I became aware in a single whiplash instant both that there existed an opera of Invisible Cities and that there was a Pulitzer Prize granted in music. I’m admitting this shamefacedly—how reflexively I free-associated “Pulitzer” with magazine articles and books, and now that I’m working on a novel about composers, it seems that much more myopic. But it couldn’t possibly be THAT Invisible Cities, the one I’d held so ardently since I was a teenager, attempted to film in high school with my beloved English teacher, Morrow Jones, driving out to Coney Island in the dead of winter for a whiff of one of Calvino’s landscapes (probably one of the “Cities and the Dead”). That project still exists somewhere, a reel in a dusty canister, or at least some synaptic loose change. Seeing this opera as a finalist, though, was a bit like seeing an old friend, long fallen out of touch, achieving some greatness—it could hardly be…
Craziest of all, I couldn’t listen to it, because it had been written for headphones and live performance at L.A.’s Union Station. That helped, in a way—otherwise, how else to reckon with the impossible, and anyway, since at least Keats we’ve known that “unheard melodies” are the sweeter, right?
When I finally got to hear clips of it on the CD release, though, I was greedy for it. As far as I was concerned, the composer, Christopher Cerrone, had, indeed, accomplished the impossible—he’d taken Calvino’s spirit and the words in Weaver’s English translation, and made it seem like the most natural thing in the world, brought it into musical being as though music were merely one more language in which Calvino could speak. But what a language! What dialects, and what morphemes, and what unfamiliar, haunting inflections.
Over Skype, Cerrone was generous enough to talk about how the project came about, and to zig and zag with me over the shifty terrain where music and literature share and dispute their borders.
Tim Horvath: To begin with, I’m wondering what the origins of your opera Invisible Cities were. Had you read the book when you were much younger? Did it percolate for a long time? How did it actually come to be?
Christopher Cerrone: I started the opera when I was 24. What happened was that I discovered Calvino in college. I started writing all these pieces that were inspired by him. I wrote an orchestra piece based on a story found in If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler; I wrote another for chamber ensemble that was based on Mr. Palomar, and then finally I came across Invisible Cities. I was taking an opportunity to do this opera-writing class when I was in grad school, and was like, “This book seems kind of cool. I didn’t have a really clear idea that I was actually going to write a whole opera on it. I thought, “This is a beautiful book. I love the language, let me try something with this.” It was very low commitment at the time. I thought: “I’ll write seven minutes of music, and, worst-case scenario, it doesn’t come out well.” But quite the opposite, I found that there was this thing in the language that brought something completely different out in what I was writing. It was a huge, huge catalyst for me as a composer.
TH: Typically, when we think of adaptation, we think of books being transformed into films, or short stories into films, maybe into a television series nowadays. Hence the prevailing wisdom that by now verges on cliché, “the book was better than the film.” But I don’t think writers nor the general public are accustomed to thinking about what it means to adapt a text into music. Into an opera! One thing that struck me in going back and revisiting Calvino is that even though the book doesn’t really have that much of a narrative structure, being comprised, rather, of these philosophical vignettes and meditations, your opera takes on a definite trajectory. I know that the loose, filigreed structure was part of why you were drawn to it originally. At the same time, though, I think that your piece gives it this shape, this narrative momentum that the book doesn’t necessarily have.
CC: I’m not totally sure how I feel about that. I was actually drawn to the piece because I love the architecture of it. The alternations of the cities and the descriptions of the interactions between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo…that was something I really wanted to take from the book. And also, and maybe it’s partly that when you try to adapt something, your personality goes into it a lot, in the way that you try to…well I was like, “I’ll do a pretty straight adaptation.” I always saw the book as having this kind of shape, from a very light tone, and that the book grew more and more morbid and morose, and that was a really big thing that I wanted to take from the book, but maybe I just brought more and more of my own moroseness into it.
TH: When I first read Invisible Cities I was much younger, so Kublai Khan looking at the ruins of his empire and contemplating death felt like much more of an abstraction to me, the stuff of myth and imaginative pathos. But now as I stand here that much closer, well, it’s substantially more palpable and real, and those passages come into a starker relief. They feel more imminent. Even in the opening of yours, you capture that sense of ruin…and it’s harrowing to behold the empire in that state.
CC: Yes, I tried to. I know this sounds kind of like a corny story, but I remember very distinctly opening to the first page, and sitting down to the piano in graduate school and playing the first few notes of it. It really came to me in a way…and my music really changed in that moment. It was denser, and more complicated. And I felt like that music and the need to evoke the melancholy of that opening—something changed in terms of what I do as a composer.
