Sebastian Currier: On the Verge of Dissolution and Disorder

The Former Teenage Rock Musician Introduces His Music

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Like many of his contemporaries, Sebastian Currier approaches classical music with a sort of double-consciousness—infatuated with its traditions, but well aware of its limitations. Is rock music to blame?

Currier began his composing career in a teenage rock band with his brother, but the rock influence on his classical output seems well-hidden. Still, there might be something there. Western classical music is deeply rooted in the ideal of note-for-note perfection: the composer attempts to write down exactly what he wants to hear, and the performer tries to recreate it flawlessly. But how can this ideal hold up in the face of musics, like rock, that achieves its aesthetic effects not by demanding a note-perfect approach to the material, but in some cases actually discouraging it?

What Currier's music does is very gently upend the classical tradition, warp it just enough, without quite upsetting it entirely. The ideal of the composer's subjectivity, for example, the notion that the person writing down the notes and the person singing them should share a single point of view, is gently put to the test by the form of  Currier's Vocalissimus, which explodes a single Wallace Stevens lyric into a full-length song cycle by offering not just one, but a number of different settings of the text, from eighteen different points of view: "Recluse," "Introvert," "Somnambulist," "Interrogator," and so on.

He delights in distortions. Distortions of time, as in Digital Mist (2010) for violin and piano, in which an electronically generated "resonance" actually precedes the notes from the live instruments, or Time Machines (2009), a concerto for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, which attempts to create the illusion of time running backwards, or turning order into chaos. When Mutter, one of Currier's best-known champions, received his score for Aftersong (1993)she asked permission to disregard many of his markings, and even add a few effects of her own; he readily agreed, and was delighted by the result.

The title of Static (2003), his Grawemeyer-winning piece for the chamber group Music from Copland House, refers to another kind of distortion, the coloristic noise into which his timbres often threaten to dissolve, as well as to the piece's occasional suspensions of forward motion. And every movement of Verge (1997) demands "Almost Too Much" from the performers, or "Almost Too Little"; "Almost Too Fast" or "Almost Too Slow."

The "verge": that could be Currier's oeuvre, described in a word. He pushes up to the boundaries of the form, verging on disorder, verging on the loss of control, and never quite going over the edge.

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