A leopard went around his cage from one side back to the other side; he stopped only when the keeper came around with meat; A boy who had been there three hours began to wonder, "Is life anything like that?" —text from "The Cage" by Charles Ives
I had a super-interesting conversation today with composer Ted Hearne, who is in town this week for the world premiere of his work, "The Cage Variations." It was commissioned by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which opened its summer-only season last weekend.
The piece can stand on its own, but for the PNME concert, "The Cage Variations" is an evening-length production, said Mr. Hearne. The music is 12 variations on Charles Ives' "The Cage," a short song for voice and piano. Mr. Hearne's variations are based on shards of pieces written by other composers. They'll be layered on top of each other (both in live performance and through electronic samples); threaded throughout for this performance are whole and complete versions of those works.
"It's all constructed through a kind of cut-and-paste technique, so each sound comes from one of these other pieces I used as the source material," the Brooklyn-based composer said. Together, his variations are about 20 minutes long, and the preexisting works are about 45 minutes.
Besides the Ives, the pieces that are drawn upon are by Amy Beth Kirsten, Scott Wollschleger, Molly Joyce, Alex Mincek, Anna Clyne, Daniel Wohl, Morton Feldman, Robert Honstein and Mr. Hearne (using another of his works). Aside from Ives and Feldman, "the oldest composer is 10 years older than me, and the youngest is 10 years young than me," said Mr. Hearne, 32.
OK, so lots of questions. Why "The Cage," and why these composers? As you'll see from the language of "The Cage," "it's an ambiguous and evocative text," Mr. Hearne said. "I have so many different interpretations of it, and that's part of the magic of that piece." It's also short and structurally conducive to turning into variations, he said.
But the work of Ives, who rejected many old traditions, also speaks to Mr. Hearne. "I'm really interested in recontextualizing music" in the genres of classical and pop, he said. He sees the use of sampling in other genres as an inspiration, particularly hip hop and Kanye West's album "Yeezus," which is "full of this kind of dialogue," Mr. Hearne said.
"[Ives] was very ecumenical with respect to some vernacular music or some non-classical music that was going on around him," Mr. Hearne said. The other composers whose works are drawn on for "The Cage Variations" represent diverse styles, but "they're very open listeners and open composers, and the piece is sort of a celebration of that," Mr. Hearne said. Another thread running through the works is a focus on variations in timbre, rhythm and contour. "A lot of these variations don't have to do with pitch," he said.
"It's an experiment," Mr. Hearne. "There are moments that are going to be pretty weird, and there're moments that are going to be less weird."
Sound intriguing? Check out PNME at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at City Theatre on the South Side. More information at www.pnme.org.