Michael Hersch: Carrion-Miles to Purgatory

, composer


Michael Hersch's newest release, "Carrion-Miles to Purgatory", features three intensely introspective duos performed by close collaborators of his, virtuoso violinists Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Miranda Cuckson, cellist Jay Campbell, and Hersch himself on piano.


This collection of recent duos by composer Michael Hersch gives the listener a chance to hear the intense expressive contrasts so characteristic of his music in a profoundly intimate context. From jarring, closely spaced intervals, to delicate, ethereal harmonics, to bracingly virtuosic passagework, Hersch’s voice projects strongly throughout this recording featuring three of his most frequent performer collaborators: Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Miranda Cuckson, and Jay Campbell, as well as the composer himself on the piano.

Kopatchinskaja commissioned Hersch specifically to write a work combining vocal and instrumental performance, and the result is a harrowing piece which marries storytelling to song. The speaking part in ...das Rückgrat berstend is precisely notated with extensive expression markings, delineating specific dynamics, durations, and character indications that engage in a form of word painting with spoken narrative form. The source text is by Christopher Middleton, and at Kopatchinskaja’s request it was translated into German. The voice mostly is heard on its own while the strings answer and color the text in responsive fashion. Hersch’s meticulous notation of the vocal part ensures that it fulfills a dual role, both as the raconteur of Middleton’s angst ridden poetry but also as a third “instrument” in the composition. As with much of Hersch’s music, the moments of repose in the work are not entirely restful -- a hollow unease lingers in the disembodied intervals.

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Hersch joined violinist Miranda Cuckson for a duo performance at the Brooklyn venue National Sawdust in the fall of 2018. Drawing from his work for violin and piano (the wreckage of flowers), solo violin (the weather and landscape are on our side, Fourteen Pieces, Five Fragments), and solo piano (The Vanishing Pavilions), Hersch created a new evening-length piece - an excerpt from which appears on this recording - which further underscores the violent and meticulous nature of both the music and the performance of it. Athletic, urgent material contrasts with static, meditative sustained tones and vertical pillars of resonating sonorities in a cohesive work that deftly weaves together disparate compositions into a new work, and captures a palpable balance of focus and freedom from the moment of performance itself.

Each of the thirteen movements in Carrion-Miles to Purgatory is paired with a fragment from Robert Lowell’s poetry collection, Lord Weary’s Castle. The connections between Lowell’s poems and Hersch’s music are largely subconscious, but the poetry provided Hersch solace during the piece’s composition - a time during which he was grappling with the recent death of a close friend. In calling for the spare use of vibrato throughout, Hersch indicates his interest in a sound world of maximum vulnerability, as demonstrated in the precarious unstable chords of the opening movements. Movement III is a distorted dirge, as discordant chords rock back and forth between the two instruments, and the monolithic quality of the rhythmic gestures in the preceding movements begins to loosen up in movement IV. Movement V recalls material from previous movements and prefaces material to be heard throughout the remainder of the piece. It stands in the middle of the composition like a summation and a foreshadowing, and immediately engages the listener in a meta-dialogue with the structure of the piece while one is listening to it. Movement VI is marked by luminous sustained dyads in the violin, out of which the cello emerges with unsettling ponticello utterances. Movement VII, “Ferociously,” returns to the visceral, towering sonorities from Movement III, and reasserts Hersch’s pattern of dichotomy between inward and strikingly outward music (underscored even further by the poignant, lilting melody in Movement VIII). Continuing along this pattern of contrasting energies, with newly inventive material in each subsequent movement, Hersch arrives at the last and longest movement of the work, an extended meditation on the material contained in the preceding movements. The work closes quietly, as we hear hymn-like material through a haze of resignation. Carrion-Miles to Purgatory marries the large scale structural gesture with the miniature character piece, and does so within the drastic frame of Hersch’s expressive world, highlighting his capacity to write gripping material in this most inward looking of contexts, the instrumental duo.

