Renaissance Man Rouse

Mikel Rouse
photo by Susan SanGiovanni

“I always believed—because I’m not a snob—that the structures I was working on were interesting because they could be heard. Not because I could prove they were interesting through mathematics or something, but… where multiple metric combinations would come together and would actually feel like the kind of resolution that you normally get with harmonic resolution.”

Singer-songwriter Mikel Rouse may have concluded his indie-rock touring career 25 years ago, when his band Tirez Tirez—which started by opening for Talking Heads—recorded their last album. But over the last quarter century, Rouse’s productivity has hardly fallen off: in addition to the chamber operas (Dennis Cleveland) and multimedia pieces (Gravity Radio) that have been presented at Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the classically-trained composer has continued to churn out an impressive catalog of rhythmically complex, melodically catchy avant-pop songs. With a host of stellar, independently released albums like the street-sound-sampling Recess and the beat-mad Boost/False Doors, as well as Rouse’s latest run of singles, it’s fair to say the artist is experiencing a late-career renaissance.

Now, even as Rouse is at work packaging up his career archives for the New York Performing Arts Library, he’s also started posting new compositions to Bandcamp, building a vast library of musical material for a planned 13-hour art installation based on a midcentury behavioral science text titled One Boy’s Life.

“It’s at the very beginning stages of the process—and I thought: how am I going to keep myself interested [and] still keep my work out there?” Rouse recently told me, as he put the finishing touches on “Mayan Yours”/“I Dry Gin,” his latest two-song single. “A lot of the music that you might hear from these Bandcamp releases, some of these might be changed for the piece; some of the lyrics might be taken away. You’ll notice for example on ‘The Law of Average,’ I [included] a couple different versions, including an instrumental version. … I can explore this thing, in public, as I play around with it.”

On the three-song Law of Average EP, Rouse for the first time offers up a deconstruction of his famously busy arrangements. Moving from the clattering, use-everything-in-the-kitchen-sink “composite” version, to the largely acoustic “Version 1” and then the beat-focused “Version 2,” makes for a highly enjoyable suite-like experience. Rouse calls this his first purposeful “song within a song” effort, even though “many folks think I’ve been doing this for decades.”

While sifting through his archives for the New York Performing Arts Library, Rouse recently came across an old article from the New York Times “that talked about my pop band’s music as sounding something like multiple conversations in an elevator” going on at the same time. “I think it really has to do with the fact that a lot of the stuff I work with—with isorhythms and polyrhythms—would have multiple tempos going on within the same song. Even if it sounded like a very simple pop song, you could see these different tempos moving together, through time. With ‘The Law of Average,’ I think it’s much more distinct, because one sounds like sort of a strummed, very lush acoustic pop song—and then the other one has all these multi-layered beats. But once the composite version is happening, the different structure points [are] very plotted out on a grid, so it will make sense. … It’s not just as if they were meshed together, as if you heard them both playing in a bar at the same time. But I like the idea that they could be perceived that way.

“As I was working on it, I thought: Wow, I almost could really think of this as two completely separate songs. So in a weird way, the ‘composite’ version of ‘The Law of Average,’ to me, is the most disturbing—because it really, in a way, doesn’t work, to put those two things together. Unless you remember things like Charles Ives, in which case it actually works incredibly well. … It sounds to me like the way New York sounds. You go into a post office or a waiting room nowadays, and you hear two different songs. I was just in a hotel, and they have CNN on the television, but in the very same room they’re playing music over their sound system. So the whole world has become the way I think I was writing 20 or 30 years ago.”

When I told Rouse that, among his recent singles, I particularly enjoyed placing that three-song version of “The Law of Average” on loop, he said that was very much by design. “I think it’s because there’s an internal logic there. And I always believed—because I’m not a snob—that the structures I was working on were interesting because they could be heard. Not because I could prove they were interesting through mathematics or something, but…where multiple metric combinations would come together and would actually feel like the kind of resolution that you normally get with harmonic resolution.”

Rouse’s rhythmic antennae—which seem always primed to hear some new pattern out in the world—went on high alert during a recent trip through the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, Mexico. After listening to a tour guide offer up a series of handclaps that resonated across the ruins in an echoing delay pattern, Rouse read up on how that the partially restored, ancient sports stadium he was touring was built to allow for “very precise numerical acoustic delays, similar to the numeric delays that are used in the buildings to represent workers and gods and all sorts of stuff.”

“The architects and the preservationists that came in and rebuilt the ruins… had no idea about the sound stuff. They were just rebuilding architecture based on what they knew about architecture. But then the NASA scientists come in, and they discover the acoustic phenomenon afterward. And that, to me, is like discovering a 2000 year old audiotape that still works. And it blew my mind.” The handclaps of Rouse’s tour guide figure into the final mix of “Mayan Yours,” Rouse says, while “a lot of the precision of the beats in that song also follows delay patterns based on the 7-beat delay.”

Of course it’s far too soon to know how much of the Mayan hand-clap inspiration will be of use to his upcoming art installation project. But for the moment, Rouse knows he just has to start creating enough material to fill up a 13-hour art installation. “There’s going to be a long long arc of theme and variation that goes on with this piece. … I think the section in ‘Ambulance Chaser,’ where you hear the string and choral section, way in the background? Within the context of the installation, that may be an entire wash of sound that live musicians play against or play with.”

“‘Ambulance Chaser’ was the first [single], and I wanted to keep it—at least in my vocabulary—really simple. I think I put some wah-wah guitar on it, but for the most part I was just using programmed beats similar to the programmed beats I used in Boost. But using them you know in a multi-rhythmic way, as opposed to just straight-ahead beats.” With as many as 50 or 100 multi-tracked parts going into some of his recent singles, Rouse is well on his way to having plenty of material to cull and adapt for his half-day-long project. Thankfully, though, Rouse has decided there’s nothing wrong with giving us access to the work-in-progress.

 

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