For a Composer, the Final Minutes Are Critical
Flowering into lushly affecting patterns, Christopher Cerrone’s new album is part of a burst of activity over the past year.
By Seth Colter Walls for the New York Times
June 17, 2021
Christopher Cerrone in his apartment in Brooklyn. “Honestly,” he says, “little by little I think I figured out how to compose.” Credit...Lila Barth for The New York Times
Christopher Cerrone’s career got a huge boost right at its beginning: His opera “Invisible Cities,” inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, when he was barely in his 30s. But despite its lucid grace and a compelling production — it was performed in a bustling train station for a wandering audience listening over headphones — I found myself wanting to love its unhurried nimbuses of melody more than I did. The opera’s drifting quality ended up feeling too shapeless. In a recent interview, Cerrone, 37, agreed that “Invisible Cities” suffered a bit from an overreliance on what he called “this lyrical, sort-of-melancholy thing.”
“Honestly,” he added, “little by little I think I figured out how to compose.”
It certainly didn’t take him too long to figure out. “Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” for solo piano and electronics, suavely
subverted its initially sedate cast of mood as a stirring opening for Vicky Chow’s album “AORTA” in 2016. And
in “Goldbeater’s Skin,” performed at Trinity Wall Street in 2018, he alternated luminous melodic development
with frizzy rhythmic outbursts. At one point, a merger of muted, slowly strummed acoustic guitar and pitched
percussion felt like the announcement of a new level of craft.
Cerrone’s most recent full-length album, “The Arching Path,” was released on In a Circle Records in May. The
title piece — a three-movement work, played by the pianist Timo Andres — starts with brittle repetition before
flowering into lushly affecting patterns before the end of the first movement. Tender ascending notes in the left
hand contribute a sense of earnestness to the right hand’s chordal, Minimalist-inflected mechanics.
“That’s the classic Cerrone heart-on-the-sleeve moment,” Andres said in an interview. “That’s where it’s all
Andres — also a composer and a close friend of Cerrone’s since they met as graduate students at the Yale
School of Music — considers the piece a leap forward.
“It’s not music that’s virtuosic for virtuosity’s sake — which is something I’m not really interested in, as a
pianist or a composer,” he said. “But the musical form and the musical gesture just sort of requires a degree of
virtuosity to play itself out. To me, when these two things fuse with each other, it can be very moving.”
Cerrone’s pieces can seem like vessels catching stray raindrops for long stretches, before each piece sends its carefully husbanded material back outward in generous outpourings. Credit...Lila Barth for The New York Times The pandemic gave Cerrone time to edit and release recordings of performances that had been captured over the past few years. Along with “The Arching Path,” the additions to his discography include a solo percussion-plus-electronics track, “A Natural History of Vacant Lots,” that sounds like a full-length ambient record compressed into a single, without seeming hurried. The second movement of “Liminal Highway,” performed by the flutist Tim Munro (who doubles on piccolo and beer bottles), begins with expansive, hard-core repetition before spiraling into its melodic material.
“More and more over the years,” Cerrone said, “I’ve tried to do the same thing with rhythm and pulse that I’ve
done with harmony. And I think it’s helped clarify and refine my overall compositional language.”
A recent work for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra — “A Body, Moving,” featuring tuba, trumpet and a
percussionist who uses a bike pump — saves its most emotive material for its closing minutes. That is also true of Cerrone’s violin concerto for Jennifer Koh, “Breaks and Breaks,” performed with the Detroit Symphony
Orchestra in 2018. (The concerto shares material with the string quartet “Can’t and Won’t,” which was also released as a single last year.)
Closing minutes — of a movement, or of an entire work — tend to be a big deal for Cerrone. His compositions
can seem like vessels that catch sparse rainfall for long stretches, thus setting critical terms of engagement for a listener, until a limit of storage is reached. Then, his writing sends this carefully husbanded material back outward in generous pourings.
“I think he’s always really had this sense of going for a dramatic moment in his forms,” Andres said, while
adding that this hasn’t always been clear in Cerrone’s music: “There’s some early works that I can think of
where he was sort of too beholden to his modernist influences to really let it fly, if you know what I mean. Morton Feldman is not going to really have a such heart-on-the-sleeve moment. And I think Feldman was a big
North Star for Chris, early on.”
Born in Huntington, on Long Island, in 1984, Cerrone grew up taking piano lessons, but also played guitar in
punk bands. He loved the ambient music of Aphex Twin, as well as Radiohead, Björk and the arranger Gil
Evans’s collaborations with Miles Davis — all music that was, he said, “so closely influenced by classical music that I started to get excited by the Stravinsky records that were lying around my house.” (Cerrone’s father did advertising work for Tower Records, and was paid partially in classical LPs.) “My relationship to instrumentality — and, like, time — is not particularly drawn from classical music per se,” he said. “It’s a combination of these other genres of music, and the computer.” Growing up in the MTV era also had an impact on his work, and on his hopes for its intelligibility to nonspecialists.
“I’ve just come to embrace it more and more,” he said. “I should make my music really accessible to the equivalent person who’s not in classical music.” While college and then graduate school opened his mind to experimental classical styles, he still has an allergy to certain extremes. On Twitter, where Cerrone is an impish presence, he recently asked what listeners could possibly get from the heady, quick-changing complexity of a composer like (the widely beloved) Elliott Carter, who died in 2012 at 103. “I cannot, for the life of me, understand the appeal of Elliott Carter’s music,” Cerrone wrote, “but sometimes I suspect it’s the ability for it to fit into a certain kind of showy athleticism that fits into the canon the way, say, Vivaldi does?” (He later clarified that “Vivaldi is good.”)
“I really should never tweet,” he said in the interview, with a laugh. But there was something telling about his
critique, which he said came from his desire in his own music “to do things in as few notes as possible,”
reflecting his sense of the precious nature of an audience’s time.
“Maybe that’s why I had that moment with Carter,” he said. “It wasn’t offering me anything.”
But while he doesn’t court virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake, Cerrone doesn’t have his music stay rudimentary for
long — as the gradual windup of “The Arching Path” and “A Body, Moving” both demonstrate. “These pieces,” he said, “are all about taking really simple things and simple materials — repeated notes or single notes or things like that — and trying to build these dense, formally crystalline worlds out of them.”
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