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A Conversation with Christopher Cerrone

The following conversation took place over Skype in July 2019. It was transcribed by Michelle Lynch and has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

I met Christopher Cerrone in 2015 at the MacDowell Colony. Cerrone’s innovative opera Invisible Cities had premiered only a short time before, in 2013, with the happy result, for him, of being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music the following year. I was fascinated with Cerrone’s work: the way it partook of the legacies of both Romanticism and serialism and, above all, Cerrone’s facility in setting English texts. As a trained singer who later became a poet, I know all too well how hard it is to set English text effectively. That Cerrone can do it effectively—he can even make it seem effortless—made him and his work stand out to me, even among the other musical visitors at MacDowell.

Cerrone is also interested in contemporary American poetry—keenly interested, just as I am keenly interested in contemporary American classical music. At MacDowell, Cerrone told me he was finishing up a setting of a suite of James Wright poems, which, I admit, caused my heart to sink. But that setting—The Branch Will Not Break (2015), for vocal octet and ten instruments—is surely one of the more satisfying settings of twentieth-century American poetry. Cerrone gets Wright’s Midwest (a place; a state of mind) just right. Copland succeeded in that, though he failed in other ways (see his opera, The Tender Land). It is to Cerrone’s credit that The Branch Will Not Break evokes the Midwest without evoking Copland. When the first recording of Cerrone’s Wright setting became available, I was led back to Wright’s poetry in new and entirely unexpected ways. There’s a tenderness and luminescence to Cerrone’s setting of, say, Wright’s simple vignette-poem “From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunderstorm” that repackages the poem in its own best intentions.

That’s what moves me most about Cerrone’s settings, from James Wright to Kay Ryan and Bill Knott—all available on Cerrone’s recently released album, The Pieces That Fall to Earth. The settings never feel, to me, like derivative works. They feel revelatory, as if Cerrone has reached down into these poems—some of which I know well, or thought I knew well—and pulled up something essential that had been hidden.

—G.C. Waldrep

G.C. Waldrep: So my first question for you: as a poet who trained as a singer myself, mostly in early repertoire, I am obsessively interested in how composers set texts. And in English, the answer is that most of them do it poorly. Britten is an exception, and you are an exception. Could you talk a little bit about the pleasures and challenges of setting English texts?

Christopher Cerrone: The short answer is, I wouldn’t know how to set any other language so it seems like something I do intuitively. You mention Britten… There is a long period between British composers who set English well. Very little seems to happen between Purcell and Britten. Those are two of the models, and I would say that another model is the American pop music I grew up with. To meand this is just a supposition, not a statement of factpop music’s relationship with the spoken word, be it Bob Dylan or The Beatles or even hip hop, and the fact that my music has tonal harmonies and some repetitive structures, perhaps this allows me a way into an English text that would feel organic to an English speaker because we all grew up with these kinds of musics.

I was thinking about how repetition and refrain characterize both the text you’ve chosen—at least as you’ve set them—and your melodic strategies. It seemed to me that there is something of a devotional or liturgical quality to all three cycles. A secular liturgy, as it were—a conception that might well have pleased Wright. And I think maybe Ryan, too. So what guides your sense of melodic refrain and disruption? What guided that as you were working on these cycles?

want to expand my comment about pop music to, really, all music outside of western classical music. Refrain is very common: whether it’s American folk music, certainly a lot of liturgical music, or shape-note singing—which we share a love of. And that’s one of my favorite forms of text setting. The texts themselves having internal repetitions drew me to them as having great potentiality for music, while in turn I amplified those aspects of the text because those are the things I’m naturally drawn to. In the case of The Branch Will Not Break, absolutely there is that sense of … the last movement feels so simple and hymn-like. I think I had in mind this notion of James Wright as an American. His work feels particularly American to me. Hymn tunes with repetition are at the core of what my notion of what American music is.

