Christopher Cerrone, a widely recognized composer and a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his opera Invisible Cities, has proved unusually resourceful not just for discovering and deploying an arresting range of sounds, but also for using those sounds in evocative ways that prompt deeply emotional responses. Cerrone has created works for all manner of soloists and ensembles, but over the past decade he’s shown a special predilection for percussion: Memory Palace, a piece Cerrone wrote for solo percussionist with electronics in 2012, has fast become a staple of the repertoire; in 2015 Cerrone made a quartet version of the piece, which has followed suit.
On March 29, the superb Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion – which in 2017 earned a Grammy award for its recording of works by Steve Reich – turns its attention to Cerrone’s music with a Composer Portrait concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Memory Palace is on the program. So, too, is Goldbeater’s Skin, a poetic work for mezzo soprano and percussion that Third Coast Percussion presented in its premiere at Notre Dame University in February 2017 – and which Sandbox Percussion, the other ensemble for which Cerrone wrote the piece, presented in its New York premiere at National Sawdust in June. Completing the program is the world premiere of Cerrone’s latest percussive opus: A National History of Vacant Lots, commissioned by Third Coast Percussion and Miller Theatre.
In anticipation of their New York event, Cerrone connected via video call with David Skidmore, a Third Coast Percussion founder and the group’s executive director, to talk about the development of Cerrone’s percussive style, and the specifics of all three pieces on this program.
DAVID SKIDMORE: We’ve had the good fortune of working with you now on two pieces, and there’s a bunch of stuff I’d like to talk about. First and foremost, obviously, Third Coast Percussion is a percussion group, and your Miller Theatre portrait concert is going to be primarily percussion. I wonder if you could just talk about your percussion writing, and what writing for percussion means to you. I’m sure that your entire work can’t be encapsulated in one concert, but obviously a big portion of it is focused on percussion.
CHRISTOPHER CERRONE: For me, it feels particularly great that you’re doing my piece Memory Palace on the concert as well, because it was written in 2012, and it feels really germinal to the language that I use now as a composer. I was asked to write that piece by a percussionist named Owen Weaver, and a bunch of other people were on a consortium to commission it. And since it was a consortium of so many people, the prerequisite for the commission was that it was to not use any conventional percussion instruments for the most part. If it had a marimba in it, or if it had a bunch of expensive almglocken in it, then it would not be performable by everyone. So when we were creating the work together, I had to find a really unconventional way of composing, which was that I literally sampled every instrument that he was playing with his: pieces of wood and different beer bottles. The process was really collaborative, which is something that I think has become part of my composing process to this day.
And also, it sort of got me from being generic about my percussion writing, where I’d be like, “oh, a vibraphone, oh, a marimba, oh, a xylophone,” to being like: how do I rethink every instrument when I compose music? I just completed my first string quartet… it’s funny, because most composers don’t have three percussion quartets and one string quartet but the approach that I took in composing it felt very, very close to the way I approach percussion writing. It’s almost as if percussion has infiltrated the way I think about every instrument, so when I write a percussion piece, I go to the studio, I hit a bunch of cool sounding things until I find something I like, and then I’m like, “Try this… try this with a different mallet.” And from there, you go home to your studio and write the piece. So when I wrote a string quartet I think I actually wrote it as if it were a percussion quartet, where I had the violin in my hand and was sort of tapping on the strings in different ways and getting cool resonances, and literally finding sounds that way. It feels really instructive that I would have this percussion-based portrait, because really everything I do feels like it’s either percussion music or voice music.
SKIDMORE: Great answer. If you say percussion enough times, it actually does infiltrate into even string quartet writing, so that was my play all along. We were also talking about how your percussion writing is super interesting because you you’ve described yourself in the past as being very interested in harmony, and harmony being a big part of your music. You do occasionally use a conventional marimba or vibraphone, but you’re also using a lot of raw materials: wooden slats, metal pipes, you mentioned beer bottles. But you’re asking for them to be specifically tuned, and we’ve actually had a lot of back and forth even about specific octaves of pipes and wood slats. What is it about those raw sounds that draws you in?
