You can read about it here.
Christopher Cerrone writes music for human voices which wander and persist through landscapes of cold instrumental sounds. Throughout his vocal works, musical metaphors reinforce poetry of loneliness, alienation, and nostalgia.
To achieve this, Cerrone re-orders the typical hierarchy of the classical orchestra. Percussive, quickly-decaying sounds now occupy the core: a pointillistic battery of piano, harp, vibraphone, marimba, and glockenspiel. Stringed instruments are demoted from their central melodic role and leeched of their typical colors, instead concentrating on drones, often using harmonics or alternate bowing techniques. Wind instruments, too, often contribute only un-pitched air, their affect ranging from a subtle atmospheric pressure change to a chuffing engine driving an unstoppable rhythmic machine.
In the three pieces on this album, the singer’s part is brought into sharp relief against this background. In contrast to his music for instruments, Cerrone’s writing for the voice could not be more with the grain. The priority here is emotional directness, an urgent—at times, desperate—need to communicate. But this is not the choked, fragmented desperation of so much modernist dramaturgy. Though the severe, crystalline soundscapes of Feldman and Berio are a clear point of reference throughout, it’s the vocal centricity and generosity of bel canto opera that comes through most strongly. Cerrone’s soloists sing in full sentences, set in strophic, melodically memorable lines. He selects poetry not to deconstruct, but to heighten and concentrate it.
Yet at first, the precise relationship between music and text can be difficult to distinguish. These settings don’t cartoon the poems by trying to musically ape their meanings. They strive for something more subtle and difficult, which is to distill meaning into an overall mood or atmosphere. This is necessary given the importance of form in Cerrone’s musical language. The poetic form never guides the setting. Instead, text is repeated as often as necessary to complete the musical arc in a way that satisfies its process. Take the first, titular song; the text of Kay Ryan’s “The Pieces That Fall to Earth” is set three times, each repetition increasing in volume, intensity, and registral compass. The poetry speaks of random events, and one’s inability to connect these to form predictable patterns. The music, meanwhile, communicates the exact opposite. The soprano’s melody remains almost the same throughout, set against a stable and inexorable chord progression. Taken together, poetry and music seem to say: the only inevitable thing is randomness, and the constant anticipation of it.
At other times, music, text, and form find precise alignment, as in the two rage arias, “That Will to Divest” and “Insult”. Ryan often opens a poem with a declarative, if cryptic, statement—“Action creates a taste for itself” or “Insult is injury taken personally”—which the rest of the poem goes on to unpack, resulting in an unexpected moment of clarity at the end. Cerrone’s settings of these two poems mirror each other. There is no harmony here; the musicians violently spit out their words and notes in unison, all while creeping up the chromatic scale a half-step at a time. The songs are timed to end once the soprano can sing no higher. There could hardly be a musically simpler way to treat these settings, and their starkness allows Ryan’s blunt truths to speak all the more forcefully.
The final song in Pieces, “The Woman Who Wrote Too Much,” finds the author so deeply embedded in her work that she has literally blinded herself to the realities of life. Cerrone again mirrors music from earlier in the piece—that inevitable chord progression from the first song. Was the writer’s compulsive fate also inevitable from the outset? The ending offers hope, in the form of “dear ones” who break through the narrator’s self-imposed myopia bearing offerings of food. As the final chords build, the sixth scale degree is raised, changing the key but leaving the tonality ambiguous—it could be major or minor, but the music never settles long enough to decide. The singer reaches a frenzy, tripping over her words, and she is violently cut off by scratching strings and blaring trombone. We’re reminded of a line from the second song: “What’s the use of something unstable and diffuse as hope—.” The equilibrium between blind searching and sputtering mania proves, in the end, impossible to achieve.
After the coloratura dramatics of Pieces, the compact cycle Naomi Songs explores a different facet of loneliness, probing the wounds of a failed romance. Bill Knott’s poems are temporally surreal—we’re never quite sure what’s taking place in the present, past, or simply inside the poet’s mind. They often seem to be recollected fragments of intimate communication, memories of having shared language with somebody, or even transcended the need for language. Cerrone’s chamber orchestra hugs the contours of the vocal line, surrounding it with a halo of gentle plucks and drones. Register is carefully constrained; even the bass instruments play mostly in their altissimo range, creating a sense of strained, uncomfortable closeness. Only occasionally, in moments of more outward expression, do they drop below the staff to anchor the harmony.
The third Naomi song offers a temporary respite from the general sense of anguish; the voice seems momentarily comforted by the presence of a number of electronically-looped doubles, which are in turn echoed by the instruments. As these invented characters multiply, they gently saturate the texture of the music, sustaining all the notes of the Mixolydian scale at once. This warm bath of harmony returns at the very end of the last song, accompanying the realization that the pain will eventually subside and be replaced by openness, even as the emotional wound never fully heals—“a fountain with rooms to let.”
