Standing in the midst of a metal jungle of mics, music stands and percussion instruments, Wild Up flutist Erin McKibben lifted her piccolo to her lips and offered up a simple high note, letting it hang in the air briefly before repeating it with calm insistence. Moments later, that simple riff was returned, volleyed back like a tennis ball via live electronic sampling. McKibben responded in kind, launching an intricate back and forth, a duet with herself in which she performed on piccolo, flute, and water-tuned glass bottles.
McKibben’s performance of Liminal Highway, a 2016 work by composer Christopher Cerrone, opened an intimate concert and album listening party on July 28 inside L.A. Dance Project’s brick-walled studio in the industrial outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. While not new and not featured on The Pieces That Fall to Earth – Cerrone’s latest release via New Amsterdam, and the focal point of the evening – the piece served its purpose, drawing the audience into the composer’s richly textured sound world like an aural amuse-bouche.
On August 2 at Areté Venue & Gallery in Greenpoint, The Pieces That Fall to Earth will be celebrated on the East Coast. While that concert won’t include Liminal Highway, it will feature several other non-album works by Cerrone, including his 2015 Violin Sonata.
In Los Angeles, only one work from the new album was performed live at the concert. Improvising vocalist Theo Bleckmann wasn’t on hand to sing The Naomi Songs, a set of four abstract love songs Cerrone wrote with Bleckmann’s voice in mind, so Wild Up ensemble member Jodie Landau stepped in. These relatively small pieces, based on poems by Bill Knott, contain multitudes, funneling big emotions through sometimes simple, repetitive melodies. Landau approached them in a more visceral and direct way than Bleckmann did on the record. He was backed in this instance by a paired-down ensemble of six, proving that pieces from this exquisitely mixed album are flexible and worthy of a variety of future performances. (Bleckmann will perform the songs for the New York event, accompanied by Timo Andres on piano.)
In “I Left,” the second Naomi Song, Landau seemed to relish singing one of this album’s most memorable and intoxicating melodies: a simple repeated downward line that hesitates before it descends, hovering around its point of origin like a moth to a flame. On the album this melody surfaces twice: first via a haunting woodwind solo, and then, later and in a different setting, with renewed passion via male vocalist. This kind of unity across works contributes to the sense that The Pieces That Fall to Earth is as much a continuous whole as it is a collection of three song cycles.
Los Angeles audiences first encountered Cerrone’s knack for evocatively setting abstract texts in 2013 when Yuval Sharon’s nomadic opera company, The Industry, staged the composer’s opera Invisible Cities inside Union Station. The same strengths of that work, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2014, appear here: an enveloping, texturally rich, cohesive sound world, and vocal lines that simultaneously obscure and reveal meaning and emotion.
In fact, listening to The Pieces That Fall to Earth in its entirety – which the audience in Los Angeles did after intermission Sunday night, many while laying on their backs on blankets or mats on the floor – feels very much like being dropped into the most beautiful and intense moments of a staged opera. Technically the opening seven tracks, which bear the same name as the album, are a collection of short art songs set to poetry by Kay Ryan. But as sung on the album by soprano Lindsay Kesselman, they are arias, the dramatic bits of an operatic story we can’t fully see.
Cerrone’s writing for Kesselman pushes her to the highest edges of her vocal range. This is most notable in “Insult,” an intense, fiery piece that builds to a visceral, shrieking climax. Leaving her voice in its upper ranges almost exclusively contributes to the unified world of the song cycle—but the few moments in which Kesselman drops into her lower range are so satisfying, it’s hard not to want more lows to balance out the highs.
This is an album worth putting on repeat, because it’s a joy to get lost in Cerrone’s world, a place where poetry and music live in total harmony with one another. Beautifully produced, engineered and mixed by Nick Tipp and performed by Wild Up, it deserves to be fêted on both coasts, surrounded by sibling works that serve as a reminder of this composer’s distinct talent.
Christopher Cerrone, Theo Bleckmann, Timo Andres, and other artists celebrate the release of The Pieces That Fall to Earth at Areté Venue & Gallery on Aug. 2 at 8pm; aretevenue.com
Catherine Womack is an L.A.-based arts and culture journalist who regularly contributes to the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter: @cewomackwrites
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.