TH: How would you describe that change?
CC: I think I was writing much more complicated music, and I suddenly felt a strong desire towards clarity. And that was sort of the thing that made the turn for me—the desire for transparency and clarity. Calvino, of course, talks about that stuff a lot too, so I felt that it was a legitimate pursuit. What are the Essays for the New Millennium? There’s “Lightness,” “Exactitude,” “Multiplicity”…all of those became more significant for me at that moment. I simplified things, which didn’t mean that it became less complicated. I just became more transparent. So that’s the thing I tried to do: create a music of more direct emotional expression. Because that’s the other thing I love about Calvino, which is that despite the fact that it’s very heady, there tends to be a lyric strain running through it, and that really struck me about his work
TH: Undoubtedly related to that is Calvino’s use of space on the page, which seems particularly pronounced in this book. He almost seems to demand the reader participate in a certain way. I, for one, tend to forget that Kublai Khan is being regaled with these stories and I start to read “you” as “me” as the book goes on. And really stop between cities to ruminate and reflect and let it sink in. I wonder if musically you see some parallels with that in terms of how the listener experiences your work?
CC: I initially read the book very quickly, and I always had a very clear idea that I wanted to do something with it. And then I reread it, and I read one page a day, or one story a day, for a summer. Because I felt as though there was no other way for me to actually understand all the depth of that book unless I read it really slowly. I was like, “I can only handle one story per day, I’m going read three pages and I’m really going to think very hard about those three pages.
TH: That leads naturally into another question, which is…you’re reading one of these every day. You’re sort of digesting it, ruminating over it…how did you come to focus on the cities that you did choose, because I could imagine that that would’ve been a really difficult decision? I’m guessing that almost any one of those cities could’ve become, in your mind, a springboard for a section.
CC: I think I wound up finding that I needed things to stand in for a lot. So Isidora, for instance, is emblematic of all the “Cities and Desire,” Armilla of all the “Thin Cities,” Adelma of all the “Cities and the Dead.” Also, it’s not a 500 page book, it’s a 150 page, 180 pages, and most of that’s white space. So there’s a whiteness in cutting it down. Ultimately, I wound up whittling it down to the things that I had the most musical inspiration for, and the things that created an emotional arc throughout the piece, and that was really important for me.
TH: One of the segments that I’m really interested to hear you talk about is “Language.” I thought it was rather savvy to take that conversation between Khan and Polo and to incorporate languages in a manner that felt very contemporary, maybe because we’re in the era of information overload and listening to “chatter” in all its connotations. I thought blending those things was very cool, and I’m wondering how you came to the decision to pull in languages in that way?
CC: Well, I knew that it had to be represented very dramatically, and it couldn’t just be this…it’s so funny…I’ve lived with this music for so long that I’ve forgotten what it would be like to just read it as a book, but I think that I felt this intense urge, thinking: this is so ripe with possibilities. In the scene, they’re all real texts. I think I represented all the foreign languages Calvino points at with Wikipedia articles in different languages. I used Turkish, Coptic, and Persian, all languages that Calvino actually cites. But there’s also the idea of being overwhelmed. It is very much described in the book as a kind of information overload, too, so I felt like I was doing a very straight adaptation. Of course, you always think you’re doing that, and then it becomes much more “you.” But it was also this opportunity to try out all these extended techniques, and create a real crazy cornucopia of sounds in the scene. It’s very important for me to try to connect a very experimental impulse with a very dramatic impulse, and that’s what I was going for with that.
TH: And it seems this opera, in its hour on the stage, makes room for this incredible gamut of musical styles. Some passages feel more like traditional opera, some almost klezmer-like…in “Language,” I felt a cantor-like singing. Almost gamelan in “Armilla”….
CC: Definitely to both of those.
TH: Is that something that you gravitate toward naturally, is casting your net wide stylistically and genre-wise, or is that intuitive, subconscious?
CC: I’m starting another vocal piece right now, and I realize how differently I work when I’m doing vocal music, or more specifically, how differently I work when I am setting text and dealing with language versus when I’m not. I’d say that within my circle of musicians and composers, I probably write the most vocal music and I’m drawn the most to text, to literature.
That’s a thing that has brought out a lot of things in my music. The impetus for me really comes from finding the best means to illustrate the language. I find when I write music without words it tends to be on the austere side, a little bit more on the minimal side, and then it tends to be much more about drama and architecture. But I feel like I’m drawn to a much wider range of music when I need to illustrate language.