What about your decision as the text-setter to add repetition and refrain when it wasn’t present in the poem? Kay Ryan has a chiseled quality to her work; she almost never repeats anything, which makes her poems very short. But you do different things with her poems. With “The Pieces That Fall To Earth,” you repeat the same text three times. And in “The Woman Who Wrote Too Much,” you repeat different bits of the text as the song moves forward. I’m interested in your decision to amplify Ryan’s texts in your setting of them.

When I choose to amplify or repeat texts, I try to ground it in some sort of dramatic and hopefully authorial decision. In the case of the second song from The Branch Will Not Break, for example, Wright says, “Too soon, too soon.” He repeats it once—I repeat it ad infintum. That also happens in the fifth movement, he says, “Alone, alone,” and I think I repeat “alone” three times. So when the author suggests that there might be a repetition, then I feel a lot freer to start repeating those texts myself. In the case of “The Pieces That Fall To Earth,” I felt that the experience mirrored my reading of the work, and because the poems are so short, what I wind up doing is obsessively reading them over and over again. The Kay Ryan poem is over before you know what’s happened and you’re like, “Woah, that was actually really meaningful and profound. Let me read it again.” I think the poem “Hope,” in particular, the second in the cycle, strikes me as remarkable in that way … I try to mirror it in my musical setting, it’s a very pessimistic poem, but one that you read initially as being fairly optimistic. But you have to read it twice to get that. So when I was setting her poetry, I was trying to mirror my experience of reading it.

I love that answer, and it’s very different from my own first encounter with Ryan’s poetry. Years ago, I had the same experience in that the poems seemed to be over before I had even really spent much time with them and they each left me hanging off a sudden cliff that I eventually walked away from. So this is my reunion with Ryan’s work, listening to these settings. I was deeply moved by what that amplification accomplished, especially with the first two poems—with “The Pieces That Fall To Earth” and “Hope”—because I know those poems and my experience was, “Well, there they go, and now they’ve gone.” I didn’t have the time or the duration that I wanted to spend in them.

I think there’s partly a compositional strategy in that her work gives the illusion of lightness, but it’s actually quite substantive. So I felt a need to find a way in musical time to give weight to that substance. As a reader you can, if you so choose, read the poem again. As a listener, however, you’re only given as much time with the poem as I, the author of time, the composer, give it. And so that was part of the strategy. I want you to sit with the poem “The Pieces That Fall To Earth” for four and a half minutes.

That leads to the question of duration, which is something I think about a lot as a poet. And as someone who trained as a musician, I think it’s what poetry and music have most in common. They’re both arts of duration; they force a reader or a listener to stop and stay with the artwork for a while. So I love the way that, in these three settings, you play with duration, not just amplifying the texts but insisting that there was going to be a duration that the listener needed to sit through in order to get the experience that you’re having. I thought that was a standout aspect of both the Wright and Ryan settings.

In the setting of the last poem, “A Blessing,” I give about as much time musically to the first fourteen lines as I do the last three. I remember knowing exactly what I was going to do with the last three, because when we were at MacDowell I was working on that music, thinking, “I gotta get through all this early stuff because I’ve got this really good idea for the end.” But obviously that’s the turn. It’s not a sonnet, but it has that same kind of quality as a poem in which there’s a turn, and I wanted to reflect that turn. I always get slight shivers when I think of the end Wright’s “A Blessing,” because it is so touching and emotionally meaningful to me. So that dictates, at least partially, how much time I want to spend with a line of a poem.

I think it’s interesting that you should say poems are durational. A part of me wants to respect listeners. If I don’t like a poem, I turn the page. Whereas if I’m in a concert hall, I have to listen to a piece of music. I’m forced there. I can very rarely walk out. So if they’re in a kind of jail of my making, I at least always want to respect how much time the listener has for me, and to respect that in my compositions. I try to be terse, despite all the repetitions.

