5 Questions to Michael Hersch (composer) and Ah Young Hong (soprano)

Throughout his career, composer and pianist Michael Hersch has created a body of work that explores the intensity of terminal illness and the precarity of memory. Soprano Ah Young Hong has frequently collaborated with Hersch on these pieces, bringing a stylistic versatility informed by the late Renaissance and late-20th-century pieces by Milton Babbitt and Morton Feldman. Their early work together started with a critically acclaimed premiere of Hersch’s monodrama On the Threshold of Winter, in 2014, which left audiences stunned and Hong in tears.

Since then, the duo has worked together on a series of pieces that blend incisive texts from writers reflecting on embodied and emotional experiences of dispossession, loss, and tragedy. cortex and ankle (2016) continues Hersch’s long engagement with Christopher Middleton‘s writing, a year after the poet’s death, by developing fragments of poetry across multiple movements. the script of storms (2018) adapts Fawzi Karim’s poetry evoking the beauty and brutality of life in mid-20th century Iraq and in exile into an equally dynamic vocal score led by Hong. Working with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann on Poppaea (2019) and Medea (2022), Hersch focused on the inner psyche of women in Greek tragedies. Throughout, Hong brought sensitive and sharp performances that find the nuances in poetry and agency in these characters.

The pair’s latest piece, one step to the next, worlds ending, continues these themes by setting text by the Canadian poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky. Premiered in Basel, Switzerland, in December 2022, the piece dives headfirst into the uncertainties of 21st-century life through searing vocal lines and fragile instrumental textures. The U.S. premiere, by Talea Ensemble, is slated for October 29; the program expands on these themes by placing the new piece in dialogue with Hersch’s pandemic work anonymous beneath the lemon trees, and with Georg Friederich Haas…wie stille brannte das Licht.

We got in touch with Hersch and Hong to reflect on their collaborative partnership, and discuss one step to the next and their upcoming performances.

Michael Hersch and Ah Young Hong -- Photo by Mike Maguire

Michael Hersch and Ah Young Hong — Photo by Mike Maguire

Michael, you’ve worked extensively with writers and poets throughout your career. How has working with Ah Young shaped your approach to text and orchestration?

Ah Young has a unique ability to inhabit expressive totalities where her absolute command of musical material is only the beginning. In whatever music she undertakes, she is able to give voice to the myriad expressive and technical complexities at hand, in a manner that is at once somehow fully distilled and broadly generous. This generosity extends from her commitment to the music she performs, the sacrifices she will make to achieve the expressive aims she senses in the music no matter how technically, physically, or psychologically challenging, to her attempts to understand, to really know the music and the motivations behind it. In my case, she inspires in such a way that I can give full flight to my imagination. It is among the greatest gifts for an artist, a feeling of absolute expressive freedom, no matter the unique external pressures or realities. In this sense, since becoming acquainted with her artistry, she has shaped not just choices of text and orchestration, but all aspects of expressive consideration.

Ah Young, you’ve taken on more emotionally demanding and dramatic roles in Michael’s pieces. How has collaborating with Michael shaped your approach to interpretation and performance?

While I am still learning as a musician, I feel that I’ve become far more honest with the way I share music, especially on stage. The audience, I think, deserves that honesty. Not a prettier version of us, but the whole thing… in particular those things we look away from, things like brutality, fear, and uncertainty, in addition to the compassionate, the tender, the patient… all of it. His music allows me to look inwards, deeply, to within the places I often don’t wish to visit; to emotions and thoughts that are extremely difficult to address. They are neatly tucked away so that only the beautiful, courageous, and honorable parts are accessed and shared. That’s how I used to perform. After performing his monodrama On the Threshold of Winter, I became aware that to share music so important, so profound, I had to not censor myself so much. Despite what might come out — whether it is a distorted sound, a pained, raw expression — I simply needed it all out, uninhibited and honest. For me, it is a liberating way to approach all music.

Ah Young Hong performs Michael Hersch's POPPAEA at Wien Modern -- Photo by Markus Sepperer

Ah Young Hong performs Michael Hersch’s POPPAEA at Wien Modern — Photo by Markus Sepperer

Jan Zwicky’s deeply lyrical and haunting text continues her career-long focus on music and philosophical questions of being and ecology. Michael, what drew you to Zwicky’s work, and can you describe your process of setting her texts from one step to the next?

