A conversation with historian Richard Wines, composer Chris Cerrone and musician Ian Rosenbaum about the music and the venue. Cover photo is Cerrone at work. Tickets and more at RitesMusic.org. Q: The Memory Palace Concert on May 12 takes place at the Jamesport Meeting House. What is that?
Richard: We believe it’s the oldest public building on the East End of Long Island. This building was built in 1731 by the pioneers of Riverhead Town—the year George Washington was in utero.
It was a do-it-yourself project. They were all farmers, one kept his records in his day book—Daniels Wells, his family still farms here—he recorded everybody who helped, who cut trees and transported them, gathered stones for the foundation, carted them. My mother did an analysis of these records and discovered that every single founding family of Riverhead participated, except for the county jail keeper.
Daniel Wells’s son, born the year this was built, became the town’s first supervisor when it split off in 1792.
Richard Wines near the altar of the Jamesport Meeting House
Q: It’s a beautiful building, and it seems very church and not-church at the same time; I don’t see a single image of Jesus or even a cross, for example. But the layout, windows and pews make it obviously a church.
Richard: This area was settled by Puritans, and this is probably the only building with a direct connection to the North Fork’s Puritan heritage. The first pastor was a Mather, Nathaniel Mather of the famous Cotton and Increase Mather family of Massachusetts.
Puritans don’t believe in decorating with religious symbols—they didn’t celebrate Christmas either, decrying it as a pagan holiday.
The Puritan heritage lasted a really long time. In all the decorating and renovations of this building over time there’s no religious symbolism incorporated.
Also, for the first 150 years or so it was more than a church. Meeting houses generally were used for everything—religious services on Sundays, anything else that came up the rest of the days. Originally the layout was different, with balconies and a horseshoe shape that made for good meetings.
Q: I understand why this building is conceptually a perfect place for a concert called “Memory Palace”—a 286 year old building holds many memories, and though not palatial in size or luxury, it’s still beautiful. But will the acoustics work?
Richard: Yes. The acoustics are wonderful here. Music was a very important aspect of the Puritans' heritage. Singing was key—they banned all instruments though they relented after 150 years and decided it was ok to have an organ, it wasn’t any longer deemed to be the Devil’s instrument.
So acoustics were very important. Notice the room is a classic shoebox shape with relatively high ceilings, like all the other great concert halls of the world. The walls and ceiling are now covered with pressed tin, which also help because they reflect and break up the sound. So you can see why Paolo is interested in this space.
Q: What do you mean the music is a Memory Palace? What’s behind the name?
Ian: The piece “Memory Palace” is all about Chris’ background and all the people and places that came together to turn him into the person he is today, and it really creates a context for listeners to reflect on their lives in the same way.
Chris: It is a percussion piece, incorporates electronic sounds from different parts of my life. In every part of the piece the electronic sounds are in dialogue with the played instrument, sometimes it’s more literal than others. Crickets from Harriman State Park, a wind chime at my parent’s house in Huntington. He plays a deconstructed wind chime against a recording of a real wind chime; a guitar in duet with the cricket.
Q: That’s intriguing—real instruments dialoguing live with recorded electronica of memories. What do you mean when you say it’s a percussion piece? It’s not like a giant drum solo, right?
Chris: In an orchestra the percussionist is asked to do anything that’s not traditional instrument. In this piece he plays no traditional instruments, everything is constructed by the percussionist: An old guitar that’s been ’restrung’; Home Depot wood that has been honed to different pitches; pieces of metal piping, beer bottles with different amounts of water for blowing, and electronic sounds from different places.
The piece is about 22 minutes long—Ian released a new album of the piece this past January. He has become a real champion for the piece.
Q: Home Depot wood, metal pipes, beer bottles, a restrung guitar—no, that doesn’t sound like a drum solo. Ian, why do you like it so much?
Ian: It’s very rare for a percussion piece to be able to connect with an audience for 20+ minutes and Chris' piece does that. I loved the process of working with Chris to create the unique instruments in this piece too.
Q: You said “Memory Palace” is about 20 minutes long, but the concert is more like an hour—what else are you performing?
Ian: About a year ago, I started thinking about what other works I could pair Memory Palace with. I wanted to find a way to create an atmosphere conducive to self-reflection, so that when we finally got to Memory Palace, it felt prepared. The works in the program all flow together without pause. Essentially, it's my own mix tape with Memory Palace as the centerpiece. The other composers that I feature are Mark Applebaum, David Crowell, Tom Johnson, and Scott Wollschleger.
I first tried this whole program in Pittsburgh last summer, and I’m going to do a slightly different version for this concert. Chris hasn’t seen this approach yet though I’ve told him a lot about it. This program is about an hour long.
Q: You’re both in Brooklyn now, right? Do either of you have a connection to the Jamesport Meeting House or to the North Fork? How did you get involved in Rites of Spring II?
Chris: I would come out a lot as a kid. We’d drive out to Greenport for lunch, take the ferry to Shelter Island, go back—that was an annual ritual.
I met Paolo in Rome, I won the 2015 Rome Prize for Music Composition—it’s given in seven or eight disciplines, two a year in music, and it enabled me to live and study in Rome. Paolo had heard about my opera Invisible Cities, which is based on an Italian book by Italo Calvino, and he knew I was in Rome, and he came and visited me at the American Academy.
We became friends, and he told me about this festival, and I told him I grew up in Long Island in Huntington. When I told him about Memory Palace he really wanted to include it.
Ian: I don’t have a connection to the North Fork—I don’t think I’ve ever been there, though I visited Chris in Rome and met Paolo on that visit. Chris and I met in school, at the Yale School of Music.
Q: This Memory Palace Concert is a really cool project, but it’s a one-off. What else are you guys up to?
Chris: I have a new piece premiering with the LA Chamber orchestra on May 20 and 21st, and Ian is with Sandbox Percussion, and they are playing a very new piece of mine with mezzo soprano at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. June 7th.
Ian: Like Chris mentioned, I have a group called Sandbox Percussion here in Brooklyn and Chris just wrote us a beautiful new piece for percussion and mezzo-soprano. We're going to give the New York premiere at National Sawdust on June 7th.
The Memory Palace Concert starts with a pre-performance conversation with Chris and Ian, at 6:30. The performance is followed by a reception with wine from Laurel Lake Vineyards. Tickets and more information at RitesMusic.org