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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 10,
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Surf & Sound at the Institute
Composer Jon Magnussen, artist-in-residence at
Institute for Advanced Study, while guided compositionally by his
ear, nevertheless allows the real world to impinge on his
The story line of his chamber opera "Kalalau" derives from
a Hawaiian family’s four-year long struggle to remain intact in the
face of the provisional government’s attempts to separate a husband
and son with leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease) from their wife
and mother, who was free of the disease. Defying the army’s attempt
to break up the family, the three fled in 1893 to Kalalau, a remote
Kawai’i valley, where husband and son died in 1897.
In another way, reality impinges on the music because Magnussen’s
music grows from his intimate knowledge of the area. Having lived
in the region, Magnussen has explored it by sailing canoe and by
He calls the beauty of the high valley "awesome." Attempting
to depict the scene from the ocean floor to the top of the mountains,
he has translated the visual drama into an upward-sweeping musical
gesture. "Some stages ago," he says, "it was based on
geography, but the listener will have a different perception. People
hearing it might think that the music is more abstract than it started
Indeed, Magnussen endorses listeners bringing their own experience
to the music, rather than finding in it what he poured into the
The world premiere of "Ko’olau Sketches," which contains
material destined for Magnussen’s opera, is included in the
of the New York Percussion Quartet in Wolfensohn Hall on the campus
of the Institute for Advanced Study on Wednesday, October 17, and
Friday, October 19, at 8 p.m. Members of the ensemble, created in
1994, when its personnel were students at New York’s Juilliard School,
are Benny Koonyevsky, Joseph Pereira, Pablo Rieppi, and David
They perform on over 100 instruments. Magnussen’s piece is scored
for marimba quartet and antique cymbals.
Percussionist Pereira is the composer of a second world premiere to
be presented at the concert, "Repousse." (The term normally
applies to the technique of producing raised areas on a thin metal
sheet.) The names of its four movements apply to artistic concepts
or techniques in the visual arts. Percussionist Koonyevsky contributes
compositionally to the program by his marimba-quartet arrangement
of "Recuerdos," two Latin American dances by William Bolcom.
The program also includes Nigel Westlake’s "Omphalo Centric
for marimba quartet and percussion; Iannis Xenakis’ "Okho,"
for three djembes and large drum; David Hollinden’s "The Whole
Toy Laid Down," for percussion quartet; and Steve Reich’s
Part I," for eight small tuned drums.
The program is distinguished by the use of an audio analogue to the
usual program notes. Multiple speakers in the hall provide the
with a collage consisting of taped telephone interviews with
as well as music the composers refer to. "It’s a way of informing
the audience what was going on in a composer’s mind when the piece
was written," says Magnussen. "That’s very helpful in a new
music context. Nobody can enter composers mind. The best way to get
a grasp of the creation is to ask the creator."
Our conversation takes place in the former garage that serves as
office. Outside is parked Magnussen’s bicycle, with his helmet hanging
over the handlebars. Tall and slender, a former surfer, Magnussen
has an informal manner. Earnest, approachable, and responsive, he
takes pains to find precisely the right words.
The performance by the New York Percussion Quartet is the first of
five programs Magnussen has organized for the 2001-’02 season. They
are intended to break new ground at the Institute by incorporating
both traditional and innovative music, and by including both acoustic
and electronic instruments. Each program includes a work by Magnussen,
whose compositions move seamlessly between acoustic and electronic
After three years in France, Magnussen fine-tuned his
compositional skills at Juilliard, where he earned a doctoral degree
in 1999. His compositional studies in France, where he attended both
the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris, and the
Ecole Normale de Musique, were with Yvonne Desportes, Jean-Paul
and Michel Merlet." They gave me a solid foundation that allowed me
to feel secure moving forward as a composer of new music," Magnussen
says. From Robert Beaser at Juilliard, he says, "I learned that
a piece is never done until you explore numerous possibilities and
have gone through numerous drafts. He also reconfirmed that you should
trust your ear above all."
