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June 18, 2010

Construction and composition

Local history, architecture inspire Salem man's score 'Structures'

SALEM — John Wallace can look at the shape, proportions and structure of a building and translate that into music.

In a new composition, titled "Structures," he tells a story, without words, of five historically and architecturally significant buildings on the North Shore: The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, the Nathaniel Felton Sr. House in Peabody, the First Religious Society in Newburyport and the Rev. John Wise House in Essex.

"I tried to weave in a kind of narrative," said Wallace, a composer from Salem. "With buildings this old, it was inevitable we kept running into the Witch Trials."

Music at Eden's Edge, a North Shore chamber music ensemble, will premiere Wallace's work Monday in the first installment of its "Solstice in Chiaroscuro" series.

Maria Benotti, artistic director of Music at Eden's Edge, said the piece has many layers and evokes the themes of dark and light.

"Each instrument emerges with different colors," she said, in reference to the five-member ensemble. "I haven't felt that I got it right away, and I like the search. ...

"I've never spent more time studying a score than I have on this," added Benotti, who founded Music at Eden's Edge in 1982. "It's tricky and surprising."

The chamber ensemble commissioned Wallace to write the work, which involved a lot of research in order to weave the architecture into music, he said.

Take the first movement, inspired by the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, which is a four-room, post-and-beam building. The house is named for a grandmother who was hanged as a witch in 1692.

"Forty of her neighbors signed a letter attesting to her moral character, to no avail," Wallace said. "... It embodied for me the horror of how awful that tragedy was."

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