anonymous beneath the lemon trees
seven songs after text fragments of Utler, Kociejowski, Fleischmann, Middleton, Karim and Thucydides(2021)
|Texts by Anja Utler, Marius Kociejowski, Christopher Middleton, Stephanie Fleischmann and Fawzi Karim used with permission.
Translation of Thucydides by Benjamin Jowett in public domain.
|Commissioned by Decoda Ensemble
|March 23, 2022; Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York; Decoda Ensemble • Alice Teyssier, soprano
Michael Hersch: anonymous beneath the lemon trees (2020/21)
seven songs after text fragments of Utler, Kociejowski, Fleischmann, Middleton, Karim and Thucydides [world premiere]
Program Note by Decoda co-Artistic Director Brad Balliett
My first experience with the music of Michael Hersch was playing bassoon in his orchestral piece end stages with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2017. The work struck me as tense, fiercely introverted, and utterly fascinating. The eruptions of sound and the gestures groping from the depths of the orchestra brought to mind an alien urban landscape: the sounds themselves became structures, exquisitely constructed and painstakingly polished. This architecture in sound was unlike any orchestral piece I had played before, and I wasn’t totally sure what to think, besides that I wanted to hear more.
In exploring Hersch’s output over the subsequent years, I discovered a common thread: the feeling of hearing the sound of the human voice behind each work, even in instrumental pieces like his Symphonies, chamber music, and Concertos. There is a sense that the composer has sung every single line in each score, and even, occasionally, that there may be phantom words behind the monuments of sound.
The voice does play an outsized role in Mr. Hersch’s recent output, which includes numerous song cycles, several chamber music works with voice, and two full-length operas. And this new score, a set of seven songs on texts by a wide variety of authors both ancient and contemporary, feels in some ways like a distillation of song and opera. The music veers in emotional intensity from frantic whispers to guttural screams. The texts are elusive, and conjure images of violence, frustration, the inexorability of time, and the need to communicate without the ability to do so. And together, there emerges the dim outline of some overwhelming narrative, compressed in a crucible of the inaccessible past and the cutting-edge future, into a new and multi-faceted musical form.
The composer provides the following notes on the experience of composing the piece:
“anonymous beneath the lemon trees was written during the spring/summer of 2020. It became clear that in addition to the escalating physical illness and death, the vice-like momentums of closures, physical and psychological, both forced and self-directed, cultivated a particular kind of destruction. Whether coupled or decoupled, the physical and psychological dismantling of so many people was horrifying. What has been lost will take time to fully assess. The poets and writers whose texts are represented within this work all address issues of illness, of violences, in and around the body - illnesses from within and without from varying periods of the past; their writing reflecting confrontations with the splintered landscapes of their own particular experiences and imaginations.
When looking back on the writing this work and that time a few years ago, the words of poet and astronomer Rebecca Elson (1960-1999), whose texts are not set in this cycle, came to mind:
‘... They are terrifying, these mushrooms, the way they push up overnight ... and you know they are feeding off decay, that death is just below the surface ... and they grow so fast ... I would go out into the night as in a nightmare, and rip them up, and scatter them, with my bare hands, but the death would still be there ...’”