The Recent Music of Michael Hersch

Writing serious critique on music in our time does not always enjoy the same opportunities afforded to those writing on the visual arts. True, there are programme and liner notes that can go someway to match those gallery exhibition catalogues, but they are rarely able to cover the critical and interpretative ground expected by those attending major exhibitions. Look at Sarah Churchwell’s extended and illustrated essay The Reality of American Gothic for a current example, or, topical and valuable to my own current project (see the end of Blog #63), Adrian Searle’s keenly critical newspaper article on David Hockney.

The opening of a movement from 'End Stages'

The opening of a movement from ‘End Stages’

In the USA there has been a slew of journalistic writing about the phenomenon that is Michael Hersch, composer and pianist, just as there has been similar writing in the UK on his exact contemporary, Thomas Adès. The exceptions, with Adès, has been an excellent and yet accessible journal article on his music by Christopher Fox – Tempestous Times: The Recent Music of Thomas Adès. and a book of Conversations with Tom Service. I’m hoping to go into the music of Hersch by standing on the shoulders of two established critics, Andrew Farach-Colton  [The Vanishing Pavilions (Vanguard Classics/Musical Concepts)] and Andrew Druckenbrod [Hersch/Josquin/Rihm/Feldman (Vanguard Classics)], who have contributed fine liner notes to Hersch’s early CD recordings. Both these writers have written effective guides to listening, and listening to demanding and unusual music. What I hope to do is a) examine something of the relationship of Hersch’s music to both the written word and the visual image, so important a trigger or base layer for much of Hersch’s output, and b) start to look at the musical mechanisms that result.

In very generous discussions with the composer on the scores I might take as a focus, I have gone with his selection of two recent pieces: ‘end stages’ for orchestra and ‘the weather and the landscape are on our side’ for solo violin. The orchestral music takes as a backdrop quite harrowing drawings by Kevin Tuttle. The solo work uses fragments of texts from the Collected Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz. What unites these works are the musical means: the miniature. They are composed of musical movements lasting rarely more than a couple of minutes. This use of form begs questions in itself, as anyone investigating Hersch’s oeuvre will know, he can write extended music, as in the recent Violin Concerto where the 3rd movement is almost 20 minutes long. But over the last fifteen years or so, pieces of considerable total duration consisting many short movements have been in the ascendant. One recent piece I’ve returned to many times outside this category is the second  of his Two Lullabies for solo piano in a concert recording made by the composer.  The text attached to the score is by Francois Cornilliat:

A morning’s black wind – before us / the wake, the steel of the stairs – / we caress what’s coming, ravaged glaze, / spider on the temple, /a child who won’t sleep anymore.

It’s a lullaby, a dark lullaby, so there’s a rocking between two chords or between bass note and chord sempre pp; but to follow what surrounds this continuum is to travel into Hersch’s rich imagination. The listener who is aware of the American solo piano repertoire may hear brief moments of similar musical rocking found in Ives Concord Sonata, and Keith Jarrett’s the Koln Concert. This does not in anyway detract or disturb the piece; it’s almost comforting, reassuring as these named pieces are essential to American musical art. The Lullaby No.2 would be convincing heard as an improvisation but for the fact that close listening reveals a careful structuring of its long-term development when at two thirds the way through this ten-minute work there is a sudden but inevitable (i.e well-prepared) flowering of harmonic movement that is almost joyous in revelation and in rightness, or as joyous as you’re going to get in Hersch’s often bleak, dark music.

Let’s imagine you are starting your journey into the world according to Hersch with this Lullaby No.2. This is music consisting of elements that are entirely within the common musical experience, but coloured, enlivened, extended, and occasionally distorted to the extremities of comfortable reception. These additional elements might be described as derived from a ‘figure’, to use an analogy with Brian Ferneyhough’s ‘figure’ made by Lois Fitch in her masterly study of Ferneyhough and painter Francis Bacon The Logic of the Figure; ‘being a way of seeing, the gesture . . . and borne of the gesture’.  Figure, rather than motif, is used here in a painterly way, the mark made; from where the action or gestation towards a birth begins. And perhaps this is the way into Hersch’s musical way of things.

I’m fortunate in having the score of ‘end stages’ and a not-yet-released recording by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. So to help the reader I would suggest a listen to Hersch’s Variations on a Theme of Hugo Wolf (readily available on Spotify) prefaced by listening to the song Mignon III by Hugo Wolf, which Hersch takes as his theme. This is no ordinary theme and variations, more a collection of moments for listening, which include almost verbatim extracts from Wolf’s music. What this will prepare you for is the Hersch way of putting music together in very concentrated pieces; eleven out of the twenty variations last less than a minute. Movement IV and XV are identical – at just 40 seconds. So what’s this about? I struggle to think of any precedent for this kind of repetition, a device very common in Hersch’s multi-movement designs. But why not? In visual art, and in poetry, such exact repetition is common-place. It is about emphasis and / or the need to return to a particular point in the time-based experience, but with its juxtaposition, what the repetition abuts with, likely (and certainly in Hersch’s music) to be different.

