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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 10,

2001 edition

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


of Hawaii.

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


he says.

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

New York Percussion Quartet , Institute for Advanced

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:


October 17, and Friday, October 19, at 8 p.m.

The 2001-’02 series: Noel Lee , pianist and composer Noel

Lee. Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, December 12, 14, and 16, at 8

p.m. Sandord Sylvan and David Breitman, Wednesday and Friday,

February 6 and 8, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, February 10, 4 p.m. Robert

Taub, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, April 10, 12, and 13, at

8 p.m. Mari Kimura, Saturday, May 11, 7 p.m.

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