There’s a curatorial aspect to the reader’s or listener’s time. You can walk out of a performance, you can turn off a listening device, you can turn the page on a poem. But there’s a sense in both art forms that you are, if not demanding of a reader or a listener, you’re asking them to stop what they are doing and do something else with you, with the artwork, for a certain amount of time. As much as I’ve been influenced by Wright and have loved Wright most of my adult life, it has become easy for me to turn that page, because I’ve read his poems so many times: to take a walk, to cook a meal, to do whatever it is I need to do, can be the priority. One thing I loved about the setting of “The Branch Will Not Break” is that it persuaded me, it coerced me, to sit down and stay with the poems in a longer and different way than I had in a long time.

That makes me really happy. I think there’s been a trend in contemporary classical music to deconstruct, to take a vowel, to set a tweet. And I love poetry. We have this wealth of amazing texts in the world and I want to pay homage to them. It’s like a house that I’m given to live in and I don’t need to tear down all the walls. I want to say, “Now that I have these walls, I can put up this beautiful painting, and I can buy food for my kitchen and make a beautiful meal.” And that’s sort of how I think about these poems: they’re a place for me to live as a composer, and build a home.

I want to get back to that, the sense that the artwork is a dwelling place, a place that you can live for a while. But before I do, why these three particular poets, Kay Ryan, Bill Knott, and James Wright? What drew you to them in particular, or as a group? As a poet myself, I would not have moved from James Wright to Bill Knott had you not paired them. And asked for a third, I would not have picked Kay Ryan. So what made you want to select these three poets?

That’s one of the pleasures of being a kind of autodidact in my enthusiasm for poetry. If someone came up to me and said, “I love the music of Unsuk Chin, and I love the music of Chris Cerrone, and I love the music of Arnold Schoenberg,” I’d think, “What’s wrong with your taste? It makes no sense.” But I love that very thing about my own relationship with poetry. I would say that all three of those poets are terse, and that is the number one characteristic for any composer setting text. If you throw G.C. Waldrep into that, it makes even less sense to me… There’s a certain something when you see it on the page, then you hear music. You know, Kay Ryan is this mid-century modern house, very spartan, and you think, “Oh, I can live such a lovely life here.” Then James Wright is more of a country cottage. All the poetry I tend to like is very architectural. In the case of Kay Ryan, there are internal rhymes that I love, that feel musical to me. In terms of Wright, there are cross-references within his poems, and often cross-referencing within a work is very appealing to me… As a composer, I’m always thinking architecturally, and whether it’s Kay Ryan’s rhyme schemes, or it’s this Naomi character in all these poems by Bill Knott, or references to horses in James Wright, or to Kit Smart in G.C. Waldrepthey’re things that I can organize the world around. Poetry that has internal reference and also musicality… A poet who I would never set is Frank O’Hara. I absolutely love his work but I never want to set his poetry because I feel like it’s complete. Nothing makes me happier than Frank O’Hara. I don’t want to add any music to it. That’s sort of an ineffable thing, but I would say poetry with room. Each one feels different, and has a slightly different logic to it.

If only more composers had that same feeling about Emily Dickinson, I think we might be better off. Every time someone sets Dickinson, I wait to see the new ways in which music as a discipline can fail.

[Laughs.] Well, I love the Copland songs. And I love John Adams’s Harmonium. I think those are both great.

Timo Andres writes in the album notes for “The Pieces That Fall To Earth” that too many composers cartoon the poems by trying to musically aid their meanings. When I read that, I slammed my fist down on the desk and said, “Yes!” I was thinking of any number of Dickinson settings, actually. As you said about O’Hara, the thing about Dickinson is that so often her poems are complete in themselves and it’s hard to imagine what setting them would add to the experience that isn’t already there on the page. When you’re starting a process of setting text, do you think about, “What am I adding to this poem?” Do you think, “What is the house I am building for this poem?” Or, to flip the metaphor, “I’ve walked into the house that is the poem. I’m going to make a meal inside the house, I’m going to move the furniture around, I’m going to sing a song…”

