high soprano and 14 players (188.8.131.52 184.108.40.206 2perc pno hp 4str)
also available in a chamber version for 10 players (220.127.116.11 18.104.22.168. pno perc 4str)
The Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA
John Adams, conductor
Hila Plitmann, soprano
May 26, 2015
When casting about for a text for a new work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, my list of requirements seemed almost impossible to fulfill. My already formidable list requires a text to be lyrical, imagistic, and (perhaps most importantly) short. In my piece for the LA Phil, I wanted to set a text by a woman poet, and I wanted the text to have a connection to California, and Los Angeles in particular.
After what I thought might be a fruitless search, a friend recommended the poetry of Los Angeles native (and current Bay Area resident) Kay Ryan. Her complete poems fit into a single 200-page book, and they were rarely more than a single—mostly white—page. Reading through her poems, I was deeply inspired and almost immediately sketched out the first eponymous song of the cycle, ‘The Pieces That Fall to Earth.’
However, Kay Ryan’s poems aren’t just short, they’re very short; sometimes no more than twenty words. Therefore, I needed to find strategies to create a cycle of songs that were all extremely short; I didn’t want to just write a set of miniatures, I wanted to build a work with a large-scale architecture. My solution was that my settings of Ryan’s poetry would mirror my own readings of her works. Some of her poems—like ‘Hope’ and ‘Sharks’ Teeth’ I read over quickly, absorbing their meaning in a single reading. Others, like ‘The Pieces That Fall to Earth’ and ‘That Will to Divest’ required multiple readings to glean meaning from their complex and sometimes ambiguous texts. In these I repeated the complete text multiple times—with multiple musical interpretations. With still others—like ‘Insult’ and ‘The Woman Who Wrote Too Much’—I obsessed over specific phrases, repeating them over and over again in my head.
The other factor that I took into account when composing The Pieces was that I was going to be setting poetry for the extraordinary voice of Hila Plitmann, whose dazzling dexterity and range was something I was hoping to use to great expressive effect. My own vocal writing tends towards the simple: lyrical and syllabic. In The Pieces I tried to actively expand my vocabulary towards to the melismatic (as in ‘Swept Up Whole’) and well as towards the extreme and acrobatic (‘That Will To Divest’, and ‘Insult’), all in service of the wide range of emotions and states in Ryan’s poetry.
Together the seven songs of my cycle form a kind of monodrama, where the work becomes more and more personal as the piece proceeds. The first three songs all are in the third person, projecting an emotional distance. In the fourth song the second person appears—“You aren’t swept up whole.” In the sixth song, ‘Insult’, the song approaches the first person in the plural “We need action to remind us.” Finally, in the last song, ‘The Woman Who Wrote Too Much’, ‘I’ appears.
The Pieces That Fall to Earth was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and lasts approximately twenty minutes. I hope that Hila and John will share the dedication of my piece with several composer friends who remain deep inspirations to me.
Christopher Cerrone’s “The Pieces That Fall to Earth,” a song cycle to texts by Bay Area poet Kay Ryan, was the evening’s hit. It featured soprano Hila Plitmann, who memorized the songs and acted them out with a compellingly dramatic punch, intensified by amplification. But the biggest punch came from Cerrone.
The composer of “Invisible Cities,” the opera that created a sensation in 2013 when staged at Union Station, Cerrone began his song cycle in an otherworldly manner not unlike his opera’s undulating instrumental style. He spoke in the preconcert talk of being drawn here to the Americana of Copland and Virgil Thomson. He picked a West Coast poet whose terse sentiments would have suited either composer.
Yet Cerrone’s instinct here was toward emphasis. He could get stuck on a line and repeat it again and again, the pitch rising, the rhythm gaining in insistence, a crescendo crashing on a climax. I heard echoes not of Copland and Thomson but of Benjamin Britten and Purcell, where ordinary sentiments can be inflated until they begin to startle.
Ryan slyly leaves a line like “everything contains some silence” unadorned. Cerrone undoes this with his own anti-slyness, where whispers, spoken and played into microphones, feel like shouts.Mark Swed, LA Times
“…a boldly lyrical tone poem that packs seven short verses by the poet Kay Ryan into eighteen mesmerizing minutes.”Russell Platt, The New Yorker