Music For Writers: Cerrone’s ‘Cities’ Of Ancient Urban Mythology


Turn Off The Lights

I have to agree with Tony Frankel at Stage and Cinema on this one: Get into your headphones and shut your eyes.

Invisible Cities wants to live inside your head. And the darker that place might be, the better.

Never in all my travels had I ventured as far as Adelma.
It was dusk when I blew in there…
On the dock was a sailor who tied the rope…
He resembled a man I had soldiered with and is now dead.

We talk a lot — in regards to literary fiction vs. much of genre work — about how literary frequently seems (at least to some of its detractors) to be plotless.

An old man was loading a basket of sea urchins on a cart.
…I realized he looked like a fisherman I knew as a child…
Who could no longer be among the living.

It rarely is actually the case, of course, that there’s “no story!” or “no plot!” in literary — rarely true that “nothing happens in it!” as its critics love to grouse . Much of it may be mercifully free of car chases and bank teller holdups, but literary fiction is generally quite active on emotional and intellectual planes.

I was upset by a fever victim huddled on the ground.
He had a blanket over his head.
My father…before his death…had yellow eyes and a growth of beard like this one.

It’s interesting in the article Christopher Cerrone’s Seductive Headphone Opera ‘Invisible Cities’ at Q2 Music– there we read Carnegie Hall’s perceptive Carol Ann Cheung refer to Cerrone’s work as “not a narrative-driven opera.”

She’s right that “and then this happened and then that happened” isn’t what’s at issue here. And yet, as you gather from her admiration for the work, you won’t feel that nothing is going on. Far from it.

Invisible Cities — its new recording is produced by The Industry Records — is based on Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel of the same title. It imagines a conversation between the Venetian Marco Polo (sung by Ashley Faatoalia) and the elderly Tartar emperor Kublai Khan (Cedric Berry) in which Polo describes fabulous cities to the great ruler.

New York Public Radio’s 24-hour free Internet stream, Q2 Music has included it in its fine Album of the Week series.

Right at the top, you’ll note the nervous, rocking, repetitive slash of sound that recalls Eleni Karaindrou’s sometimes archaic-toned soundtrack scores. From the first notes, you can tell this music is joking about nothing. The sense of vulnerability, menace, a sort of spacious awe, is immediately in place.

By the end of this opening section, the instrumental Overture, Cerrone’s orchestration — at the time-code 5:12 on this track — pulls off a fabulous little flare-up of dangerous, stabbing sound that stands on a massive bed of ocean-deep brass, unnerving and riveting for its audacity. You’ll be hooked before you hear the first note sung.

Visible Sounds

Yes, it’s called “opera” — lines of its libretto are both sung and spoken. The term I like better is “music theater.” Not musical theater — no tired-businessman entertainment with everybody in a kick line. “Music theater,” as rendered by auteurs Martha Clarke, Anne Bogart, and others, is a form of staged event that is built on music but is not “operatic” in the standard sense.

You may have heard something about the October 2013 performances of this work, in fact, in which the piece was set at Los Angeles’ Union Station in a mixed-era formulation that might have creeped out passersby as much as this music may unnerve you.

All is not imaginary here, either. At one point, Polo sings of his home:

Did you ever happen to see a city resembling this one?
Bridges arching over canals…palaces with doorsteps immersed in water…

Where reality lies in this sort of material is in the imagination of the beholder, which is what I think is behind Frankel’s suggestion that you get yourself into the dark and into a pair of very fine headphones and let this thing get under your skin.

As Cheung correctly determines:

The music reflects and communicates the character of each city: Isidora, the city of desire, features a seductive, vocalizing soprano line; Adelma, whose inhabitants’ faces appear as those of people the traveler knew who died, brings back this same soprano line in an unsettling, ghostlike representation of the past.

But for writers, something far more valuable is here — not for nothing was this work on the 2014 Pulitzer shortlist.

You’ll be amazed that you’re hearing the work of a cast and instrumental ensemble that numbers fewer than 20 people. Under Marc Lowenstein’s fine direction, the sound is richly layered and lush.

I’d quibble briefly with Nick Tipp’s mix — we miss quite a number of words, although the singers are enunciating beautifully. But that’s minor compared to what this work does with your own creative interests.

Get to it when you’re tired and can’t wrestle with demanding material. Invisible Cities asks little of you but places at your command a darkening map to find the avenues of exploration you need to make in your own work. The libretto, when fully understandable, isn’t so distracting that you can’t work to this, as well. So if you’re at a stage with a scene or chapter in which seeing less might be more? — get those lights out and put this music on.

Wander these Invisible Cities for a while. You’ll find there’s no sunny side  of the street here, but questions about life and death, ambition and frailty will stand around you like signposts: a good destination for those looking to seriously expand their creative landscape.