Contemporary composer: Chaya Czernowin

Friday, November 24, 2023

The vitalist sound worlds of this Israel-born artist inspire younger composers and leave listeners entranced, finds Liam Cagney

Chaya Czernowin (photo: Astrid Ackerman)
Chaya Czernowin (photo: Astrid Ackerman)

The best artists give us a fresh vision of life – which isn’t to say that their art is representational, but that feeling keenly as they do the bewildering mystery of being alive, these artists compellingly synthesise the truth of that experience. In literature, this gives us the rhapsodic prose of Clarice Lispector; in film, David Lynch’s waking dreams; and in music, Chaya Czernowin’s vitalist sound worlds.

Since the 1990s, Czernowin has composed a body of work that’s as ‘visceral, wild and undefined as experience itself’, as she puts it. Meticulous textures of extended instrumental techniques often feature, and sometimes ad hoc inventions like scraping a hair comb or crackling soft-drink cans. Used with precise compositional purpose, such novel sounds are never gratuitous; rather, they unveil strange acoustic vistas that evoke a sense of wonder.

Take Maim (‘Water’, 2001-07), for example, a 50-minute-long triptych for orchestra with five instrumental soloists and live electronics. In one section, a mass of woodwind and brass makes birdlike squawks orbiting around one pitch, unsynchronised, while cymbal is brushed and bass clarinet shoots plosives. Unusual instrumental combinations achieve an effect of defamiliarisation – the solo instruments are tubax (a saxophone–tuba hybrid, which is prerecorded here), oboe (or musette), piano (or harpsichord), electric guitar and viola – as does the presence of microtones. At the opening of the piece, sounds are solitary droplets in a vast arena. After a while, sustained orchestral textures arise, against which the sporadic sounds, now speeded up, contrast as foreground to background, with high fluttering winds (a detached mouthpiece blown in rapid glissandos) heard over swelling double bass and shimmering percussion. Instruments used at the limit of their range (piano at the top of its register; electric guitar making a lightning-flash squeak) become like ‘new’ instruments, untethered from their traditional use.

Of the same generation as Richard Barrett, George Lewis and the late Kaija Saariaho, Czernowin was born and initially trained in Israel. She studied with Dieter Schnebel in Berlin under a DAAD scholarship, then moved to the US to study at Bard College, NY, followed by PhD studies in California with Roger Reynolds and Brian Ferneyhough. In this way, she absorbed New Complexity and musique concrète instrumentale, then moved beyond them. Currently a professor at Harvard University, she has had a significant influence on younger composers such as Ann Cleare and Ashley (or Ash) Fure. In addition to her facility with instrumental and vocal technique, it is Czernowin’s imagination and aesthetic – her vision – that inspires.

Nature is a recurring reference. Fluvial outbursts feature in the string quartet Hidden (2013-14). The set of three solo vocal works Adiantum Capillus-Veneris (2015-16) is named after a type of fern. Listening to the cycle of chamber pieces Shifting Gravity (2007-08), says Tim Rutherford-Johnson, ‘is like discovering butterflies trapped under stones’. Of having once witnessed the ice on a frozen lake cracking and the resultant sound, Czernowin recalls: ‘It was fascinating. I remember asking myself: “What’s the point of composing music? It’s all there! Just listen, it’s even more beautiful than my own music could be in my wildest dreams.”’ Taking inspiration from some of the most ready-to-hand elements of our natural environment – soil, rock, leaves, water – she hones in on those materials to show how infinitely complex their micro-patterns are.

‘I subvert, bend, press, expend, melt or mould terrains while discovering their weirdness, their behaviour under risk’

Czernowin resists using sounds for mere exoticism and there’s always a good sense of pace and contrast. In Hidden, no sooner are we in one texture (a tumult of high glissandos, say) than we begin transitioning into another. ‘What I try to do is to create a strong experience which is almost kinesthetic,’ she once said (as reported by the Boston Globe in 2013). ‘So, through your ears, you can actually smell, you can see, you can really come into touch with something that is not a melody or a harmony or a counterpoint. More than that, it is almost like a living organism. It’s not an organism that we already know – it’s not something that you already have a drawer for. It is something that is a holistic entity, it has its own kind of way of existing in the universe. It is completely new.’

As with Stravinsky in Le sacre du printemps, nature is a drama, and this is evident in the Winter Songs (2003-14) cycle of five chamber works. ‘The whole cycle reflects the aspect of winter which is about being pulled into the inner cave,’ Czernowin says. ‘At the same time, underneath, in the ground, the roots of life slowly grow stiff and blindly start to search for a path between the stones.’ Early in Wintersongs IV: Wounds/Mistletoe for three instrumental groups (two of pitched instruments and one of unpitched percussion) there are score instructions for three ways of playing small hi-hats concurrently: more open or less; with tremolos; sounding ‘like a small motor’. Against this glistening metallic pulsation, brass and woodwind play low sustained harmonics with flutter-tonguing. The effect is compelling, and you can’t help but wonder where this is going next. Eventually, the ensemble tutti, with prominent piccolo, plays sustained high sound-blocks (recalling the Varèse of Octandre), while two of the percussionists are directed to ‘play’ two plastic bottles each, warping and manipulating the bottle with their hands. Finally, strikingly, over whispering voices, the entire ensemble joins in, manipulating plastic bottles into ultimate silence.

Zohar iver (‘Blind Radiance’, 2011) from the orchestral Crescendo Trilogy (2010-12) zooms into sound’s small details: fingertips on strings, breaths through wind instruments, groans and rumbles. It’s as if a microscope were revealing an alien world all around us, and it’s all the more beguiling for the fact that it’s a hefty symphony orchestra that’s making such miniature details palpable. A forebear here is Xenakis. The musical field opened by Xenakis, Czernowin tells me, is essential for her work, especially in ‘opening the way to get out of a habitual commitment to phrasing, rationality, storytelling processes, and one-dimensionality. His work, for me, is a kind of architecture of moving glacial or kinetic energetic terrains. In my work, I subvert, bend, press, expend, melt or mould such terrains while discovering their weirdness and their behaviour under risk.’

A significant difference is how Czernowin puts human emotions on the same level as glacial or geological processes. This is overt in her operas. Her first, Pnima … ins Innere (1998-99), commissioned for the 2000 Munich Biennale, was based loosely on David Grossman’s 1986 novel See under: Love. Almost symbolist in style, its action follows two characters on stage, an old man and a young boy, who are ‘sung’ off stage by two singers each. More recently, again focused on a duo with porous identities, Heart Chamber (2017-19) explores how a man and a woman in an urban environment find in each other respite from everyday alienation and the pangs of trauma. A dream logic permeates the action, and the distinction between outer events and inner worlds is at times uncertain. ‘My commitment to everything abnormal can quickly push me back towards the psychological. I like that tension,’ Czernowin tells me.

Other recent works include the opera Infinite Now (2015-16); The Fabrication of Light (2019-20), an hour-long large-scale work for ensemble dramatising the elemental forces of light and darkness; Unhistoric Acts (2021)for choir and string quartet; and Poetica for four percussionists and string trio (due to be premiered in April 2024). In a time when the natural world, perhaps more than ever in human history, is showing us that we are not distinct from it but rather at one with it – in its at times furious strangeness – Czernowin’s music encourages us to think about our world anew.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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