Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Profile / Christopher Rouse:
A master in the classical composer’s trade

Christopher Rouse:
A master in the classical composer’s trade

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.”

12/24/99

x

Check Also

Stern Properties expands NOTA presence with purchase of Red Cross campus (access required)

Having already transformed several properties in the Neighborhood of the Arts into prime assets, Stern Properties has invested again in ...

What’s so great about the 2022 Great Places to Work? (access required)

It’s my favorite time of year: Great Place to Work just announced the 25th Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work ...

Harter Secrest & Emery launches online training platform for employers (access required)

Harter, Secrest & Emery LLP has launched an online training platform with on-demand curriculum to assist employers in delivering comprehensive ...

Loyalty programs – what you should know about compliance with the CPPA (access required)

From the straightforward “buy 9 smoothies, get 1 free,” to sophisticated frequent flyer programs, loyalty programs are a staple in ...

Are cover letters really necessary? Hiring professionals have differing opinions (access required)

“I’m a hiring manager at a local company looking to fill several positions. I’ve noticed that about two-thirds of our ...

Investment acumen or inside information? (access required)

If you had known, in early 2020, that you might be working from home during a multi-year, global pandemic, would ...

Opining on Dick Vitale’s courage, more Bills nicknames, stadium names

By the time he finished delivering a motivational speech that would have made Knute Rockne proud, Dick Vitale looked like ...

The importance of female mentorship, leadership, and innovation in banking (access required)

In my 10 years at Tompkins and 35 cumulative years in the banking field, I’ve witnessed the industry undergo several ...

How not to set policy to reduce the price of gasoline (access required)

High gas prices in the U.S. cause a lot of pain for Americans every time they take their vehicles to ...

Highland Hospital Gala (access required)

This year’s casino-themed Highland Hospital Gala raised its second highest amount ever, with more than $650,000 gross net income thanks ...

Inflation: How did we get here and what can be done about it? (access required)

If you’re in your 50s - o.k. early 50s - you probably remember a time when a gallon of gas ...

Reflections on pediatrics, the pandemic, and the Golden Circle (access required)

Imagine this: Your business has been open for only five months and is doing really well. Revenue is higher than ...

Will 2022 be the year of the vacation home? (access required)

With some COVID-19 restrictions relaxing and others already lifted, the smell of tourism is in the air. Demand for leisure ...

Transition services valuable for aging population (access required)

What do you need to stay safe in your family home, even if your home is getting to be too ...

Elder transition planning: Family mediation for older adults & their loved ones (access required)

The journey of aging is rarely a smooth one. As older adults and their families face emotional, financial and health ...

Senior living communities consider how to be more diverse, inclusive, accessible (access required)

The nation’s senior population is the largest and most diverse in history, according to the most recent census data from ...

Why is inflation so scary for my retirement plan? (access required)

Over the past decade, investors experienced a best-case scenario of relatively low inflation and strong investment returns from both stocks ...

A thoroughbred racehorse whose impact was not lost on us

It seemed like a good deal at the time – a rattletrap Ford van with more than 100,000 miles on ...

Ensuring your financial plan can withstand negative conditions  (access required)

Financial plans differ based on individuals’ incomes, future goals, age and tolerance for risk, but often unconsidered in those plans ...

Boomerang employees: tips on how to welcome team members home (access required)

Every manager at every level has experienced it — that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach when one ...

Spring cleaning: Considering program sustainability (access required)

There has never been a better time to consider the sustainability of your program activities and take action to address ...

Financial advisors can guide through tough times (access required)

With the country facing rising inflation and interest rates, as well as the lingering COVID-19 pandemic and the war in ...

Are you discriminating against employees with caregiving responsibilities? (access required)

As the world enters year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has issued a warning ...

Rochester accelerates its pace to become top tech hub in America (access required)

Rochester is on its way to becoming a national hub for technology innovation. Experts predict that it has the highest ...

A simple game for investors: How would you play? (access required)

Some years ago, financial author and advisor, Bill Schultheis, devised a simple game to illustrate the difficulty faced by investors ...

You need to improve your technology, but where do you start? (access required)

Technology is advancing at warp speed and certainly some innovations could benefit you and your company, but it’s easy to ...

Innovation advancements on display as Rochester continues to grow its technology ecosystem (access required)

From LIDROTEC, a company with patent-pending wafer dicing laser machines for the semiconductor industry to Stratio, which provides artificial intelligence ...

Milo the Dog has had a golden impact on Red Wings baseball, community

They had trained together five days a week for nearly six months in the backyard solitude of Josh Snyder’s rural ...