– D. Lippel

...das Ruckgrat herstend
Recorded, edited, and mixed by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio. Mt Vernon, NY
Charles Mueller, editing assistant

Music for Violin and Piano
Recorded by Charles Hagaman and Garth MacAleavey at National Sawdust. Brooklyn, NY
Edited and produced by Ed Tetreault

Carrion-Miles to Purgatory
Recorded by Ed Tetreault at the Peabody Institute. Baltimore, MD
Edited and produced by Ed Tetreault

All works published by 21C Music Publishing, Inc./Michael Hersch Music

Cover photo by Mike Maguire
Sculpture Christopher by Christopher Cairns

CD liner notes by Christopher Halley ©2019, Miranda Cuckson ©2018. David Plylar ©2019 and Kay Redfield Jamison ©2019

Robert Lowell text fragments published in Collected Poems. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN-13: 9780374126179

Cover design by Tim Holt
Album design by ycArt Design Studio

Michael Hersch

A composer of “uncompromising brilliance” (The Washington Post) whose work has been 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,” Michael Hersch is widely considered among the most gifted composers of his generation. Recent events and premieres include his Violin Concerto at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland and the Avanti Festival in Helsinki; new productions of his monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter, in Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Washington D.C., and his I hope we get a chance to visit soon at the Ojai and Aldeburgh Festivals, where Mr. Hersch was a 2018 featured composer. Recent premieres include his 11-hour chamber cycle, sew me into a shroud of leaves, a work which occupied the composer for fifteen years, at the 2019 Wien Modern Festival. 2020/21 will see the premiere of his new opera, Poppaea, in Vienna and Basel as part of the Wien Modern Festival in a co-production with ZeitRäume Basel and Gare du Nord Basel / Netzwerk zur Entwicklung formatübergreifende Musiktheaterformen. During the 2019/20 season, Mr. Hersch has been named Composer-in-Residence with the Camerata Bern. In February 2020, his recent work Agatha saw performances in both Bern and Geneva.

Over the past several years, Hersch has written new works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Klang, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, 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, a work for solo violin commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered at the orchestra’s Biennial in 2014.

Recently 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 at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory during the autumn of 2017. She recently recorded the concerto with the International Contemporary Ensemble (I.C.E.), and the duo with cellist Jay Campbell. Most recently, Kopatchinskaja performed one of the solo roles in the world premiere of Agatha in Bern.

Notable past performances include Night Pieces, commissioned and premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra, and a song cycle for baritone and piano, Domicilium, commissioned and premiered by Thomas Hampson and Wolfgang Rieger on San Francisco Performances. Hersch’s second piano concerto, along the ravines, was given performances with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and as part of the George Enescu International Festival in Romania. Mr. Hersch’s end stages was commissioned and premiered by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, his Zwischen Leben und Tod recently received it’s European premiere, and 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.”

Also a pianist, noted for his “astounding facility at the keyboard” (International Piano), Mr. Hersch has appeared around the world including appearances at the Ojai Festival, Aldeburgh Festival, 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.

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.


Patricia Kopatchinskaja

Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s versatility shows itself in her diverse repertoire, ranging from baroque and classical often played on gut strings, to new commissions and re-interpretations of modern masterworks. Kopatchinskaja’s 2017/18 season commences with the world premiere of her new project Dies Irae at the Lucerne Festival where she will be ‘artiste étoile’. Dies Irae is her second staged programme following the success of Bye Bye Beethoven with Mahler Chamber Orchestra in 2016, and uses the theme from the Latin Requiem Mass as a starting point for her new concept featuring music from Gregorian Chant and Early Baroque to Giacinto Scelsi and Galina Ustwolskaja. The North American premiere will take place at the Ojai Festival in June 2018 where Ms. Kopatchinskaja will be Music Director. György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is again a feature of Kopatchinskaja’s season – she will perform it with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest under Rafael Payare, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, and Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon as part of the Southbank Centre’s Ligeti weekend where she will also perform the Horn Trio with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Marie-Luise Neunecker. The Stravinsky Violin Concerto will also be a prominent work which she will perform with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Alain Altinoglu in London, on tour around Europe, with Teodor Currentzis and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and with Gustavo Gimeno and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

Last season’s highlights included Kopatchinskaja as Artist in Residence at four major European venues and festivals: at the Berlin Konzerthaus, the Lucerne Festival, London’s Wigmore Hall and the Kissinger Sommer Festival. She also embarked on two major European tours; with Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg under Gustavo Gimeno and with Wiener Symphoniker and Musica Aeterna both under the baton of Teodor Currentzis. She performed the Ligeti Violin Concerto with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker, Filharmonica della Scala under Andrés Orozco-Estrada, and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste. She also made her debut with the Gothenburg Symphony and Peter Eötvös performing his Violin Concerto DoReMi. Continuing her regular collaboration with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, she appeared with them in London and New York under Vladimir Jurowski.