More often than not, the music starts flowing. I have an intellectualized answer, but there is a gut response I have to a text. This is true of Calvino, there is a gut response to the work and it feels like I can come up with an intellectual answer later. I can tell you why I don’t set things. I don’t set things that have an enormous amount of references to the modern world. It’s fine to have them sometimes, but I find that if a text is filled with allusions to the modern world, it highlights the silliness of singing poetry. So I tend to look for poetry that’s a little bit more abstract in its subject matter. I read a beautiful poem yesterday by Ross Gay, who is a poet I admire a lot. It is about Eric Garner. It’s a beautiful poem and I would never set it because that would highlight the silliness of singing it, when it’s a very serious subject. Whereas poetry that has dramatic marks tends to be very good for music, because something happens, something changes, there is a moment… Another thing I avoid is any kind of direct reference to music, although, again, the exception to the rule is G.C. Waldrep. I guess my best answer would be, “Is the writing itself musical? Does it have a lyricism? Does it have a flow, and does it have the kind of architecture I can work with?”

It’s that architecture that fascinates me most with the Ryan settings. I would not have included Kay Ryan in my top one hundred list of musical poets—poets whose work impresses me with the musicality of its language—but it’s possible that, because of this, there is more room to work with her texts lyrically.

I think another thing you have to deal with when you do a Dickinson setting is all the Dickinson settings. I had planned a Lydia Davis song cycle that I later abandoned because I felt a couple of fabulous composers—Kate Soper and David Lang—had already put their stamps on it. I didn’t know of any Kay Ryan settings, and that was part of the appeal. Another thing that appealed—I think she’s one of the rare poets who uses rhyme and employs it really well. That interests me because we have rhymes in music as well, my music has rhymes, phrases will echo one another and so forth. Plus Ryan sounds better sung than spoken. So there’s a lot of potentiality in all those things. I think there’s some rhyming in a few of the Wright poems as well…

There is, and it’s subtle. Could you talk a little bit about aural rhyme in your work, which is not quite the same thing as repetition and refrain? I was fascinated with the melodic correspondences across these cycles. For instance, your setting of Ryan’s “Hope,” then the turn in the middle of your setting of Wright’s “Two Hangovers, Number Two.” There’s also the oboe part that distinguishes your setting of Ryan’s “Swept Up Whole,” which is reprised as the baritone voice part in the second Naomi song. I was watching these riffs move around, again among three poets that are very different to me, except for their terseness, as you say. Was this an intentional effect across these three cycles, or is it something that simply accrued as you moved through the settings?

I think that’s what suggested to me that I collect these three works, which were composed successively. I received a series of commissions for voice and chamber orchestra, and so I thought that these would collect together really well. I thought it would be appealing to make them into a set for that very reason, because they are reflections of one another. On some level, you only have so many tricks in your book as a composer. Timo Andres, who wrote program notes for the album, pointed out to me that “The Pieces That Fall To Earth” and “The Branch Will Not Break” have nearly identical structures: seven palindromic movements with a climactic build at the end, where there’s a key change. It’s striking in a way that I didn’t do that deliberately and yet it’s what makes this collection of pieces fit together really well. I think of it as a snapshot of my life, where I was doing a certain thing and I don’t think I’m doing it as much anymore. I obviously took one melody and reused it because I felt that they both needed a certain kind of sensuousness and I liked the idea of intertextuality between my works. But it wasn’t part of some master plan.

That gets back to duration in terms of the creative process. I work similarly; I’m not fully aware of what I’m doing until I’ve done it. A lot of what I could say about my own work would be retrospective. Typically I know when I’m done with a large chunk of work because it changes, the work changes. Then the question becomes, how does one gather up these pieces, which have fallen here and there, and put them together? I’ve recently been thinking about, “Where is the work of art? Where does it live?” In handing off my work to you, there was a sense of letting go. It was almost like, the children are going off to college now and you need to back off and let the children be their own thing. Then they came home when I heard your setting, and I thought: the children had had experiences that I will never understand; they’re different people now. I thought: how wonderful it is that these works of art went off into the world and became something else. I wanted to ask you about this because I imagine you also have some experience with this, with Invisible Cities. You took a text that had moved you, set it, and handed it off to the production people. I know we spoke once about your interaction with the choreographer for Invisible Cities, who created this new work which is not just your setting of the Calvino texts but a theatre piece. Do you think about the idea of moving something forward, and then possibly handing it off to other people?

