Christopher Cerrone has over twenty-five works published by PSNY, and we sat down with the composer in his home in Brooklyn to talk about his favorites.
Memory Palace is a work for solo percussion and electronics written in 2012, commissioned by a consortium of percussionists and by the Jerome Fund for New Music. Owen Weaver, the lead percussionist, knew that he was going to tour the piece and told me that he wasn't sure if he would have standard instruments, but that he would make whatever instruments I wanted. So this began as a journey of writing a 20-minute narrative piece for these kind of "odds and ends." So it's scored for an old acoustic guitar on its back, fourteen slats of tuned wood, fourteen metal pipes, and seven beer bottles, along with a few actual percussion instruments. As I wrote the piece, certain sounds came to evoke in me specific periods in my life… These images kept coming to me related to my childhood in the suburbs in Long Island, and I thought there was something powerful about connecting these quotidian objects to quotidian memories—of suburbs, highways, camping…
- 2. Christopher Cerrone: I Will Learn to Love a Person for soprano, saxophone or clarinet, piano, and percussion
I Will Learn to Love a Person was written in 2013, commissioned by the Colorfield Ensemble. I had written my opera Invisible Cities, and I was deeply immersed in the world of Italo Calvino. He writes in such beautiful, lush prose, and so for this piece I wanted to to the complete opposite of that. I had come across the poetry of Tao Lin, and I was inspired by the directness of his poetry. It had all these incredibly simple sentiments in it, which struck me as actually being really ripe for adaptation into songs. They were almost song lyrics… they left room for music. The piece is in five movements, in a kind of palindromic form. It mixes deadpan seriousness with humor. The odd movements are kind of like “text message recitatives,” whereas the inner movements are fast and bright and colorful—it’s a piece that allows singers to evoke a wide emotional vocabulary, while being really direct at the same time.
I really love this piece! It’s kind of an outlier in my catalogue—firstly that it’s simply a violin sonata, which is so unlike my other titles that take their names from poetry. It refers to a sonata in a literal and metaphorical way. It was written for the violinist Rachel Lee Priday and the pianist David Kaplan; it was my way of accessing virtuosity, in a certain way. Rachel is an incredible violinist, but I didn’t have an interest in traditional virtuosity; I found that each movement became a kind of etude for one of the player. It starts off with this very delicate, high texture in the violin, and the piano joins to become a kind of hyperinstrument, almost; and then it breaks into a kind of Bruce Springsteen-esque chord progression… it’s an uncharacteristically joyous piece for me.
The Pieces that Fell to Earth was commissioned by the LA Phil, written for Hilla Plitman and the LA Phil new music group. She’s an incredibly dextrous soprano and has a really high register; in this piece, I challenged myself to write in a different way from my other vocal writing. In a way, this piece starts where I Will Learn to Love a Person ends; it takes a lot of the melodic writing from that piece and adds different elements, like vocalise, or whispering—everything a singer can do. It’s set to the poetry of Kay Ryan; her poetry appeals to me because it’s often extremely short, and it also rhymes, which is very rare in contemporary poetry.
I wrote Double Happiness for The Living Earth Show, a duo from San Francisco of percussion and electric guitar, in 2012—based on field recordings I took in Italy, when I was doing a summer residency. I spent the summer recording sounds of the Italian countryside: a huge rainstorm that changed the seasons, a remarkable bell at the train station… these sounds were combined with recordings of my grandfather’s violin and accordion that I played, and formed a kind of travelogue of music. Out of this came a piece that’s a delicate, five-movement form… The Living Earth Show has played the piece a ton; they’ve recorded it, they’ve choreographed it. But because there are very few guitar and percussion duos, my friends from Latitude 49 in Chicago asked me if I could make a version for piano and percussion. So I set about re-writing the piece from the piano—harmonics, muted notes, notes plucked with a guitar pick—just like a guitar. These two versions have become their own pieces; while they sound very different to me, each one has its charms.