On Tuesday, May 15, pianist Shai Wosner plays the world premiere of Michael Hersch’s piano concerto, along the ravines. We recently had the opportunity to ask him about fragments, form, and the challenges and opportunities that come with performing a world premiere. Like world premieres? We’ve got another on May 17: six concert arias from The Noblest Game by David Diamond. Read more about both programs and get your tickets here.
As Seattle Symphony annotator Paul Schiavo writes, Michael Hersch’s along the ravines “is unusual in both form and conceptual basis.” As with many of Hersch’s recent compositions, along the ravines is paired with “companion texts.” In fact, fragments of poetry by Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert are printed with the score. What challenges and opportunities does the pairing of text and music present in your interpretation of Hersch’s score?
Although the inclusion of poetry quotations as “mottos” for musical works has been in practice since at least the early 19th-century, I feel that in the case of this piece these fragments are inseparable from the music. They could almost replace the more “mundane” directions such as tempo markings and performance indications with their atmosphere and spirit. It also lends the piece a certain intimacy, as if the composer draws both the musician and the listener into the world of images that had originally inspired him to write the piece.
[Please see the bottom of this post for the Herbert's poetic fragments.]
What is unusual about the musical form of along the ravines?
I think the use of multiple short movements both highlights the fragmentary, or episodic, character of the music but also the way many disparate elements are some how accumulated into one monolithic whole. I guess it sounds paradoxical, but the end of the piece delineates how it is both a journey that comes full circle, and still remains open-ended.
The text consists of 10 fragments, but carries a weight that reaches beyond the words themselves. Given this, how do you feel about the music itself?
The music has that quality as well, in the sense that it is primarily made of gestures, sometime very modest and sometimes huge, that seem to go beyond the actual notes that make them up. The music is both very abstract yet emotionally direct and it seems that the abstract quality is further highlighted by including only fragments of poetry rather than complete poems.
What do you like about performing world premieres? What is challenging about performing them?
It is a very big challenge, since you obviously don’t have the sounds of the piece in your mind from recordings as you do with many other pieces, for example. There is also no general experience of the piece in the mind of others that you can build on and play with. At the same time, it is a fascinating process because you look for ways to find the meaning in music that, literally, hasn’t yet existed beyond the printed page in the same way that a familiar piece already has a past in the listener’s mind. In theater (and in French), they use the word ‘create’ to describe a first performance, as if it’s inseparable from the process of composition (and sometimes it is). And although I think that any musician is essentially involved in the ‘creation’ of any piece he or she plays in a very profound way, there is an added ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspect to it when dealing with a brand new piece and working closely on it with the composer that changes the whole experience of the piece.
Accompanying text to Michael Hersch’s along the ravines, for Piano and Orchestra
All poetry by Zbigniew Herbert
Translations by Czeslaw Milosz, Peter Dale Scott, John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
… to tremble in the air
blow in the ashes stir the ether
gnaw our fingers seek vain words
Drag off the fallen shades behind us …
They walked along ravines …
They breathed on the frozen dawn …
Cup your hands to scoop up sleep
and the forest will come: a green cloud
a birch trunk like a chord of light
and a thousand eyelids fluttering
with forgotten leafy speech
then you will recall the white morning
when you waited for the opening of
the gates …
I shall be moved neither by the
nor by the shouting of angels
I shall sit
my eyes fixed
upon the heart of things
a dead star
a black drop of infinity
The earth’s axis screeches and comes to
Everything stands still then: storms,
ships and clouds …
And after a while the world moves on.
The ocean swallows and regurgitates,
valleys send off steam …
… the resounding class of air against air.
… circling in the darkness
crawling in dust
a moment before
the final division
of those gnashing their teeth
from those singing psalms
… a gray wreath
… the world’s four walls go down
… again the forest: a charred cloud
forehead branded by black light
and a thousand lids pressed
tightly on motionless eyeballs
a tree and the air broken …