Musical composition was not Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Christopher Rouse’s first choice of a career. Nor did the Eastman School of Music professor and the Juilliard School faculty member plan to teach.
Instead, Rouse, 50, fancied himself becoming a traffic light.
“I loved traffic lights when I was just a little kid,” he says. “I remember one of the early traumas of my life was when my parents sat down and tried to explain to me why it wasn’t biologically possible for me to be a traffic light.”
With those plans scuttled, Rouse needed to find a new career path. Fortunately, as a 6-year-old living in Baltimore, he came to an appreciation of popular and classical music that set him on his way.
It was Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” that made the first big impression on him, followed by recordings by the likes of Gene Vincent and Little Richard. Rouse quickly was hooked on rock ‘n’ roll.
His mother, while not depriving him of his embryonic collection of rock vinyl, countered with a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
“What a revelation that was,” he says.
After that, Rouse decided to compose music. Though he says he wrote a few popular songs in his high school days that “mercifully never got beyond my little music room in the house,” he leaned toward the classical venue to earn his bread.
This turned out to be a wise decision. The author of several chamber, ensemble and orchestral works–played by nearly every major orchestra in the United States and several overseas–Rouse has won critical and popular acclaim for his music.
The accolades include winning the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Trombone Concerto, written for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as part of its sesquicentennial celebration.
Rouse’s work has also won the admiration and respect of the artists who perform it.
“(His music) has the greatest breadth,” says Yo-Yo Ma, who has known Rouse since the late 1970s and has recorded his Violoncello Concerto. “It’s spiritual without being sentimental, deeply felt without sentimentality.”
This year saw two high-profile premieres, and Rouse currently is wrapping up a piece commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony.
“He’s very prolific,” says Augusta Read Thomas, a fellow composer and associate professor of music composition at Eastman. “For example, he can do two or more big works a year, like a concerto and a big symphony or something, which, on average, is a lot of work to get done.”
Rouse writes on commission only, which refers to requests by clients, typically orchestras, to compose a piece for them. Out of that he derives several sources of income.
First, there is the flat fee for the composition, which is for creative work only. The commissioning orchestra also covers the cost of preparing the individual parts for its players, but pays no additional performing rights.
If another orchestra wishes to perform the piece, it must pony up. For instance, Rouse’s publisher would charge a rental fee for use of the parts, which the publisher and the composer generally would split down the middle. (Rouse estimates the split is more like 90/10, in the publisher’s favor, for sales of sheet music.)
Performing rights, which include broadcast rights, are collected by organizations such as ASCAP and BMI, which keep track of how many times a composer’s work is played and then pay out money based on the number of performances.
There also are mechanical rights for recorded work, but Rouse says the money he sees from that is “infinitesimally small”–by his calculation, some 15 cents for every CD of his music sold.
“Nobody, outside of a very successful act in the pop music world, is going to rake in a lot of money off of mechanical royalties,” he says.
In fact, he insists, very few classical composers can live entirely off the income their music generates. They usually must engage in some other type of activity to help pay the bills, which is why Rouse also teaches.
“Just because I’m busy (as a composer) this year doesn’t mean I might be busy in three years,” he says. “That’s a very capricious world, the world of performances and commissions and so forth. So teaching is a steady, dependable source of income.”
The search for a source of income that involved composition is what dictated Rouse’s formal education.
After receiving a bachelor’s of music degree from Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory in 1971, Rouse studied privately with noted composer George Crumb.
He later enrolled in the composition program at Cornell University. Having written his master’s thesis only a few months before the completion of his doctoral dissertation, he wound up receiving simultaneous master of fine arts and doctor of musical arts degrees in 1977.
Once out of school, Rouse ended up back in Baltimore for a year to ponder his next move. He knew he would face an uphill battle finding work. Competition in the field is fierce, he says, with estimates of 35,000 to 50,000 composers vying for some 25 nationally prominent positions.
“Merely having a doctorate doesn’t do much more than get your hangnail in the door,” he says, “if you’re lucky.”
Rouse was one of the lucky ones. In 1978, a Cornell professor nominated him for a junior fellowship at the University of Michigan.
“The idea was that it was a three-year gig, with one-third of the time spent teaching. So, the concept was that I would do that third of teaching all in one full year, and then have two years off to just be there,” he says.
“And it worked out. It was great, good fortune that that happened and I was back in music.”
Near the end of his stint at Ann Arbor, he landed an assistant professorship at Eastman. Rouse has been with the University of Rochester music school since 1981, working his way up to become a full tenured professor.
