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Posts tagged 'Michael Hersch'

FLUX Quartet Performs Michael Hersch's "Images from a Closed Ward" with Live Video Projection

The music of Michael Hersch often addresses some of the most intense of human emotions and events: loss, suffering, pain, and darkness, what frequent collaborator Patricia Kopatchinskaja calls "this dark side, this shadow and blood." Indeed, the work that inspired Kopatchinskaja to work with Hersch was his 2010 string quartet, Images from a Closed Ward, which emerged from Hersch's encounter with the visual art of Michael Mazur, whom Hersch met in 2000 at the American Academy of Rome. This 13-movement string quartet responds directly to Mazur's gripping series of etchings and lithographs that depict the lives of residents—many of whom were committed against their will—at a Rhode Island mental institution in the early 1960s. 

The isolation, pain, and sorrow of Mazur's work is directly evoked in this masterful string quartet's movements, which transition between what the New York Times has called "creeping dread and desperate urgency." Hersch's gestural language seamlessly moves through texture, timbre, and harmony, using the four instruments of the string quartet as an organic being that convulses and laments, both statically and dynamically. In evoking the pain of disabled people treated with injustice and violence from a broken institutional system, it also allows listeners to imagine possibilities for restitution, justice, and ultimately peace.

A Lithograph by Michael Mazur  A Lithograph by Michael Mazur 

Originally commissioned and premiered by the Blair String Quartet in 2012, Images from a Closed Ward was recently recorded by the FLUX Quartet and released on New Focus Recordings in 2018. In addition to this new recording, the FLUX Quartet has also performed Images from a Closed Ward with a new live video projection, designed by James Matthew Daniel, which superimposes images of Mazur's works, excerpts of poetry, documentary photographs from mental institutions in the mid-20th-century, and other documentation related to those institutions on the performing quartet. The result is an even more powerful event that combines Hersch's sonic language with the visual work and poetry to which it responds, contextualizing and placing the quartet in the middle of a multi-sensory field. 

This video, taken from a performance at Philadelphia's Icebox Project Space, documents the FLUX Quartet's masterful performance of Hersch's work, and serves both as a compliment to their recent recording and also as a standalone work with its own unique combination of audio-visual poetics. Watch the full performance below.

Michael Hersch's "Carrion-Miles to Purgatory" Released on New Focus Recordings

The music of Michael Hersch is direct, powerful, and expressive: it makes the pulsing nerve of the human condition audible, laying bare some of the most intense and powerful human emotions. Hersch's new album, Carrion-Miles to Pugatory, released May 31st on New Focus Recordings, documents three works—each composed for two musicians—that address what frequent collaborator Patricia Kopatchinskaja calls "this dark side, this shadow and blood." Indeed, for this album, Kopatchinskaja commissioned a new work by Hersch, "...das Rückgrat berstend," which takes its title from the poetry of Christopher Middleton, translated at the violinist's request into German. Throughout the piece, Kopatchinskaja speaks selected fragments from Middleton's poetry in a fervent, carefully-notated declamation, without excessive dramatization. This spoken, scored text, echoing and simultaneously transcending techniques such as Sprechstimme, accompanies highly charged gestural writing in high and low strings—violin and cello—that mirror, ilustrate, react to, and metabolize the poetry in music. While Middleton's poetry has long played a role in Hersch's poetic compositional imagination, appearing frequently in the written matter of his sketches and scores, das Rückgrat berstend—"the spine exploding"—is a powerful sonic expression of Hersch's voice.

Carrion-Miles to Purgatory takes its name from an excerpt from the American poet Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle, his second book of poetry, published in 1947. Hersch's work, for violin and cello, meditates on themes of loss, death, and tragedy in thirteen short movements that resemble "thirteen fragments of a single shattered geode," as David Plylar writes in the album's liner notes. Here, Carrion-Miles to Purgarory is exctingly performed by violinist Miranda Cuckson and cellist Jay Campbell. Each movement develops its own musical logic in the dimensions of pacing, harmony, gesture, and rhythmic complexity; the movements form a gestalt of emotion, each reflecting and refracting the same ineffable subject. 