CERRONE: When I started writing for percussion, there were two things I looked at in terms of what usually happens. One is the kind of like marimba solo piece, and that’s basically conventionally harmonic. And then there’s the kind of John Cage school, which is like: whatever you find in the living room, hit it and play these rhythms. And I was like, I wonder if I could have both? Can I have a situation where a piece uses unconventional instruments, and they’re pitched? And I think that’s something that lends a sort of quality to this work: it tries to synthesize the notion of found objects and the power of harmony in music. Obviously a lot of people like harmony in music. [laughs] I remember Esa-Pekka Salonen said something along the lines of nine of your 10 favorite moments in music are probably something where the harmony changes – and I think it’s totally true. But I also love the Cage Constructions and those types of pieces.
To me, the thing that’s so brilliant about percussion is that you’re basically bringing the real world into music in some way. Classical music is so rarified… I’m literally writing a piece for Jenny Koh right now, and she has, like, a Stradivarius. It’s literally like the pinnacle of like Western art, in a way. And percussion is like, OK, here’s this piece of crap that I found in my room; I’m going to write a concerto for it. And that’s sort of what I love about percussion. If I can run an analogy, I remember being an art gallery, and there were all sorts of weird stuff. There was a thing in the corner, and I was like, what is this cool piece of art? And it was actually just like some kind of thing measuring the bumps in the room, or maybe it was like a thermometer – and I was like, that’s a cool piece of art. That was like this really weird shock moment of recognition, where I’m like, oh if the thing becomes abstract enough, the whole world can be let in. That’s what I love about percussion: you can have the rarefied instruments, but also, every part of our life can be art a little bit.
So I wanted that, but I also wanted to have this thing wherein music can function the way music conventionally functions. A lot of my music seems to be synthesizing an avant-garde sound world with a more traditional harmonic approach, or a harmonic approach wherein you can invoke really specific emotional responses.
SKIDMORE: In addition to prominently featuring percussion on this concert, two out of the three pieces also are electroacoustic. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about electronics and your music. I feel like some electronic composers are fascinated by the technology, the limits of the technology, and what the technology can do. And then there are other composers who are into the sound world and artistic capabilities first and foremost, and figure out whatever technology they need to make that happen.
CERRONE: I’m pretty lo-fi, honestly. I’m not a great technician – I know the bare minimum of what it takes to functionally do electronics. But the thing that is of absolute paramount importance to me, and I think it comes across in the two electroacoustic works on the program, is the idea of the primacy of the live performer in the context of an electroacoustic piece. I’ve heard performers describe pieces that start with like a minute of electronics, and they just stand on stage; it’s like waiting for the bus. They’re just standing there like, “OK, I guess my part starts soon.” For me, it’s all about extending the possibilities of what’s happening on stage. I think the electronics in both of these works really function as this kind of connection; I try to literally connect the acoustic and electroacoustic sounds. Like in terms of the opening of the new piece, A Natural History of Vacant Lots, where the opening of the piece is this reversed swell…it just swells directly into your first downbeat. This idea of the two elements reaching out and touching each other feels so important to me, in terms of how the sonic experience occurs.
SKIDMORE: How did you create the sounds in A Natural History of Vacant Lots?
CERRONE: It’s funny, because when I first started composing this piece, it was for something like 19 tuned glasses and vibes and a bunch of other things. That was sort of the initial conceit for it.
SKIDMORE: I remember talking about that.
