solo flute and electronics
New Music USA and Miller Theatre for Tim Munro; November 10, 2016 at Miller Theatre at Columbia University
“Christopher Cerrone (b. 1984), part of the Sleeping Giant collective of six American composers, has shown his remarkable versatility as a composer in works for small ensemble, electronics, large orchestra, and the opera stage, as well as scores for installations at such venues as the New Museum and the Time Warner Center. Invisible Cities, “an invisible opera for wireless headphones” based on a novel by Italo Calvino, points to Cerrone’s striking literary sensibility as well and made him a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize.
Liminal Highway for flute and four-channel electronics was co-commissioned by the Miller Theatre and New Music USA. Cerrone says he had no interest in writing a simple solo flute piece “but wanted to create something completely new. And Tim Munro is so much more than a flutist”: indeed, Liminal Highway’s immersive system of electronic sampling creates the sonic illusion of far more than a single soloist, even suggesting a variety of different environments.
The issue of resonance and how it relates to the process of memory is a central preoccupation in much of Cerrone’s music. As the winner of the 2015 Samuel Barber Rome Prize, he spent his year in the Eternal City exploring the intersections between music, architecture, and acoustics, building an installation in a stairwell in the American Academy.
Cerrone took the title for his new work from a poem by the Canadian indie rock musician John K. Samson, which begins with the premise “when you fall asleep in transit.” Each of the piece’s five movements is subtitled after a particular line in the poem.
Formally, Liminal Highway suggests an arch form overall: the fifth movement is a rethink of the first, the second and fourth are rapid and rhythm-centric, and the third is the most immersive, awash in reverb effects. Its sound world creates a kind of “counterpoint through resonance,” employing convolution reverbs — a process that uses sampling to recreate the effect of a real environment. One of these source models, Cerrone points out, is reminiscent of the American Academy acoustic, with a “very wet and long-decaying reverb.”
Written for flutter-tongue piccolo throughout, the first movement is made of delicate layers and loops. Cerrone remarks that he bought himself a $50 flute from Amazon: “As with almost all my solo work, I try to learn the instrument I’m writing for, so I ended up learning how to play the flute.” The percussive second movement, played with key clips while the mouthpiece is pointed into the microphone, amounts to a reconstruction of that archetypal flute gesture, the trill. In
the third movement Cerrone alternates two kinds of reverbs (including what has been documented by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the world’s longest natural decay,” from an oil rig in the Scottish Highlands) to create a continually decaying sound. Against the high decaying note, Munro plays a simple chorale of multiphonics; the process is then reversed as the sound is reassembled into an explosive attack that transitions into the fourth movement — like the second, percussive and highly rhythmic with its key clicks. Not until this movement does Munro produce an “ordinary” sound, which is expanded into a chorus effect in the dramatic climax of the piece.
Liminal Highway concludes with a rewriting of the flutter-tongue piccolo from the first movement, but now mixed with what Cerrone calls “the haze of the long attack from the third movement.” Here Munro incorporates another sound source, blowing into a set of mounted beer bottles — the instrument again transformed.”
Program Notes by Thomas May
Cerrone’s gentle duet—a world premiere commissioned by Miller Theatre—made a strong conclusion and was the evening’s highlight. Electronic tones—a soundbed, perhaps—emanated from the back of the room like a lullaby. As if encouraging the audience to drift off—the calm at the end of a frightful night—the result plumbed the subconscious, a realm less peaceful than one likes to imagine.Kurt Gottschalk, Seen and Heard International
“The concert ended with Christopher Cerrone’s mammoth Liminal Highway (2016), a work for flutter-tongue piccolo and four-channel electronics, incorporating sampling to create the illusion of an entire wind orchestra. Thematically, this layered sound evokes falling asleep in transit, the premise of the Canadian indie rock musician John K. Samson’s poem of the same name. The work is supremely enchanting and hypnotic, minimalist in conception but employing stunning harmonies. Again the Romantic sonic-conjurer Munro drew me to the words of Keats: “Away! away! for I will fly to thee, / Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, / But on the viewless wings of Poesy, / Though the dull brain perplexes and retards”. Cerrone is obviously versed in the classical tradition, as this piece in five movements, with an arch-like form where seeds are sewn in early movements to be picked up in later movements, is a nice nod to the cyclic symphony beginning with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. No great Romantic performance is complete without a nod to the effects of alcohol; in the final movement Munro sets aside the flute for a set of mounted beer bottles to add to the sonic mix and another transformation on the acoustic highway. As Keats reminds us, “O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been / Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth”Andrew Luboski, Limelight Magazine