Also included on this album is a rare performance by Hersch himself, alongside violinist Miranda Cuckson, recorded during a live performance at National Sawdust in 2018. "Music for Violin and Piano" incorporates nearly thirty short movements from five of Hersch's works, along with new material composed for the concert, influenced by the poetry of Christopher Middleton, Phillip Schultz, Primo Levi, and Chesław Miłosz. The resulting performance is eleven kaleidoscopic minutes of exactingly-notated music, pushing Cuckson and the composer himself to technical extremes, seamlessly creating a new narrative that is driving, engaging, and always intense. 

The Music of Michael Hersch



The music of Michael Hersch, as Alex Ross has written in The New Yorker, is "harsh, relentless, and [...] gripping in its dogged progress." Writing in The New York Times, Corinna de Fonesca-Wollheim calls it "bleak," "dark," "somber," and "anguished." But as de Fonesca-Wollheim reminds us, to many of Hersch's collaborators and listeners, this music is also necessary. As Hersch's frequent collaborator, the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja has said: “The despair in the music makes it a necessary experience, to play and to listen to [...] There is nothing you can compare it to.”

In Hersch's 2015 Violin Concerto, commissioned by Kopatchinskaja and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Hersch presents a raw nerve, something abject—and hence something powerful and potentially life-changing. As Kopatchinskaja notes, “I’m every time really overwhelmed, and I’m a bit scared to play his music, again and again… but I know it’s very necessary for our time.”


(Patricia Kopatchinskaja on the music of Michael Hersch)

Recently recorded by Kopatchinskaja and the International Contemporary Ensemble, and released on New Focus Recordings, Hersch’s Violin Concerto was named the Best Violin Concerto of 2018 by Sequenza21. It responds directly to the death of a close friend. As Aaron Grad writes, “the four movements of Hersch’s concerto align like a series of interconnected islands of sound around an essential but unknowable vanishing point.” The concerto begins with an epigraph constructed of two fragments of poems by Thomas Hardy, and ends:

Strange sounds of anger and sadness
That cut the heart’s core,
And shaken words bitter to madness;
And then no more.


This poetic epigraph anticipates Hersch’s instructions to the instrumentalists: they are to play “ferociously”, and when the violin enters, it is to play “brutally throughout.” Kopatchinskaja comments on Hersch’s writing for the violin: “...the Violin Concerto is an open wound, there is no other way to say it. I know no other work by a composer of my generation that is so convincing, that moves me so deeply, [...] that tolerates neither doubt nor objection. It is like a mountain one can't ignore. For me, Michael Hersch embodies the new generation after icons like György Kurtág or György Ligeti. With him, everything is crystal clear, there is no decoration, no superficial beauty, no compromises. Everything is exactly in place, has found its perfect form."


Hersch’s 2010 string quartet Images from a Closed Ward was described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as one that "[leaves] you in a figurative blindfold taken off momentarily to glimpse another previously unimaginable terrain." The piece traces its origins to an encounter Hersch had with etchings by the American artist Michael Mazur (1935–2009). Like his Violin ConcertoImages from a Closed Ward explores what Mazur called an “overwhelming sense of ‘sadness’ [...] a complicated, and therefore interesting human condition.” Hersch's music can be "unrelenting, nearly without hope ... But no artwork can be without hope since it is in the very nature of creative work to be optimistic, if only in as much as we continue to work through everything but our own death.”

 

Hersch explicitly explored illness and death in his 2012 monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter, which sets texts by the Romanian author Marin Sorescu's book The Bridge, written on his deathbed. It responds directly to the death of a close friend to cancer, and Hersch's own struggle with the disease. Premiered in 2014, On the Threshold of Winter "left the audience shellshocked and the soloist, the soprano Ah Young Hong, in tears." As Andrew Farach-Colton writes in his program note for the monodrama,

Ultimately, our consolation is found in Hersch's art itself: in the richness of his imagination, and the precision and concision of his musical language. But, most of all, it is in his humanity, which shines like a beacon through the score's darkest page. 

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