Chris Cerrone and Owen Weaver discuss “Memory Palace”

3 May
Composer Chris Cerrone and percussionist Owen Weaver each contribute their thoughts on Cerrone’s Memory Palace, which will receive a preview performance on Saturday:

Owen Weaver, percussion

One thing I’ve been meaning to mention is an ongoing collaboration with Brooklynite composer Chris Cerrone.  When I met Chris at a picnic table outside of MassMoCA in the summer of 2010 he immediately recognized the IFARM sticker that adorned my old laptop. That’s notable because to this day no single other person has that distinction.  Sure I’m into obscure thrashers but come on, people.  Get with it.
In the year that followed I heard several performances of Chris’ music.  Most memorable was the large-scale production of his opera Invisible Cities at Columbia University and the small-scale production of How to Breathe Underwater, performed by Loadbang Ensemble at a tiny violin shop in New Haven.
The haunting, reflective, lyrical qualities of these works stuck with me and I began to think of them as qualities lacking in percussion music, known more for its bombast than coloristic subtlety.  I was keen to hear how Chris would treat a percussive medium, and the process has been one of continual discovery.  However, I wasn’t much help.
     “No big instruments,” I said.  “No marimbas.”
     “How about vibraphone?”
     “Nope.”
     “Dude, you are killing me.”
When commissioning composers I tend to get obsessed with keeping things small and “tour-able”. This runs the risk of inhibiting the sonic scope of a piece, but Chris picked up that creative gauntlet and got crafty.  No marimba?  No big deal.  Instead, he prescribed that I cut and sand seven boards, fine-tuning them to specific pitches.  In our recent test run of two movements at Fast Forward Austin we close mic’d the planks, added reverb, and the electronic component of the piece did the rest.  The result?  Humming drones from the boards, with the amplification and electronics acting as the resonators of our “marimba”.  Other melodic instrument workaround experiments have included tuning metal pipes, plucking pianos, autoharps and zithers, tuning glass bowls with water, and some surprises I’d like to keep under my hat just yet.
The title of the piece is Memory Palace, a reference to the method in which medieval monks constructed imaginary buildings in their mind’s eye as a means to mentally store information.  The finished work will span five movements with twenty or so minutes of music within a full premiere slated for June 20th at the Stone as part of a Sleeping Giant Collectivebash. However, just as with FFA we’re thrilled to offer a preview at next Saturday’s Hartford New Music Festival.

Chris Cerrone, composer

Memory Palace has been the fruits of the last few months of my life. Last summer Owen Weaver called me and asked me for a long percussion piece. Like, TV-episode-long. That scared me, because long solo instrumental pieces are generally not my favorite thing to watch, let alone write. I mean, I can’t think of an experience—maybe a few Beethoven Piano Sonatas excluded—where I really have been captivated by a single performer playing a solo piece for that long. On top of that, a lot of my music has focused on the subtle interplay of musicians. So to write a solo piece would undermine much of what I’d be working on. And not only that: Owen was extremely interested in playing the piece around and touring it in a car. Which meant, in short, that I couldn’t compose a piece for the percussion instruments I usually default to: Vibraphone, Bass Drum, Tam-tam, Etc. It had to be light and portable.

Those were the minuses. So there was some big pluses too. Owen is an awesome percussionist. He’s extremely technically gifted, but having gone to a bunch of good music schools, I have to confess that wasn’t what impressed me. What drew me in much more was the idea that he was basically completely willing to go out on a limb to do anything he could to make the project work. He got 9 other awesome percussionists to join a consortium. He was really happy to have electronics integrated into the piece. And he has been so game to do whatever else is necessary to make the piece happen—including spending a weekend cutting up wooden pieces, shaving metal pipes, and even searching for a zither—that the project has become a real joy and a great challenge.

Another thing that led me in a direction that I thought meaningful is that Owen had mentioned he’d really liked the short album ‘Five Days’ that Pink Pamphlet Records had released in 2010. Five Days is an album of short ambient works that I had created while a grad student at Yale. It’s a series of one-takes that I had written quick quickly while there. The idea of creating an EP of music for Owen, 5 semi-self contained pieces further reduced my anxiety about creating a grand, long 25 minute piece.

The piece that ensued (and is ensuing since it’s only about 4/5th complete) wound up becoming a kind of paean to places and people that have deeply affected me. The title refers to an ancient technique of memorization, which—heavily simplified—helped orators remember very long speeches by thinking of their speeches as a voyage through a place; they use mental signposts as a way to structure their memorization. In my piece, the memory palace is my life. The crickets in the first movement, Harriman, were recorded with my friends, the composers Scott Wollschleger and Vincent Raikhel, who are old and dear friends who I have worked with for years. The recording of windchimes in the third movement was recorded at my parents’s house in their backyard. The sounds in the piece are the signposts; they help me remember what is important in my life.

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