Chamber music is immensely important to Kopatchinskaja and she performs regularly with artists such as Markus Hinterhäuser, Polina Leschenko, Anthony Romaniuk and Jay Campbell appearing at such leading venues as the Berlin Konzerthaus, London’s Wigmore Hall, Vienna Konzerthaus and Concertgebouw Amsterdam. She is also an Artistic Partner with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and performs with the ensemble regularly, both in Saint Paul and internationally. They undertook a major European tour together in November 2016, to coincide with the release of a new CD recording of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. In 2017/18 she will partner with cellist Jay Campbell in an eclectic programme at New York City’s Armory in October, and for a series of recitals around Europe with pianist Polina Leschenko including London’s Wigmore Hall, Berlin’s Boulez Saal and the Vienna Konzerthaus.

A prolific recording artist, the last few seasons have seen a number of major releases; an album of Kancheli’s music with Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica, a disc of duos entitled TAKE TWO on Alpha Classics, a recording of Schumann’s Violin Concerto and Fantasy with WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Heinz Holliger for Audite, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Teodor Currentzis and Musica Aeterna on the Sony label. Kopatchinskaja’s release for Naïve Classique featuring concerti by Bartók, Ligeti and Peter Eötvös won Gramophone’s Recording of the Year Award in 2013, an ECHO Klassik Award and a 2014 Grammy nomination. Her latest release Death and the Maiden, for Alpha with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has received great critical acclaim.


Jay Campbell

Armed with a diverse spectrum of repertoire and eclectic musical interests, cellist Jay Campbell has been recognized for approaching both old and new works with the same probing curiosity and emotional commitment. His performances have been called “electrifying” by The New York Times; “gentle, poignant, and deeply moving” by The Washington Post; and on WQXR by Krzysztof Penderecki for “the greatest performance yet of Capriccio per Sigfried Palm”. A 2016 recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, Jay made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 2013 and worked with Alan Gilbert in 2016 as the artistic-director for Ligeti Forward, a series featured on the New York Philharmonic Biennale at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2017, he was be Artist-in-Residence at the Lucerne Festival with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, where he gave the Swiss premiere of Michael Van der Aa's multimedia cello concerto Up-Close, and the world premiere of a new concerto by Luca Francesconi, conducted by Matthias Pintscher in Lucerne's KKL Auditorium and the Cologne Philharmonie.

Dedicated to introducing audiences to the music of our time, Mr. Campbell has worked closely with some of the most creative musicians of our time including Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Matthias Pintscher, John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, and countless others from his own generation. His close association with John Zorn resulted in the 2015 release of Hen to Pan (Tzadik) featuring all works written for Campbell, and was listed in The New York Times year-end Best Recordings of 2015. Forthcoming discs include George Perle's Cello Concerto with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot (Bridge), a disc of Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky and Pintscher (Victor Elmaleh Collection), and a collection of works commissioned for Campbell by David Fulmer (Tzadik). Equally enthusiastic as a chamber musician and teacher, Mr. Campbell is a member of the JACK Quartet, a piano trio with violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Conrad Tao, has served on faculty at Vassar College and has been a guest at the Marlboro, Chamber Music Northwest, Moab, Heidelberger-Fruhling, DITTO, and Lincoln Center festivals.

Miranda Cuckson

Recently called “a fearless, visionary, and tremendously talented artist” (Sequenza21) and “a poetic soloist with a strong personality, yet unpretentious” (Die Presse, Vienna), Miranda Cuckson delights audiences with her playing of a great range of music and styles, from older eras to the newest creations. An internationally acclaimed soloist and collaborator, violinist and violist, she enjoys performing at venues large and small, from concert halls to casual spaces.

