Composer, vocalist, and clarinetist Dave Ruder presents The Gentleman Rests, a new work for five vocalists and five instrumentalists, at Roulette on Tuesday, March 3rd.
Please tell us more about your piece The Gentleman Rests. What is the instrumentation? Who are the performers?
The piece is for five vocalists who speak, sing, and everything in between – Michele Kennedy, Anaïs Maviel, Kyra Sims, Brian McCorkle, and Paul Pinto – as well as Sam Morrison (Rhodes), Jen Baker (trombone), Karen Waltuch (viola), and Brandon Lopez (bass). It’s a mix of folks I’ve worked with for years and some folks who I’m very happy to work with for the first time. Everybody’s got really different backgrounds (and really different voices!), which is always appealing to me as well.
“…one of the most quietly dramatic events in recent American history–the joint session of Congress held on January 6th, 2001 to certify the election of George W. Bush as president, which was presided over by losing candidate, and still vice president, Al Gore. The mundanity and repetitiveness of normally unnoticed electoral formalities is interrupted by the airing of frustration from Congressional Democrats, while Gore tries to move the proceedings along and ensure a smooth transition of power.”
You describe the joint session of Congress on which The Gentleman Rests is based as “one of the most quietly dramatic events in recent American history”. Could you elaborate on this?
I’ve never worked from “true events” as a template for a narrative piece before. I guess I like this event because it’s kind of a drone situation in a few ways. You know the outcome of the session (W becomes president), but you have to get through it for that to be true. The language of the state certificates to affirm the election results is really beautiful & archaic & clumsy and they just keep going on and on (I’ve compartmentalized them to the beginning & end of the piece). They’re not dramatic, they’re lulling. What is dramatic is the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus to try however they can to stop the results of an election that smelled funny for all kinds of different reasons – Florida alone had thousands of African-Americans turned away from polls, ballot (and ballot counting) irregularities that changed or nullified votes, seemingly arbitrary court-imposed deadlines, fishy political connections behind the scenes, etc. Gore on the one hand seems heroic for ensuring the peaceful transfer of power, but on the other hand he just seems like an empty suit when you watch the footage, he’s an office and not a person. Nothing surprising happened that day but something for better or worse very American happened. The shape of it interests me. I like the words of the CBC and Gore’s repetition. It was suggestive of music to me I suppose. I’m not staging this performance in any way but I can imagine interesting ways you could.
As a Jerome commission, The Gentleman Rests is a composition presumably conceived with Roulette in mind. In terms of compositional process, did you write the piece specifically for this acoustic space? How so?
You know I was gonna play with this in staging but I’ve really focused on the sound alone for now. The vocalizing is mostly pretty quiet, but there’s something really lovely about hearing amplified quiet sounds in a big space. I kind of want people to have to lean in and that doesn’t work as well in a small space, Roulette’s perfect for it though. My initial idea involved a lot of people moving up and down the aisles and using the tiers of the stage like tiers in a chamber of Congress, very site-specific. But it made more sense to me to have five vocalists switching who they are all the time than having a single Gore on the dais and the CBC on the floor. That said, the decisions I’ve made, I’d have to change them a lot to put this on in another space, and I feel like it’s gonna fit just right in Roulette.
You worked extensively with Robert Ashley, premiering both Crash and World War III: Just the Highlights, and are involved in quite a number of varied creative projects. What is your background as a composer and musician?
I was a pre-teen sax player who was pretty good at that, then turned into a teenaged rocker guitarist who didn’t really stand out, tried jazz and didn’t cut it too well, and then found experimental music at age 19. A bunch of grad students brought me into the fold when I was an undergrad at Wesleyan (I hosted a radio show that they all took turns doing stuff on) and I realized for the first time I was pretty good at thinking in this realm. I became a composer. I’d always wanted to be a songwriter since I was 14 but I never wrote a song til I was 25. I always wanted someone to ask me to be in their band but it never happened. So I got good at weirder or conceptual stuff, at pieces. It served me well. I moved to Brooklyn after college (this was ten years ago), was humbled by my lack of chops on the clarinet (picked up at 20, largely self-taught), eventually joined a big band drone group led by Andrew Lafkas which I think got me a good track being a musician in NYC. A little later, I met Aliza Simons, and we started playing songs we wrote together, which got me a great track, finally writing songs and working that way. I went to grad school, met some lovely people at Brooklyn College, and then things changed in all the right ways when I staged an ad hoc reading of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives in June 2011.
