Composer Michael Hersch's string quartet Images from a Closed Ward, performed here with absolute commitment by the New York based FLUX Quartet, is inextricably connected to his friendship with the late American artist Michael Mazur. More specifically, Hersch was inspired by a series of etchings and lithographs Mazur did of inmates in a Rhode Island mental asylum in the 1960's. In his musical depiction of these images, Hersch writes music that is at times aggressive and disturbing and at other times introspective and alienated, but always with profound intensity and a deeply felt humanity.
The genesis of composer Michael Hersch’s powerful Images from a Closed Ward, performed here in its revised version with virtuosity by the FLUX Quartet, traces back to his time in Italy in 2000, while he was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. During his residency, Hersch encountered an exhibit of etchings inspired by a new translation of Dante’s Inferno by American artist Michael Mazur. The two recognized in each other a shared sensibility and cultivated a collaborative working relationship and admiration. The piece we hear on this recording was inspired by Mazur’s series of etchings and lithographs of inmates in a Rhode Island mental institution in the early 1960s. Sadly, by the time Hersch contacted Mazur after some time without being in touch to share sketches of the work, Mazur had unexpectedly passed away. Hersch’s ability to capture the torment underlying the physical images of the subjects in the etchings is uncanny. Whether the music is harsh and violent, or wrenchingly introverted, it retains a quality of utter psychological and spiritual isolation that would seem to be characteristic of severe mental illness. The thirteen movement piece opens tentatively, with the four string instruments hesitatingly coming together and breaking apart in small waves of sound mass, chromaticism, and microtonal inflections of diatonic harmony. Movement two is one and half minutes of brutal chords, uncomfortably raw. These two opposing aesthetic impulses — disembodied and searching contrasting with bracing and desperate — frame the expressive language of this emotional piece. In movement six, they coexist as the ensemble splits, with one duo playing strong block chords revealing quiet harmonies in the other two instruments behind. Movement seven is a chorale, solemnly delving into the depths in a series of delicately voiced chords with closely spaced intervals, tremolos, and timbral fragility. Movement eight breaks from the largely sustained character of the work thus far for a sparse interlude of violent pizzicato gestures. Movement eleven contains the most overtly virtuosic writing for the ensemble in the piece. The energetic verticalities from movement two are heard here in a more developed rhythmic context with relentless intensity and bracing scale passages. Hersch diffuses the energy of this ten minute onslaught with two final movements which look inward again with resignation and quiet internal conflict. Images from a Closed Ward is available in a shorter version on a previously released recording, but this version is current and sanctioned by the composer as final. Michael Mazur’s powerful images, alongside often shocking photographs by Gianni Berengo Gardin, Jerry Cooke and others, are included in the accompanying CD booklet, lending context to the presentation of Hersch’s music. Images from a Closed Ward is undoubtedly serious listening, sustaining a somber density of expression for the duration of its sixty-five minutes of music. Perhaps its most hopeful quality is Hersch’s capacity to plumb the depths of human alienation to generate resonance far beyond the walls of a psychiatric institution and into our own individual psyches in times of difficulty. In this way, the music connects us with patients who experienced grave circumstances, and bonds us in shared humanity.
