When casting about for a text for my new piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, my list of requirements seemed almost irreconcilable. I already knew I needed something lyrical, imagistic, and (most importantly) short. In addition, I wanted the text to have a connection to California, and Los Angeles in particular.
As my search progressed fruitlessly, a friend recommended the poetry of Los Angeles native (and long time Bay Area resident) Kay Ryan. Her complete poems fit into a single 200-page book, and they were rarely longer than a single, sparsely populated page. They immediately inspired me as I read through them, and the opening song (the eponymous “The Pieces That Fall to Earth”) began to take shape in my head immediately.
However Kay Ryan’s poems aren’t just short, they’re very short – some no more than 20 words. Therefore, I needed to find a way to create a large-scale architecture, rather than a set of miniatures. My solution was to mirror my own reading process of the poems. Some of them – “Hope” and “Sharks’ Teeth” – I read quickly, absorbing the meaning in a single pass. The resultant songs are short, just over a minute each. In others, like “Insult” and “The Woman Who Wrote Too Much,” I obsessed over specific phrases, reading them aloud over and over again. “The Pieces That Fall to Earth” and “That Will to Divest” were complex and ambiguous, and seemed to ask for multiple readings to glean their meaning. In setting those, I repeated the complete text multiple times, with multiple musical interpretations.
Together, the seven songs form a kind of monodrama wherein the work becomes progressively more and more personal. The first three songs are in the third person, projecting an emotional distance. In the fourth song, the second person appears – “You aren’t swept up whole.” In the sixth song, “Insult,” the song approaches the first person in the plural “We need action to remind us.” Only in the last song, “The Woman Who Wrote Too Much,” does I finally appear.
The other major factor in composing The Pieces That Fall to Earth was the extraordinary voice of Hila Plitmann, whose dexterity and range I knew I could put to great expressive use. My own vocal writing tends towards the austere: lyrical and mostly syllabic. In The Pieces I tried to actively expand my vocabulary to include melismatic lines (as in “Swept Up Whole”) as well as extremes of range and virtuosity (“That Will to Divest” and “Insult”).
The Pieces That Fall to Earth was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and lasts approximately 20 minutes. Hila and John Adams share the dedication of the piece with several composer friends who have deeply inspired me.
— Christopher Cerrone