The Arching Path: A Conversation with Christopher Cerrone

Christopher Cerrone is part of a tectonic shift in the new music landscape. Recently named one of The Washington Post‘s “21 Composers and performers who sound like tomorrow,” the Brooklyn-based composer has collaborated with a veritable who’s-who of classical ensembles, ranging from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Third Coast Percussion. He’s an integral member of the Sleeping Giant collective—a modern-day “Les Six” of sorts—alongside Timo Andres, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman, all notable composers in their own right. Cerrone has also received numerous accolades in recent years, which includes nominations for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize (for his opera Invisible Cities) and a 2020 Grammy Award (for The Pieces That Fall to Earth). And this just scratches the surface…

Christopher Cerrone
(Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff)

Cerrone’s music is tricky to pin down—in the best possible ways. It’s accessible, but also incredibly rich and thought-provoking. (Not that these things have to be mutually exclusive!) It revels in ear-catching colors and displays an insatiable curiosity for unique sound combinations. (Several of his compositions feature electronic accompaniment, giving them a delicious, digital “sheen.”) It exudes a deep literary sensibility, as well as a fascination with place, memory, sound, and silence. Simply put, it’s amazing stuff.

The affinity for place and memory is particularly evident in Cerrone’s latest album, The Arching Path (available now from In a Circle Records). This release highlights four piano-centric chamber pieces, three of which are inspired by travel—The Arching Path and Double Happiness stem from the composer’s trips to Italy, while Hoyt-Schermerhorn was conceived after many late-night commutes on the New York subway. The centerpiece of the album is I will learn to love a person, an inward-focused song cycle that sets the Twitter-esque poetry of American author Tao Lin. It’s an incredible album overall and definitely one worth checking out. (You can order it on Bandcamp or wherever digital music is sold. It is also available for streaming.)

Chris and I chatting from our respective Zoom “boxes.” (Screenshot used with permission)

A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege to sit down with Chris—albeit virtually, over Zoom—and talk about his new album. Our 45-minute conversation was fascinating and wide-ranging, covering topics from creativity during the pandemic to janky family violins.

Below are excerpts from our discussion, which have been edited for length and clarity:

Kevin McBrien (KM): How have you fared this past year with COVID and lockdown? What has kept you going through this very weird and very strange time?

Christopher Cerrone (CC): It’s extremely strange! I think I have responded to it by just throwing myself into work. I think I’m in a privileged position in a number of ways. Since I’m a composer, we can work in a sense. Of course, not everything is realized on the timeline we’d originally envisioned, but overall, none of my projects—and again, this is a matter of just pure luck—have been fully canceled. Obviously, there’s an enormous psychological toll that it’s taken on everyone, and that’s, I think, universal. But a lot of projects wound up working out really well. I had a percussion quartet with piano [Don’t Look Down, written for Conor Hanick and Sandbox Percussion] that wound up getting a really amazing document over a live stream. I think it would be callous to say that I’ve “benefited” from the pandemic—no one has—but I feel just very, very lucky that everything has worked out the way it has.

Cerrone’s Don’t Look Down, which was composed and premiered during the COVD pandemic.

KM: That’s great to hear. Well, tell me a bit about this album as a whole. What was the impetus for putting these pieces together? What was your approach to pairing them collectively?

CC: I think I wanted to make a piano-centric album. My last two records [Invisible Cities and The Pieces That Fall to Earth] were very “big,” so I wanted to make something a little bit more intimate that involved my chamber music. And I also wanted to collaborate with all my favorite musicians and create a kind of narrative experience. Timo [Andres] and I were talking about it and we had the idea of these two piano pieces bookending the album around my song cycle. [Note: Andres is also featured in The Washington Post‘s “21 Composers and performers who sound like tomorrow.”] I will learn to love a person has never had a proper recording, and I really wanted to work with Lindsay [Kesselman] again, so we built this arc of solo, duo, quartet, back to solo. They’re all travel pieces, they’re all pieces that have to do with a sense of home, and then, of course, they felt like they formed a really good narrative arc.

KM: Nice. About the performers on the album: I know you’ve worked with Timo Andres multiple times before, you’re good friends, and…

CC: I lived with him too!

KM: Oh wow, there you go!

CC: I wrote Hoyt-Schermerhorn on his piano.

KM: Very cool. Had you worked with the other performers as well before this?