FLUX Quartet (Tom Chiu, Conrad Harris, violins; Max Mandel, viola; Felix Fan, cello)
Engineered by Max Ross, Systems Two, Brooklyn, NY 9/30/2017
Design and layout by Jessica Slaven
Artwork by Michael Mazur
Photographs by Gianni Berengo Gardin, Jerry Cooke, and others
His work described by The New York Times as "viscerally gripping and emotionally transformative music ... claustrophobic and exhilarating at once, with moments of sublime beauty nestled inside thickets of dark virtuosity,” and The Washington Post as music of “an unrelenting and unforgettable intensity,” composer Michael Hersch is widely considered to be among the most gifted composers of his generation. Recent and upcoming premieres include his Violin Concerto, with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Avanti Festival in Helsinki, and the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland; the New York City premiere of Zwischen Leben und Tod, at the newly established National Sawdust, and new productions in Chicago (Ensemble Dal Niente) and Salt Lake City (partnership between NOVA Chamber Music Series and Utah Opera) of his monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter. The two-act work premiered in 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Of the premiere The New York Times noted: “Death casts a long shadow over the recent work of Mr. Hersch ... But in On the Threshold of Winter Mr. Hersch has given himself the space to burrow past anger and incomprehension in search of an art fired by empathy and compassion." The Baltimore Sun called the piece "a work of great originality, daring, and disturbing power." Over the past several years, Hersch has also written new works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Klang, the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien, and the Library of Congress. Other notable recent events include European performances by the Kreutzer Quartet of Images From a Closed Ward in the U.K. and Sweden, a recording of the work by the acclaimed FLUX Quartet, and the premiere of Of Sorrow Born: Seven Elegies, a work for solo violin commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered at the orchestra’s Biennial. Current projects include a major co-commission by the Ojai Music Festival, the Aldeburgh Festival, Cal Performances Berkeley, and PNReview, with a world premiere scheduled for a June 2018, and an upcoming residency with the Camerata Bern in Switzerland in 2019/20. In recent years, Hersch has worked closely with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the violinist commissioning both his Violin Concerto, which premiered in 2015, and his chamber work ... das Rückgrat berstend, which premiered in 2017. She recently recorded the concerto with the International Contemporary Ensemble (I.C.E.), and the duo with cellist Jay Campbell. The recordings are scheduled for release in 2018/19.
Hersch's solo and chamber works have appeared on programs around the globe - from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in the U.S. to Germany’s Schloss Neuhardenberg Festival in Brandenberg and the Philharmonie in Berlin; from the U.K.’s Dartington New Music Festival and British Museum to Italy’s Romaeuropa and Nuova Consonanza Festivals. Performances in the far east include those with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Japan’s Pacific Music Festival. Notable past performances include Night Pieces, commissioned and premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra, and a song cycle for baritone and piano, Domicilium, premiered by Thomas Hampson and Wolfgang Rieger on San Francisco Performances (commissioned by Mr. Hampson and the ASCAP Kingsford Commissions for Art Song). Hersch’s second piano concerto, along the ravines, was given performances with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra with pianist Shai Wosner, and as part of the George Enescu International Festival in Romania (Timisoara and Bucharest) with pianist Matei Varga. Mr. Hersch's Symphony No. 3 was premiered by Marin Alsop and the Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival Orchestra, a festival commission, and his A Forest of Attics, commissioned for the Network for New Music's 25th anniversary season, was selected as one of the year’s most important classical music events by The Philadelphia Inquirer. The paper said of the work, “A Forest of Attics threw a Molotov cocktail into the concert: Everything before it paled in comparison ... Hersch has written some towering works in recent years; this is yet another.”
Born in Washington D.C. in 1971, Michael Hersch came to international attention at age twenty-five, when he was awarded First Prize in the Concordia American Composers Awards. The award resulted in a performance of his Elegy, conducted by Marin Alsop in New York's Alice Tully Hall. Later that year he became one of the youngest recipients ever of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition. Mr. Hersch has also been the recipient of the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship and Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the President's Frontier Award from the Johns Hopkins University, among other honors.Also a gifted pianist, Mr. Hersch has appeared around the world including appearances at the Festival Dag in de Branding in the Netherlands, the Warhol Museum, the Romaeuropa Festival, the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., Cleveland's Reinberger Chamber Hall, the Festival of Contemporary Music Nuova Consonanza, the Network for New Music Concert Series, the Left Bank Concert Society, Festa Europea della Musica, St. Louis' Sheldon Concert Hall, and in New York City at Merkin Concert Hall, the 92nd St. Y - Tisch Center for the Performing Arts, and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, among others. Mr. Hersch currently serves as chair of the composition faculty at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
