necessarily trying to write music that will be easily assimilated, but music that hopefully the listener will feel is trying to convey something meaningful.
I'm a big believer in the listener — what I call the "open-minded lay listener." "Open-minded" in the sense that you don't just head to the bar after you see a piece was written after 1900 and just won't listen. I can't do anything about that. And the “lay listener” in the sense I don't just want to write for people who are musically trained. I want to write for people who can feel the emotional content in a musical work without understanding how the chords have been rotated and all sorts of stuff that is really just workshop stuff for composers.
Q: Where do you find your ideas to write a piece?
That's not easy. From the standpoint of what may inspire a piece in terms of subject matter — all sorts of things. They may not be specifically related to a story or something like that, but sometimes it might be an event, it might be a book, it might be a painting and it might be other music. Those things can trigger the desire to make a piece.
If you're talking about where the actual musical ideas come from, I haven't a clue. All I know is that they never come to me when I'm trying to get there. It's usually when I'm walking or making dinner or whatever. Sometimes it's in the morning. One moment there's no idea, and the next moment there's an idea. Where it comes from is anyone's guess.
Q: Can you tell us about the process in writing Rapture?
During the first half of the 1990s, every time I had a new piece to start, someone died whose death to me meant a great deal. So it turned out that the first half of the 1990s was a response to death in some way. After that I made a conscious decision to move in the opposite direction and move towards something that is more life affirming. Rapture really represents the last of those works, and perhaps the most tonal and most consonant. I liked the idea of bliss, but “bliss” didn't seem like a terribly good title. “Ecstasy” at the time was used more often to refer to a drug. The thesaurus was very helpful, and rapture was a good synonym, so Rapture is my title.
Q: What’s it like working with a conductor?
There's nothing that's more valuable or meaningful to a composer than having a real collaborator who you just know understands what you're doing so perfectly. Marin [Alsop] and I go [20 years] and work together very, very often. It's an indescribably marvelous feeling to just know that if I'm not there, the performance will be terrific because she really understands the music that I've written. Also the joy of actually being there and working with her — because we're friends as well as professional colleagues — composers don't often have that chance.