Performers on The Arching Path (clockwise from top left): Timo Andres, Ian Rosenbaum, Lindsay Kesselman, and Mingzhe Wang.
(Photos by Michael Wilson, Matt Fried, and Bo Huang)

CC: Yes. I think Ian Rosenbaum has played every piece of mine with percussion in it, but he is just as close of a collaborator as Timo is. Lindsay Kesselman was on my last album, The Pieces That Fall to Earth. I originally met her because she had sung the songs on this album with Ian and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, of which they’re both members. I had heard their recording of Lindsay singing it and my socks were knocked off, so it really felt like she should be the person to record them. And then Ming[zhe] Wang is actually a very old friend of mine as well. We went to Yale together and he’s such a fabulous player. So, everyone’s a close collaborator. And also, Mike Tierney, who produced the album, has basically worked on nearly everything I’ve done for the last five or six years, and we have a really smooth, streamlined, collaborative relationship.

KM: So, the pieces on this album—and a lot of your output in general—are centered on the idea of place and particularly place filtered through memory. What draws you specifically to that subject?

CC: It is an interesting question because I don’t think it’s something that was ever done consciously. My friend Ted Hearne has a piece called Place and I’m like, “You know, I’m taking over your territory!” [laughs] I guess I would say that, to me, it’s more about the remembrance than the place itself. It’s almost a way of keeping track of my experiences more than anything else. And I don’t think anyone needs to know anything about the places that I’m referencing for them to experience the pieces fully. It’s funny—I had my piece Memory Palace done in the Stock Exchange Room of the Chicago Art Institute, and some guy came up to me after the show and said, “Oh, this is a cool piece about stocks!” and I was like, “Well, no…” [laughs] But I think the goal is to write music that has a kind of internal malleability—it can have these different kinds of experiences. That strikes me as powerful and important. I think I’m trying to dig into myself in a way that hopefully provides one possible iteration of what the work of art can be, but I’m really respectful of every possible iteration and every personal meaning that it can have.

KM: That’s really neat. Relating to two specific works on the album—Double Happiness and The Arching Path—it seems like you have a special relationship with Italy. What drew you to that place specifically?

The Musmeci Bridge in Potenza, Italy, which inspired Cerrone’s piano work The Arching Path.

CC: Well, my dad was born there, and my whole family is Italian. I don’t know if you’ve met many Italian people, but they’re fairly proud of being Italian. [laughs] I think a big thing for me is that I grew up with a sense of this journey and this journey that my dad took in particular. Basically, my grandfather had gone to America to get a foothold before the rest of the family came. But then, World War II broke out. My grandmother was pregnant with my dad, but there was no communication between my grandparents for like eight years. And then finally, eight years later, my dad and grandmother both came to America and met up with my grandfather. So, I think that this story is incredibly indelible on me, and I feel that the journey he took looms large in my own consciousness. I was slowly tracing back all these identities in these pieces and it felt very deliberate with my grandfather’s accordion and violin [which are heard in Double Happiness] as these objects that are passed along… but it turns out they’re totally crappy. It’s like the “holy family violin” is worth $200. [laughs] But still, the thing I’m always interested in the power of specifics on people and artists, and so I think I was seeking out something really specific and personal and hopeful.

The final movement of Cerrone’s Double Happiness features a recording of Cerrone playing the family violin and accordion.

KM: That’s wonderful. Speaking of, are you a percussionist, violinist? What is your main instrument?

CC: I’m a pianist by training. I think I’ve become an “unofficial” percussionist at this point, having written so much percussion music. When I decided I was going to be a composer, I was like, “Oh, I need to get some kind of orchestral experience,” and so I wound up learning the double bass my last year of high school. I had a really supportive teacher and he said, “I’ll trade you—I’ll give you free lessons every day if you teach in my program for free this summer.” And so I wound up teaching jazz piano to kids and then learning the double bass. I have instruments strewn throughout my studio because I feel like I’ve learned how to play everything over the years, but I can play some flute and some violin and little else. But my original training is as a pianist, even though a lot of my writing involves physically touching instruments.

KM: I assume that when writing for other instruments, having some experience with them can make the performer appreciate that. You’re not just putting notes on a page, but having some knowledge of what works and what doesn’t is probably really helpful.

CC: Definitely. Basically, the way I write at this point is I play as much as I possibly can to the computer and assemble it. I’m writing this opera right now, and I’m committed to singing every note of it into a microphone and editing that around until it’s the piece. And so, you kind of know that it works at least to a certain extent if you yourself can do it.

KM: Oh, for sure. Speaking of singing: for your song cycle, I will learn to love a person, what drew you to the poetry of Tao Lin and what struck you about these texts in particular?

