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,” composer Michael Hersch is widely regarded as among today's most gifted artists. 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 (NOVA Chamber Music Series) 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, and an upcoming residency with the Camerata Bern in Switzerland in 2019/20. In recent years, Hersch has worked closely with Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the violinist commissioning both his Violin Concerto, which premiered in 2015, and his chamber work ... das Rückgrat berstend, which premiered at the Park Avenue Armory in 2017. 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, Italy’s Romaeuropa and Nuova Consonanza Festivals, as well as performances in Japan and Singapore.
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.”
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 Conservatory in Baltimore, MD.
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
Michael Hersch's Images from a Closed Ward is most assuredly uneasy listening, but not gratuitously so. By drawing inspiration from a series of unsparing etchings and lithographs the American artist Michael Mazur (1935-2009) created in the early ‘60s of inmates in a Rhode Island mental asylum, Hersch's sixty-five-minute string quartet is true to its disturbing subject matter. Performed by the New York-based FLUX Quartet (Tom Chiu, Conrad Harris, violins; Max Mandel, viola; Felix Fan, cello), the work is harrowing yet also infused with humanity. Never is the impression left that Mazur and Hersch are indulging in some perverse ironic exercise or exploiting their subjects for amusement's sake; instead, one comes away from the project convinced that both felt great compassion for human beings living in such dire circumstances and wished to honour them using their respective art forms.
Of Hersch's On the Threshold of Winter, The New York Times stated, “Death casts a long shadow over the recent work of Mr. Hersch,” words that are almost as applicable to Images from a Closed Ward but for the fact that the subjects preserved in Mazur's images aren't dead, though they may soon be so, judging by their woeful physical state. The seeds for the work were planted in 2000 when the composer was in Rome enjoying a residency as a Fellow at the American Academy and viewed an exhibit of etchings by Mazur based on Robert Pinsky's translation of Dante's Inferno. Recognizing a kindred sensibility, Hersch contacted the artist and a relationship developed that would eventually lead to the string quartet and this recording. In the booklet included with the release, Mazur's etchings are shown alongside equally powerful photographs by Gianni Berengo Gardin, Jerry Cooke, and others.
Hersch's sombre work is structured (and indexed) as thirteen movements yet plays without interruption, the shift from one to the next often signified by dramatic changes in volume, dynamics, and mood; its generally slow pace even drops as far as twenty-four beats per minute, a tempo at which any sense of pulse grows obscure. Whereas movements one and seven are ghostly chorales, their solemn fragility is countered by the aggressiveness of the quartet's attack elsewhere. Sonorities are often raw, especially when the sounds generated by the four appear as a homophonic mass, and the playing, even during its quieter episodes, inculcates feelings of dread and claustrophobia. Note clusters creak dissonantly, with the cello providing a skeletal plucked accompaniment for the brittle, dirge-like expressions of the others. Tension builds almost unbearably during quiet movements when one anticipates the merciless rupture to come, as illustrated by the transition from the hushed utterances of the third to the sour tonalities of the fourth. Offering a relative moment of levity, pizzicati flourishes in the brief eighth movement punctuate the gloom like sunlight flooding a darkened room. If any part could be seen as representative of the piece, it might be the brooding ninth, whose sustained tones effectively convey the “haunted; stricken” performance instruction. The eleventh, on the other hand, distills the work's ferocious side into a single movement, one where the strings engage in violent, stabbing counterpoint with relentless fervour.
In 2003, Mazur drew a distinction between doom and sadness in commentary he wrote for Hersch's first CD release, a chamber music collection, a distinction that relates to Images from a Closed Ward as well. Of the music on that earlier release, Mazur wrote, “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 ... Sadness is a much more complicated and, therefore, interesting human condition.” Yes, the world evoked by Images from a Closed Ward is bleak, but it's not wholly bereft of hope, no matter how grave the imagery. We feel for their isolated and anonymous subjects, recognizing that each at one time enjoyed—or at least so we hope—a happier and more fulfilling existence, a life perhaps not all that much different from our own.