This piece had been the ne plus ultra to me for years. It was the most amazing work of art I ever encountered, still is. My simple idea was to stage it all in one day at the seven different locations and seven times specified in the piece. I was and am really into site-specific art that surprises you and then goes on its way. Long story short, Robert Ashley ending up attending this ad hoc performance and he loved it. This was huge for me, even if nothing else would’ve come from that. I had his appreciation. He then invited me and my cohorts in what was later named Varispeed (who’d done the ad hoc performance and have done it more times since) to participate in a series of his pieces, culminating in him writing his final piece, Crash (which happens at Roulette in April!) for us. He’s a major figure in my artistic life, having opened doors for me musically and then professionally. A lot of the folks I’ve gotten to work with in the last four years can be traced back to that first performance he saw.
That said, in my work with Varispeed and thingNY, and writing The Gentleman Rests, it’s been hard to come out from behind his shadow some times. We’re all very indebted to his work, particularly in the realm of musical speech. I mostly write music with words (that’s what I greatly prefer as an audience member), and I don’t really care for traditional operatic voices. I’m in bands but I’ve also always been a slightly awkward fit in rock scenes. This particular kind of speech-y music is really my wheelhouse.
It’s not really novel as you can find examples of it everywhere, but to present it the way me and my compatriots do, with the baggage of being 21st Century American art music weirdos, I’ve found in writing this piece that there’s so many accidental references to his music, to Now Eleanor’s Idea or Concrete or Improvement. It’s pretty thrilling for me to get to continue to do Ashley’s music, there’s just so much there every time you come back, and at the same time to be part of the work of folks like Paul Pinto, Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Aaron Siegel, etc who are appreciating this legacy and trying to deal with it in their own way just as I am. There’s nothing like having a community of people with which to work through ideas!
I’m also really happy these days when I get to play songs (rather than pieces). I’ve been playing in my friend Ellen’s band ellen o since last summer, these days I’m playing synth and singing, and that’s really the kind of music I’m thrilled to be making. I was in bands in high school but haven’t been in many since. It’s funny to be in your 30s and getting to serious about being in bands for the first time (I tried to book a mini-tour last year, though it didn’t work… the longest tour I’ve ever been on is two days), but in a lot of ways it’s a more satisfying framework for me than composing or playing pieces these days. I’m really proud of the last album released by my band Why Lie? (with Aliza Simons) and on the second half of the evening at Roulette on 3/3 will be a new project with Jeff Tobias, Cory Bracken, Andrew Livingston, and Dave Kadden that’s playing very repetitive material in a rock-band-ish format. I’m excited to see where we take this.
I’ve got my hands in a lot of cookie jars – I play a bunch of instruments in a bunch of styles, I run a little label, I used to curate a lot of shows, I work a day job in a musical administrative capacity – but there’s something about composing for me. It was the first kind of music hat I felt I wore really well, and while I recognize it’s not how I want to be predominantly known, it’s wonderful for me to have the chance to stretch out and write a big piece. Having this commission is a great excuse to check in with my most basic musical sensibilities and see what comes out when you turn on the faucet. I didn’t know what it would be like. It’s more about harmony than I ever expected (the knock on my in grad school was that I didn’t care what notes anybody played, and that was really true). There’s something about layers of speech and singing and instruments that I’m working towards in a lot of formats. I feel like if I were to start again today with a blank slate for this commission, I’d write something that would sound like songs for Dionne Warwick to sing with an enormous orchestra behind her, but the orchestra would loop 2-4 bars of music without variation for like 10 minutes at a time, and then she’d sing a verse, then a chorus, then 10 minute loop, chorus, verse, bridge, loop, etc. I didn’t know that before, but I think that’s where I’m headed.