My only reservation to listening to the live recording of ‘end stages’ was that such extreme miniatures tend to elicit a lot of audience shuffle and cough, and musician page-turn noise. It’s almost as though the very intensity of the music requires its listeners to hold their breath (and their coughs), and so there is an audible expression of release. Curiously, this has never bothered me listening to Webern, and this is because there are not so many short movements to deal with in one work, and the musical mechanism can be felt to be interrupted, whereas in Hersch’s scores there seems usually a completion, a true ending, however short the piece. This phenomenon I hope to discuss in a future essay on Mark Johnson, an educational theorist and musician who has put forward a valuable model of the listener in a real-time examination of the opening of Lachemann’s Mouvement (- von der Estamung).

Lachenmann is a convenient composer to land upon as he has been consistent in the use of the cluster as a further developmental step in the taxonomy of harmonic texture. Pianist Ian Pace has rightly pointed out in his paper on Lachenmann’s Serynade that ‘while the physical choreography is by no means simple, and requires a high degree of inner absorption prior to performance, there is practically nothing in this respect in Serynade which cannot be executed idiomatically and with a reasonable degree of ease and effortlessness.’ Some of the same might be said for Hersch’s ‘clustering’, which occur in his piano writing, string writing and in the later orchestral music, but where the purpose (and affect) seem very different. Hersch uses clusters to intensify, to wrench the coming together of simultaneous pitches into an unstable moment of anxiety and uncertainty; Lachenmann’s use seems purely as part of an intricate play of / addition to timbre.

Clusters as harmony figure in most movements of end stages, either in distinct timbres such as low semitone-ordered clusters of strings (especially double basses) or in gestural figurations of the woodwind choir.

Clusters in the Strings from End Stages by Michael Hersch

Clusters in the Strings from ‘End Stages’ by Michael Hersch

Clusters in Woodwind figurations from End Stages

Clusters in Woodwind figurations from ‘End   Stages’

The sparseness and simplicity of melodic figures make for a special sense of illumination – when they occur. There are two distinct types: the first a by-step falling diad in sixths occurring in movements I and VIII; the second is a rising figure appearing almost by stealth as the piece progresses, but affirming itself, in conjunction with the falling figure, in the movement VIII. It is these figures that when combined at the end of the work appear to give a measure of hope or reconciliation to what Kevin Tuttle’s images suggest are those stages at the end of human life.

Melodic Fragments in End Stages

Melodic Fragments (falling) in End Stages

Melodic Fragments (Rising & falling) in End Stages

Melodic Fragments (rising & falling) in ‘End Stages’

Musical sense, like poetic sense, appears to ask for good continuation, even if this continuation does not have a clear narrative. I think Hersch’s miniature movements, despite their oft-completeness, their measured endings, do make sense as they progress one to another. The break is that white space between the black of the printed notes and instructions, like the space between verses or groups of lines in a poem. Hersch does not need to give a sign of continuity just by placing a bar marked tacet, when what he means is ‘there is a silence here, a moment of silence where one thought ends to allow another to begin’. The ‘join’ between material so frequently obsesses composers, who often tend towards covering up a join with a ‘distraction element’, so giving the illusion of continuation.  The use of cut and paste and the attraction of sequencing material in Computer-Aided Composition has tended to emphasize this problem.

Slence within a movement in End Stages

Silence within a movement in ‘End Stages’

My own work Metanoia was roundly criticized over its audible joins until I realized that I had to make ‘commas’ of breaths between sections, and indeed add some ‘full stops’ to allow the resonance from one section to dissolve before another started. Notation can so easily make automatons of us as performers if we allow ourselves to be governed by the literal letter of the score. As Glyn Maxwell says in his essential book (and I mean essential for composers as well as poets) On Poetry:  ‘what you feel the whiteness is right now – consciously or more likely some way beneath that plane – will determine what you do next . . . for the poet it is half of everything’. And so perhaps is Hersch’s space between, and even inside, miniatures – that is half of everything.

And the images that provoke ‘end stages’. They speak for themselves – pencil and chalk drawings of images caught, I dare not think how (maybe from photographs), but heart-stopping . . . and good to know at the premiere these were printed in the concert programme.