It was at Eastman that Rouse met the former Ann Jensen, who worked in the school’s community education division.
“I thought he was incredibly intelligent,” she recalls of her initial encounters with Rouse. “And then I got to know his music, and found that that was interesting as well.”
The two married in 1983. They have four children: Angela, 24, and Jillian, 22, from Ann Rouse’s previous marriage; Alexandra, 9; and son Adrian, who recently turned 6.
While his teaching career fell into place, Rouse found making it as a composer slow going at first. During his down time in Baltimore and throughout the early years of teaching, he received a few commissions, including a 70th birthday monograph for William Schuman, former Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Inc. and Juilliard president.
“When I started off I was not a very well-known composer. I’d had a few nice performances, but nothing spectacular,” he says.
Eventually, orchestra administrators and others in the business began to spread the news that his music was worth a listen.
“Word gets around,” Rouse says. “And that’s where things really began to happen for me–in the orchestra world. And still do, primarily.”
So, in Rouse’s case, perseverance paid off–not that he feels he really had a choice in the matter.
“You’re driven to it,” he says of composing. “You know that on some level you were put on earth to do it. And you don’t really feel alive unless you’re creating, even though the act of creation is usually no fun at all.”
Composing, he explains, involves much “drudge work,” such as copying the same melodic line of one instrument to another.
“You know, the old Edison thing about 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration; a lot of it’s true,” he says. “A lot of (composing) is just mechanical, dull work that you don’t need to use more than one-tenth of 1 percent of your brain to do.”
To relieve the tedium, Rouse incorporates an old teenage trick–working in front of the television.
“I need the TV,” he says. “It really helps me.”
Favorite views include sports programs and soap operas. He recently switched to watching “As the World Turns” when several characters from his now-defunct favorite show, “Another World,” made the move to Oakdale.
Inspiration, however, usually comes during quieter times. Rouse says he does a lot of his planning and conceptual work on a piece during his evening constitutional, while enjoying an after-dinner cigar.
“I find that the physical walking around and also the puffing get the juices flowing a bit,” he says.
The music comes to him as what he calls gestures, which might be the thunder of a bass drum, a series of chords or simply a high, sustained sound. He does not necessarily write with a theme in mind, but more of an overall mood or feel.
“With Chris, in particular, I think that he really has an honest and passionate desire to communicate,” fellow composer Thomas says. “His music feels like, in the best sense, it’s coming from some kind of urgent desire to speak out to its audience. You can feel it and hear it right away.”
She says Rouse’s earlier works were impassioned and aggressive, using a lot of percussion.
“His more recent works–let’s say, in the past seven years or so–are revealing still that same side, but also different sides,” she adds. “Some of his musics are extremely lyrical and tonal, like singing.”
“He’s got great range,” agrees Ma.
Those who know Rouse attribute that range to the composer’s understanding of music history.
“He really knows how the arts all tie in together,” Ann Rouse says. “I think he’s so well-informed.”
Thomas praises his in-depth knowledge of the classical repertoire and mentions that he voraciously reads biographies of composers.
Friends also commend Rouse’s sense of humor and his humility.
“He doesn’t do the self-reverential thing,” Ma notes. “He checks his ego at the door. He plumbs the depths of his soul, and he actually also has a perspective on himself, which is kind of amazing.”
There are chinks in the armor, though. His wife says Rouse is not overly practical.
“He would go buy a piece of original art before he’d buy a new sofa or a table,” she says, drawing on recent experience for the example.
“He likes more abstract art than I do, too,” she adds. “As I get older, I find that I’m getting more traditional, but he’s not coming around that way. And I think it’s because he is a composer. He’s on the cutting edge of what’s going on in his field, and therefore, anything that’s new is going to intrigue him.”
While corporate types might turn to artistic endeavors for relaxation, Rouse says he likes to “be a CEO.” Then he laughs and adds, “Even in my own home I’m not the CEO.”
His true hobbies include reading (especially the works of novelist John Irving), spectator sports, and collecting items such as autographs and lacquered Russian boxes.
Though unable to live his childhood dream of being a traffic light, Rouse appears satisfied with the career he has chosen–or, according to him, which chose him. But it is not enough that he be fulfilled by his work.
“To me, it is not enough simply to be satisfied by myself. I need to feel that what I’ve done makes a difference to others,” he says.
“I recognize it won’t be all others, but if there seem to be people, some people, who are affected in some meaningful way by what I’ve done–it’s made a difference in their lives … in some way–then that’s what makes it worth it.”