The language draws me to all these different things. I remember hearing “Armilla” and thinking, “Oh, like the sound of the metal pipes…like one of those heaters that pops and makes crazy sounds. I remember that was the image I had, one of those crazy New York boilers. And I don’t know exactly how that became my bells. It’s a “means necessary” thing—I feel like I draw on every means necessary to draw on the image, because I feel my natural composerly tendency is to unify, and so it’s those two separate impulses that are drawn together.
TH: You talked earlier about having come to a new understanding of yourself as a composer in the very act of discovering the opening. And I’m wondering by the end, how was that self-conception altered still further?
CC: I knew I was going to come back to that music. I say I started the opera when I was 24, 25, and finished it when I was 27, 28, so it was a really long time. I think it really forced me, working so long on that one work, focusing on that literary source, to find a style. I think as the work goes on, it becomes more and more sure-handed in what’s it’s doing. The edges become more razor sharp. I would hope that I got better. More knowledgeable about how a work proceeds, how a work should proceed. How comfortable I am writing tonal music, work that is viscerally attractive, and I realized that that was really important to me.
But also part of it—and I think this was the Calvino thing—was the visceral attractiveness allows for a lot that you can do technically. If I’m just presented a work that’s purely intellectual, then I’m not really interested in the other aspects. The visceral attractiveness—my biggest musical influence might be Calvino, because he really taught me that when you’re viscerally attractive, you can be intellectual, you can play games, you can do all this stuff. You can be humane…it just allows for so much more. The whole opera really just repeats musical ideas over and over again. So the prologue scene really becomes the Venice scene—it’s really just the same ideas. The opening of the overture, the big loud brass blasts, come back in the fifth scene, and they come back again in the sixth scene. But it was actually really nice to have the same material to work with. Often, I wind reusing the same musical material in different pieces. Because I feel like there’s so much to explore in an idea. Remember the fox and the hedgehog, Isaiah Berlin? I feel like I’m most definitely a hedgehog, digging my head deeper and deeper…so I might, on the surface, keep picking up more and more stuff, but deep beneath the surface, it’s really just six ideas, again and again.
TH: And arguably that’s true of everyone, no matter how foxy they get.
CC: Yeah. One of my best friends is a composer, and every piece he does is different. It’s crazy. He writes these really beautiful things, and he writes these crazy mashup pieces, and he just wrote an opera with Autotune, and I’m just like, “Wow. How do you change so much between pieces.” I just feel like I’m evolving. I’m sculpting this sculpture, and each time it gets more defined.
TH: And yet, I think there is so much variety within Invisible Cities. While it feels unified, when I put it on to listen, I don’t feel like I’m settling in for a steady hour of the same thing, a slow boil or build. For contrast, when I put on a piece by John Luther Adams, I feel like I’m strapping myself in for a long, steady ride, on a glacier, one that is going to threaten the strap at some point that I can’t even anticipate.
CC: Absolutely. That’s going to be a world, and it’s going to have a consistent sound. But I think I’m too much of a millennial for that. I grew up with too much internet to have anything happen for that long continuously.
TH: You have to dwell under the Northern Lights for a while…
CC: That’s the thing I was talking about before. As much as I love John’s work, and I love it a lot, it doesn’t….and I feel like he would say this, it’s not particularly concerned with human emotions. It’s more monolithic. It’s like staring at a sculpture, or a huge glacier. I would not want to write that kind of work. I admire it, I steal from it, for sure. I’ve definitely stolen a lot from John. But I would want my art be much more discursive.
TH: Is it as common among composers as it is among writers to think about stealing from their influences?
CC: I think it’s actually a little easier to steal as a composer. If you’re a writer, if you’re stealing an exact quote or something….well, you can steal structure. But as a composer, you can kind of steal a lick, and if you’re careful, it’s totally fine. You can be like, “I stole this harmony.” I have a very clear sense of how and what I steal, and would not be shy about my thefts. But isn’t that just how an artist works? You steal, and you’re influenced…
TH: We’re not inventing the language; we’re inheriting it. Any word that we’re using is also laden with so much history, etymology, etc. Certainly I steal stylistically. Trying to borrow or steal enough different, disparate styles that they become something that I couldn’t have anticipated.
