The Invisible Cities of Christopher Cerrone and Nicola Lefanu

Although a generation and a continent apart the work of these two composers has become a gentle preoccupation in recent weeks. What brings them together is a response to a book that I thought had rather gone out of fashion – Invisible Cities by Italo Calviino. In the 1970s it was a must-read, and I admit to being smitten as a twenty-something by this book of prose poems and interludes describing imagined descriptions of fantastic cities conjured up by the traveller Marco Polo before the great emperor Kublai Khan.

5-1A scene from Invisible Cities by Christopher Cerrone

The Travels of Marco Polo grabbed my imagination when quite young. I remember asking my parents for a copy – for Christmas I think. It was the only book I think I ever received from them as a child, which is probably why I’m always giving books to my own children! It was only as an adult I learnt that much of these ‘travels’ were ghost-written and probably an invention based largely on hearsay. But no matter, Calvino’s book became a magical book, something to pick up and open anywhere, and to travel by the mind’s miracle somewhere else. I don’t think I ever thought about its content in any musical way, but I did know composers who had found the structure of the book fascinating, and it did influence (in very different ways) their approach to form and structure. One such composer is a near contemporary of mine, Nicola Lefanu, until recently professor of music at the University of York and the composer of eight operas. I had been getting to know her Catena for Eleven Solo Strings (on the only CD currently available of her music), fascinated by her use of microtonal inflections, something I had previously not associated with her musical style. We are not talking spectralism here but the kind of microtonal inflections that are so common in various folk musics, and for her in particular, the music of Spain and North Africa.

5-2Nicola Lefanu composing in her studio in the high Pyrenees

The Catena is a 20-minute long adventure in listening. It was composed at the beautiful Centre d’Art I Natura, Ferrara, in the high Pyrenees.  The music doesn’t claim to be anything but a ‘singing piece’ for strings, but like Calvino’s book it plays with the imagination, constantly changing, like the changes of light on a mountain landscape. It made me look at the one score I happened to own of Lefanu’s. This score was called Invisible Places for clarinet and string quartet and yes, the programme note says it was influenced by the Calvino book – but not about it. And there on the CD with Catena was a revised version of this work now called Concertino for clarinet and strings. With the score I was able to see and hear that even back in 1982 Lefanu was writing music that was a mosaic of changing tempos and glimpses of possible musical situations. This was where silence and ‘the musical breath’ articulates the formal structure in a way that, whilst not being in any way unique these days, is different – because the musical substance is so very telling. It is not the usual chain of sound ‘effects’ and timbral colour, but collections of proper musical statements.

I have only once explored the parameter of tempo as a structural device: in Objects of Curiosity (SuperCity) for string quartet. Written in 2004 for Kronos it was prompted by the maverick architect Will Alsop’s SuperCity exhibition and a growing interest in the Baroque ‘affections’. This is one of my most intensely algorithmic compositions, which has had (like Lefanu’s Invisible Places) a more recent life in a version for string orchestra. The composition and a detailed annotation of the score-file for this work is available on my web archive.


The mosaic-like play of tempos in Invisible Places is all the more intense than in my own work – nine changes of tempo in the first 29 bars!  And in the whole piece the number of tempo changes reaches the magic number 55, the number of chapters in Calvino’s book! Like the Catena, such music does demand a very particular and intense approach to listening. Both works are modal in pitch content, a factor in making microtonal inflection possible and appropriate. In a published essay on her music Lefanu says:

Harmony operates through space (register) and time (rhythm) to shape and pace my compositions, both in instrumental concert works and in dramatic works for the opera theatre. . . . harmony is implicit in melodic line as well as explicit in ‘vertical’ sonorities. My harmony is always functional: it is best described as modal, since its use of pitch centres and pitch sets creates clear hierarchies. It is not tonal, though my thinking has always been influenced by my understanding of long-term tonal voice-leading. . . .


My pitch sets are chosen so that they encapsulate the sound world I have imagined for a particular work. I use them to create a network of relationships. I extend and develop musical ideas or images through transformation, not through direct or sequential repetition. I like to make sets which enable me to move out from chromatic harmony, either to a diatonic harmony or to a microtonal language. To use a visual analogy, I am creating different harmonic planes in order to suggest perspective.