CERRONE: I remember talking to you about it [laughs]: “Welllll, OK…” So at some point I was just messing around with different ideas. I was in residence at Yaddo, an artist colony in upstate New York, working on this piece, and I was just recording the piano I had there – which was like this not really super nice upright, but it had a really clean tone and was really in tune. And I was like: “Oh, I wonder I it would be cool if instead of having these bowed glass sounds, all the sounds were just these reversed piano sounds that would go [imitates fast swell and resonating impact] and then you hit right there. What I thought was so cool about that is that it sort of lent this real inexorability to the sounds of the piece. A reversed sound has this kind of envelope, like a little tiny swell and then this huge swell at the end.
What I found that kind of started to make the piece really convincing to me was the idea that the whole thing is just being pushed forward constantly. I’m very interested in this intersection of drama and stasis in my music – in that it seems static, and yet it’s always kind of moving forward and it’s always going on to something else – and that struck me as a kind of the perfect analogy. So yeah, literally it’s just the sound of a piano and I reversed it, which is sort of like the most rudimentary technique. It almost feels throwback-y to me in terms of the language of electronic music. If there’s a kind of gestural vocabulary, that’s got to be one of the earliest ones, because they could just play the tape backwards to reverse it.
Every sound in the piece is a transformation of the reversed piano sound, or there are some sine waves in there, and that’s it. The other thing about my electronic sounds is that I want them to be extremely blended with the acoustic sounds, so therefore I try to use a very limited palette that blends extremely well. The vibraphone has such a pure color to it that vibes and that reversed-piano sound blend basically perfectly.
SKIDMORE: Yeah that’s one of the things that I really like about your use of electronics. And it’s similar in Memory Palace, where a lot of time the acoustic instruments on stage are mimicking the electronics, or vice versa. There are moments even as a performer when I’ll be playing something and I’ll think that one of the other guys in the quartet is playing something that I’m hearing, but it’s actually the electronics. We had a couple of funny moments in rehearsing A Natural History of Vacant Lots; we’d rehearse a section, and I’d be like, “Hey, Peter, could you play that section at measure 200 a little softer,” and he’d be like, “I don’t play at 200.” And I was like, “Yeah, you do… I hear you” – and no, it’s the electronics.
SKIDMORE: Not only is that is that cool, but it’s interesting: I feel like when there’s a real blend, it also keeps the electronics from being becoming dated. You listen to some pieces that were written in the ’80s that are seminal electroacoustic works, and now you listen to them and it sounds of its time.
CERRONE: Yeah. I think that’s the key to the simplicity of the language. The other thing about it, and I think this connects with a lot of the other aspects in my work, is that the reference points for my own electronic language are probably closer to pop music than they are to electroacoustic music. The reference points are not Pierre Henry; they’re more like Aphex Twin, or even the way Sufjan Stevens uses electronics in his songs. The smooth transition between electronic and acoustic in pop music just seems like basically part of the language at this point, you know? I mean, it sort of seems silly like if you’re talking about hip-hop to be like, “This is electroacoustic music we’re talking about.” Like anything else, it’s just part of the language. And that’s how I feel about how I work with electronics: it’s just a natural extension of the language, and it always grows out of the organic aspects of the music.
SKIDMORE: Sometimes people don’t like to talk about titles, but I’m curious about the title A Natural History of Vacant Lots and where that comes from.
CERRONE: I went through about seven titles with that piece. To be really open about it, this piece was written at a point when I was at an emotional nadir. I think it had to do a lot to with both my own life, but just so you know, it was written at the end of the summer of 2017, and I was feeling so emotionally exhausted. I like to make jokes to people complaining about my life, and this whole Trump thing is just not helping either. I was also feeling really burnt out and exhausted as a person. So when I started writing this piece, I felt like I was really embracing that sort of sense of emptiness and, you know, the sort of vacuous feeling. This whole opening of the piece – I was sitting there in my room playing my piano, playing this stark chorale.