She has been a featured artist at the Berlin Philharmonie, Suntory Hall, Casa da Musica Porto, Teatro Colón, Cleveland Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music, the 92nd St Y, National Sawdust, and the Ojai, Bard, Marlboro, Portland, Music Mountain, West Cork, Grafenegg, Wien Modern, Frequency, and LeGuessWho festivals. Miranda made her Carnegie Hall debut playing Piston’s Concerto No. 1 with the American Symphony Orchestra. She recently premiered Georg Friedrich Haas’ Violin Concerto No. 2 at the Vienna Musikverein and with orchestras in Japan, Portugal and Germany, and the Violin Concerto by Marcela Rodriguez with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México. Miranda is a member of interdisciplinary collective AMOC and director of non-profit Nunc. She has guest curated at National Sawdust and programmed concerts at the Contempo series in Chicago and Miller Theatre in New York, among others. Her numerous lauded albums include Világ, featuring the Bartok Sonata for Solo Violin with contemporary works; the Ligeti, Korngold, Ponce, and Piston concertos; music by 20th century American composers; Bartók/Schnittke/Lutoslawski sonatas; Melting the Darkness, an album of microtonal/electronic music; and Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, named a Recording of the Year by The New York Times. An alumna of The Juilliard School, where she earned her doctorate, she teaches at Mannes College/New School University.





The music of Michael Hersch is direct, powerful, and expressive: it makes the pulsing nerve of the human condition audible, laying bare some of the most intense and powerful human emotions. Hersch's new album, Carrion-Miles to Pugatory, released May 31st on New Focus Recordings, documents three works—each composed for two musicians—that address what frequent collaborator Patricia Kopatchinskaja calls "this dark side, this shadow and blood." Indeed, for this album, Kopatchinskaja commissioned a new work by Hersch, "...das Rückgrat berstend," which takes its title from the poetry of Christopher Middleton, translated at the violinist's request into German. Throughout the piece, Kopatchinskaja speaks selected fragments from Middleton's poetry in a fervent, carefully-notated declamation, without excessive dramatization. This spoken, scored text, echoing and simultaneously transcending techniques such as Sprechstimme, accompanies highly charged gestural writing in high and low strings—violin and cello—that mirror, ilustrate, react to, and metabolize the poetry in music. While Middleton's poetry has long played a role in Hersch's poetic compositional imagination, appearing frequently in the written matter of his sketches and scores, das Rückgrat berstend—"the spine exploding"—is a powerful sonic expression of Hersch's voice.

Carrion-Miles to Purgatory takes its name from an excerpt from the American poet Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle, his second book of poetry, published in 1947. Hersch's work, for violin and cello, meditates on themes of loss, death, and tragedy in thirteen short movements that resemble "thirteen fragments of a single shattered geode," as David Plylar writes in the album's liner notes. Here, Carrion-Miles to Purgarory is exctingly performed by violinist Miranda Cuckson and cellist Jay Campbell. Each movement develops its own musical logic in the dimensions of pacing, harmony, gesture, and rhythmic complexity; the movements form a gestalt of emotion, each reflecting and refracting the same ineffable subject.

Also included on this album is a rare performance by Hersch himself, alongside violinist Miranda Cuckson, recorded during a live performance at National Sawdust in 2018. "Music for Violin and Piano" incorporates nearly thirty short movements from five of Hersch's works, along with new material composed for the concert, influenced by the poetry of Christopher Middleton, Phillip Schultz, Primo Levi, and Chesław Miłosz. The resulting performance is eleven kaleidoscopic minutes of exactingly-notated music, pushing Cuckson and the composer himself to technical extremes, seamlessly creating a new narrative that is driving, engaging, and always intense.

-Ted Gordon, 5.27.19, PSNY


AnEarful — Best of 2019: Classical

On this collection of three duos, Hersch is as unafraid as ever to look in the face of darkness. The first piece, ...das Rückgrat berstend, has violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and cellist Jay Campbell emerge from silence, intertwined like a vine on a leafless branch. Then Kopatchinskaja intones a text by Christopher Middleton, translated into German, and a sense of ceremony takes over. The blandly titled Music for Violin and Piano is an excerpt from an evening length medley of earlier works played at National Sawdust by violinist Miranda Cuckson with Hersch himself on piano. The section we get here is a highly dynamic, seamless piece that works entirely well on its own. Cuckson and Campbell join forces for the title work, an alternately anguished and solemn 13 movements based on poems from Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle. It's not until the last, and longest, movement, that we feel some compassion start to creep in. Hersch is not an easy listen, but I am always fulfilled - and even cleansed - by time spent in his sound-world.

