Michael Hersch is a young composer (currently 44, I believe) who I really knew nothing about until I read a review for this Innova album in Gramophone last year. It piqued my interest on many levels (I am after all a complete string-quartet-freak, whether it's Louis Spohr or Bartok or anything before or after!!), and in particular the inspiration of the subject matter, a series of dark pieces by the artist Michael Mazur depicting the anguish and extreme human suffering of patients within a psychiatric hospital in RI. I have always been fascinated with neuroscience, psychiatry, psychopharmacology (which, although we are in the 21st century, it's actually primitive; we are still but a hop, skip and a jump away from e.c.t. and lobotomies in many ways) and mental health/the resilience of those afflicted (be it composers such as Robert Schumann, Berlioz, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, or the average anonymous person..) Hersch's quartet is imo hauntingly beautiful, morose and manic, as it should be. There's plenty of spiky dissonance in this quartet yet it is approachable in the way that Bartok's great quartets are, and certainly more accessible than perhaps the darkest of (well-known) quartets, "Black Angels" by Crumb. I think this is an important quartet and a powerful piece of art.
Michael Hersch's String Quartet, "Images from a Closed Ward", has in its origins an encounter in Rome in 2000. The American artist Michael Mazur (1935-2009) had created a series of etchings to accompany Robert Pinsky's new translation of Dante's Inferno, and Mazur's works were on display at the American Academy in Rome while the then 29 year old Hersch was there as a Rome Prize Fellow. During their time in the Eternal City, Hersch and Mazur seemed to recognize each other as kindred spirits.
|The composer Michael Hersch|
In 2003, Mazur provided artwork and commentary for Hersch's first CD release, a collection of his chamber music performed by the String Soloists of the Berlin Philharmonic. In describing the young composer's style, Mazur noted, "I am struck by what might constitute an analogy with painting and with my own work in particular. There is, of course, the overwhelming sense of 'sadness', which is better than 'doom'. In fact, the 'abyss' in its finality is easy to portray: a rich black says it all ... Dante looked into the abyss but primarily found sadness there. Sadness is a much more complicated and, therefore, interesting human condition".
Mazur began to make his name in the 1960s with two groups of etchings and lithographs, "Closed Ward" and "Locked Ward". His subject matter involved a different form of confinement than Dante's rings of hell, but his vivid depictions of inmates in a Rhode Island mental asylum peered into an abyss all its own. Reviewing the etchings in 1964 for The New York Times, John Canaday wrote that Mazur's tormented subjects "have the terrible anonymity of individuals who cannot be reached, whose ugly physical presence is only the symptom of a tragic spiritual isolation". It was these images that resonated with Hersch, and that helped to shape what would be his first string quartet since one composed during his student days almost twenty years earlier.
Once he had the work outlined in the summer of 2009, Hersch decided that he would contact the artist with whom he had not spoken in some time. Hersch recalls, "I was extremely excited at the prospect of seeing him again, and sharing the terrain of this new quartet. I felt that he would be surprised and pleased that something he had done had a hand in the shaping of this new work. The day before I planned to write him, I read of his death in a Sunday newspaper".
An etching from Mazur's Closed Ward series hangs directly over Hersch's writing desk in Pennsylvania. The etching depicts figures seated on a wide bench, back to back. In the foreground, a man is crumpled over with his hands nearly brushing his bare feet; his limbs are clearly outlined, but his head and torso are shaded to a deep, impenetrable black. The person next to him is a bundled sack
of gray, the face distorted. Behind them are hooded figures and a ghostly partial image. There is a sooty, Dickensian objectivity to the scene, and yet the image is surreal and fragile, like a partially remembered dream.
"Images from a Closed Ward" uses thirteen separate movements to convey a disquieting reality from multiple vantage points. Music, unlike art, requires time to unfold, and Hersch stretches out the unveiling with glacially slow tempos. The work never creeps higher than 66 beats per minute (like a resting heart rate) and it drops to as low as 30 beats per minute, obscuring any sense of pulse. Another distinctive trait of the quartet is how, apart from the climactic counterpoint of the 11th
movement, the four players often work together in formations of massed sonorities. Although
distinctly modern, these homophonic or quasi-homophonic textures hearken back to Renaissance and earlier church traditions, a connection reinforced by open harmonies that avoid stylized triads and tonal expectations.
Hersch's ancient, pre-tonal tendencies are most apparent in the pale chorale texture of the first movement, which functions as a prelude to the work as a whole. The players maintain rhythmic lockstep throughout the second and fourth movements, issuing loud and ferocious bursts of chattering chords. These two aggressive sections bookend the haunting third movement, marked with an expressive indication of "longing; quiet, restrained grief". The plucked
cello provides a dirge-like foundation for the understated and strangely heroic melodies. The fifth movement brings the first taste of brittle counterpoint. The sixth movement also divides the ensemble, with two pairs sparring in opposing strata of slow and fast motion. The seventh movement looks back to the smooth chords of the first movement, but the sound takes on greater urgency and motion, propelled by a ceaseless cello line. The eighth movement reduces the work's violent streak to dry attacks, the players assaulting their strings with the wooden bow-sticks. The ninth movement returns to the aching purity of long-tones, with a performance instruction of "haunted; stricken". The following movement, marked "frozen", drops the quartet into total stasis, a cold darkness reinforced by the use of mutes. From this point of maximal tension, the eleventh movement erupts with ferocious, unrelenting rage. Gone are the targeted jabs of the second and fourth movements, in which the instruments moved together. For almost ten minutes, the four voices engage in a battle of ripping, gouging, and stabbing counterpoint, followed by an arresting silence. The twelfth movement combines the worlds of the first and second movements, while the ending, thirteenth, section, reprises the wistful music of the third movement; the melody provides solace, but not relief, as it once again leaves the final phrase unresolved.
Mazur's final thoughts about Hersch's early chamber music seem to apply well to Images from a Closed Ward: "These compositions are filled sometimes with frightening sounds. They are unrelenting, nearly without hope. ... But no artwork can be without hope since it is in the very nature of creative work to be optimistic, if only in as much as we continue to work through everything but our own death".
Lastly here's an excerpt from the Gramophone review:
"Commissioned by the Blair String Quartet, who throw themselves into the recording as if not only their life but the composer's as well depended on the relentless intensity of every bar, Michael Hersch's Images From a Closed Ward demonstrates the extreme musical and emotional lengths to which a composer and a string quartet will go these days to maintain a serious relationship. Hersch's grim, graphic quartet responding to Michael Mazur's etchings and lithographs of inmates in a Rhode Island psychiatric hospital during the early 1960s lives a separate though equally haunted life from its visual inspiration ... Although the music's searing pain and endless despair, desperately trying to escape mortality - which erupts most violently in the 10-minute 11th movement - never really subside, a radiant core seems to emerge in the third of the music's 13 untitled movements. This core leads gradually over time to the possibilities of peace through release and consolation..."