If Pieces and Naomi Songs mostly concern themselves with the subtleties of interior worlds, The Branch Will Not Break turns outward towards nature, landscape, and sweeping gesture. That’s not to say all is well in James Wright’s poems. Time and again, he finds the beauty and purpose of the natural world lacking in himself and anything man-made. The poems often specify their locations—Central Ohio, Rochester, Minnesota, “near the South Dakota border,” William Duffy’s farm—though if he didn’t name them, we’d still recognize their innate Americanness. Shadows of America’s past and future loom over even the most bucolic of these scenes: industrialization, genocide, eventual decay and ruin.
Branch’s form closely mirrors that of Pieces; like the earlier work, its seven songs are arranged in a palindrome, and are fashioned from just four musical motives—an admirable economy. But Branch has its own distinct character and mood. Its closest musical ancestors are the midcentury Americana of Copland and Romanticism of Barber, shot through with the grandeur of early John Adams and repeating variations of Philip Glass—a sturdy formula which is deployed in concentrated bursts.
All of Cerrone’s pieces, even purely instrumental ones, have moments where they figuratively burst into song—and Branch is his most melodically effusive. Instead of focussing on the procedural development of harmonic and rhythmic patterns, those patterns (still spinning away in the background) morph into tune after Big Tune. The songs never veer off course into histrionics or kitsch; the structures remain disciplined to the point of severity.
Wright’s poems use the first-person perspective, which Cerrone sets for eight-voice chorus—a more appropriate choice than it may initially seem. Wright covers a vast emotional range, from suicidal despair to transcendent joy. At each polarity, the perspective broadens from the concrete world into the metaphysical. The sun and moon take on personified characters imbued with agency—unwanted intruders “pitching into the stove” or illuminating “hills of fresh graves.” Animals, and their feelings, are a recurring motif; Wright identifies with them, but can never measure up (“I feel like half a horse myself”; “A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home. I have wasted my life”). It makes sense to share these multiple perspectives among multiple singers. Some songs are initiated by soloists (as in the two “Hangovers”) but end up shifting to tutti chorus as Wright’s mind wanders from his body.
The last song in the piece, a setting of Wright’s “A Blessing,” concludes with the most potent of these metaphysical moments. At first, the music feels almost naïve; it keeps winding up neatly in C major, phrase after phrase, too sweetly timid to wander far from home. Only on the last lines of the poem—“Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body/ I would break into blossom”—does the harmony pivot around the leading tone, modulating to the opening key of B major. The insistence on C was a setup all along, and the new key feels revelatory, a window thrown open. The chorus now has free reign, repeating the text with jubilant abandon. Even the strings finally join in full force, vaulting above the chorus to play the “I have wasted my life” tune from the first song. As the beginning and end of the piece are musically joined, so are the two poetic extremes; depression and ecstasy are just different settings of the same melody.
Below are the notes for my new percussion quartet concerto, premiering tonight at Chicago’s Symphony Center:
In April 2019, my friend Tim Horvath, a novelist, texted me, “Do you know Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode? It’s a book that focuses on unusual structural elements in novels.” I always trust Tim’s suggestions, and I tore through the book over the next few days, finding it unique and deeply insightful. I experienced what Melville called “the shock of recognition”—seeing someone describe your own efforts (in this case, an in-progress percussion concerto) without ever having seen a note of it.
The three words of the title seemed to pertain specifically to each movement of my concerto. The first movement—while dramatic and intense—seems to meander through different landscapes, where the gunshot-like sound of four wooden slats morphs into marimbas and bowed vibraphones while changing volume, key, and context.
The second movement (played without pause after the first) is structured like a double helix. A rising scale on two vibraphones slowly expands, speeds up, and finally blossoms into a sea of polyrhythms.
As for the last movement (again played without pause): the explosion seems fairly self-evident. A single exclamation point ejects lines of 16th-notes into the ether which return, again and again, to a white-hot core. The propulsive patterns in this movement constantly shift emphasis but always maintain energy.
The end of the work brings us back to the first three notes of the piece, suggesting one more shape that Jane Alison discusses in her book: a fractal. The simple shape of the opening turns out to have contained the entire form of the work to come.
Meander, Spiral, Explode is dedicated to Third Coast Percussion, who have brought to life nearly an hour of my music over the last three years, and the two fine conductors who will give the world premieres of the work, Teddy Abrams, and Ken-David Masur.
The film of Invisible Cities is now available on iTunes and Amazon for purchase or rent! The trailer, along with a brief description of the project, are included in both platforms.
