Review – Gravity Radio by Mikel Rouse at BAM

I went into last night’s New York premier of Gravity Radio, a new multi-media song cycle by Mikel Rouse, with a pretty open mind. I had heard a lot about Mikel Rouse’s music, but I hadn’t actually listened to much, aside from a few clips he has on his website and on YouTube. Here’s what seemed clear to me going in: Rouse is a highly imaginative artist who is very interested in creating innovative music theater and his pieces tend to be large-scale, ambitious, and quite conceptual. I was both right and wrong. His music is very ambitious, maybe to a fault, but there is a core artistic honesty that is very attractive. It just seemed like he may not have enough faith in it.

Gravity Radio is a set of songs featuring Rouse himself on guitar and lead vocals, a string quartet, and two female/one male backing vocals. It’s a great ensemble and they sounded fantastic. Much of this is due to the utterly spectacular sound at the BAM Harvey Theater. Seriously, it was like a sixty-minute eargasm it was mixed so damn well. I was disappointed that the person running sound wasn’t listed in the program. I assume that means it was someone on staff at BAM, rather than someone with Rouse’s crew, but it’s still unfortunate because the sound was pure artistry. I suggest that anyone with an interest in live concert mixing attend the concert on that merit alone.

The music is decidedly different than what I was expecting: it’s largely influenced by folk and Austin City Limits-style country music (the kind that people who don’t live in the South tend to listen to). It’s a bit more complex than your standard folk fare, but not self-consciously so. Rouse’s guitar-picking was the foundation for every song, the rest of the ensemble forming around the relaxed grooves and building beautiful lush textures. The songs were pretty similar and somewhat formulaic, but oddly I found myself more tired of the formula by the third song in the set than I did by the seventh. I believe this has to do with the part of the piece I haven’t written of yet: the Concept.

Rouse’s description of Gravity Radio is thus:

Inspired by the work of physicist Raymond Chiao—known for his experiments with superconductors and gravity waves that exist only in conjecture, eluding detection—composer Mikel Rouse (The End Of Cinematics, 2006 Next Wave) unleashes the rollicking song cycleGravity Radio.

Acclaimed for his distinctly downtown operas, Rouse is hyper-alert to the bits and bytes that make us tick. Gravity Radio tunes in to the zeitgeist, mixing kaleidoscopic multichannel video with sounds from the AP News Wire, a string quartet, shortwave radio frequencies, and songs by Rouse’s band to create an otherworldly environment. Describing the culture we live in, Rouse communicates its complexity and, like the force of gravity that keeps us grounded, evokes its intangible mystery.

In addition to the ensemble I described there was an actress who played the part of an anonymous news anchor, reading contemporary news reports about Obama, Wikileaks, etc. interspersed with cryptic messages and poetry over a bed of glitchy radio static. These ‘reports’ were read at the beginning and ending of the piece, over ambient aleatoric string harmonies, and between every two songs or so. I have no idea, other than what I read, how this at all related to the Rouse’s songs and I’m pretty sure most of the audience didn’t either. They served as perplexing breaks between songs, in lieu of applause, and often provided moments of light, sardonic humor.

I spent the first three or four songs attempting to make sense of Rouse’s lofty themes, based on what I had read, and trying to understand the lyrics of the songs in relation to these news reports. I failed. Perhaps this is due to the limits of my own intellect, but it seems unlikely that the greater message was understood by the audience in general. What the addition of the reports and the video served to do was distract me from the modest beauty of Rouse’s songs and arrangements. Once I decided to let go and simply listen to the tunes I really enjoyed the performance. It wasn’t ground-breaking music, it was good music, and I love good music. The concept, themes, inspirations and everything else only distracted from what is a truly lovely collection of songs, many of which were love songs. Disallowing breaks for the audience to applaud also cut greatly the energy in the house, so that at the end of the piece the ensemble received a warm hearty applause, yet almost no vocal appreciation.

I can’t help but think that if Rouse would have eschewed the extramusical elements and simply presented a collection of good tunes, using breaks to talk to his audience, that it would have been an altogether more coherent and affecting concert work. Something tells me, though, that pitching a ‘multi-media song-cycle’ based on “experiments with superconductors and gravity waves that exist only in conjecture, eluding detection” is a lot more likely to get you a choice run at BAM than merely “a collection of good tunes”. This was a highly conceptual work ‘on paper’ but came off as a set of lovely, well-written folk songs to the audience. Despite this musical honesty, the conceptual baggage left the work seeming quite self-conscious. Why is it not enough to just write some good tunes?

You can listen to some of Gravity Radio via an ASCAP feature here.

UPDATE 12.10.10:

Christina Jensen helpfully chimed in that the miracle sound guy was in fact Christopher Ericson. They actually did list him in the program, but I wrongly assumed his sound design was more along the lines of just dealing with the static and sound fx in the show. I’ve seen the term “sound designer” refer to everything from running the board to sound fx to a DJ. That’s why I like the German term “tönmeister”. And it’s hot. Thanks Christina!

Here’s a really kickass article on the sound Ericson did for the show, full of awesome audio engineering geekery.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Review – Gravity Radio by Mikel Rouse at BAM

  1. Christina

    Looks like the sound design was done by Christopher Ericson. Found an interview with him: http://livedesignonline.com/theatre/Christopher_ericson_gravity_radio_181011/

    • mattmarks

      Good find! They actually did list Christopher Ericson in the program, but I wrongly assumed he his sound design was more along the lines of just dealing with the static and sound fx in the show. I’ve seen the term “sound designer” refer to everything from running the board to sound fx to a DJ. That’s why I like the German term “tönmeister”. And it’s hot.

      That’s an awesome article by the way.

  2. Pingback: music downtown pt 2 « Endless Possibilities

  3. Peter Wise

    You’ve hit on a very important topic here Matt. There has been for many years now a tremendous pressure in all areas of the performing arts to do a big multi media blow out show at the expense of giving good content the focus it deserves. When will these shenanigans stop?

    The thing that makes the topic hard to pin point is that there are people doing really truly great creative stuff with projections/stage magic/lighting/whatever. When it’s all serving the core idea of the work – when nothing is there that doesn’t need to be there, it’s fantastic. But all too often you get a bunch of extra crap thrown on top of something that at its core is really good work, just so it’s more marketable to presenters. And the very worst part is as a a potential ticket buyer, it’s become very very difficult to discern one from the other based on the marketing materials available.

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