Although he uses electronic means in his music, Magnussen keeps his
imagination free by avoiding technology at the initial stages of a
composition. Magnussen composes at two desks. "The one that’s
clear," he says, "is where I imagine. Most of what I do begins
with pencil and paper. A lot of ideas flow more freely when I’m with
myself, not with tools, where habits return. At the computer and
you hear certain sounds. Say I’m writing a piece for string quartet
and I listen to the synthesizer sound of those instruments. Those
sounds are approximations. If I work with those sounds, my ear is
not allowed to imagine new sounds. Much of what I do begins with the
imagining, the thought of what the piece will sound like. One of my
pieces begins with a low group of notes that makes a slow glissando
[a musical slide] and uses a bow stroke that starts at the tip and
gradually accelerates. That’s not possible in an electronic
To help his imagination along at the pencil and paper stage, Magnussen
may develop a protocol. Working on a piece with a text, he devises
several alternative systems of spelling out words, with a particular
letter corresponding to a particular pitch. "I need
he says, "otherwise my music would never change and I would not
be able to enter a new sound world. It’s my way of discovering new
sounds, not just imagining them. New systems give access to new
When I start using text as possible sources, I’m a sieve. I throw
out a lot of the sketches — probably 95 percent. My ear determines
what I use. The constraints are a way of generating material. They’re
an impetus to inspiration."
The composer was born in 1967 in Sierra Leone. His father, a
was in charge of a leprosy hospital about 30 miles from Freetown.
"With bad roads," Magnussen remembers, "it was a long
way to go." When Magnussen was five his father moved the family
to California’s San Bernardino area, where he practiced surgery. At
age 10, Magnussen moved to Kawai’i, Hawaii, where his father joined
an acquaintance from Africa in a medical partnership. Magnussen’s
father now consults. His mother is a professor of nursing at the
Magnussen talks of growing up in what he calls "a
middle class musical family" in Hawaii. He and his brother
three years elder, now an accountant, started on piano. Christopher
played cello and Jon played violin. They joined their mother in
piano trios. "It made my Mom so happy when we played
After a year at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Magnussen
transferred to Cornell. One of the determining factors was the
at Cornell of his future wife, Michelle, whom he met in high school
in Hawaii. Michelle is currently engaged in non-profit organization
administration. The couple has two daughters, Kaela, age 4, and baby
Magnussen began composing at Cornell and sought a firm foundation
in composition after graduating. He was awarded a piano scholarship
in Paris, where he also studied harmony, counterpoint, and fugue.
Looking back on his years at the Paris Conservatoire, Magnussen says,
"It was the right thing to do."
Among his teachers was Noel Lee, the American composer and pianist
living in Paris. Honored both in France and the United States, Lee
performs at the Institute in December. His program includes music
by French composers, as well as his own work and that of Magnussen.
Also on the roster in the season’s concerts at the Institute is Robert
Taub, Magnussen’s predecessor as Institute artist-in-residence. Taub’s
April concert includes world premieres of both a piano composition
by Jonathan Dawe and a Magnussen piece for piano and synthesized
Now in his second year of a three-year appointment as
Magnussen relishes the atmosphere at the Institute. "It’s a great
place for a musician," he says. "I came from Juilliard, and
there it was nothing but artists. Here it’s a cross-section of
people — historians, social scientists, physicists, and
I had a musical idea that needed a mathematical solution and I
Alun Lloyd, a mathematician in the biology program. We hacked away
at the math problem and put together a model to make it work."
Magnussen is pursuing several compositional projects during his stay
at the Institute. One of them is a new score for the 1967 Jose Limon
ballet "Psalm," to be performed in February, 2002, at the
Cultural Olympiad in Salt Lake City, Utah. The text consists of the
concluding paragraph from Andre Schwarz-Barth’s "The Last of the
Just," which intersperses place names associated with the
among words from the Psalms. Magnussen has decided to bring up to
date the piece written the year he was born by including
places associated with atrocities. On his copy of the manuscript he
has added Rwanda, Bosnia, and Afghanistan in ink. The latest addition,
in pencil, is the World Trade Center.
Magnussen is mentally assimilating the devestation of September 11
and getting on with his life. Two days before we met, he performed
a piece for piano and soprano that he wrote to memorialize a friend
who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. The sadness of the Hawaiian history
into Magnussen’s opera is blunted by the distance of more than a
One hopes for such a blunting of the attack on the World Trade Center.
— Elaine Strauss
Study, Wolfensohn Hall, Einstein Drive, 609-734-8228. Works by
William Bolcolm, Dave Hollinden, Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis, and
composer-in-residence Jon Magnussen. Free with advanced ticket
For additional information: www.ias.edu/artist-in-residence.
October 17, and Friday, October 19, at 8 p.m.
Lee. Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, December 12, 14, and 16, at 8
February 6 and 8, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, February 10, 4 p.m.
Taub, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, April 10, 12, and 13, at
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