Sunday, April 29, 2012

Memory Palace

One thing I've been meaning to mention is an ongoing collaboration with Brooklynite composer Chris Cerrone.  When I met Chris at a picnic table outside of MassMoCA in the summer of 2010 he immediately recognized the IFARM sticker that adorned my old laptop. That's notable because to this day no single other person has that distinction.  Sure I'm into obscure thrashers but come on, people.  Get with it.

In the year that followed I heard several performances of Chris' music.  Most memorable was the large-scale production of his opera Invisible Cities at Columbia University and the small-scale production of How to Breathe Underwater, performed by Loadbang Ensemble at a tiny violin shop in New Haven.    

The haunting, reflective, lyrical qualities of these works stuck with me and I began to think of them as qualities lacking in percussion music, known more for its bombast than coloristic subtlety.  I was keen to hear how Chris would treat a percussive medium, and the process has been one of continual discovery.  However, I wasn't much help.  
     "No big instruments," I said.  "No marimbas."  
     "How about vibraphone?"  
     "Nope."  
     "Dude, you are killing me." 

When commissioning composers I tend to get obsessed with keeping things small and "tour-able". This runs the risk of inhibiting the sonic scope of a piece, but Chris picked up that creative gauntlet and got crafty.  No marimba?  No big deal.  Instead, he prescribed that I cut and sand seven boards, fine-tuning them to specific pitches.  In our recent test run of two movements at Fast Forward Austin we close mic'd the planks, added reverb, and the electronic component of the piece did the rest.  The result?  Humming drones from the boards, with the amplification and electronics acting as the resonators of our "marimba".  Other melodic instrument workaround experiments have included tuning metal pipes, plucking pianos, autoharps and zithers, tuning glass bowls with water, and some surprises I'd like to keep under my hat just yet.

The title of the piece is Memory Palace, a reference to the method in which medieval monks constructed imaginary buildings in their mind's eye as a means to mentally store information.  The finished work will span five movements with twenty or so minutes of music within a full premiere slated for June 20th at the Stone as part of a Sleeping Giant Collective bash. However, just as with FFA we're thrilled to offer a preview at next Saturday's Hartford New Music Festival.  See below!

Memory Palace at Fast Forward Austin.  Photo: Elisa Ferrari


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