-Jeremy Shatan, 1.11.20, AnEarful


Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

Of the future we of course cannot know but with the vibrant presence of present-day Modernist Michael Hersch there seems bound to be a continuingly advanced presence to come. His latest album Carrion-Miles to Purgatory (New Focus Recordings 229) reminds us how his dedicated energies do not flag.

It is a gathering of some three chamber works-- ...das Rückgrat berstend with Patricia Kopatchinakaja on violin/voice and Jay Campbell on cello, Music for Violin and Piano with Miranda Cuckson on violin and Michael Hersch himself on piano, and the 15 movements of the title work Carrion-Miles to Purgatory with Cuckson and Campbell.

This is in Michael Hersch's wheelhouse--Expressionist, beyond tonal, post-Serialist, ever inventive and flowing with poignancy.

So ...das Rückgrat berstend was commissioned by Kopatchinakaja, who wanted something she could simultaneously sing-recite and play on violin. Hersch chose the poetry of Christopher Middleton (1926-2015), a favorite of the composers and previously quoted reference in earlier scores without setting text to music. The words were translated from English to German at Kopatchinskaja's request and the vocal part has detailed directions for manner of performance in the score (e.g., a gritty whisper etc.).

From there we move to Music for Violin and Piano, another shorter piece clocking in like the above at about 11 minutes. It is an excerpt from the live recording of the music the two made in concert in later 2018. It marks a new phase in Cuckson's collaboration with the composer, where there is interactive performances. Before that Cuckson has played Hersch's compositions in important instances, e.g. his Violin Concerto, solo works and other things from 2007 to today. The concert in whole consisted of a selection from Hersch's numerous short works under the rubric "Music for Violin and Piano," plus some solo violin music etc.

The fifty minute Carrion-Miles to Purgatory brings the program to its primary focus. The violin-cello duo is of course a somewhat exotic one as far as instrumentation in the repertoire goes. And too Hersch goes about the music in ways that set him apart further. The 15 movements each have loose parallels in poetic texts by Robert Lowell, namely from his Lord Weary's Castle. Here music is not meant as a direct articulation of the poetry meanings, but instead a sort of subliminal reaction to them. The poems kept the composer "company" as he wrote the music, which in the end is a reaction to the loss of a close friend.

I do not have words to put in place of the experience of this music. It is rather ineffable, emotive, and very in line with how Hersch's music has been unfolding. I recommend to you this music as an example of Modernity today. A very rewarding program.

-Grego Applegate Edwards, 7.16.19, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review



New Focus Recordings releases a CD with three duos by the American composer Michael Hersch, works whose intensity and expressive contrasts are inevitably gripping.

‘….das Rückgrat berstend’ is a work for voice and instrumental music. The text was written by Christopher Middleton and translated into German at the request of Patricia Kopatchinskaja. The violinist speaks the text herself, in strong declamation, which stands out from the commenting strings – violin and cello.

Hersch on the piano and Miranda Cuckson on the violin play Music for Violin and Piano, a conglomerate of five works by Hersch with expressive and technically highly demanding passages. Here, too, it is the sheer intensity that captivates the listener.

Carrion-Miles to Purgatory takes its name from the cycle Lord Weary’s Castle by the American poet Robert Lowell, his second volume of poetry published in 1947. Hersch’s work for violin and cello has thirteen short movements and tells of loss, death and tragedy. The violinist Miranda Cuckson and the cellist Jay Campbell play the gestural and rhythmically complex work in a very inspired way.

