for prepared piano and percussion quartet
Premiered via livestream on August at Carmoor on August 6, 2020
Commissioned by Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting for Conor Hanick and Sandbox Percussion, with additional support provided by Sandbox Percussion.
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This piece is held in exclusivity until August 2021
Don’t Look Down is an accidental diary of having lived through the worst pandemic of the last hundred years. When I started writing this piece in February 2020, it would be inconceivable to imagine the world we live in now. The one thing that kept me sane during this period was clocking into work—that is, working on this piece. So looking back, it’s not at all surprising the piece would wind up reflecting both the strangeness and the instability of the world we live in.
The title of the work takes its name from an article by the economist Paul Krugman, himself referring to the moment when the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote would look down and suddenly realize he’d fallen off a cliff, at which point he would actually drop. The first movement, “Hammerspace,” is the world before: all grooving and relentless energy. The pianist hammers away at the high notes of the piano which have all been muted with putty. I imagined his part as like a drum solo performed in an echo chamber—the rhythmic muted notes create unique and fantastic sympathetic resonances with the lower strings of the instrument when the pedal is held down. A variety of percussion instruments support him, from the more traditional to drum set to other oddities like a bicycle pump and sandpaper block.
The piece “looks down” at the start of the second movement, “The Great Empty,” when all of sudden, all of the energy stops and we are left with an uncertain and static soundscape: instead of playing the piano, the pianist “bows” the instrument by drawing fishing tackle over the strings. The percussionists play cheap harmonicas and blow over the tops of wine bottles alongside other instruments to create a dissonant and deliberately out-of-tune sound world. The piano part that interjects halfway through is similarly out-of-tune: the pianist has placed small pieces of putty, causing the piano to sound as out of tune as the percussion instruments. The title of the movement is drawn from a photographic series that was shown in the New York Times of city centers devoid of people.
The final movement, “Caton Flats,” refers to a construction site active on my block in Brooklyn. When I was working on this movement in my studio, my partner, Carrie, walked into the room and remarked that the music “sounds like the construction going on outside”! I loved the idea so much that I had to include it in the piece. I also loved the idea that the things that most drive us crazy—like noisy construction on our street—could become a thing of nostalgia when it’s gone.
Don’t Look Down was commissioned by Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting for Conor Hanick and Sandbox Percussion, with additional support provided by Sandbox Percussion.
But the premiere of Christopher Cerrone’s “Don’t Look Down,” an 18-minute concerto for prepared piano and percussion quartet, was the highlight. As he explained in an interview before the performance, Mr. Cerrone began composing the score just as the shutdowns started in March, and finished it only recently. So it’s a piece written in lockdown. The piano is prepared similarly to John Cage’s innovative techniques, but with fewer screws and pieces of metal inserted between the piano strings, and more materials like putty — which dampens and distorts sounds — and fishing wire, which allows the strings to be bowed to create eerie, whining tones.
The first movement, “Hammerspace,” begins with the whooshing of a bike pump and droning gongs. In time, restless riffs played with mallets burst forth. Amid rushes of rhythmic, spiraling figures on the prepared piano, fragments for the percussion instruments coalesced into fleeting almost-melodies.
The second movement, “The Great Empty,” is more elemental, with music gurgling and heaving over ominous bass tones in the piano. The final movement, “Caton Flats,” is named for the mixed-use development in Brooklyn where Mr. Cerrone lives. As he said in the interview, the music recalls the metallic noise of construction crews at work in his neighborhood this summer.Anthony Tomassini, The New York Times