So I went through all these titles, and my friend Alex Robinson, who is a landscape architect who I also have collaborated with quite a bit – we were the American Academy in Rome together – there was this book sitting on his shelf when I visited him in L.A. and it was called Natural History of Vacant Lots. And it literally is: it talked about what kind of flora and fauna grow in vacant lots. I thought that was such a beautiful image, because the opening of the piece is so stark, so it sort of feels abandoned. And little by little as the piece grows, all these things creep out and pop up, sort of like the secondary forest idea. And then it kind of goes wild from there eventually. I love that image, the things growing out of this stark human landscape. And there’s something about the electronic sounds and the vibraphones that felt very modern, like industrial prototypes or something – but also the idea that something really beautiful can come out of that kind of starkness.
SKIDMORE: In addition to featuring percussion and electronics, this concert also thankfully features some of your vocal writing. Some of my favorite works of yours are your vocal works. The first piece I remember hearing of yours was Requiem for Kurt Vonnegut. We were in grad school together, and I’ve told this story a bunch, but we were just buddies and I’d never heard any of your music. We were at a New Music New Haven concert, basically the Yale school composition concert for students. It was very high level, but still a student concert, and I was probably zoned out a little bit… they were always way too long. So we were probably in hour three and this solo soprano came out and started singing this gorgeous music. I was like, “Who wrote this?!” And it was you, and I was like, “What? My buddy Chris wrote this?” Because it was just gorgeous, and all of your vocal writing is so gorgeous – and of course, your opera, Invisible Cities. This piece, the first piece that you wrote for us, Goldbeater’s Skin, is percussion quartet and mezzo soprano. I want to talk a little bit about your vocal writing, and a relationship between that and percussion, if there is one.
CERRONE: Of course. Voice is at the center of my work. I wish I knew why, because I’m not a singer. I’m not trained as a singer. I’m a horrible singer, actually. But I remember from my first year of college, I showed a little art song, and it was like, “You have a real affinity for this.” Honestly, for me, what’s so lovely about this concert is the things that I think are so primal about music are the voice and percussion. Anyone can sing; anyone can hit a drum. The learning curve goes up after that, but if the learning curve to play the violin is incredibly high to do anything basic, to sing and hit drums just feels beautifully primal, and their ability to access emotional cores is really powerful because of that. People love dancing; people dance to rhythms that are played on drums. People love to sing, and anyone can do it. What’s really cool about doing this concert is that I’m able to write music that just gets to the core of things, to the heart of the emotionality, really fast.
When we were talking about our first project together, Goldbeater’s, I really wanted to do a thing with the voice. And then you suggested that we do it with a mezzo, so that you could pair it with Ligeti’s Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel. I was like, “This is like such a total masterpiece; I’d love to write something for that.” And you suggested Rachel Calloway, who is a singer I’ve known for a really long time and collaborated with quite a few times, really since I was in college. The whole thing just seemed to flow perfectly out of that.
The other thing I wanted to do with that project was to actually work with a poet I knew. I met the poet G.C. Waldrepat the MacDowell Colony; he’s this incredibly musical guy and had a budding career as a countertenor, which kind of faltered because of some vocal injury, and he wound up becoming a poet. All of his poetry was so musical that it just seemed natural to fit the music I was writing in the piece. And it just kind of flowed out of that. Knowing that it was going to be paired with the Ligeti, I wanted to kind of do something that was complementary, and also the opposite of the Ligeti. The Ligeti is sort of these beautiful short miniatures that are all kind of disconnected and for, like, a million instruments. [laughs] Did you say it’s the most expensive piece you’ve ever performed per minute, in terms of the instruments?
SKIDMORE: Yeah, the third movement is maybe a minute long, and to buy the instruments, it costs something like 30 or 40 thousand dollars because it’s these low gongs and these low prayer bowls and stuff like that. So yeah, whatever that works out to – it’s something like $800 a second, or something like that.
CERRONE: [laughs] Almost as expensive as an orchestra. And I wanted to do something that was continuous, rather than discontinuous like the Ligeti, so all the movements are connected. I also wanted to do something that was very instrumentally focused, and not have too many instruments in it. And also, again, it kind of goes back to my found-objects thing: a lot of the instruments in the piece are found objects in one way or another: wood slats, as in Memory Palace; tuned pipes; and then actually just having the players play guitar, which I’m pretty glad you guys were game for.
