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The Insects Became Magnetic

About the work:

for orchestra (3(picc).3(eh).3(b.cl).3(cbsn) – 4.3.3.1. – perc(3) – hp – pno – str) and electronics
duration: 12 and a half minutes

Commissioned by/Premiere:

Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The world premiere was given by the same orchestra under the baton of Roderick Cox on November 16 and 18, 2018 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA

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Note on electronics:

The electronic part is a series of sounds files cued from a laptop. The cues are hit by a musician (a percussionist, an assistant conductor, a sound person, or, if present, the composer) by pressing spacebar. The electronics part is pre-balanced, but the levels should be carefully mixed by an engineer in the hall throughout the rehearsals and performance. The entire part is designed to be able to work smoothly within a normal orchestral rehearsal period. The orchestra does not need to be amplified, but it can help clarify textures, particularly in a large hall.

About the work:

When I started composing The Insects Became Magnetic, noise was on my mind—and it quickly became urgent. I’d set up a microphone to record myself playing the piano, opened up my laptop, and clicked record. But I’d forgotten to plug in the mic, leading to the computer speakers feeding back a painfully high screech.

Fighting the normal human impulse to turn it off as quickly as possible, I thought: maybe there’s something in this noise. I grabbed my iPhone and quickly recorded a 30-second snippet before the sound became too much for me. I thought: could I possibly make something beautiful out of this obviously unpleasant sound? Rather than avoiding it, maybe the key is to find a way through and finally out of the noise by thoroughly exploring it.

Noise itself has long been the condition of modernity. Articles proclaim a need for “Mindfulness in an age of Twitter noise.” The Guardian inquires: “Is modern life too noisy?” Nate Silver wrote a book about separating the “signal” from the “noise”—that is, getting rid of the noise to get to facts. In my own life in New York City, I can often feel overwhelmed by the noise of a routine commute—the train itself, not to mention the Ivesian cacophony of 30 strangers’ headphones bleeding beats over one another.

Back in my studio, the first thing I tried was pitch-shifting the screeching feedback down a few octaves: It immediately became much more palatable. Then I slowed it to a third of its original speed, at which point it became a lush, evocative, slowly changing soundscape. It reminded me of the guitar solos in the music that I grew up with — feedback is littered throughout Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine records — music that turned the manipulation of feedback into a powerful expressive device. This became the sonority that opens my piece.

From there I set out to blend the orchestra with this sonority. Bowed vibraphones and crotales—almost electronic-sounding instruments themselves—became the glue that melded the electronic with the acoustic. Swarms of string tremolos connected to the insect-like electronics, and finally—after being detuned down seven full octaves—the now almost unrecognizable feedback became low swells in the trombones and tuba.

While recording myself improvising the middle section of the piece (a lullaby-like section), the water kettle went off, producing a harmonica-like drone. When I played it back among the other sounds of the piece, it happened to be just in the right key, and, keeping in the spirit of incorporated noise of daily life, I felt I had to incorporate that too. Hence, the harmonicas.

As the piece progressed, I began thinking about a passage from Adam Clay’s “Goodbye to All That, the Birds Included”—a poem I’d loved for years:

“I hope the insects become magnetic,
to eat plastic hillsides, to pull a drone down, even.
It might even be a collage, now that I look.”

I realized I, too, was making a kind of collage: mixing electronic feedback with centuries-old violins, street noise and rarified orchestral acoustics, the canon and the vernacular, hoping to find something new in it all.

Press:

The next afternoon in Disney Hall, for instance, the L.A. Phil gave a “regular” program — led by an outstanding young conductor, Roderick Cox — that began with the premiere of yet another Philharmonic commission (the seventh that week alone), “The Insects Became Magnetic” by Christopher Cerrone. While it may sound nothing like Young’s “Second Dream,” there is also a drone-like effusiveness of chordal sonorities that make the space you are in feel as though it were expanding.

Mark Swed, LA Times

The concert opened with the world premiere and LA Phil commission of Cerrone’s The Insects Became Magnetic.The piece began eerily with electronic sounds through speakers placed on both sides as well as above the stage controlled by Cerrone with a Macbook sitting behind the second violins. The electronic sounds were joined by percussionists playing the vibraphone with bows. These were then joined by shimmering string tremolos and the rest of the orchestra. Even though Cerrone’s composition used the orchestra to supplement and extend the electronic sounds, there were signs of a traditional composition with crescendos and decrescendos and the sonata form with an exposition, development and recapitulation. Overall, the piece created an eerie and mysterious atmosphere that was quite engaging. Cox appeared as if a magician pulling sounds from the most unlikely of places, including, at one time, all of the brass playing harmonicas.

Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA