CD Review: Christopher Cerrone’s ‘Beaufort Scales’

By Bob Dieschburg

The Beaufort Scale, in marine terminology, is a qualitative measure of wind force and the empirical description of its various effects first on the sails of 19th century frigates and later, with the advent of steam engines, on the changing behavior of the sea. In contemporary composition, “Beaufort Scales” is also the preter-scientific title to Christopher Cerrone’s newest release, published on the Cold Blue Music label.

Yet the inspiration from pre-instrumental science is far from gratuitous. In near-Wordworthian fashion, Cerrone aims to capture the terrifying beauty of crescendoing winds, from the first movement – “Sea like a Mirror” – to the climactic “The Air is Filled with Foam and Spray.” He transcribes Francis Beaufort’s rather prosaic observations into the spiraling language of his very own musical idiom, adapted to treble voices and electronics. Cerrone, in short, “wanted to do what art does best: document the precognitive feeling of something so strange and eerie and new, for which language does not exist yet.”

The Anatomy of a Storm

By no means can the setting to music of a seascape be considered novel. Between Wagner and the unjustly neglected Alberto Franchetti the Romantics have captured every possible iteration of the sea, be it as tumultuous as it will. Cerrone is a different kind of Romantic whose jargon, however, seems less appropriate to convey the grandiosity of nature, if only for the surgical sound of the electronics. The latter may well, in his own words, “mirror our technology-saturated world” in which the high-pitch voices of the Lorelei Ensemble are progressively being distorted. Yet there is legitimate doubt whether as a musical device they can achieve maximum effect.

For instance, the ethereal quality of the opening “scales” lends itself to the corresponding placidity of the sea; but for the escalating intensity of the storm, the generally unvariegated sound is at risk of becoming redundant. “Beaufort Scales” clocks in at just under 35 minutes and the present reviewer may – unjustifiably, perhaps – have wished for a cathartic resolution, a musical deus ex machina in response to the titanic unfolding of the hurricane.

In addition, Cerrone interspersed the musical structure with quotes, or rather commentary, from Herman Melville and other prominent literary figures. It is a nice touch but superfluous in terms of method. “Beaufort Scales” would be equally persuasive without this slightly blatant, if not self-explanatory intent of creating an ecological framework for this oratorio-like spinoff to be interpreted in. The music in itself is entirely self-sufficient.

Sublimity, Toned Down

For his 2022 opera – “In a Grove” – the composer seamlessly matched his genre-bending style to the dynamics of its kaleidoscopic narration. By comparison, “Beaufort Scales” appears much tamer, if not conservative due to the lack of a properly dramatic framework. It does not have the shattering effect of “In a Grove’s” psychological intricacies and though it is brilliantly executed, its message remains less thought-provoking, maybe even platitudinous given the widespread acceptance of the climate emergency.

Overall, “Beaufort Scales” presents as a potentially underwhelming listening experience if you are looking for large-scale effects. Instead, it is best understood from an intimist perspective which may be at odds with the sublimity (and terror) it purports to represent; however, it leaves no doubt as to the sincerity of Cerrone’s intentions, quasi-religious in feeling and scientifically precise in stylistic expression.


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