I like it, actually. I feel the same way as you; I want to have my thing, and I want it to be my way. In the case of your texts, I would hope that someday, someone reads other poems of yours because they heard this piece, and they fall in love with another poem. That’s just part of the joy of art. I came to love certain poets because of their original settings, and then grew to love other works by the same author. I think it’s about being a generous person. You were so generous to let me mess up your poetry, and I try to be generous in the same way with my own work. Someone can seek out the original and find what the author’s intention was, but I think from there it’s really nice that we get to add another layer to the original work. We get to give ourselves to other artists. That’s how I’ve always felt, and whenever anyone asks my permission for things, I always say yes, unless it’s vulture capitalists or whomever. As long as the person has good intentions.

This Taiwanese animator made a very strange film based on my violin concerto. It involved flowers coming out of a man’s vagina and he changed the order of the piece all around. And it was sort of beautiful and wonderful, and I was fine with it. I was just glad that something I did was meaningful to anyone. That’s the attitude I try to have. This isn’t how I would have animated my violin concerto, but hopefully someone hears the music and… Art in people’s lives is scarce, and I love any way that makes it less scarce.

I appreciate your use of “generosity” in this very particular way. I think there’s something profoundly generous about the way in which a work of art—a poem, a concerto—moves forward in time and finds other people, finds the people it needs to find. I don’t fully understand that. As a singer, I was used to being handed a work of art by someone else, which was the score. Then, as a performer, you’re supposed to sing it, and it goes out to some other people who may be in the audience. I think as poets we don’t always think about that. We grow claustrophobic in our vision of what happens to the work. But it, too, goes out into the world and it becomes other people’s. There’s a beauty in that—and a risk, because it could become something that you weren’t prepared for. For me, the beauty outweighs the risk; if I didn’t think so, I probably wouldn’t publish.

It was a reading of your work that inspired me to make settings of it. I thought, “Oh, this is profoundly musical, in a way I did not expect it to be.”

Has Ryan heard your settings?

No, I didn’t send it to her. I really should.

So you don’t know what she thinks of them?

I got nervous. I didn’t even want to send them to you, and you’re my friend. It stresses me out, honestly. I was very touched to have the blessing of Calvino’s daughter on my opera. That was tremendously meaningful to me.

That disappoints me ever so slightly, because my own readings of Ryan’s poems are so different from what you were able to do with them. Now I hear them in your voice in the same way that I can no longer read Lydia Davis without hearing David Lang.

You should listen to Kate Soper. It’s good, and radically different. I will send them to Ryan, I’m sure she’d be happy to hear them. I remember handing an early set of mine to a very famous poet, and she sort of acted like… I mean, she had given me her blessing, but wanted nothing else to do with it. So I think that scarred me early on; I was afraid poets would hate what I did with their work.

I think that might get back to the fear embedded inside contemporary poetry, especially in America, that it is something very private and personal, and above all else mine. You’re free to walk about the edges of the fenced-off poem, and look at it, but anything more intimate—anything that changes the poem or that engages the poem on a visceral level—can seem threatening. That seems so different from the training a musician receives. The conductor is going to make choices about tempo, the singers are going to make choices, the performers are going to make choices as they bring your work to fruition in front of an audience. We don’t have that in poetry. It’s just not there.

There’s a meta-narrative within my own life… As a young composer, you’re mostly working with your friends, you get to know them a little bit, you make comments while hanging out and having beers, rehearsing your piece. The pieces have a lot that aren’t in the scores. Then suddenly you find yourself, fifteen years later, a professional composer and someone half a world away who doesn’t speak your native language is premiering a piece of yours. Much more has to be in the score, but regardless it might still get butchered because music is hard. When you think about how often Mozart is butchered, is he turning in his grave because children are learning his music, and playing it terribly? I’m sure he’s not. I’m sure he’s very happy that everyone’s playing his music all the time. It’s the price of broader circulation, which is a wonderful thing to have. If it’s between someone never hearing my work and hearing a bad performance of my work, I think I would probably opt for someone to hear my work—depending on how bad the quality! That’s a choice that every composer has to make, and that’s probably how different poets might react to having their work set. Some might say, “Oh wow, someone might read my poem that perhaps wouldn’t have, or experience my work in a new way, or perhaps even my work has a kind of valence that I didn’t know about.” That’s what I would hope poets would feel, and I think some of them do and some of them don’t.

