Natural Ambience: Of Flora, Fauna And Vacant Lots

Third Coast Percussion gave the world premiere of  ‘A Natural History of Vacant Lots’ by Christopher Cerrone.
The event was part of Columbia University’s Composer Portraits series. (Concert photos by Rob Davidson)
By Tim Diovanni

NEW YORK – The world premiere of Christopher Cerrone’s A Natural History of Vacant Lots, for percussion quartet and electronics, offered an illuminating example of the composer’s exploration of ambience.

Performed by Third Coast Percussion on March 29 at the Miller Theatre, Cerrone’s new work illustrated how he creates soundscapes into which the listener is placed – indeed, in the work’s most compelling moments, submerged.

Brooklyn-based composer Christopher Cerrone was on hand to chat.

Cerrone’s method is in his musical language. High-pitched, telegraphic staccatos in the electronics puncture the air. Clattering percussive sounds in the sizzle cymbal and metal pipes evoke underwater imagery. Vibraphones glide, electronics move in and out, the dynamic builds, parts collide into each other from different spatial realms, then everything vanishes; in the crescendos you sense the thing accelerating toward you, then it quickly leaves.

The concert was part of the Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits series.

As Cerrone commented about his music in a recent interview with the New Music Box: “The more it goes on, the more it’s about the memory of the thing.”

In a program note, Cerrone explained that he borrowed the intriguing title of A Natural History of Vacant Lots “from the title of a book by Matthew Vessel and Herbert Wong describing the secondary flora and fauna found in abandoned lots.”

Before the work began, the stage was almost in complete darkness. Most of the scant illumination came from the little lights clipped onto the music stands. Only two members of the Third Coast Percussion ensemble were present on stage. A man yawned loudly right before the first note, eliciting a laugh or two. Lingering chit-chat in the audience blended into the opening tones.

The lighting’s brightness increased as the other percussionists walked on stage, entering into this sound world. (“When I’m composing, I’m creating a world,” Cerrone told the audience during the onstage discussion with a member of Third Coast Percussion.). The composer was seated one row in front of me, moving his head and upper body in time with each musical collision, thoroughly immersed in his own creation.

Then, the screen on the back wall of the stage was bathed in blue, and soon in aquamarine. At the end, the lights went dark; this shroud extinguished the sound world. Cerrone’s formation of ambience is thus multidimensional: colors, movements, and musical textures together create an enjoyable and engaging work.

Mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway imbued ‘Goldbeater’s Skin’ with dark, gem-like color.

In Goldbeater’s Skin (2016),  for mezzo-soprano and percussion quartet, similar musical figures recurred between movements. For instance, in “Interlude 1: Wood” a vibraphonist repeated an interval that recalled the vocal part from the first movement, “Apocatastasis.” At the end of this interlude, the vibraphone executed a longer segment from the singer’s melody. These reminiscences created a traceable series of events for the listener.

Prior to the concert, Cerrone provided me with scores and recordings for these works. Listening to Goldbeater’s Skin, I had the impression that the text held secondary importance to the music. Although I still think this is a problem in the piece, especially in the first movement, mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway conveyed the evocative, absurd language of the poetry with impressive vibrancy.

I attribute this success to Calloway’s timbre, which I heard as dark and gem-like. This unique sound character gave the music subterranean depth; on the low E’s in “In My Dream” and E-flats in “My Companion and I,” her voice dove into a lapidary, earthy sound world: exploring, digging, spinning, and captivating; grounded and energized. This performance imbued the work with a pleasurable accessibility that allowed the listener to enter into its domain.

Christopher Cerrone, surrounded by his tools. (Fabio Bracarda)

Whereas repetitions and recollections of melodic material in Goldbeater’s Skin and A Natural History of Vacant Lots maintained my interest, the repetitious textures in “Power Lines” and “L.I.E.” from Memory Palace lost my attention. Over time, the percussive patterns became hackneyed; the music glimmered with only a dull luster.

Of the three works on the program, Memory Palace was composed the earliest; Cerrone wrote it in 2011-12 as a solo piece, then arranged it for percussion quartet in 2015. Based on this work’s major shortcoming –namely, its tedium – and taking into account the success of the other two, Cerrone has refined his musical language over time to more effectively match his artistic ideology. This ability to trace a composer’s developments through the concert-going experience is a distinctive benefit of Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits series.

Tim Diovanni is a New York-based music writer and historical musicology student at Columbia University. He writes program notes for The North Shore Symphony Orchestra, and contributes regularly to Feminist in the Concert Hall, the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy’s blog.