... das Rückgrat berstend
for violin/voice and violoncello(2017)
|Commission||Commissioned by Patricia Kopatchinskaja|
|Premiere||October 9, 2017; Park Avenue Armory, New York City; Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin/voice • Jay Campbell, violoncello|
…das Rückgrat berstend
Program Note by Christopher Hailey
When Patricia Kopatchinskaja commissioned Michael Hersch to write a piece combining vocal and instrumental performance he selected fragments of poems by Christopher Middleton (1926-2015), a poet whose works he had often quoted in his scores but never actually set in his music. “For many years,” Hersch recalls, “I felt the impact of Middleton’s poetry was most acute in the mind’s ear and eye. This changed for me after his passing, and for the first time I felt a strong desire to bring the texts out into the air, so to speak.” …das Rückgrat berstend is a work for both eye and ear, the interiority of thought and the communicative urgency of gesture. Its elements – words, voice, instruments – are at once independent and contingent, separate spheres that are amplified through nuanced interaction.
Middleton’s texts create a narrative structure, an evocative series of images that takes us from agitation (‘rushing,’ ‘onhurled,’ ‘grope,’ ‘probe’) into violence (‘exploding,’ ‘tear off,’ ‘howl,’ ‘tumble’) and on toward oblivion (‘emptiness,’ ‘absence,’ and ‘abyss’). At Kopatchinskaja’s request these texts were translated into German – surprisingly appropriate as Middleton was himself an acclaimed translator of German poetry. (…das Rückgrat berstend, in turn, became the basis for the opening section of Hersch's elegy, I hope we get a chance to visit soon, in which Middleton’s original texts and the German translation are sung simultaneously).
The speaker’s rhythmic declamation, often unaccompanied, is meticulously notated and replete with detailed performance instructions (‘a strong whisper,’ ‘add grit to voice,’ ‘full, assertive, a slight sense of alarm,’ ‘deliberately, stoically’) – along with an injunction against excessive dramatization. The carefully differentiated treatment of the vocal line extends in equal measure to the instrumental writing which calls for multiple extended techniques (fingernail pizzicato, col legno, varying degrees of sul ponticello, unbowed trilling, bowing sul tasto, over the bridge, and on the body of instrument), as well as a wide array of expressive effects (flautando, ‘metallic sound,’ ‘whining quality,’ and ‘scream-like’).
Hersch grants his performers a certain degree of rhythmic flexibility but insists upon scrupulous adherence to dynamics (from pppp to fff), metronome markings, and full duration given to all values. The clear intent is to impose a deliberate pace that encourages close attention both to Middleton’s imagery and to each precisely calculated musical detail. For much of the piece the violin and cello move in tandem, creating clustered sonorities with only occasional outbursts, usually in the violin and often between lines of text. These tight, grinding clusters with micro-tonal inflections sensitize the ear to the open intervals, such as the pizzicato fifths in the cello that accompany the line “Nicht viel da, um Halt zu geben/“Not much to hold on to” A striking fermata marks this as the work’s central inflection point. It is followed by the only passage that is sung (without vibrato, ‘as if not a trained singer’): “Was gibt es da zu fassen ausser Verlassenheit”/“What is there to catch but absence,” a falling line that ends with a plunge to a half-spoken conclusion (‘projected in an anguished but brutal manner’). After the evocation of loss and emptiness in the closing lines there is another haunting silence. … das Rückgrat berstend concludes with an extended instrumental coda: a varied recapitulation of the opening bars of the work, three frenzied eruptions in the violin, and a slow descent into the abyss.
– Christopher Hailey