Composer Profile: Michael A. Rose



Michael Alec Rose’s many awards and commissions include the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation’s chamber music commission, for which he composed his String Quartet No. 2; 28 consecutive annual awards in composition from ASCAP, 1986-2013; commissions from the Blair and Mendelssohn String Quartets; and three works for the Nashville Symphony.  Rose’s Beatitudes, a new song cycle for tenor and piano (on texts by Maurice Maeterlinck), was premiered by Tony Boutté in Paris, France in June, 2013, with the composer at the piano.  Flat Rock: Three Cedar Glades for Wind Ensemble (2013) was commissioned by a consortium of eight bands in North and South America, a project initiated by Dr. Reed Thomas, Director of Bands at Middle Tennessee State University (where Flat Rock was premiered on October 10, 2013).

Rose is Associate Professor of Composition at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.  With renowned violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, he co-directs an ongoing International Exchange Program between the Royal Academy of Music, London (RAM) and the Blair School.  Rose regularly visits RAM as composer-in-residence, the outcome of which has been performances of many new works throughout Europe.  In October 2011, Rose’s Hopeful Monsters for string orchestra, commemorating the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street, was premiered at Wilton’s Music Hall in East London, right around the corner from where the battle took place in 1936.  Hopeful Monsters is one of nine works included on the compact disc Michael Alec Rose: Chamber and Solo Works for Strings and Horn, released in the summer of 2013 (Toccata Classics).  Rose is currently working on a large-scale cycle of unaccompanied violin works for Sheppard Skaerved, called Ritorno, movements of which are being premiered in the U.S. and U.K. this season.  Rose’s first book, Audible Signs: Essays from a Musical Ground, was published by Continuum Books in 2010.  In December, he completed Sui Generis: Five Types for Piano Inside/Out, commissioned by avant-garde Australian pianist Zubin Kanga, who will premiere the work on his first U.S. concert tour in March, 2014.

Rose studied with Pulitzer-Prize winning composers George Crumb and Richard Wernick, also with George Rochberg and Samuel Adler.  He has won several major teaching awards at Vanderbilt, including the prestigious Chair of Teaching Excellence.  More information on Michael Alec Rose’s music is available from his website.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

Listening to Menuhin’s recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto playing in my aunt’s house when I was around 10 or 11.  Completely shattered me.  I sat in my aunt’s upstairs bathroom crying for a long time while the music was playing in the next room (in the bedroom, I guess, where the LP had been put on before we arrived for a dinner party).

 Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Mozart, overall.  That hasn’t changed since the moment I figured out early on that what Mozart was doing was everything I hoped to do too, on my own shakier ground.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

What’s a “computer”?  Nevuh hoid of it.  Oh yeah, I’m typing on one right now.  Notation software doesn’t inhibit my process; it kills it.  Judy Green pencils, man.  Ordered by phone from California.  Legal-sized manuscript paper.  Gimme those and a turkey pastrami sandwich, and I’m set for the day.  There’s nothing old-fashioned in any of what I mentioned.  It’s just a different sort of technology (including the turkey pastrami).

Please describe one of your recent compositions and provide a link to an audio clip.

Audio samples from my new CD, released last summer can be heard from this link.

I can say no fairer than the beautiful liner notes for “Hopeful Monsters” by my friend and former student, Lee Hallman:

How can music be an ally in times of darkness?  How might it address or reflect upon those bleakest chapters in our history, such as the Battle of Cable Street, that unforgettable day in 1936 when the predominantly Jewish citizens of London’s East End—aided by anarchist and communist provocateurs, properly complicating the history— gathered en masse to resist the spread of Fascism?  Commissioned by Wilton’s Music Hall to write a piece for the 75th anniversary of the event, Rose delivered Hopeful Monsters.

The opening tune, the composer notes, grows out of a dim memory, “distracted at first, as if humming a forgotten catch of melody.”  Other voices join, one after another, “gathering voice and memory” in unison before the tune is taken up as a round of staggered but interwoven voices.  …how not to hear this counterpoint, this polyphonic singing, as the audible sign of the collective spirit rising into light—in this case, against the dark forces of Sir Oswald Mosley’s Fascist Blackshirts.

And there are other signs—signs of otherness.  In the second, faster section, chromatic turns invoke the riches of the entire Jewish musical tradition—a corpus, as Rose knows intimately, which has survived, like its people, through holding fast to tradition while submitting to the necessity of adaptation.

What follows is a minefield of dialectical energy, counterpoint and unison, conflict and synthesis.  Struggling through violent twists and jolts, its fugitive song is grasped only to be lost again, at one point swallowed in a void of complete silence before reviving, fragile and thin, transformed but recognizable. In the last section, all remaining energies are marshaled in a final standoff between fast and slow, loud and soft…then the coda: a whirling rise into a tuneful but still anxious unknown, concluding in a furious sequence of fisticuffs.

There is no mythic conclusion to this tragedy, no clear victor.  Hopeful Monsters—a title borrowed from British novelist Nicholas Mosley, Sir Oswald Mosley’s eldest son—was a term used by evolutionary biologists in the 1940s to refer to mutations which hover on the edge of two fates: extinction, or, in the case of an incidentally congruent environmental shift, to the establishment of a new form of life.  Rose’s music balances always upon this knife-edge, between harmony and discord, generation and destruction, beauty and terror.  He writes: “I am productively discontent walking the narrow bridge between these two positions, the only place I feel at home.”   To listen to Michael’s music is to stand together with him on this uneasy ground, to look around and see that the place is good, and to recalibrate our bearings and find ourselves, enriched and increased.

— Lee Hallman, May 2012

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