Tao Lin
(Photo by Bryan Thomas for the Wall Street Journal)

CC: I think at the time, what struck me was a kind of immediacy. They were so direct and self-doubting and kind of funny, almost like song lyrics. I remember when there was a tendency of composers to set texts by established or classic authors, and now I feel like all my students set Tweets to music, which I have issues with… [laughs] But, it struck me as work that had a kind of profound immediacy. The thing I look for in words is space for music, and it struck me as the perfect text that would be amplified if sung. I never want to claim that what I do can be compared to the original, but there’s space for me in these songs. I think if you’re reading them, they can come off as maybe glib or bleak, but I think that’s because all the emotions are below the surface. I wanted to bring them above the surface.

KM: It also struck me how relevant some of the text is to our current age, to connectedness or disconnectedness during the pandemic.

CC: Absolutely. That was something that I found really interesting, its “internetedness.” This is an author who lives online or used to live online to a certain extent. So, I loved that a lot of this language was sort of these internet “found objects,” like the “be right back” [brb] that happens twice in the piece. Tao Lin’s work struck me as being “online” to a certain extent, but also something that contains the voice of a real writer and a real poet. Also, I think the piece is about loneliness. It was really funny, though, because I remember some random person asked, “Were you so sad when you wrote these songs?” and I was like, “No, I wasn’t sad.” [laughs] One can imagine emotions; one does not have to literally experience every emotion that one puts into a piece. But I just remember saying, “I wasn’t sad, I was in a good place at that time.” I just channeled other times.

KM: Yeah, it’s the stereotype of the depressed composer channeling everything…

CC: Totally! [laughs] I find that one is often usually a better artist when they’re in a good mental space than when they’re in a bad mental space.

A 2013 performance of I will learn to love a person, which features three of the four performers on the new album—Timo Andres, Ian Rosenbaum, and Mingzhe Wang. (The soprano in this performance is Melissa Hughes.)

KM: Going back to Double Happiness, you wrote two “self-portraits” in that. Is that you?

CC: Definitely! I remember thinking, “Am I going to regret calling this ‘self-portrait’ in ten years?” and well, it’s now nine years later… [laughs] It’s still me, obviously, but I feel like there was an extremity to those moments—melancholy on the one hand and then “five cups of coffee” on the other. [laughs] And so I think Double Happiness is me trying to reconcile, in a more direct way, aspects of my personality, especially in the sense of having been away from Italy for such a long time. I think that winds up being very much part of that piece.

KM: That’s cool. Is there anything else about this album that you hope will resonate with people or anything that struck you a number of years after writing these pieces?

CC: I think it’s interesting to finally hear the whole thing, and I definitely feel like this was the closest I’ve come to making the recording process a happy one. I feel very, very excited to share all these pieces that have been through a lot of different versions and revisions, and I just hope people enjoy it and that it’s a pleasurable and not an intellectual experience. [laughs]

KM: Yeah, I definitely think so. I’ve listened to it several times now and think it’s a wonderful collection. So, congrats on that. [CC: Thank you!] Well, finally: what’s next? What are you currently working on?

CC: Well, I just had a new brass concerto [A Body, Moving] premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony last week. And now I’m working on an opera called In a Grove that is an adaptation of Akutagawa’s short story of the same name, with some other influences like the work of Ambrose Bierce. It’s a retelling of this classic story of truth. There’s a murder and everyone takes credit for it, and it’s the same story presented from many different perspectives. So it really explores the question: what are the tragic consequences of everyone experiencing reality very differently and very subjectively? It’s a refraction of our era, without hopefully being a kind of document of our era. I think everyone experiences very different truths, and it’s sort of a radical attempt at having a sense of empathy towards everyone in the world. There’s a lot of talk of empathy, which has a lot to do with people wanting others to meet them on their turf, and I wanted to write a piece where everyone gets met on their own turf.

A preview of Cerrone’s forthcoming opera, In a Grove.

KM: That’s really cool. And yeah, definitely timely…

CC: Yeah. So that’ll premiere with the Pittsburgh Opera in February next year, and then it’ll go to LA [Opera]. So… you should come.

KM: Oh, great—my neck of the woods! Yes!

CC: Yeah, exactly!

KM: Looking forward to it.

CC: Definitely.

The Arching Path is available now. It can be ordered on Bandcamp or wherever digital music is sold, and is also available for streaming.

*Header image design by Timo Andres

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