M&A middle-market activity: What businesses need to know (access required)

 Understanding the ins and outs, trends and activities going on in M&A markets can help businesses make informed decisions including ...

5 things to consider before deciding to work for yourself (access required)

When people ask me what I do, now that I’m out of television, I simply say, “I have my own ...

M&A lawyers keep busy despite pandemic barriers (access required)

2021 was a record-breaking year globally and nationally for mergers (combining two separate businesses into one new legal entity) and ...

Ending violent crime requires building trust between police, community (access required)

Rochester has recently been the recipient of many state, federal and private investments that create a true path for transformational ...

Former UR assistant Jay Wright continues working his hoops magic

Mike Neer likes to joke that he doesn’t get enough credit for helping Jay Wright become the best-dressed coach in ...

Four ways to prepare your business for the future of digital payments (access required)

Digital transformation continues to sweep the country — especially as more companies and their customers embrace digital payment technologies.Here are ...

Managing Our Manufacturing Plants in 2022 (access required)

There have been dramatic shifts in both the needs and the realities of manufacturing the United States over the past ...

“Rounding Errors” Can Add Up Quickly (access required)

It’s time to talk about time. For many employees, their lunch break is a time when they can step away ...

Just In Time production method becoming obsolete with supply chain issues (access required)

Just In Time (JIT) is a production method pioneered in the 1930s by Toyota Motor Corporation as a means to ...

Rochester firms embrace 3D printing for multiple purposes (access required)

Firms are using 3D printing to create unique tools, parts and other objects right here in Rochester, allowing for new ...

From mentee to mentor: the benefits mentorship provides for women in business (access required)

March marks Women’s History Month. It is a time to honor the strong, brave women who have broken down barriers, ...

Working across the ages: multigenerational teams offer multiple benefits (access required)

Quick: How long is the average career? If you guessed 40 years, you would’ve been right a few years ago. ...

Energy, dedication drive entrepreneurs at any age (access required)

Younger women who grew up with technology and worked in the gig economy may be more comfortable with the pace ...

Opining on Brandon Beane, SU hoops, a poor investment, baseball’s return

If you pressed me to rank the most indispensable Buffalo Bills of this glorious era, I’d go with quarterback Josh ...

Topics that don’t focus on COVID-19 for nonprofit leaders (access required)

For obvious reasons, COVID-19-19 and the many elements of disruption it has caused continue to dominate conversation at organizations of ...

March worldwide water, climate events are close to home (access required)

March marks two worldwide awareness events for the environment: World Water Day and Earth Hour. In Rochester, New York, these ...

Revisiting Art Schlichter’s sad tale of gambling addiction

Monday’s seismic news that Atlanta Falcons star receiver Calvin Ridley had been suspended for the 2022 season for betting on ...

Mentoring is an art passed from one generation to the next (access required)

Ahhh, what to say about the important art of mentoring? It is certainly an art and, in preparation for this ...

Protect intellectual property from the start (access required)

When it comes to intellectual property (IP), the old English idiom “penny wise and pound foolish” never goes out of ...

A loving team helped Chris Lillis ascend to Winter Olympic gold

Bernie Lillis points with pride to a framed photograph on the mantelpiece above the fireplace of his Fairport home. There ...

Three takeaways from Super Bowl ads to apply to marketing (access required)

Super Bowl ads deliver on a few recurring themes every year, and this year was no different. Whether it’s nostalgia ...

I Bonds: A rare bright spot for the income investor (access required)

Investors have a natural affinity for income-producing investments. A steady stream of investment income is comforting even if it is ...

What AG report on ‘credential stuffing’ hacks mean for your business (access required)

In January, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report summarizing the findings of a broad investigation into so-called ...

Data privacy and security concerns with rise of online betting, gaming (access required)

As of January 8, 2022, New York State joined the ranks of more than a dozen states that have legalized ...

Potential headwinds are coming — what this means for your business (access required)

An abundance of liquidity and market exuberance in the world’s recovery from COVID-19 have made this a promising time for ...

Rochester’s Roland Williams hoping his Rams do it again

Eric Weddle is one of those feel-good stories that Rochester tight-end-turned-broadcaster Roland Williams has followed closely in recent weeks. Late ...

Doyle Security adds Brivo to products menu (access required)

Henrietta-based Doyle Security Systems Inc., a family owned provider of residential and commercial security, fire and medical monitoring systems, is ...

Local firm offers free online active shooter training in light of Buffalo mass shooting (access required)

CypherWorx Inc., a learning performance technology solutions company, has created a webpage entitled “We Stand with Buffalo” that includes links ...