Chaya Czernowin: Metaphors Unlock the Imagination

It is hard to imagine a contemporary composer of more exhilarating artistry and warmhearted spirit than Chaya Czernowin, who spent a whirlwind week in Chicago that left the local new music community and its audience in stunned awe. The week culminated in a concert of her music, and other works she chose, by Ensemble Dal Niente on Friday, November 16, 2102, in Nichols Concert Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston, Illinois.

Composer Chaya Czernowin (photo credit: Astrid Karger)

Czernowin seems compelled by a primal urge to communicate with sound. She has abiding respect for the integrity of the musical visions that move her to compose. Without regard to categories or constraints of easy accessibility, she seeks to make the truest auditory expression of her musical inspirations that she can. The members of Ensemble Dal Niente have long been intrigued by Czernowin’s music and this concert has been in development for well over a year.

The concert opened with a thrilling jump off a high cliff with no certainty the bungee cord would hold. Ryan Muncy (who is also the ensemble’s Executive Director) presented the world premiere of The Last Leaf on solo sopranino saxophone. Playing with passion and reckless abandon, Muncy started with skittish, tentative, breathy runs in the highest register as if the piece was struggling to finds its voice, straining to reach its destiny. Then suddenly he unleashed a long, loud blast in the lowest register, sustained until his last ounce of breath was spent. Next came some more melodic warbling as Muncy regained his bearings, then shifted into high, faint, jumpy bursts. And the bottom dropped out again with a sustained low line, gradually increasing in volume like the howl of the north wind. Czernowin reworked The Last Leaf from its earlier version for oboe. We learned in later conversation with Muncy that her ambition in moving to the sopranino was to take advantage of its much wider dynamic range and the essential impossibility of playing it perfectly. This result was unsettling music full of danger.

Saxophonist Ryan Muncy (photo credit: Larry Dunn)

After an energetic reading of Czernowin’s knotty and twisted Afatism for a nonet arranged in four groups, there was a brief break to setup the electronics for Steven Takasugi’s Jargon of Nothingness. In a newly arranged version for live performance, this tightly choreographed piece was dramatic, challenging (to both players and audience) and at times frightening. When oboist Andrew Nogal and clarinetist Alejandro Acierto promenaded onto stage in lock-step synchronization, we knew something special was afoot. With eyes fixed straight ahead, they robotically approached the tables where their instruments lay, one fully assembled, one in pieces. As they began to play, there was little or no tonal content. They held their instruments to their mouths, but made only breath sounds and loud percussive tapping of the keys to mix with the chaotic electronic track. Choreography continued to play an important role throughout as they shifted between uses of the whole instruments and their subassemblies. At times they produced piercing screeches by drawing bows over the reeds in the mouthpiece of their instruments, moving their heads from left to right while still staring straight ahead with their eyes. The overall effect was the sounds of a building slowly collapsing to rubble.

Following intermission, a septet of all lower register instruments augmented by a trio of percussionists played Czernowin’s Winter Songs II: Stones. With a vast battery of tools, the percussionists laid out a steady, furious pulse. The winds and strings played a lurching, low, shifting melody, struggling to find its way, often at odds with the percussive pulse. After all the driving turmoil, the piece ended in solemn solitude as percussionist Gregory Beyer made long, slow pulls of two bows across xylophone bars with the artists and audience hanging on the final sounds until their full decay.

The concert ended with Sahaf, a recent piece for saxophone, electric guitar, piano, and percussion, originally written for the Israeli quartet Ensemble Nikel. Jesse Langen led the way with a wild run of disarray on guitar; Muncy joined on baritone sax, buffeting the guitar with added physicality accompanied by Winston Choi with low booming chords on the piano. Doug Perkins took the lead with frenetic percussion runs dominated by an array of ratchets, then matched by Choi’s percussive plucking inside the piano. Muncy inserted a wild melody on sopranino. When his bandmates fell in step, he switched to wild swoops on baritone. The ratchets returned to the fore setting a cadence the whole ensemble joined, ultimately playing to conclusion as if one giant ratchet.

Composers Morgan Krauss, Chace Wall, Chaya Czernowin, and Marcos Balter (photo credit: Larry Dunn)

Sahaf was a bookend for us, as Czernowin had played a recording of it at a symposium and master class we attended earlier in the day at Columbia College Chicago. Director of Composition Marcos Balter arranged the event (one of five during the week at colleges around the city) so that his students could learn more about Czernowin’s music and benefit from her tutelage. After playing recordings of Sahaf and two new orchestral pieces, Zohar Iver and The Quiet, Czernowin conducted detailed score reviews with budding composers Morgan Krauss and Chace Wall. We were so impressed with her gracious and generous teaching style. She challenged the students in such a charming and irresistible manner. The essence of her message to both students was to take more risks and resist the temptation to make any musical conception too pure. She also talked about how she uses metaphors of natural phenomena, not as direct inspiration to make emulative work, but rather as a means to unlock the imagination to take the risks that lead to her music’s most potent expression.

After nearly a full day of immersion into Chaya Czernowin’s music, it’s still bouncing around in our heads. It is by turns provocative, confounding, and entrancing. Ultimately, it is addictive, and we are eager to hear more. Ensemble Nikel and The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra will be playing Zohar Iver on April 27, 2013, in Cambridge, MA. We may just have to go.

Arlene and Larry Dunn are pure amateurs of contemporary music. Visit their blog at Acornometrics and follow them on Twitter: @ICEfansArleneLD.