Christopher Cerrone’s career got a big boost early on: 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 apparent grace and a compelling production—it was performed in a bustling train station for a wandering audience to listen on headphones on—I found myself wanting to love the unaltered nimbus of the melody more than was. The flowing quality of the opera felt too shapeless.
In a recent interview, Cerrone, 37, agreed that “The Invisible City” suffered an overabundance over what it called “this lyrical, sort-of-melancholy thing.”
“Honestly,” he said, “little by little I think I figured out how to compose.”
It certainly didn’t take him long to figure it out. “Hoyt-Schmerhorn” for solo piano and electronics replaced his initially calming ensemble of moods as a provocative debut for Vicky Chow’s album “AORTA” in 2016. and in “Goldbeater’s Skin”, performed at Trinity Wall Street in 2018. Alternate dazzling melodic developments with curly rhythmic bursts. At one point, the merger of muted, softly strummed acoustic guitar and pitch percussion felt like a declaration of a new level of craft.
Cerrone’s most recent full-length album, “The Arching Path,” In a Circle Records was released in May. The title piece – a three-movement work played by pianist Timo Andrés – begins with brittle repetitions before the end of the first movement, before blossoming into a lushly influenced pattern. Tender ascending notes in the left hand contribute a sense of sincerity to the chordal, minimalist-inflected mechanics of the right hand.
“It’s a classic Cerrone heart-on-the-sleeve moment,” Andres said in an interview. “That’s where it’s going.”
Andres – also a composer and close friend of Cerrone since they met as graduate students at the Yale School of Music – considers the piece a leap forward.
“It’s not music that merits virtuosity—which is something I’m not really interested in, as a pianist or composer,” he said. “But some degree of virtuosity is required for the form and musical gesture of the music to play itself out. For me, when these two things mix with each other, it goes a long way.”
The pandemic gave Cerrone time to edit and release recordings of performances that had been captured over the years. Along with “The Arcing Path”, his discography includes a single percussion-plus-electronics track, “A Natural History of Vacant Lots”, which Sounds like a full-length ambient record compressed into a single, without haste. second movement of “frontier highway” Performed by flute player Tim Munro (who doubles on Piccolo and beer bottles), begins with elaborate, hard-core repetitions before spiraling into its mellow material.
“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 find that helps clarify and refine my overall creative language. Help has come.”
A recent work for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – “A body, running,” Featuring a percussionist using tuba, trumpet and a bike pump – delivers its most emotional content for its closing minutes. The same is true of Cerrone’s violin concerto for Jennifer Koh, “Breaks and Breaks,” performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2018. Also released as a single last year.)
The closing minutes—of a movement, or an entire act—are a big deal for Cerrone. His compositions may sound like vessels that capture sparse precipitation for long periods of time, thus setting important conditions of engagement for a listener, until the extent of storage is reached. Then, his writing sends this carefully crafted material back outwards in a generous excerpt.
Andres said, “I think he always had a sense of going for a dramatic moment in his forms,” adding that this has not always been evident in Cerrone’s music: “There are some early works that I’m interested in Can’t imagine where he was. If you know what I mean, behold too much of his modernist influences to really let it fly. Morton Feldman really doesn’t seem to have such a heart-on-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 a punk band. He loved the ambient music of Apex Twin, as well as Gil Evans’ collaborations with Radiohead, Björk, and Miles Davis – all music, which he said was “so closely influenced by classical music that I became excited about Stravinsky records.” Felt that were lying around my house.” (Cerrone’s father did advertising work for Tower Records, and was partially paid for in classical LPs.)
“My relationship to the instrument – and, as such, timing – is not particularly drawn from classical music in particular,” he said. “It’s a combination of these other styles of music and computer.” Growing up in the MTV era had an impact on his work and also on his hopes of making it understandable to non-experts.
“I just came to embrace it more and more,” he said. “I need to make my music really accessible to an equivalent person who isn’t into classical music.”
While college and then graduate school opened his mind to experimental classical styles, he is still allergic to some extremes. On Twitter, where Cerrone is an impressive presence, he recently asked what listeners could possibly get from the heady, quick-changing complicity of a musician (widely beloved) Elliot Carter, who died at 103 in 2012. was.
“I cannot, for the life of me, understand the appeal of Elliot Carter’s music,” wrote Cerrone, “but at times I doubt it has the potential to fit into a certain kind of showy athleticism that fits into the canon. Is, say, Vivaldi does?” (he later clarified that “Vivaldi is good.”)
“I really should never tweet,” he said with a laugh in the interview. But there was something telling about his criticism, which he said came from his desire to “work in as few notes as possible” in his own music, reflecting his sense of the precious nature of the audience’s time.
“Maybe that’s why I had that moment with Carter,” he said. “It wasn’t giving me anything.”
But while he doesn’t court virtue for virtuosity, Cerrone’s music doesn’t remain primary for long — appearing as a gradual windup of both “The Arching Path” and “A Body, Moving”.
“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 make these dense, formally crystalline worlds out of them. Huh.”