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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Michael Hersch, The Sudden Pianist

In the swirl and chaos of (post) modern life, it is hard to get noticed. There are so many others, all vieing (no spell-check, not "pieing") for attention. There needs to be something about you that can draw in the listener, or some theme that people will be disposed toward. Composer-pianist Michael Hersch has something natural to him that is indeed a good way to first experience him in an otherwise deaf and blind world.

He came onto the piano at a late age. And he developed rapidly a formidable technical grasp of the instrument--as a vehicle for his own compositional mazes and labyrinths.

All this is addressed in the CD/DVD set The Sudden Pianist (Innova 859). There is a performance of his solo piano work "Suite from the Vanishing Pavilions," a one-hour version of the initial piano work written some years ago. These are some of the most essential sections of the longer work, arranged in a flowing sequence. He performs the work live at Merkin Hall in New York. It fills a CD and is also presented as a video on the DVD. The DVD then also includes Richard Anderson's half-hour film that gives the title to the set, The Sudden Pianist.

The music is masterful, very modern, filled with extraordinarily difficult passages of expanded tonal-atonal virtuosity. Crumb-meets-Messiaen-meets-Cecil Taylor? A "Concord Sonata" for today? Not exactly, but there is something of all that happening. Only this is quite original, fascinating, brilliant music in its own right.

The movie looks at Michael Hersch's involvement as pianist and composer for the piano in a way that makes you want to hear all of the music afterwards. He is articulate and the narrative lays out his story with enough depth and skillful creation-editing that personally I was riveted by it.

The "Suite from the Vanishing Pavilions" most certainly qualifies as one of the essential piano works of this century thus far. It has spaciousness, poetic pacing, and real musical dash.

Michael Hersch has the tools and the imagination to be one of the leading lights of modern music. This set does much to convince me of that. But it also has the ravishing piano work for us to experience again and again. For the modernist out there, it will bring joy. It may convert more than a few listeners to modernism, too! Do not miss this one.


  1. Dear Grego,
    I find Hersch to be simultaneously an amazing talent as well as extraordinarily frustrating. Although I am not familiar with all of his recorded output, I have only found his Two Pieces for Piano (derived from the still unrecorded Piano Concerto No. 1) to be effective in its entirety. When Hersch is on, the music is completely devastating. Otherwise I tend to find it quite lengthy and even pretentious, even though you know he is being completely sincere.

    The other thing I have trouble with is how someone who has had (at least as far as Hersch is willing to say publicly) a relatively good life can continuously write music which depicts only the blackest depths of despair. To be fair, Pettersson is one of my favorite composers and there is just about no joy in his music, but at least I find his music to work with a full palette of colors--Hersch seems to operate with everything between black and grey only.

    Agree/disagree? Would love to hear your opinion. Thanks!

  2. Thanks AP 100 for those insightful comments. To be fair I will have to admit that other than the Sudden Pianist and the string quartets reviewed here I do not know his output. He is brilliant on these works, clearly. The question comes down to whether I find him a "complete" composer--in the sense that a Boulez, Ravel, an Ives, or someone on that level could be thought of in that sense. His music has an effortless quality and one might say there is something blithe about it. I don't mean to say that his music sounds careless, but at times I don't get the feeling that the music shows the marks, scars even of an intense labor. It's mostly sad, yes, especially the string quartets. With Pettersson, who not only expresses something obviously very personal, his music has the marks of intense struggle to come into being and Hersch of what I hear perhaps does not. Hersch's dazzling brilliance and darkness sound as if they come from another place in the creative spectrum. Of course that has nothing to do with how much effort Hersch puts into his music--I can't say. I find nothing wrong with a less colorful palette vis-a-vis a Pettersson or for that matter a Messiaen. It may mean that there are times when I am not quite in the mood to hear those quartets because of that quality, but then I get tired of too much of any composer in large doses. No I am not sure that Hersch is going to be THE composer of the age, that somehow he can encapsulate the whole era for us, like a Bach. But then he is still rather young and I cannot say what his orchestral music is like--or where his music is moving to in the future. Like any composer Hersch's music may parallel his biography in obvious or not-so-obvious ways--and at this point I don't know enough about it either to say. Of course the one-to-one relation of expression to feelings is something of a romantic concept. One need not be miserable personally to write sad music. Does it capture the feelings of our age? Or is in a sort of genre, like Shakespeare exists in relation to tragedy? You raise some interesting questions AP100. I need to hear more of Hersch personally because what I hear I like on a number of levels but sure, none of it strikes me as reaching what goals a career in composition may achieve. He is still young, comparatively. Lets see what else he does. Thank you again. Interesting comments.

    All the best,

  3. But just another aside: although I did find "Images from A Closed Ward" very dark and of necessity black and white as analogous to the images the music represented, I did not find the solo piano music on "The Sudden Pianist" to sound especially dark to me, and it did bring me joy. Part of that may have to do with the long time I've spent listening to modernist tonality--it doesn't connote "horror" and "darkness" to me us much as "expansion" when I hear it in a general way. Just thinking....