Institute for Advanced Study artist-in-residence Sebastian Currier makes a creative appearance with the regional premiere of his “Deep-Sky Objects” — a work that uses Los Angeles-based writer Sarah Manguso’s poetry cycle about lovers living in galaxies distant from each other and employs both electronic instruments and conventional instruments producing unconventional sounds.
Performances — featuring the cutting-edge Argento Ensemble — take place in Wolfensohn Hall on the Institute campus on Friday and Saturday, March 28 and 29, at 8 p.m. A post-concert discussion follows the Friday performance. A pre-concert discussion takes place at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
Also on the program is Arnold Schoenberg’s chamber version of Mahler’s “Lied von der Erde” (Songs of the Earth), based on a German translation of Chinese poems from the first millennium and sung at this concert by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Beattie.
Currier’s work — which was inspired by the Mahler piece and features soprano Sharon Harms — has 10 subdivisions, corresponding to each of poet Manguso’s 10 verses — written especially for the piece.
Each song is preceded by a micro-composition based on the title of the song. Though Currier has written pieces with a single movement, he takes particular pleasure in pieces with many movements. One of his compositions has 18 movements.
“I’ve known poet Sarah Manguso for some years,” Currier says in a phone interview from his home in New York City. “She writes nonfiction and short stories. It was a circular collaboration. I came to her and said that I wanted to write the piece. I told her that most 19th century songs cycles are about love and longing, and I thought I would expand the idea. Sarah said, ‘Longing? — I’m on board.’”
“I let her do her thing,” Currier says. “Her poetry doesn’t rhyme. I didn’t expect it to. It’s like most contemporary poetry; it’s free verse. I worked from her text.”
“There were no revisions. I always sketch; then I work toward completing something. Composing is in itself revising.”
“Deep-Sky Objects” had its world premiere in Houston, Texas, in 2012. “It is a cycle of love songs set in the distant future,” Currier explains, “exploring intergalactic longing and desire. It is scored for soprano, piano quintet, and pre-recorded electronic sounds. When the piano quintet was in its heyday, the subject that permeated so many of the great Romantic song cycles was that of longing and lost love. ‘Deep-Sky Objects’ transfers this trope to the outer reaches of the universe. In the cycle a woman sings of her lover who is far away in a remote planet in some unspecified star system. At moments she remembers a time when they were together, but mostly she longs for him and stoically imagines that his presence, even so remote, gives her hope.”
Poet Manguso records, as the lover’s thoughts:
I can live in the world
With your love because
I know you exist
At the end of the black universe.
In his compositions Currier uses a broad spectrum of sounds: an assortment of scales and sonorities. He prescribes extended techniques for acoustic instruments, and turns to video, electronics, and electro-acoustic instruments.
In “Deep-Sky Objects,” Currier says, “The electronics part often references various sounds from space, from pulsars, which are routinely converted into audio signals by astronomers; to the signals of man-made satellites; the actual audio of the Huygens probe landing on Saturn’s moon Titan; as well as many sounds suggestive of the eerie, remote, and unfathomable reaches of deep space.”
Though Currier’s artist-in-resident predecessor Derek Bermel had collaborated with Institute members, Currier has not yet found the opportunity. “But I could imagine it in the future. Someone’s subject matter might overlap with mine,” he says. The link between astronomy and the piece “Deep Sky Objects” leaps immediately to mind.
Composer Currier enjoys collaborating, not only in creating compositions, but also in seeing to their performance. “I always hope that performers schedule a rehearsal with me as soon as possible,” he says. “I’ve just come back from San Francisco, where I worked with the Dresher Ensemble.” In April the group premieres Currier’s “Artificial Memory,” a work they commissioned. Currier worked with them “almost entirely on technical electronic complexities,” he says. The piece explores the links between music, language, and meaning.
“The electro-acoustic stuff is pre-recorded,” Currier says. “None of it is improvised. You have to take into account that the electronic portion remains unchanged. The players of acoustic instruments respond to it. For acoustic instruments, I use standard notation, with minor tweaks.”
Sometimes Currier and a performer agree on a modification in a piece because of what he calls “a technical issue.” Currier gives an example. “A harmonic may not work on the string specified,” he says. “If a problem specific to a specific performer turns up, I tell the performer to do it his way, but I don’t change the score.”
Officially appointed artist-in-residence in July, Currier arrived on campus in September. He is the fifth artist in residence. The artist-in-residence program began in 1994.
Typically, the artist-in-residence acts as impresario for the Edward T. Cone Concert series at the Institute. The programs on March 28 and 29 are the last that Currier has scheduled for the 2013-’14 season, his first year at the Institute. He evaluates them as having “gone well. I love the fact that audiences at the Institute are so open to new music,” he says. “It’s almost an inversion of the typical chamber music audience.”
Currier’s plans for the 2014-’15 season are still unformed. “I’m thinking about it,” he says. “I’m not even sure to what extent my pieces will be included. It depends not only on the music, but on the Institute schedule and the availability of performers.”
Currier is no stranger to the Institute. “I know Derek [Bermel), so I always heard about the Institute,” Currier says. “We’ve been friends for years. He’s a super talented composer and performer. I came to the Institute to hear Derek play clarinet when he programmed my piece ‘Verge.’”
“I’ve already been enriched by my own experience at the Institute, meeting people, sitting down at the math table for lunch. It’s like an art colony. The woods are beautiful,” he says.
In Princeton Currier uses an apartment belonging to the Institute, two minutes away from the IAS campus. “It’s quiet. I walk in the woods every day. They cover 400 acres stretching to the Delaware and Raritan Canal. I’m keeping my apartment in New York. You never give up a New York apartment.”
Currier grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, in a musical family. “There was lots of string playing,” he says. His mother, Marilyn, and his brother Nathan are both composers. Although unmarried, Currier says that he has a girlfriend, Michele Beck.
Trained as a classical guitarist, Currier studied at New York’s Juilliard School and at the Manhattan School of Music before working with Princeton’s Milton Babbitt. “Babbitt was such an engaging person,” Currier says. “I learned about the world at large from him.” From 1997 to 2007 Currier was a professor at Columbia University.
Currier owns up to playing what he calls “a little piano, but not much. As a composer,” he says, “you need to know how to write for an instrument, not how to play it.”
Mahler and Intergalactic Love, Argento Ensemble, Wolfensohn Hall, Institute for Advanced Study. Friday and Saturday, March 28 and 29. 8 p.m. Tickets are free, but must be reserved. www.ias.edu/air or 609-734-8228.