To purchase or rent on Amazon, visit HERE
Happy Fall! In this strange period of too much humidity and too much twitter, I’m pleased to share my 2018–19 season. We begin in media res, since September is almost over, but going forward, here are some of the highlights:
— This November, the LA Phil gives the world premiere of The Insects Became Magnetic, a new work for orchestra and electronics under the baton of Roderick Cox as part of their centennial season.
— In December through February, I’ll be curating a three concert series for the Metropolis Ensemble in New York entitled “Reiterations.” It features the Argus Quartet, percussionist Andy Meyerson (of The Living Earth Show), and Sandbox Percussion and Elspeth Davis. They’ll be performing works of mine alongside a whole slew of friends and colleagues. You can read all about it here.
— In March, I’m so excited to present orchestrated excerpts of my new opera, In a Grove (with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann) at the Morgan Library in NYC.
— In May, the Chicago Civic Orchestra of the Chicago Symphony will premiere a new percussion quartet concerto with conductor Ken-David Masur. In this case, the quartet happens to be third time (!) collaborators and close friends, Third Coast Percussion. Later in July, I’m excited to return to Britt Festival to hear Teddy Abrams conduct the same work. These three amazing organizations came together to commission the piece.
—Also in May, Latitude 49 is finalizing the details of a show entitled Love Wounds. The evening features four of my works (including a brand new piece and a newly orchestrated version of my opera, All Wounds Bleed) staged as a seamless evening in collaboration with Chicago Fringe Opera. The fun starts at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 16 and will run through the end of the month.
—And finally in August, we’ll have a whole new album of Cerrone recorded and performed by the intrepid wild Up, conductor Chris Rountree, and featuring a whole slew of singers out on New Amsterdam Records. You’ll be hearing more about this soon as well.
Some other highlights include a weeklong residency/portrait concert with chatterbird in Nashville TN; the European premiere of my orchestra piece, Will There Be Singing at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Italy; The Pieces That Fall to Earth‘s Canadian premiere with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra; performances with the Santa Fe Pro Musica; and a show at Wave Hill, my favorite place in the Bronx. You can see the whole season here.
Last but not least, don’t forget to check out a few recent projects of mine from last season. This past May, Jennifer Koh and Detroit Symphony premiered my violin concerto, “Breaks and Breaks” in three performances. You can watch their brilliant performance on youtube! And the fabulous Sandbox Percussion, Elspeth Davis, and Four/Ten Media worked tirelessly to make a video of my big piece, Goldbeater’s Skin.
Ok, that’s a lot. If you’re still with me, thanks for reading.
On my new violin concerto, “Breaks and Breaks” for Jennifer Koh and the Detroit Symphony:
Throughout the year, I read and re-read Angels in America by Tony Kushner, one of my favorite works of art. Its epigraph, from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Testing Tree”, became a kind of mantra for me, and I often found myself repeating it as I walked the streets of Brooklyn:
“In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking. “
In the new year, as I began writing my violin concerto, that mantra—particularly the phrase “breaks and breaks”—still stuck in my mind. It seems an apt descriptor of this new work that, though divided into seven short movements and therefore often “breaking” character, is played without pause and therefore has no actual “breaks.”
“Breaks and Breaks” is both palindromic and cyclic in form. In the opening—“How many other things have wings that I didn’t know had wings?”— a lithe, light violin line soars above the orchestra. It is cut off abruptly as the second movement breaks into a violent and rhythmic dialogue between soloist and orchestra.
A brief reminiscence of the opening melody in the third movement leads into the fourth, “I see it feelingly,” which is the emotional core of the work. In this movement, the violin plays a slow and plaintive melody, filled with buzzing microtones and punctuated by the bass drum. As the violin gradually soars upward, the orchestra builds to an explosive climax, while the violin plays a series of increasingly elaborate ornaments against loosely aligned metallic figuration in the piano, harp, percussion and strings. After a brief interlude, eight tolling bells lead to yet another climax, this time longer, more intense, and more sustained.
The fifth movement, “It dissolves now,” a kind of cadenza, emerges from the embers of the fourth’s decay. Violin arpeggios are refracted through sustained orchestral strings played very close to the bridge (sul ponticello), creating a sea of unstable and fluctuating overtones. The figuration gradually reveals the original folk-like melody, breaks into the sixth movement, a recapitulation of the second, but now lower and punctuated by low, highly resonant chords.
The work closes with a brief coda, “It would not decay.” For the first time in the work, the violinist puts down her bow and plays pizzicato. As she plays the opening melody, the orchestra sustains her plucked notes, so that they cannot decay, instead creating of fog of sonorities. The soloist plays a final and stratospherically high iteration of the melody that closes the work suddenly, finally breaking.
