The origins of Christopher Cerrone’s music

Composer Christopher Cerrone’s percussion quartet concerto, “Meander, Spiral, Explode,” will be performed with Third Coast Percussion at the opening concert of the Britt Festival Orchestra season, which runs July 26 to Aug. 11.

I chatted recently with Cerrone about the origins of his music.

CC: I think I’ve had music coursing through my veins as long as I can remember. My mother told me a story of her giving me a 45 rpm record player. And I used to listen to the same Lionel Richie song over and over again. That was in about 1986, when I was 2 years old.

I’ve studied all kinds of music. I initially studied classical piano. Then, as I got older, I learned electric guitar, which was a very suburban angst thing to do — to be in a rock band. Then I learned jazz piano. And then I eventually came back to classical music. I became interested in orchestral music, playing the double bass in my high school orchestra. At the same time, I began dreaming of composing.

EH: Is there a genre or a name for the type of music you compose?

CC: A term that is encapsulating for a lot of composers of my generation is indie-classical. It is a music that has connection to pop music and to classical music. For lack of a better term, I’ll take it.

There are the elements of repetition, and groove, and rhythmic sway, and a lot of syncopation. The syncopation came right out of jazz and found its way into rock music. All of that comes from popular music, much more than classical music.

It’s not so much in the style of the music, but certainly in its production values, the way the music is recorded. When I record my music, I work with rock engineers. That’s part of the notion of immersion, that music surrounds you.

What is amazing about classical music is that it lives on because it absorbs music from all over the world. You think about tympani originally coming from Turkish music. There was a Turkish craze in Vienna, and they loved the tympani; and suddenly you had it in the orchestra.

The power of writing a piece for percussion is you take something so basic and broad: The piece opens with people playing on pieces of wood that were literally bought at Home Depot. And it creates a magical experience to see something so basic grow to something so large and powerful. What is at the emotional core of my piece is: The thing that most anyone could do, on the basic level, is expanded out and extrapolated out to work for orchestra, which most people could not do.

I write a lot of percussion music and vocal music. Those are the most primary forms of music. If you go back to the Stone Age, you had people hitting things, and you had people singing. Even as we have the symphony orchestra now, to connect music to its roots seems very important to me.

I like art that feels like a conversation. I want my music to be a conversation, not a lecture. I try to make my music evolve clearly and structurally, so that the audience can understand it.

Composers are reliant upon performers to be their mediums. One of my favorite things about the new concerto that will be heard at Britt is: There is a moment in the video where one of the performers is smiling: he’s just so happy. That gives me a tremendous amount of joy.

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