by Samuel Rogers, A Closer Listen
when you fall asleep in transit you rarely wake up much closer to where you want to be and you’ve missed the song you were waiting to hear coming up after the ad for a funeral home and the traffic and weather in a town you’ll never live in
or even see now that you’ve passed it in a dream you don’t recall
These are the opening lines from John K. Samson’s “Liminal Highway”, the inspiration for Christopher Cerrone's 2016 composition. Literary allusions abound in Cerrone’s work, from his opera Invisible Cities(drawing on Italo Calvino) to the orchestral High Windows (nodding to Philip Larkin). Evidently, Cerrone’s work needs readers as much as listeners.
In the lines of verse, to sleep in transit is to forego experience. Nonetheless, Cerrone’s opening movement sedates the listener like the motion of a vehicle. Soft notes assemble windchimes and lullabies. The next movement foregrounds rapid staccato sounds. The flutter of eyelids entering a dream? Or the zipping past of white lines on the highway?
The composition, written for Tim Munro, is for solo flute and electronics. The recording from 2018 is crisp and mesmerising. Nonetheless, listeners might begin by viewing an earlier rendition. Watching Munro perform, it’s clear that the composition rethinks and renavigates the instrument. Familiar flute melodies do sneak in, as moments of clarity in a beguiling dream. Elsewhere, bursts of breath make airy caverns in the unconscious; air is sculpted into metronome percussion; sonic loops give the texture of a full wind section.
Since punk was my first love, I remember Samson not from poetry or from The Weakerthans, but from Propagandhi’s How to Clean Everything (1993). Here, Samson’s wistful “song for all of those who shot and missed” seemed off-kilter against tracks like “Stick the Fucking Flag Up Your Goddam Ass, You Sonofabitch”. Now I wonder if Samson is always out of place, waking up just beyond towns he’ll never occupy. Sleep and liminality are similarly depicted by artist Bill Viola, in “The Body Asleep” (1992):
“Far more disturbing than falling asleep at the wheel while driving is waking up. The fearful speculation of how long one has been asleep punctuates the moving monotony with a shrill reminder of the uncertainty and fragility of existence. Walking home alone in the middle of the night through a densely populated neighborhood is another moment when being awake can be more disturbing than being asleep—the thundering silence of masses of people sleeping behind walls and closed doors rings throughout the emptiness of the immediate surroundings, as if a great tide has retreated”.
For both Samson and Viola, the moment of waking is an unsettling one. The borderlands expand between consciousness, identity, and one’s surroundings. We feel a surreal displacement, whether we passed the neighborhood in a dream, or whether we tiptoe through its silence. This is captured in Cerrone’s final movement, which reprises and subverts the first, as the dreamer wakes to find the world changed. Gradual layers of flute are met by ominous minor keys and vibrato calls of urgency. In a looping refrain, the final fragments of dream slip away from memory.
On the road, behind closed doors, or alone in silent streets? There are many places where great music keeps us company. At only sixteen minutes, this foray into dream is all too brief. But as it ends, we find Cerrone and Munro had time to alter the scenery around us. (Samuel Rogers)
Click here to watch Tim Munro perform Liminal Highway, filmed on the SS United States.