‘Curious Incident’ gets percussive welcome as Philly’s latest ‘One Book’ program opens

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Curtis Institute of Music student Nick DiBerardino composed a work for percussion instruments inspired by Philadelphia's One Book

Curtis Institute of Music student Nick DiBerardino composed a work for percussion instruments inspired by Philadelphia's One Book

The Free Library of Philadelphia opens its annual city-wide reading program, “One Book, One Philadelphia,” on Wednesday with an evening of literary discussion and music.

The “One Book, One Philadelphia” selection is “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” a mystery novel by Mark Haddon whose main character is a boy with autism. Haddon will not attend the opening, so the library has arranged a panel of previous One Book authors to discuss how they create memorable characters, including Lorene Carey, James McBride, and Christina Baker Kline.

In addition, the Free Library every year commissions a composition student from the Curtis Institute of Music to write something to be performed at the kick-off. This year, Nick DiBerardino, a second-year grad student, wrote a piece for solo percussionist.

On stage, a single musician — percussionist Neil Rau, a fellow Curtis student — will be surrounded by 21 instruments, including a kick drum, a kettledrum, gongs, crotales, wood blocks and a triangle. Plus, for good measure, a harmonica will be slung around his neck.

The music was inspired by a scene in the book where the main character, Christopher, enters a train station and is hyper-stimulated. The lights, sounds, and commotion of the bustling station are overwhelming. To calm himself, he counts prime numbers: 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, etc.

DiBerardino re-created that scene by layering sounds of instruments that are struck and allowed to resonate – like a gong – alongside tight rhythmic patterns on, for example, wooden blocks.

“Each layer is related to this idea of trying to inhabit Christopher’s mind,” said DiBerardino. “There will be moments where the percussionist hits a gong or a cymbal and there’s a commotion, a lot of sound that relates to external information that can’t be processed. It’s just noise.”

On top of that, the Rau will plays patterns based on prime numbers, just like Christopher’s way of mathematically self-soothing.

“I get to filter my artistic voice through something I received through the novel: the prime numbers,” said DiBerardino. “What do I do with prime numbers, and how do I make that into a story arc that feels genuine to me? It was really fun.”

This piece, called “Homunculus,” has a more avant-garde feel than the popular Broadway musical based on “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which will tour through Philadelphia in March. This piece has jerky rhythms, punctuated by stretches of stillness to give reverberations space to die out.

While the sound seems experimental, DiBerardino says it’s traditionally structured, moving between two alternating textures that build to resolution. “It’s not unlike a sonata form,” he said.

The piece will be performed exactly once, at the opening of “One Book,” so DiBerardino and Rau are making the most of it: The composer and the performer worked closely together to choreograph movements through the arrangement of instruments. The piece is meant to be seen as much as heard.

“All the time, composers are writing for a situation where we hope you are there to see it, because there’s a particular energy,” he said. “Of course, in percussion music it’s especially direct — that visual element — because they’re hitting stuff.”

DiBerardino hopes this piece will follow in the footsteps of previous Library commissions and have a life of its own; some have gone on to be performed in other places, by other people. Rau has already decided to perform Homunculus again, later this spring, as part of his senior recital at Curtis.

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