8 singers (SSAATTBB) or small choir and 10 players (18.104.22.168 22.214.171.124, perc., pno, string quartet)
Sunday, November 22, 2015
Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist
Present Music and the Hearing Voices Ensemble Kevin Stalheim, music director
The Branch Will Not Break was commissioned by John Shannon and Jan Serr
…Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’
When I was asked by the Milwaukee-based Present Music to create a new work for their annual Thanksgiving concert I have to admit I was initially without ideas. I was raised on the East Coast of the US, and while I have celebrated Thanksgiving most of my life, the holiday always carries a melancholic air with it: I associate Thanksgiving with returning home—and in doing so, returning to a place that has somehow lost the lustre and joy of my childhood. None of this initially seemed appropriate for a Thanksgiving concert in the midwest.
Around that same time, I discovered the poetry of James Arlington Wright, and in particular his book from 1963, The Branch Will Not Break. The poems frequently cite Wright’s explorations of his native midwest, and I began to connect my own visits home on Thanksgiving with Wright’s trips to South Dakota, Ohio, and Minnesota.
In my own composition, I began teasing a story out of Wright’s poems. The piece begins with an unadorned and even pulse, an insouciant waiting conjured by the wistful ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’. Soon two men sing a plaintive melody, ending with the devastating conclusion of that poem.
But as I was composing, a secondary, more optimistic narrative emerged, one of communion with nature. I have been lucky enough to visit the midwest in recent years—particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota—and have been awed by its vast beauty. Wright, too, seems to draw inspiration from these landscapes. ‘Two Horses Playing in the Orchard’ is optimistic, joyous, if a little sad, with the very sentiment “Too soon, too soon” repeated ad infinitum in my setting.
So the narrative of the piece goes, lurching from the melancholy of ‘Two Hangovers’ and ‘Having Lost My Sons, I Confront The Wreckage Of The Moon: Christmas, 1960’ to the quiescent joy of ‘From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower’ and finally ‘A Blessing.’ In ‘A Blessing,’ I tried to imagine Wright moving away from his despair and towards a more optimistic narrative. It’s been suggested that ‘Lying in a Hammock’ was inspired by Rilke’s famous adage: ‘You must change your life.’ Similarly, I hope the piece traces an attempt of both the author and the composer to do just that.
The Branch Will Not Break was mostly composed at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH. I must give them special thanks for aiding in the creation of this work. The work was completed in Brooklyn and at the American Academy in Rome.
Special thanks go to Sarah Goldfeather, Timo Andres, Kate Maroney, Chad Kranak, Eliza Bagg, and Jonathan Woody for their assistance in workshopping the piece.
‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’, ‘From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower’, ‘A Blessing’, ‘Two Horses Playing in the Orchard’, ‘Two Hangovers’, and ‘Having Lost My Sons, I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon: Christmas, 1960’ from The Branch Will Not Break © 1963 by James Wright. Reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press.
“The premiere of a stirring new piece commissioned by Present Music was the highlight. Brooklyn-based composer Christopher Cerrone (b. 1984) chose lyrical poetry full of imagery by James Wright to set for the seven movements of The Branch Will Not Break, for voices, piano, string quartet and percussion. Cerrone’s writing for voices is remarkable—a talent few composers possess. He works simple material as it is repeated, layering it, changing its harmony, texture and context. Each movement was an evolving sonic journey.
The moody contemplation at times rose to grand climaxes. The last movement is the gentle optimism of a nature scene on a Minnesota prairie. I can’t remember the last time I felt so wiped out by music—almost moved to sobs as the Hearing Voices ensemble of eight singers built to a relentless crescendo. The audience responded with an unusually long ovation.”Rick Walters, Shepherd Express