Interview with Christopher Cerrone
Christopher Cerrone’s High Windows will be premiered on the west coast by Kaleidoscope on May 12th and performed again on May 13th. Chris and I had some time to talk about growing up in Long Island, different musical mediums, and the incredible enduring presence of string instruments in history.
Irene Kim: Hi, Chris! Thanks so much for doing this interview!
Christopher Cerrone: My pleasure!
IK: Let’s start with how you got started in music.
CC: I’ve been involved with music as long as I can remember. My parents are not particularly musical, but we had a piano, which was a wedding gift from my father to my mother. I would sit there everyday, staring at it, trying to play on it, banging on it, and ask my parents for piano lessons, which they eventually gave to me. I started playing piano around the age of five, and I’ve been involved with every kind of music since then. I studied classical piano, but was also heavily involved in playing jazz and rock music in high school, and I was in a number of bands and played in orchestra as well. Finally, towards the end of high school, I became fixated on classical music, and got really obsessed with the idea of writing for orchestra, having the ability to notate music and having the ability to write long, fully composed pieces.
IK: Was there a particular incident or thing that inspired you to start composing?
CC: I was always writing music one way or another, writing songs, playing jazz, or playing classical piano; music was always a part of my life. I’m from Long Island, which is this kind of odd cultural wasteland, and in a weird sense I was rebelling against the tedious capitalism of the suburbs—of strip malls, of consumer culture. It made sense to an 18-year-old to become a classical composer. Later on, I realized Long Island would wind up playing a very big role in my life and what I do creatively.
IK: In what way did it show up later in your creative life?
CC: I’ve written quite a bit of music that reflects my upbringing and where I’m coming from. My solo percussion piece, Memory Palace, uses field recordings and found objects from Long Island. I wound up returning to my roots and plumbing musical ideas from them. I think the idealism of my youth and hating the suburbs morphed into something more complicated and nuanced.
IK: What are you working on right now? You seem to be extremely busy!
CC: I just finished a violin concerto [Breaks and Breaks] for Jennifer Koh and the Detroit Symphony a couple of weeks ago. I’ll be writing a very short violin piece now for Yevgeny Kutik, after which I’ll begin working on a new piece for the LA Phil that will be performed in November.
IK: I know you use many different kinds of mediums, like electronics, classical instruments, and new percussion instruments. Do you have a specific style or medium you’re gravitating towards these days in your writing?
CC: I would say the orchestra is actually my least comfortable medium in terms of what I do. I feel like I’m feeling my way through; I trained classically and went through years of orchestration classes but I feel that it’s probably the hardest medium for a composer’s voice to come through. A lot of my music is electroacoustic—I collaborated with The Industry for an opera [Invisible Cities] at Union Station in LA and that had a lot of technology involved. So, in one way or another, all of my work filters through my relationship with technology. Even a piece like High Windows, which is for strings, was written with me recording layer after layer of different players and sampling them. I originally sampled a recording of Thomas Zehetmair playing Paganini, where the origin of the piece comes from, and worked with some players to recreate that sound in different ways. I still have a computer file with hundreds of layers of violins, and I sort of transcribed it into a score.
IK: Why do you think the orchestra is a difficult medium for a composer’s voice to come through
CC: I think it’s because it works a certain way, more than anything else, like how things balance, how things functions, and it’s designed to do something—which is to sound like an orchestra from the 19th century! The orchestra with its constituent parts is designed to work in a certain way, and if you try to make it work another way, it doesn’t work nearly as well.
IK: Do you feel the orchestra is more confining in a way?
CC: I don’t think it’s confining, but I think it’s challenging. For the most part, you get into an orchestra rehearsal four days before the premiere, you get two rehearsals, and then you have the premiere and that’s it. Of course, this doesn’t happen with Kaleidoscope, since it’s conductorless and there are a lot of rehearsals. But in general, you have very little room for error; therefore, you write music where there isn’t room for error, whereas in a chamber work, I’m more willing to say, “Let’s try this!” or “Let’s change this!”
IK: I see. I’m glad we’ll have a lot of time to work on your piece! Let’s talk about High Windows. Can I include your notes on the piece here?
[Preface from High Windows:]
There are many things in High Windows that are old: the opening of the
piece samples a fragment from one [sic] Paganini’s Caprices (No. 6 in G minor),
the central section quotes an older piece of mine (Hoyt–Schermerhorn, for
piano and electronics), and perhaps most prominently, High Windows is a
sonata, a musical form which originated in the 17th century.
In using these old elements and putting them in a familiar order, I strove to
create recognizable sign posts to guide the listener through the distinct
sections of the piece. As a result, the focus becomes not these distinct
sections, but rather the interaction between them: how they fit together,
commingle, and discretely evolve and resolve. More than anything, though,
the piece is an exercise in mixing these disparate elements—high and low,
allusion and abstraction—to make something new.
The title High Windows is also a quote, and has two meanings. It is a
reference to the literal windows of St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, the
reverberant space for which I composed the piece; it also refers to a Philip
Larkin poem in which the older author sums up the tumult of his youth
with the lines:
[...] And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
IK: I’m curious why you submitted this particular piece for Kaleidoscope’s call for scores, since you have a few other orchestral works.
CC: I think it was technically my only piece that fit the requirement for being a premiere, since my other pieces were done by LA Chamber Orchestra and LA Phil, so this was the only one that could have a west coast premiere. But I also thought it was a good piece to do with a conductorless orchestra, because it is kind of a concerto grosso, with people playing acoustic leadership roles within the work, so there’s less of a need for a conductor.
IK: When we’re listening to the piece, is there anything you wouldn’t want us to miss?
CC: I would pay very strong attention to timbre. The thing with string orchestra is that it has a very homogenous sound. So, I think when you write for string orchestra, the thing that composers are setting out to do is finding ways to differentiate the work. The way that I did that was through very extreme use of timbre: extreme sul ponticello, extreme sul tasto, harmonics, ordinario, etc. That’s how I attempted to structure the work.
IK: In your preface to the piece, you mentioned that the work is in a way about ‘old’ things.
CC: When you’re writing for strings, it kind of feels that way inherently. I remember going to the Accademia in Florence and they have this musical instrument collection, and it’s kind of crazy because they have these original Stradivarius and these instruments are exactly the same, they haven’t changed in 400 years! The violin is the violin and it’s perfect, and it feels like you’re looking into the past when you look at string instruments. They have a history, more than like when I write for four percussionists playing sandpaper and pieces of wood, or playing electronics.
IK: I have a feeling you collaborate a lot. What kind of collaborations do you do?
CC: I often work with text and writers, so there’s often text involved in the piece. And if it’s not a strict collaboration, I work very closely with the players, like with High Windows. Whenever I’m writing a piece, I try to meet with the players five or six times and record them. It’s very unfamiliar for me to have an experience to just write a piece and send in the score. It’s always more, “Can you read through this? Can we try this?” And I think ultimately the piece reflects the personalities of the people you wrote it for. The people I originally wrote this piece for were in a quintet, some of whom I worked with for six or seven years before. There are all sorts of little things in the score that are what they suggested, and that’s a really nice feeling.
IK: That really is nice! Do you have any passions or obsessions outside of music right now?
CC: No, I don’t do anything except music. [Kidding, obviously.] I’m a pretty avid cook, particularly with Italian food, because I’m Italian. I lived in Rome two years ago, and my family lives in Florence so I spend quite a lot of time there.
IK: It’s not a bad place to be. Well, we are looking very much forward to having you back in LA!
CC: Thanks, Irene!