The FLUX Quartet, "one of the most fearless and important new-music ensembles around" (Joshua Kosman, The San Francisco Chronicle) "who has brought a new renaissance to quartet music" (Kyle Gann, The Village Voice), has performed to critical acclaim in venues of all sorts, from Carnegie's Zankel Hall and Kennedy Center, to influential art institutions such as EMPAC, The Kitchen, and the Walker Art Center, to international music festivals in Australia, Europe, and the Americas. It has also premiered new works on numerous experimental series, including Roulette, Bowerbird, and the Music Gallery. Strongly influenced by the irreverent spirit and "anything-goes" philosophy of the fluxus art movement, violinist Tom Chiu founded FLUX in the late 90's. The quartet has since cultivated an uncompromising repertoire that follows neither fashions nor trends, but rather combines yesterday's seminal iconoclasts with tomorrow's new voices. Alongside late 20th-century masters like Cage, Feldman, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Scelsi, and Xenakis, FLUX has premiered more than 100 works by many of today's foremost innovators, including Michael Byron, Julio Estrada, David First, Oliver Lake, Alvin Lucier, Marc Neikrug, Matthew Welch; the group has also performed with many influential artists, including Thomas Buckner, Ornette Coleman, Joan La Barbara, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and many more. The group’s discography includes recordings on the Cantaloupe, Innova, Tzadik, and Cold Blue Music labels, in addition to two critically acclaimed releases on Mode Records that encompass the full catalogue of string quartet works by Morton Feldman. The two volumes feature String Quartet No. 1 and String Quartet No. 2 -- seminal large- scale late works by the iconic composer. FLUX’s radio credits include WNYC’s New Sounds and Soundcheck, WFMU’s Stochastic Hit Parade, and NPR’s All Things Considered
The spirit to expand stylistic boundaries is a trademark of the FLUX Quartet, and thus the quartet avidly pursues projects with genre-transcending artists working in mixed media. These artistic synergies have led to an acclaimed recording with experimental balloonist Judy Dunaway, collaborations with choreographers Pam Tanowitz and Shen Wei, and the 3-D video work Upending with digital art-ensemble, OpenEnded Group. Most recently, FLUX appeared both on film and the soundtrack of River of Fundament, the latest work by visionary artist Matthew Barney and composer Jonathan Bepler.
As part of its mission to support future musical pioneers, FLUX actively commissions, and has been awarded grants from the American Composers Forum, USArtists International, Aaron Copland Fund, and the Meet-The-Composer Foundation. FLUX also discovers emerging composers from its many residencies and workshops at colleges, including Wesleyan, Dartmouth, Williams, Princeton, Rice, and the College of William and Mary.
“Finally a tribute to an American composer and an American ensemble: Michael Hersch (*1971) combines the wide literary culture of Holliger and the uncompromising force of Ustwolskaja. My first encounter with him was this album “Images from a Closed Ward” – 13 pieces that do not let you go, played with utter conviction by the marvellous FLUX Quartet … The ghastly CD cover contrasts starkly with the superficial aesthetic mainstream. I recently recorded Hersch’s violin concerto with the amazing ICE Ensemble in New York and I feel that his music is very necessary: It is he who formulates the anxiety and pain that we all feel, when we hear of dying seas, disappearing species, expanding droughts and rising fascism …”
-- Patricia Kopatchinskaja, The Violin Channel, 3.6.2018
Hersch seems drawn to dark subject-matter, especially in the extended chamber works of his recent output, and much of what we said about his epic, bleak duo, Last Autumn (on writings by W.G. Sebald) (05Q093), applies here. The Images are the disturbing etchings in the 'Closed Ward' series from the 1960s by Michael Mazur (1935-2009), depicting patients in an insane asylum. These despairing, faceless figures, contorted and slumped into subhuman positions like living figures drawn from Hieronymus Bosch or Francis Bacon, evoke thirteen brief movements ranging from the desperately sad to the utterly desolate, with one episode of manic fury. The movements contrast in style, texture, degree of dissonance and depth of despair, though all share a basically slow pulse and a heavy tread of unison voicing, with relatively little contrapuntal writing - even the raging eleventh movement with its furiously clashing lines is underpinned by the consistent drumbeat of the unvarying oppression of the frantic soul's surroundings. Among the abrasive harmonies moments of lucidity occur, with the distant, detached calm of pre-tonal Renaissance music, as though the interior monologue of the distorted mind, forever unreachable, clings to fragmentary memories of beauty. The booklet reproduces a number of Mazur's pictures, matched with historical photographs, the briefest perusal of which shows the aptness of Hersch's interpretation of this gloomy, harrowing subject-matter. FLUX Quartet.
— Records International, 3.2018