About the work:
duration: 11 minutes
About the work:
Can’t and Won’t began its life as a song cycle based on texts by one of my favorite authors, Lydia Davis. The idea for the project would be that I would set a few of her very short pieces into songs that keep using a recurring melody. In between these short songs, I would compose a long and intense setting of Davis’s story called—appropriately—“Story”, broken into three parts. But try as I might, I could never quite make the piece I wanted to out of her words. It didn’t help that so many composers I admire had already made fantastic settings of her work. Perhaps her work is just complete in it of itself. But rather than throw aside these musical ideas, I decided to make a new string quartet out of them, a series of little “songs without words” interspersed with one long violent and dramatic movement.
The quartet begins with the faintest of sounds: the violinist gently tapping on their fingerboard to elicit a quiet ringing of open strings. Little by little, the quartet bow their strings, revealing a delicate texture of swirling harmonics. A long, stretched-out melody emerges from the cello. Suddenly, as the song begins to form, it is cut off sharply, and a violent round of D’s is fired like bullets from the entire quartet. These two elements form the main drama, the “can’t” and “won’t”, of the form. As the work progresses, the songs without words move higher and higher, forming into a proper melody, while the violent and rhythmic music descends to the lowest range of the instruments.
As I was writing this quartet, it became clear that something else was occupying my subconscious. A lot of this past year has been about trying to find some sense of repose in a deeply chaotic time, amid constant and often terrifying distractions. Can’t and Won’t seems to both acknowledge this sense of disturbance, yet also optimistically point towards the hope for a place of composure, even if it’s a temporary one.
Hope all is well! I’m really excited to share what’s coming up this year.
Last season was really fun and wild—it featured the premiere of Liminal Highway, a sprawling work for flute and electronics at Miller Theatre; Goldbeater’s Skin for percussion quartet and mezzo-soprano at Notre Dame; and Will There Be Singing (called “a stunning new piece“ by the LA Times) with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. It also heard the first workshops of In a Grove, a new opera in progress heard at the Mahogany Opera Group’s Various Stages Festival in London. And last but not least, I was also honored with a portrait concert with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (and received a glowing review in the Post-Gazette)—where 7 of my works were performed for two nights.
This season promises to be equally busy: it features premieres with the Calder Quartet in a concert hosted by the LA Phil in December; a portrait concert at Miller Theatre with Third Coast Percussion in March (featuring a new piece for the quartet); a brand new violin concerto for Jennifer Koh and the Detroit Symphony in May; as well as concerts in Poland, Spain, Italy, at the Kennedy Center, and more.
This coming weekend, I head to Michigan where I’ll be splitting time between Michigan State (where I will be coaching students on a full concert of my work) and hopping to Detroit, where Latitude 49 and Vicky Chow will be playing my works at the Strange Beautiful Music X Festival, hosted by New Music Detroit.
There’s lots more happening this year, and I invite you to check out the rest of my season.
Thanks for reading and see you soon,
Strange times, huh? Hope everyone is staying safe and sane. We’re taking real-time lessons in redoubling our role in participatory democracy (and I’m doubling my donations to the ACLU).
However, music as always goes on, and I’m very excited to head to the University of Notre Dame University to premiere Goldbeater’s Skin with Third Coast Percussion and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway on February 4 at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. They are all such fantastic and generous musicians; I can’t wait to bring this new 22-minute work into the world.
I’m equally excited to be able to announce that next year, I’ll be writing a violin concerto for Jennifer Koh and the Detroit Symphony, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. The concert will be webcast, so the whole world can see it shortly after the premiere. You can read more about the DSO’s premiere-packed new season here and here. My shows are May 25-27, 2018.
And finally, I’m headed to London in a few weeks to hear workshop of a new opera, In a Grove, with the Mahogany Opera Group as part of their 2017 Various Stages Festival. You can read a little bit about this nascent new work here.
This past fall was packed with concerts and new releases. Tim Munro premiered Liminal Highway, a 20 minute piece for flute and electronics which you can learn about here. I curated a really fun concert with the New York Festival of Song (review here). And then there are new recordings! Vicky Chow released a recording of Hoyt-Schermerhorn (which garnered my first Pitchfork shoutout), The Living Earth show released Double Happiness, and Ian Rosenbaum released Memory Palace. You can find all of these at the above links.
The coming months ahead features premieres with the Calder Quartet and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and performances with Phoenix Symphony and at Caramoor. Oh, and I wrote some snazzy new arrangements of Thievery Corporation songs for the Kennedy Center and the National Symphony. All of that can be read about here.
Hope to see you soon!
Hi, it’s been too long since I’ve updated this page! So here’s some recent works as the year ahead irons itself out!