Monday, May 21, 2018
Michael Hersch, Images from A Closed Ward, FLUX Quartet
Hersch does not create music that sounds like it comes out of a laboratory or a math department at a prominent university (though I should be quick to point out that I like either sorts of things regardless). Instead there is a high level of drama and expressivity to the works I have heard, palettes of consonant and dissonant tonality working in tandem depending on the needs of the work, and at times an underlying extra-musical thematics that turns the music into a kind of narrative or meta-narrative that is more than just notes situated in space.
This latter is very relevant to the CD on the docket for this Monday. It is a new recording of Hersch's moving string quartet, Images from A Closed Ward (New Focus Recordings FCR 199). The first recording as I mention above featured the Blair Quartet. Ths time out we have the FLUX Quartet doing the honors.
As Aaron Grad puts it in the liner notes, Hersch often enough addresses the difficult theme of "loss and psychological instability." From A Closed Ward treats this condition as a central concern, at the same time as it provides a musical analogy to the visual content. It all began when Hersch encountered American visual artist Michael Mazur when they both happened to be in Rome--that is to say that Hersch was in Rome on a Rome Prize Fellowship. At the same time Mazur had a number of etchings on display at the American Academy. This was all about illustrations provided by Mazur for a new translation of Dante's Inferno.
Hersch saw the show and was impressed by it. He recognized in Mazur the visual equivalent to where Hersch was going musically. At some point they met and hit it off. Mazur's initial signature pieces came out in the '60s, two sets of etchings and lithographs entitled Closed Ward and Locked Ward. The images were harrowingly dark renditions of a near hopeless sadness, an ugliness that served to isolate each from others. These works became central to the string quartet Hersch began in 2009.
And of course that quartet is what we hear so dramatically rendered in the present recording. What perhaps is most striking musically is a deliberate blocking out of one after another of short string groupings of sound, mostly simultaneously sounded yet with an unpredictability in both the voicings and the uttered periodicity. The voicings themselves are sometimes spread out in pitch so that the instability of the voicings correspond in many ways to the etching contents. There can be sharp dissonances and less dissonant voicings in contrast, the latter of which seem to want to more forward into more dissonance, or my ear hears it that way--as opposed to the old classical way of letting a dissonance sound as a movement towards a consonance.
So in the sympathy Hersch feels towards the Mazur patients, who seem to suffer mostly from their very isolation, we get a musical analogy or analogue of a series of soundings all interrelated but in a psychoacoustic sense never exactly interconnected, or in other words deliberately made to conjoin yet existing in a ghastly solitude. I accidentally when looking for Hersh's birthdate online brushed up against a Times review that remarked on Hersch's dark pallet but also the moments of ecstasy. Honestly I did not hear that so much as unrelieved and rather hopeless sadness, sometimes quiet, sometimes like a cry of anguish. There seems to me no real relief in sight in the actual tone-movement forward. Still, the aesthetic brilliance of the way the tone blocks bump up against one another yet remain alone, that makes the listener zero down on the sheer sensual tone utterance quality. It is the manner of expression that fascinates and heartens the listener, that transcends the awe-ful presence of the subject matter, the patients and their struggles. From pain comes a pleasure in the referents, taken aside from the signifieds!
I hear this new version by FLUX. I love it. I find it different enough that I am glad to have it along with the Blair version. This may be the definitive performance though. If you for the moment only have resources to explore one, I recommend this one. The work is a milestone in quartet literature! Bravo!