As a poet, I hope there are aspects of my work that I never intended, that I don’t actually know about, and that somehow, through experiencing the work, other people can bring those out. I want a poem to be bigger than my intentions for the poem and I actually prefer it to be better and smarter than I am.

I want to ask you two questions about specific lines in these settings. In some ways, the most remarkable couplet from across these cycles is the closing couplet of Knott’s “Naomi Songs,” which goes, “This wound searching us for a voice, will become a fountain with rooms to let.”

It’s an amazing line.

I remember reading it years ago, and not settling on it, but now I have. My question is: If your setting of the Naomi songs is the fountain, then I want you to tell me about the rooms that your music has to let. Tell me what your rooms are like, and who do you hope will lease them?

I would answer that question in the same way that you responded to your work. I have a close friend named Scott Wollschleger, a composer, who tells me that I don’t know why my music is good. He tells me that I think my music is good because I have these notions of architecture, timing, structure, and that’s what I talk about. He says, “No, your music is good because it’s spacious and beautiful, and I can zone out and not listen to any of it, but I listen to all of it, just not in the way you think it’s being listened to.” I have to say, “Awesome, go with God. I’m so glad that my music is meaningful to you in a way that it’s not meaningful to me.” I try to remember this when I write. To extend the house metaphor, I would like some of the rooms in the house to be guest rooms. I’ve got the living room that I think is the main room, and I’m presenting that to you, whether that’s through the album art or through the language I used to describe it. But I think that not being prescriptive about how people listen is really important. Maybe it’s that I’m the house again, and you can put up whatever you want it in and I’m okay with it.

Takes us back to the generosity… The other quote I keep returning to comes from Ryan’s poem, “The Woman Who Wrote Too Much.” It’s the quatrain: “It is a miracle to me now when a piece of the structure unseals.” I keep going back to that in formal terms, and wanting to apply this to your music. Not just this album, but also to other works like “South Catalina.” Is it a miracle to you when a piece of the structure unseals?

That was a very, very deliberate move. In my mind, I thought I was being too cloying or something, because that’s obviously the moment when the second song—“Hope”—comes back, the suggestion within all this that there is hope. It’s an attempt to transform this notion of hope, which is looked upon very pessimistically in the second song, and I wanted to look upon it optimistically. And I think perhaps there is the voice of the author coming out a little bit — the author, me — and I wanted to transform this pessimistic notion of hope to an optimistic notion. So in that moment, I am attempting to unseal the structure of it, to you, the listener, to suggest something about me. That is a very deliberate moment in the music.

Do you have moments when you read a poem or when you listen to someone else’s musical composition where you think, “Wait, that’s the moment when the piece of the structure is unsealing”?

Absolutely. An example, off the top of my head, is Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson — the last song, “The Chariot,” echoes an earlier song, it brings musical material back and the song is about death, and so the notion of death, coupled with this recurring musical material, immediately creates this amazing retrospective effect within the music. That is probably my single favorite thing about what music can do, especially with text, is to literally make us remember. That is what music can do: bring us new context to the lives that we live.

Christopher Cerrone is an internationally acclaimed composer whose opera, Invisible Cities, was a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is currently a guest composition faculty member at the The Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University for 2019–2020.

G.C. Waldrep is the author most recently of feast gently (Tupelo, 2018), winner of the 2019 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the long poem Testament (BOA Editions, 2015). He lives in Lewisburg, Pa., where he teaches at Bucknell University and edits the journal West Branch.


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