- Ron Schepper, textura, 4.2018
By design, Images from a Closed Ward, Michael Hersch’s cycle of thirteen movements for string quartet, is not easy listening. Hersch’s inspiration was a set of etchings and prints artist Michael Mazur created of people institutionalized in a mental asylum in Rhode Island in the 1960s. The music is accordingly disturbing—jarring, discordant, harsh and unyielding. Hersch leverages blocks of sound, deliberately out-of-tune harmonies and extended string techniques to convey a world unmoored and unstable, haunted by an emptiness and fundamental self-alienation. One can only imagine what those people experienced or how their surroundings impinged on them; Hersch’s composition provides sixty-five minutes of empathetic conjecture, which the FLUX Quartet realizes with a relentless power.
— Daniel Barbiero, Avant Music News, 3.2018
Living composer Michael Hersch (b. 1971) is a leader among High Modernists composing right now. I say that based on recordings of his music, namely Last Autumn (see review from April 8, 2015), A Breath Upwards (see April 4, 2018) the Blair Quartet recording of Images from A Closed Ward (see March 5, 2014) and The Sudden Pianist (see June 4, 2013).
Hersch does not create music that sounds like it comes out of a laboratory or a math department at a prominent university (though I should be quick to point out that I like either sorts of things regardless). Instead there is a high level of drama and expressivity to the works I have heard, palettes of consonant and dissonant tonality working in tandem depending on the needs of the work, and at times an underlying extra-musical thematics that turns the music into a kind of narrative or meta-narrative that is more than just notes situated in space.
This latter is very relevant to the CD on the docket for this Monday. It is a new recording of Hersch's moving string quartet, Images from A Closed Ward (New Focus Recordings FCR 199). The first recording as I mention above featured the Blair Quartet. Ths time out we have the FLUX Quartet doing the honors.
As Aaron Grad puts it in the liner notes, Hersch often enough addresses the difficult theme of "loss and psychological instability." From A Closed Ward treats this condition as a central concern, at the same time as it provides a musical analogy to the visual content. It all began when Hersch encountered American visual artist Michael Mazur when they both happened to be in Rome--that is to say that Hersch was in Rome on a Rome Prize Fellowship. At the same time Mazur had a number of etchings on display at the American Academy. This was all about illustrations provided by Mazur for a new translation of Dante's Inferno.
Hersch saw the show and was impressed by it. He recognized in Mazur the visual equivalent to where Hersch was going musically. At some point they met and hit it off. Mazur's initial signature pieces came out in the '60s, two sets of etchings and lithographs entitled Closed Ward and Locked Ward. The images were harrowingly dark renditions of a near hopeless sadness, an ugliness that served to isolate each from others. These works became central to the string quartet Hersch began in 2009.
And of course that quartet is what we hear so dramatically rendered in the present recording. What perhaps is most striking musically is a deliberate blocking out of one after another of short string groupings of sound, mostly simultaneously sounded yet with an unpredictability in both the voicings and the uttered periodicity. The voicings themselves are sometimes spread out in pitch so that the instability of the voicings correspond in many ways to the etching contents. There can be sharp dissonances and less dissonant voicings in contrast, the latter of which seem to want to more forward into more dissonance, or my ear hears it that way--as opposed to the old classical way of letting a dissonance sound as a movement towards a consonance.
So in the sympathy Hersch feels towards the Mazur patients, who seem to suffer mostly from their very isolation, we get a musical analogy or analogue of a series of soundings all interrelated but in a psychoacoustic sense never exactly interconnected, or in other words deliberately made to conjoin yet existing in a ghastly solitude. I accidentally when looking for Hersh's birthdate online brushed up against a Times review that remarked on Hersch's dark pallet but also the moments of ecstasy. Honestly I did not hear that so much as unrelieved and rather hopeless sadness, sometimes quiet, sometimes like a cry of anguish. There seems to me no real relief in sight in the actual tone-movement forward. Still, the aesthetic brilliance of the way the tone blocks bump up against one another yet remain alone, that makes the listener zero down on the sheer sensual tone utterance quality. It is the manner of expression that fascinates and heartens the listener, that transcends the awe-ful presence of the subject matter, the patients and their struggles. From pain comes a pleasure in the referents, taken aside from the signifieds!
I hear this new version by FLUX. I love it. I find it different enough that I am glad to have it along with the Blair version. This may be the definitive performance though. If you for the moment only have resources to explore one, I recommend this one. The work is a milestone in quartet literature! Bravo!
— Grego Applegate Edwards, Classical Modern Music Review, 5.21.2018