… they make a nurse dig out
the shaft grave underneath
the slumped pulp of the head.
The heart still beating faintly.
It goes on.
… worlds ending …
— Jan Zwicky

Like the work of some of the writers and poets I have worked with in the past, namely Christopher Middleton, Anja Utler, Fawzi Karim, and Shane McCrae, there is a structural fearlessness and directness to much of Jan Zwicky’s texts. While her work often can engage with a deep consideration of the world as she sees it in the broadest sense, it is in particular her observations of varying devastations, of structural dismantlings and our commonly unspoken collective role in them to which I was initially drawn. The consequences which she describes can at times be interpreted from small to vast, quiet to loud, restrained to aggressive, or all of these things simultaneously. While the aforementioned poets often train their focus on what human beings inflict upon one another without any relief from the specifically human elements at play, Zwicky often looks to the role of our broader destructive capacities, utilizing an absence of human nature to often provide a counterpoint. There is also what seems to me a deeply musical sensibility here in the way she approaches her poetry.

Ah Young, how have you grown with Zwicky’s texts and Michael’s score, both leading up to the December 2022 world premiere, and in preparation for the upcoming performance?

The beauty of music, and in this case music with text, is that it feels tailored for each listener and reader. It goes through subtle or even dramatic changes, either due to changes of the world or our own internal shifts. When I first approached this piece, the words and music reflected my own apprehensions with the aftermath of the pandemic, as well as my struggle with recovery to health. It was a time when I felt almost overly introspective, losing what seemed a healthy perspective on life.

After the concert on which the premiere of Hersch’s one step to the next, worlds ending occurred, I met the wife of a composer whose works were also featured on the program. She was a young widow with young children. They lost their husband and father too early. This interaction had an aching impact on me, and the piece took a vastly different emotional turn for the second performance. It was not a conscious decision to change the meaning and expression — my mind was consumed with what the world feels like when losing a loved one. For me, this is the power of Hersch’s music and the texts he employs: it is not only about the raw human suffering, but the often hard to reach empathy that accompanies it.

Michael Hersch -- Photo by Sam Oberter

Michael Hersch — Photo by Sam Oberter

The body and breath have been recurring themes that you both have discussed in relation to chronic illness and the global COVID-19 pandemic. But they also have been invoked by climate advocacy and movements for systemic change in policing. How has living with these artistic themes for over a decade helped both of you find solidarity and agency across multiple intersecting crises?


In the dirt hot light burst from its back that
Light not the melting birds screams …
I heard the world
… a world of screams –
… Like paper burned loose from the kindling and flying from the fire.
…world in world … chaos flung on bones.
… where I meet you, we are here.
Shane McCrae     

What I think all the works I have written for Ah Young — and the majority of the texts, stories, realities, images involved — have engaged with are, above all, issues of loss. But there are two distinct framings that I think the pieces engage with and bisect each other. These are issues of violences from within and from without, though at times the distinction is admittedly blurred. Those works that deal with violences from within are the ones that are above all set into motion by the destruction of the body through illness. The other works engage with violences from without… an emphasis on exploring cruelties that individuals and societies wreak upon each other, and the commonalities these seemingly intractable human elements from antiquity to, tragically, today have.

My most recent opera for Ah Young is built around a libretto on texts by the aforementioned Shane McCrae who, like Ah Young, has made a life of not only considering these characteristics but living them. Over the course of the last decade I feel I have been writing pieces where Ah Young is repeatedly asked to inhabit one character after another, and to traverse these challenging landscapes with varying degrees of speculation. The new opera is in certain respects one where, finally, the central character is Ah Young herself; not necessarily in the details of the text per se, but one that makes a small attempt to put her sensibilities as an artist and her concerns for this world further front and center. When speaking about her role as Poppaea before the opera’s premiere in 2021, she said something that I believe characterizes her approach to much if not all the work she undertakes, and is something of an origin point for many of the broader conversations important to her in the present through performance: “… I felt a responsibility to read, to learn, to participate in sharing this history; not to romanticize or to oversell it, but to simply go squarely into that darkness.”

Ah Young: As a teacher, I’ve often asked my students why they wish to perform. Wanting to share beautiful music with others is usually their first response. But knowing all of us have experienced complicated, sometimes painful aspects of life, whether directly or indirectly, we should be more responsible with that specific answer. For me, the last decade of music making has given me the opportunity as a performer to express and comment on these extremely difficult struggles. I am lucky to have been given a platform to share the voice of a poet:

“…for a friend they burnt in a pool of acid,
Or for someone left like a scarecrow
standing guard over a minefield.
Skulls and fragments of bone,
Wreckage …
given thicker presence by the mud.
You can’t get away from the sight of those mouths
where the breath is stilled.
Is there to be some revivification of their torn bodies?
Is the dawn to be?”

And at other times, quietly sharing my own personal experience with violence through a character who similarly goes through the same. By sharing these difficult stories through music, we connect with others. For me, that is the answer.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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