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Composer Portraits: Christopher Cerrone

The works on this program span seven years (the first sketches for Memory Palace are from fall 2011 and A Natural History of Vacant Lots was completed in February 2018). Yet the common elements of the pieces on this concert— percussion, the voice, and merging electronic and acoustic sounds—have preoccupied me even longer. In the first work that I think sounds “like me”, Requiem for KV (2007), a solo soprano sings with an electronic track of her own voice. In my opera Invisible Cities (2008-2011, rev. 2013), the orchestra plays a series of metal pipes in an acoustic imitation of a field recording. Since then, the voice, percussion, electronics, or various combinations of the three have been featured prominently in almost every composition I’ve written.

I think I love the voice and percussion because they are the oldest and most primal ways of making music—and nearly everyone is equipped to make it. Along with electronics, they are the backbone of all the music I loved as a teenager: the raw opening drums of Nirvana’s “Serve the Servants,” the pulsing drones of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” or Björk’s fragile voice in “You’ve Been Flirting Again.” And perhaps more than any other kind of composition I do, the creation of a new work for either percussion, voice, or both necessitates intense collaboration. There is no way to make this kind of music without sitting in the room with performers, trying different kinds of material for wood slats and metal pipes, trying different mallets for each vibraphone passage, or figuring out how to make a piece of music resonate best in a specific singer’s voice. In the case of Goldbeater’s Skin, I was able to collaborate with a poet as well. G. C. Waldrep’s words helped me write melodies and rhythmic patterns I couldn’t have conceived of otherwise, adding another layer of creative partnership to the composing process.

A Natural History of Vacant Lots
Having discarded several more bathetic titles, A Natural History of Vacant Lots struck me as providing a perfect analogy for my new piece, composed for Third Coast Percussion. I took it from the title of a book by Matthew Vessel and Herbert Wong describing the secondary flora and fauna found in abandoned lots. Subtitled “ambient music for percussion quartet and electronics,” the work begins in an unusually stark manner: single notes are struck on two vibraphones (one with motor, one without) against an electronic soundtrack of the same pitch.

Much of the piece grows out of this initial note, first becoming a chorale, then slowly transforming into a dense forest of figuration over a period of about nine minutes. Though the growth of the material is extremely gradual, the things that emerge from the cycle of chords are sometimes surprising and veer quite far from the original material.

Around the time I was composing this piece, I had the pleasure of viewing photographs from the series “Intimate Portraits” by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, a beautiful series of black-andwhite self-portraits of the artist, nude, and in near darkness. Deeply inspired by the emotional vulnerability of these photographs, I began to imagine a connection to the way my work could be performed. Since the precise alignment of live and electronic components of Natural History would require the musicians to play to click tracks, I also wondered if there was a way to use this technology as more than a simple performance aid – to work in musical events that would instead be intrinsically linked to it. This could allow me to separate the performers as much as physically possible while maintaining perfectly rhythmic ensemble playing, so creating a physical analog to Moutoussamy-Ashe’s barren photographic compositions.

Memory Palace
Memory Palace – originally a solo piece, remade as a quartet – is a paean to places and people that have deeply affected me. The title refers to an ancient technique of memorization that helped orators remember very long speeches by placing mental signposts in an imaginary location and “walking” through it. In this piece, the palace is my life. The crickets in the first movement were recorded on a camping trip with two old and dear friends. The recording of windchimes in the third movement was recorded at my parents’ backyard. The sounds in the piece are the signposts; they help me remember – and more important, understand – who I am.

The majority of the instruments in Memory Palace are to be fashioned by the percussionist. This includes restringing a cheap guitar, cutting and tuning fourteen slats of wood (to be played like a marimba), tuning ten metal pipes, and tuning wine bottles by filling them with varying amounts of water. Ideally, the instruments should not be expensive to make; simple household items (and maybe a trip to a local hardware store) should suffice. In addition, a few traditional percussion instruments are used: three loose crotales, two glockenspiel bars, and a kick drum.

Goldbeater’s Skin
I met the poet G. C. Waldrep at the MacDowell Colony in 2015 and was immediately drawn to him as both a poet and person – friendly, unique, and for a poet, deeply musical. In addition to his study of poetry, he was trained as a countertenor and professed his love for composers like Meredith Monk and David Lang. We bonded over our shared love for the books of Italo Calvino and the poetry of James Wright. So naturally I was curious about his work. I tore through his many published volumes, and was drawn in particular to his first collection of poems, Goldbeater’s Skin, written twenty years ago, when he was about my age. I found it to be particularly pregnant with musical possibilities (actual musical allusions abound), so I decided to craft a new work for voice and percussion quartet around these poems. They are often deeply imagistic; the source of each reference would be impossible to trace; yet each poem leads inexorably to a potent and dramatic conclusion. I constructed music that functioned similarly – music that is billowing yet always headed towards some kind of denouement. As I sifted through the whole collection, I chose poems whose references overlapped to create connective tissue; some references are more specific than others, but almost all of them are concerned with companionship – whether deep friendship, or love. The challenge of writing a work for voice and percussion quartet is obvious: four drummers are much louder than one voice, and I wanted the musicians in the quartet to have moments to shine as well. I constructed a series of interludes (two proper and one faux interlude), each focused on a single kind of idiophone: wood, metal, and then, appropriately enough, skin.


— Notes by Christopher Cerrone