Drawing by Keith Tuttle

Drawing by Kevin Tuttle

Nothing is expected in ‘end stages’, but there are intriguing and affecting elements of steady and progressive development as in movement IV in the background cantus-like duet for cellos (echoed later between viols and violas).

A cantus-like passage from End Stages

A cantus-like passage from ‘End Stages’

It is passages like these that movingly articulate the larger scheme of the piece, so that something quite timeless in quality appears in the midst of otherwise highly charged,  mostly short, emotive figures moving across the orchestra. I hope it will not be very long before ‘end stages’ appears on the Hersch YouTube channel.

Hersch Violin Solo # 5

The use of silence in ‘the weather and landscape are on our side’ for solo violin

Miranda Cuckson, violinist and violist, has been a longtime champion of Hersch’s music, even acting as producer for his first opera given in New York last year. Her CD of solo violin music by Michael Hersch is a testament to finding fascination with bringing this very particular music to life. Unlike Hersch’s solo music for violoncello, composed for Daniel Gaisford, the violin music seems wholly free from echoes of Bach (convincingly present in the Cello Sonata #2). Her wholly committed performance of ‘the weather and the landscape are on our side’, an eleven-movement collection of pieces triggered by fragments from Bruno Schulz, is mesmerizing in the sheer range of sound and articulation she summons from what looks a rather unpromising score on paper. When you look first at the music there simply is not that much to go on. It isn’t crowded out like a Ferneyhough solo with compound irrational rhythms and the dense minutiae of dynamic and sonic instruction. It is as though the composer gives a measure of trust and interpretative space to the performer, like giving a script to an actor where the words, their expression and timing, comes out of an intense engagement and reflection. In writing music that sometimes is very demanding, Hersch understands that the perfection of realising ‘the notes’ will often result is extra sounds or even just the gesture rather than the sound, and this is OK, as his note in the introduction to the score recognises:

The rendering of a gesture at a given dynamic should take precedence over pitch accuracy.

The text that brings this acutely imagined music into an audible form comes from a curious source, fragments of text from letters written by Bruno Schulz. The chosen fragments appear to be biographical snapshots of this writer whose work was brutally curtailed in the Nazi pogroms against the Jews. Schulz was a writer who looked inwardly at his condition, circumstances and surroundings, summoning up extraordinary images and situations. You can get a good taste of both his writings and drawings in this striking web interpretation:

Schulz web material

It is not difficult to examine this music for solo violin using conventional analytical tools and come away with vague approximations, possibilities and suggestions. Nothing less than a total dissembling of parametric elements is likely to demonstrate the possibility of some formal arrangement of material – and this I have done in the first three fragments. But I don’t think we are in Thomas Adès territory here, with related and persuasive note-sets that generate remarkable transformations. Each movement has its ‘figures’, its marks made, sometimes developed, sometimes not at all. I feel confident that Hersch knows enough about the mechanisms and possibilities of post-tonal music, and has a keen ear to intuit a right continuation. In IV, VI and XI he uses a quasi-modal writing to summon up the necessary traditional musical and sonic resonances belonging to the violin, and particularly the violin of the Klezemer that adopts the Jewish prayer modes, the musical ‘sound’ Bruno Schulz would have known. Although I can only guess some kind of authentic relationship here, I admit to being seduced by Jewish music, not least in my two Selah for violin and piano, and cello and piano. The scales used in IV (There will be more and better shortly), VI (I have seen beautiful, shocking, terrible sights) and XI (No one will be left, all of it will become mere legend.) are not slavish to actual Jewish modes but seem to be a free amalgam – but the sound is just authentic enough, though the context tragic.

Hersch - Violin Solo #3

Examples of  possible modal Jewish inflections in two of the eleven fragments from ‘the weather . . .’

Hersch violin solo #1


A quite different aspect captured in Movement #2

.  .  . and a quite different aspect and texture captured in fragment  #2

It’s easy to shy away from the challenge Hersch’s music sets up for the listener. It is so far away from the archetypal American music since the 80s minimalism took music away for a ‘short ride in a fast machine’.  Ultimately audiences (and maybe performers) will tire of this ‘quick fix ‘music and also of the longueurs of Feldmanesque copies. They will demand content that goes beneath the surface of timbre – to the music itself.  I’ve long been drawn to music that doesn’t answer all the questions at a single hearing, that demands close attention and carefully listening, and above all gets one’s imagination to extend what you hear and see. Such music reflects back at one’s meagre efforts to compose – and this is useful, indeed vital. In my post-academic years the music of Stockhausen, Richard Barratt, Enno Poppe, Kevin Volans, Tom Adès have made me return time and again to these composers scores, even perform their music. I’m pleased that five years after speculating on buying that CD of The Vanishing Pavilions I can finally add Michael Hersch to that list.

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