5-5When I went to find my copy of Invisible Cities it was no longer there, and even my local library hadn’t got it. So I looked at Wikipedia to remind me of the structure, and there was a note about an operatic version, recently performed by The Industry in a historic railway station in Los Angeles! The composer, Christopher Cerrone, I had comes across, as a protégé of John Adams and David Lang, and having associations with the ensemble Bang on a Can. Invisible Cities was commissioned whilst Cerrone was still a graduate student at Yale and received its first proper performance in 2013. The documentation and studio recording of this major ’event’ is impressive, and the score is published by Project Schott in New York.


I’ve yet to have time to digest and study the whole opera, but the excerpts I’ve heard (and seen) are compelling. And compelling enough for me to want to explore Cerrone’s work further, particularly his interest in setting unusual and striking texts. These include poems by Tao Lin, whose ‘New Sincerity’ style clearly strikes a personal chord with Cerrone, and most recently the mid-west poet James Arlington Wright. The Branch will not Break is commission from the brilliant Milwaukee-based organisation Present Music for a concert work to celebrate Thanksgiving 2015. Scored for voices and instruments it takes seven of Wright’s poems and creates a kind of story from them. The vocal setting of the short, haunting and affecting poems I found wholly successful. I predict this is a work that is likely to become as much an American classic as Shaker Loops  (John Adams) or Appalachian Spring (Aaron Copland).

Cerrone’s style, like Lefanu’s, comes from the modal world but with a minimalist tag, something far distant from Lefanu’s aesthetic for whom such repetition and all that ‘dwelling meaningfully on long sustained tones’ is not in her vocabulary. Many of Cerrone’s pieces begin and develop from a single repeated note. There is a skilful handling, indeed a preoccupation, with resonance. For example, a single piano note is amplified and extended by a vibraphone tone and a clarinet’s emerging crescendo. Most of his scores display an explanation of this ‘from nothing’ style of attack and note ‘blossoming’. There is also impressive use of live electronics, but with the lightest touch.

In my own work I’m just putting the finishing touches to Seven Archetypes for wind quintet. In last month’s blog I gave a taster of three movements of this work, a taster of the algorithmic content. What you see / hear came directly from the code. For me this is most often just a stage in a composition. Although using OMN I could take the composition process a little further on a score-file, I prefer to put the draft into a score-writer and work from there. At that point I usually take out a lot of notes!

This new piece shares with another work featuring wind instruments (Quintet for piano and winds) the use of text as a generative factor. I devote a whole chapter to this ‘possibility’ in Parametric Composition, but in Seven Archetypes there ‘s a new twist, and I think it will now close the book on this particular approach. The Archetypes are almost imperatives for the business of making: Brush, Scoop, Poke, Cut, Rake, Look, Hit. These names come from the work of artist Sharon Adams. The commission – for an ensemble from the orchestra of Opera North – required a very particular aspect on the performance – to be suitable for an opening reception of a large community arts event taking place in a large resonant space – an old textile mill. I needed to write music that was bright, hard-edged, energetic, colourfully continuous (no meaningful pauses), and very much in the tradition of harmony-music, the music for wind ensemble so beloved of Mozart.

My solution (once I’d found this list of Archetypes) was to create seven short poems that would be, in essence, my source of pitch and rhythm material. Although I write poetry I’d never written poems with such musical intent – that the words themselves should generate ‘the music’. The great thing about wind instruments is their precise articulation and ability to phrase exactly – this mixture of legato and staccato. To create the musical realisation I had to come up with some extra Lisp functions that enabled me to create rhythms I wanted from pitch melodies. Although this can be done indirectly by using the GEN-BINARY mechanism, I wanted something more direct. I found a way to break up pitch series’ with rest symbols, to achieve this beat/space mechanism I have used in many of my earlier scores. The other aspect to mention is the employment of sharps only with chromatic notes – words take their own harmony to themselves so they become distinct harmonic objects devoid of key or tonality.

I attach the completed score of Scoop for you to compare with the algorithmic ‘version’. This score uses a way of dealing with articulation that makes a distinction between staccato (half the length of the note duration) and a more deliberate (but less exact) separation between pitches – a non-legato if you like. I’ve explained this approach in detail in the forward to two scores in my web archive – Piece d’Orgue and Le Jardin Sec. You can see in Scoop exactly how one of my extra functions FIND-SPACE is employed – in the opening 17 bars. I’ve included a little explanatory score-file to show this particular function and how it might be used.

Christopher Cerrone’s excellent website is:
Nicola Lefanu’s site is:
The Naxos CD featuring Lefanu’s Catena and Concertino is available on Spotify.

Scoop (pdf)
Scoop (mp3)
find-space.opmo (zip)


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