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Imaginative Instrument Combinations in Czernowin’s Music


Chaya Czernowin was appointed Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music at Harvard University almost a year ago, in the fall of 2009. Last October at the New England Conservatory (NEC), Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort presented two of her works: Afatsim and Dam sheon hachol (“The Hour Glass Bleeds Still”), and in December they offered her Sahaf (“Drift”). Neither of these performances were reviewed anywhere, so it is a pleasure to have another opportunity to hear all three performed with such expertise, sensitivity and beauty by the same group at NEC on Thursday June 17. This time the context was the annual Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP), June 12 to 19, known from its acronym as the “Sick Puppy Festival,” where Czernowin is composer-in-residence this year, teaching in workshops and masterclasses. Brown Hall was full — extra chairs at the last minute — and the enthusiastic audience in general was young.

These three relatively short works were performed without intermission, beginning with Sahaf , a seven-minute piece, written in 2008, performed without conductor by Callithumpians Derek Beckvold (baritone and sopranino saxophones), Maarten Stragier (E-guitar), Yukiko Takagi (piano), and Nick Tolle (percussion: timpano, marimba, 2 plastic triangle liners, bamboo wind chime, ratchet, and snare drum). By good fortune I was sitting next to a SICPP student pianist from Vancouver who had a marked score (to perform in class the next day), and she was willing to share. I was fascinated by the relationship between the notation and the sounds: both are spare, with sporadic brief activity, sometimes pointillist, sometimes extended, most often pianissimo, with quiet crescendi. Although I found it difficult to see how a performer could accomplish the beautiful sounds I was hearing from the notation I was seeing, the student assured me that it was perfectly possible because Czernowin’s directions in the score (which I could not read that fast) are so precise and suggestive. Her imagination is rich with new sounds (e.g. very quiet clusters, deliberate extended unisons between only two instruments of different timbres thus yielding exposed alternating consonances and dissonances; gentle percussion), and she gives them time to register and settle into your ear. Silence is also an “instrument” in her music, playing a significant anticipatory role, as well as one of resolution, physically and psychologically.

Drury then conducted a slightly longer work, Afatsim. This Hebrew word is not easily translatable, and refers to the bark on the branch of a tree, disfigured by mutation with a wasp-enzyme residue used to make a sefer Torah browner in color. Afatsim (1996) is a nonet for bass flute (Jessi Risinski), oboe (Mary Cicconetti), bass clarinet (Rane Moore), percussion: gong, 2 cymbals, marimba (Jeffrey Means), piano (Yukiko Takagi), violin (Gabriela Diaz), viola (Ethan Wood), cello (Benjamin Schwartz), and double bass (David Goodchild). The seating arrangement, whether designed by the composer or the conductor, was unusual: the piano was stage right, and the percussion stage center, both slightly behind a semi-circle reading (stage right to left): cello, bass clarinet, violin, double bass, oboe, viola, and bass flute. With one hand, Drury conducted four square beats (presumably just to help the musicians stay together, for surely the piece was not in 4), and with the other gave gestural cues with his expressive hands, his body leaning into the music. This all yielded breath-taking results in players’ sensitivity to each other’s sounds and incredible merging timbres.

The last work was the longest (19 minutes). Dam sheon hachol was written in 1999 for string sextet, in this case Gabriela Diaz and Ethan Wood, violins; Ashleigh Gordon and Stephen Upshaw, violas; Benjamin Schwartz, cello; David Goodchild, bass. Also conducted by Drury, it seemed to be about sustained notes turning into slides downward, simultaneous vibrato and vibrato-less sounds, extreme pianissimos shading into, or generated from long silences. But there was much more of spell-binding interest.

On the liner notes for a recording of the last two works (by Mode Records, 1999), Czernowin wrote that she was “searching for an alternative to a linear dramatic temporal experience.” Stephen Drury has written, “Listening to Czernowin’s music is like watching a mystery unfold into a bigger mystery. . . . [She] uses the instruments in strange and wonderful combinations, where two or more players seem to combine into some kind of hyper-instrument capable of producing unimagined noises and sounds.” There is indeed a new voice in town, and I for one can’t wait to hear more!

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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