Memory Palace has a very rudimentary guitar part played in the first moment, and I thought, can I take this further and ask them to play guitars almost like harps, playing harmonics on them? I think we went through a few different versions, and it wound up being two guitars because it was like getting really complicated with all the tunings. So Rob and Pete are now officially amateur guitarists. And that was really fun for me, too, because it was actually suggested by a line of GC’s poetry that said, “perhaps that bridge was not a harp at all.” So this image of a harp coming out of the poetry was something I was able to translate into a percussion quartet via these guitars.
SKIDMORE: It’s a beautiful sound.
CERRONE: The other thing I sort of love about it – the other thing about the voice, about percussion, about electronics – is it really connects with pop music. Anyone else who grew up in the American suburbs in the ’90s listened to a lot of pop music. And I think that all of these things are merged into the language of the music really organically. Like, of course I know how to play the guitar, because I grew up in the suburbs in the ’90s – I had to learn how to play Nirvana covers. I think Peter already played a little guitar, didn’t he?
SKIDMORE: Yeah, I mean, it’s exactly what you said. All of us have probably a similar musical trajectory to you. Our first music that we heard was not like marimba solos and percussion quartets. We heard what was on the radio; we heard everything from the Beatles to Nirvana.
CERRONE: And I know you did, but basically, everybody in Third Coast started as a drummer, and then sort of became a percussionist?
SKIDMORE: Some of us started on piano. I started on piano, and then I got like a practice pad. But there was like the shortest line possible between the practice pad and getting my parents to buy me a drum set. I didn’t get the practice pad and say, “Oh, I’m good now.” I wanted the drum set, I got the drum set, I played a ton of drum set, and it comes from what you’re talking about. And then along this trajectory for each of us, it’s like you get super into pop music at first, and then you get into classical music and you almost say, “Pop music, that’s not serious.”
CERRONE: That’s right.
SKIDMORE: But then you sort of come back full circle to really appreciating both.
CERRONE: I sort of grew up in the suburbs, and even in Memory Palace there’s a lot of references to the suburbs, sort of like trying to channel these things. There’s a field recording of a wind chime, which was recorded at my parents’ house on Long Island. It was just blowing in the wind one day – it was beautiful. I recorded it, and that became part of the piece. And also, there’s a reference to the Long Island Expressway in the fourth movement of Memory Palace. I had this childhood memory of rumble strips, those things on the side of the road that if you’re going a little off the road [imitates rhythmic sound] – the motoric rhythm was drawn out of that.
The thing about growing up in the suburbs is, in a weird sense, my bizarre rebellion was to become a classical musician. It’s sort of the most un-suburb-y, un-strip mall-y thing you could do. It goes against the culture of the suburbs really well. I was like, “Screw this, I’m going to listen to Beethoven now.” That’s the real rebellion, you know – punk rock wasn’t enough. So for three or four years, I didn’t listen to any pop music at all. I never heard certain music from 2000 to 2002. And ironically, the thing that tied it all together for me was discovering minimalism, discovering Reich, discovering Glass and Adams, and discovering that there can be this bridge between these two worlds. That was a huge discovery for me. Then I was like, “Oh, cool, I guess I can listen to Björk now… I guess I can listen to all this amazing music.”
I was trying to describe the music I love, the contemporary music I love the most, and I realized whether it’s Reich, whether it’s Kevin Volans, whether it’s Bartók, Debussy, it always seems to have this connection between other cultures. And that’s what I think percussion does so well: you guys are basically like a collection of the things people hit from all over the world, whether it’s a temple bowl or a drum set or a marimba. That’s what percussion is, isn’t it? It’s like a multicultural collection.
