Classical rocker... Rock and roll could use more advocates like Christopher Rouse. He's a world-renowned classical composer, one whose works have been performed by countless orchestras, among them the Houston Symphony. But beneath the strait-laced facade, he's really a hippie at heart. "I was born in '49, and my first musical memories are hearing Elvis Presley and Little Richard," Rouse says. "I got very interested in the Jefferson Airplane and that sort of thing. Baltimore was a Motown city. But I preferred the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel."
It's a reassuring sign of the times that Rouse has embraced rock at one level or another for the last few decades, and has still been able to maintain his reputation in a field that often frowns upon change -- especially change that involves such a rebellious, uncultured racket. Of course, orchestras faced with certain Rouse pieces have been known to make quite a racket themselves. Put simply, his music can be loud. The tone poem "Phaethon" is a good example of the vigorous Rouse touch. Last week in the newly renovated Jones Hall, the Houston Symphony recorded this and two other Rouse compositions -- Symphony No. 2 and Flute Concerto -- for a CD to be released on Telarc; the disc will be available in stores sometime next year.
Driven by pounding percussion, "Phaethon" is an explosive piece. But it's still a far cry from the blatantly rock-influenced compositions Rouse was churning out in the early '80s. It was during that time that, as a music composition professor at the University of Michigan, Rouse pushed a proposal for a course devoted to the study of rock and roll.
"At that point, there was still a lot of question as to why a music school that was centered on the Western classical tradition needed to do this," says Rouse. "It was the same battle that the people in jazz had fought a couple of decades earlier."
Rouse won his battle, and in 1983 his rock music course became the first of its kind to receive full accreditation by a major American school of music. Equally unorthodox about Rouse is the fact that he's always been more of a listener than a performer. "I never learned to play anything well," he admits. "I was never in a band; I had piano lessons, they were abortive; I had guitar lessons that never went very far. I never got good at anything to the level where I could study in college. I was always more interested in writing."
That interest has served him well. Since the '80s, every major orchestra in the U.S. has performed at least one Rouse composition, and his work has also gone over well with foreign ensembles. He's received numerous awards, including a League of Composers Award in 1981 and a 1993 Pulitzer Prize in music. Locally, Rouse pieces have been popping up regularly in Houston Symphony performances, and it's quite obvious that Christoph Eschenbach is a big fan. In fact, the last two weeks of September featured a pair of Symphony concerts focusing on Rouse's work, leading up to the recent recording sessions for Telarc.
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When it comes to the Houston Symphony's renditions of his music, Rouse gives nothing but high marks. He also admires the considerable hipness quotient of its members. "They are very enthusiastic; not all orchestras are enthusiastic about the music," he says. "They're younger than a lot of orchestras, too. And that always helps."
Raves and wave-offs... Rice University alum and aspiring international gypsy Joel Stein offers up another takeout menu of uncertainty-laced, folk rock on his new CD, In the Time of the Home Parade. Stein can be a quirky, insightful singer/songwriter, but there's only occasional proof of that here. I presume we're supposed to drum up some sympathy for Stein when he complains about his writer's block on "Guitar in Hand," but if these are the songs he came up with after conquering his anxiety, he should have started over.
Much more fun is the self-titled debut CD from Houston's Lima Sugar. Lead singer Liz Sowers' pipes are a revelation, well-conditioned and refreshingly mannerism-free. If Tanya Donelly could crawl into the body of her former Throwing Muses bandmate Kristen Hersh, the resulting vocal overlap might sound a little like this. The rest of Lima Sugar gives Sowers plenty to work with, dishing out heady hard rock that's elementary by nature but never far from a juicy hook or memorable chord change. In these ways, and maybe a few others, Lima Sugar subtly straddles the fence between comfortable and chaotic. This is a band that warrants further study.
Etc.... David Beebe, manager at the Satellite Lounge, calls to report that the club recently replaced its infamously unreliable, ever-flowing restroom toilets with five new, shiny porcelain beauties -- three to the ladies and two to the men. As for the old clinkers, four will serve as planters on the bar's back patio, and one will be returned to its rightful owner, former Satellite manager Keith Coit. The Velvet Elvis is expecting a call from the federal courthouse sometime this month about a hearing to resolve its differences with Elvis Presley Enterprises, which is suing the club for using the King's name in vain -- or without the estate's permission, anyway. Those hungry for some painful early '90s nostalgia can spy white-bread rapper Vanilla Ice at the Roxy Thursday. Other shows of note: Austin's Ugly Americans and Houston's Hadden Sayers at the Satellite Friday and Saturday, respectively; bizarre Raid-huffing power trio Saturn's Flea Collar at Emo's Friday; Spanish punk-metal and hip-hop Saturday at La Macarena with locals the Pope and out-of-towners Pasto and Control Machete. -- Hobart Rowland