CC: I think it’s almost technical. The thing you find is the technical thing you find in your work. I guess there are a few artists who sort of come out of nowhere and invent a style. There’s a composer who I steal a lot from, Salvatore Sciarrino, an Italian composer, and his works are like—it really feels out of nowhere, though maybe I just don’t know the sources that he stole from. But I think interesting stealing is recontextualizing of stuff. Take something that’s in a really different context and replace it so it becomes something really interesting.
TH: You talked about how you wouldn’t set a text about music to music, because it seems to risk being too literal, too much replicating what’s in the words themselves. Who are writers that write well about music? Is it possible to write well about music?
CH: It’s always interesting. When musicians talk about music, they speak incredibly technically—I used this tessitura, I used this color, I used this harmonic, I used this range. It’s almost stripped of any kind of poetic imagery. It’s funny because when I talk to audiences, I don’t presume musical training, and thus I’m doing the kind of thing that you presumably are too, which is to talk about music in a more colloquial way. Have you read Orfeo by Richard Powers?
TH: I’ve avoided reading it out of fear–it is both too recent and too close.
CC: I’ve never read Dr. Faustus…I remember reading Point Counter Point. And there’s this one scene in the book, which can get very melodramatic, but which winds up being very beautiful, where this character commits suicide to Beethoven Op. 131 String Quartet. It’s a great scene. I guess my feeling is that the more flowery the writing is about music, the less effective it becomes. You know who writes very well about music is Peter Schaffer, who wrote Amadeus. I think the writing in that is very effective and beautiful. And it’s very specific. I think you can write well about music. Writers who write about the shape of the music, like what is the experience of experiencing the music, and on some level the more subjective is more useful there.
TH: Given all the parallels–and granted, there has been some great fiction about music–it’s remarkable that there hasn’t been more writing about it.
CC: I think this is partly musicians’ faults, in that they dress up their language very technically. It’s fine—when I’m talking to other composers, I’m going to talk technically. But musicians may be low on social skills or verbal skills. So, they have a hard time communicating what they do in a verbal way. This is your task—to communicate what we do in a way that’s clear and accessible. Writing clearly is probably the hardest thing. Whenever I write, technical notes or program note, it always goes from muddled to clear.
TH: What do you like to read these days? Do you find time to read?
CC: I do, not as much as I want to be. I was on a huge poetry kick for a few months, because I’ve been hunting for a text for a piece. So…which I did find…do you know Kay Ryan’s poetry? Really short poems, really beautiful, aphoristic. So I was on this huge poetry kick, going from everything from alt-lit poetry through more languagey poets like Rae Armantrout and ….but then, on the other end of the spectrum, Miranda July. I really have a pretty Catholic taste in literature. I think it’s because I’m untrained. But I wind up being more into individual authors than style. I was really excited about magical realism for a very long time. I feel a little bit less so these days It’s funny because I was reading your book and it had an element of magical realism to it, but it also had this very humane element to it. I love Borges and Calvino, but lately I’ve been more into Cortazar. His writing has that too, that human grittiness. All the classical magical realist stuff is great. But as you get a little bit older, maybe, and you have a little more life experience, and it feels a little less pertinent to my context. I’ve been excited lately about things with more of a human element. Maybe because that’s what I’ve been thinking about. As you get older and older you start thinking more about the mundanities of life.
Hailed as “a rising star” by The New Yorker and noted by WIRED for his work at “the leading edge of operatic innovation,” Christopher Cerrone (b. 1984) is a Brooklyn-based composer of a wide range of orchestral, operatic, chamber and multimedia works. Cerrone’s first opera, Invisible Cities, produced by The Industry and based on Italo Calvino’s classic surrealist novel, is a 2014 Pulitzer Prize nominated finalist and has been praised by The Los Angeles Times as “A delicate and beautiful opera…[which] could be, and should be, done anywhere.” Cerrone holds degrees from the Yale School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music, and is published by Schott NY and Project Schott New York
Tim Horvath is the author of Understories (Bellevue Literary Press), which won the New Hampshire Literary Award for Outstanding Work of Fiction. He teaches at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and is working on a novel involving music.
*Invisible Cities was produced by The Industry and LA Dance Project, and directed by Yuval Sharon. The Industry is an independent, artist-driven company creating experimental productions that expand the definition of opera. In just a few short years, The Industry has been praised for “quickly and dramatically making itself an essential component in American opera” (Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times) and “turning opera into an LA indie hipster’s paradise” (Shana Dambrot, LA Weekly). By merging media and through interdisciplinary collaborations, The Industry produces works that inspire new audiences for the art form.