, Salem, MA

June 18, 2010

Construction and composition

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

By Amanda McGregor

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."

Wallace divided the movement into four main sections (to represent the house's four rooms), and the first section is 40 measures long and consists of 40 rhythmic entry points (to represent the 40 people who vouched for her).

The second movement is based on the Nathaniel Felton Sr. House in Peabody. Wallace said that Felton defended his neighbor, John Proctor, during the Witch Trials. That history is reflected in the music, as is the house, which was originally small and was added onto over the years in a "telescoping" fashion.

In the final movement of "Structures," inspired by the First Religious Society in Newburyport, Wallace said he incorporated into the music the church's solid granite base, massive chunk of timber at the bottom and the three-part steeple that rises from the boxy building.

"I wondered what it would be like if you could be up there," said Wallace, 49. "I imagined the weathercock spinning around and squeaking."

The five movements of the piece are "less descriptive than they are evocative of the mood of the buildings," Wallace said.

"You really have to open yourself to this experience," said Benotti, who plays violin and viola in "Structures." "It's not easy to listen to."

In some movements, the high pitch of the flute evoked almost a crying sound. In another, the violin and viola were plucked in threes.

"Overall, I wanted to create a movement from dark to light," Wallace said.

In addition to Benotti, the musicians who perform "Structures" are Orlando Cela of Somerville, who plays flute; Neil Fairbairn of Belmont, who plays bassoon; Mark Berger of Marlborough, who plays viola; and Sarah Freiberg of Belmont, who plays cello.

"We're fortunate to have John right here," said Benotti, who lives in Essex, "and he's worked with us a lot."

Wallace and his wife, Carol, have lived in Salem for 10 years, and their daughter, Katherine, graduated from Salem High School. Wallace is an assistant professor in the composition and music theory department at Boston University, where he is director of undergraduate studies for the school of music and coordinator of the online program for theory.

Wallace started playing the horn in fourth grade when he was growing up in Waukegan, Ill., and has had a passion for music ever since. He estimates he has written roughly 50 compositions over the years.

"I've been writing since I was in junior high," he said.

Wallace and the members of the ensemble held an open rehearsal of "Structures" at The Salem Athenaeum last weekend.

"Someone came up to me there and said, 'I don't know if I'd call your music pretty, but I found it very interesting and I could follow it,'" Wallace recalled. "If it's engaging and keeps their attention, I can't ask for anything better."

'structures' sound

Music at Eden's Edge premieres "Structures" by Salem composer John H. Wallace as part of its "Solstice in Chiaroscuro" program.

Concert dates

Tuesday, June 22, 2 p.m., Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church, Danvers

Saturday, June 26, 8 p.m., North Shore Arts Association, Gloucester

A concert on Monday evening, June 21, at the Peabody Institute Library in Peabody is sold out.

Tomorrow, the ensemble will perform one movement from "Structures" at the radio 99.5 All Classical Festival at noon. Visit for details.

For more information and ticket costs, which vary, visit or call 978-270-4463.