SKIDMORE: That’s exactly what it is, yeah. You hit the nail on the head. And it’s thanks to people like John Cage, who you were talking about earlier, who essentially said… but even before that, even the instruments that orchestras have sort of taken ownership of in large part – cymbals, triangle…
CERRONE: They’re from Turkey, right?
SKIDMORE: They’re janissary instruments, yeah, they’re all from Turkey.
CERRONE: Where do timpani come from? Are those Turkish, too?
SKIDMORE: Way back, they were actually European; there were these drums that would be strung across a horse’s back. There would be a rider and two drums, kind of a marching off to war thing. And of course that exists to a certain extent with any instrument; there’s fiddling for a violinist and that sort of thing. But there’s no question that a violin, a viola, and a cello come from Western Europe.
CERRONE: Yeah, like there’s some dude in Italy with this really great wood that strung this thing up. You go to, like, I think it was in the Accademia in Florence, and they have a musical instruments thing: a cello looks exactly the same; the violin looks exactly the same. I guess there were some weird basses. But string instruments are, for better or worse, Western culture, and percussion always seemed to be the way to where other cultures seep in.
SKIDMORE: That’s the cool thing about being a percussionist, I’ll say: you definitely never get bored. If it’s not someone writing for temple bowls and gongs that you don’t own or have never played, then it’s you asking us to make 17 tuned wood slats over the course of two-and-a-half octaves or whatever. And it’s fun even through the techniques that you asked us to do. The mandolin roll, which is essentially two mallets on either end of a board in one hand, going back and forth: it’s its own sound and its own technique in that movement. That’s the fourth movement of Memory Palace?
CERRONE: The second movement. Both, actually.
SKIDMORE: Rob is the one who plays that part, and it’s a totally unique technique that he’s done before, but never to this level.
CERRONE: And that’s to me what’s really cool about percussion and voice writing: the collaborative factor. I can write a string quartet without talking to the group at all. I can write an orchestra piece without really talking to the orchestra at all. But you can’t write a percussion quartet and you can’t write a voice piece without a really clear sense of who you’re writing for and what you’re writing for. I remember showing Ian Rosenbaum an early draft of that movement, and it was just a regular one-handed tremolo. And Ian was like, “Well, you can’t really get that sound… what if you tried this old technique that no one uses anymore? And I was like, oh my God, that’s it.
If there’s something I ever want to break down as a composer, it is this hegemonic notion of what a composer is, as someone in their room. I think there’s obviously another reason: I’m a very friendly person and like talking to people. [laughs] But, you know, it’s so stupid to imagine this composer in their room writing a symphony and then delivering it. I’m sure with you guys, with each new piece you bring into the world… I was just watching the video of the Donnacha Dennehy piece you commissioned, and I was like, there’s no way he could have come up to me sounds without standing in a room with these guys and trying a million things. I mean, I’m sure that’s how it was, right?
SKIDMORE: We are as intensely collaborative as any composer will agree to be, in every single case. It doesn’t matter if we’re commissioning you or Donnacha Dennehy or a younger composer who’s never written for percussion before. You came out to our studio at least two or three times when you were writing Goldbeater’s Skin. And it just makes a big difference, for all the reasons that you just said.
CERRONE: Well, like I said, that was what was so amazing about it: the idea that it goes back into your language as a composer. So much of what I’ve done with percussion writing is now at the core of all my composing, no matter what the instruments are. I’m writing a string sextet next year, and as I’m thinking about it, I’m like, oh, I want to do this kind of thing with every instrument. And I really do: I wrote a colleague of ours, Tim Munro, a big flute piece, and really wrote it by learning the flute and finding all these sounds that then had to be translated by him [laughs] because I wrote these sounds that sound better on a cheap flute than on an expensive one. To me, that’s the way to move forward as a composer, is to collaborate, and to learn from each collaborator something new about your own language as a composer.
Third Coast Percussion plays music by Christopher Cerrone at Miller Theatre, Columbia University, on March 29 at 8pm; millertheatre.com
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