-Norbert Tischer, 6.18.19, Pizzicato


Records International

Hersch's music occupies itself with aspects of the darkest side of human experience, and Carrion-Miles to Purgatory (as you might surmise from the title) is no exception. A fifty minute duo in thirteen movements, it is based on fragments of the poetry of Robert Lowell (1917-77), the New England modern poet who, like Eliot and Pound, forged a new way of using language to express the previously inexpressible. In Lowell's case, this was decay, literal in death, moral, and that of institutions - social and religious - that had failed their purpose; the ambiguity of God and the unbearable burden of history and heritage. All of this seen through the prism of his own fractured mental state; manic-depressive, he was hospitalized repeatedly throughout his adult life. The imagery of his writing is, to say the least, bleak, disturbing, visceral and sometimes violent - just like Hersch's music, for which it is thus a natural fit. Each section of the work is prefaced by some lines from Lowell's early collection "Lord Weary's Castle" (the title, pithily encapsulating decay, Catholic guilt and hopelessness, is one of them). The music does not illustrate the specific texts so much as react to them, creating a minutely textured and detailed landscape of desolation and introspective despair. The pieces traverse a wide expressive and technical territory, from whispering chords to oases of fragile, spectral beauty, to clustered screams from the abyss. The work is meticulously structured and minutely annotated; the fluidity of memory and perception are treated in other of Hersch's pieces, and here the fifth movement contains premonitions of later ones, which are then eerily familiar when they occur in context.

-Records International, 7.1.19



Concita este disco un enorme atractivo ya, aunque solo fuera por el apartado puramente interpretativo, toda vez que se reúnen en él dos violinistas imprescindibles y comprometidas con la música de su tiempo (Kopatchinskaja y Cuckson). La primera, dedicataria del Concierto para violín de Michael Hersch (Washington, 1971), resuelve ...das Rückgrat berstend, un dúo de violín/voz y violonchelo que tiende a lo meditativo y que exuda ese tono de trascendencia tan afín al compositor norteamericano. Con la poesía de Middleton, aquí dicha en alemán, la violinista descifra la página atendiendo tanto a lo instrumental como a las alambicadas modulaciones de la voz a la que obliga la partitura. Podría caerse en la tentación de asimilar a Hersch con su compatriota Elliott Carter; ambos comparten una estética severa y en la que parece que la vanguardia no ha hecho excesiva mella. Pero el acerado modernismo del primero se vuelve más abigarrado y expresionista en la pluma de Hersch, prueba de ello es la Music for violin and piano, la obra menos interesante del disco. El registro vuelve a levantar el vuelo en el dúo para violín y violonchelo Carrion-Miles to Purgatory. Cada uno de sus quince movimientos viene precedido por un texto poético de Robert Lowell que se nos ofrece en el libreto pero que los músicos solo han de leer para ellos mismos. Miranda Cuckson y Jay Campbell reaccionan de forma muy sutil a los poemas, musitando casi unas miniaturas que parecen ir buscando la disolución en el último y más extenso movimiento. Sin llegar a la altura del imponente, oscurísimo cuarteto Images from a closed ward, obra de Hersch también grabada en New Focus, Carrion-Miles navega en el mismo sentido, generando una paleta tímbrica muy sombría en la que se generan con voz queda múltiples conflictos que quedan irresueltos.

© 2019 Scherzo


Lucid Culture

A Characteristically Haunting, Dynamic New Album of Michael Hersch Works

Composer and pianist Michael Hersch was scheduled to play a marathon weekend at the Irondale Center in Greenpoint back in April. Hersch, who is best known for his compositions, is also a ferociously intense musician and rarely performs, so the series of shows promised to be one of the concert highlights of the year.

The lockdown killed that.

Fortunately, Hersch already had the material recorded. One of the albums featuring works on the bill is his recent release Carrion-Miles to Purgatory, streaming at Bandcamp.

The first work is titled …das Ruckgrat berstand (German for “bent back” ), a setting of Christopher Middleton poems translated into German and performed by Patricia Kopatchinskaja on violin and vocals alongside Jay Campbell on cello. Sometimes horizontal and ambient, other times disquietingly stark, it contrasts long, airy, doppler-like phrases and acidic close harmonies punctuated by Hersch’s signature short, sharp, sometimes shrieking accents.

Music for Violin and Piano is a pastiche of excerpts from earlier Hersch works, culled from a 2018 concert at National Sawdust – only the second time violinist Miranda Cuckson and Hersch had performed together. He’s a whirlwind on the keys, his sudden, leaping, clustering phrases sometimes evoking Frederic Rzewski, but with a lot more space between phrases (a signature Hersch trope). The otherworldly, eerie minimalism of Messiaen and the dark, persistent restlessness of Ran Blake are other points of comparison. Cuckson’s jagged leads and wary sustain provide an anchor, such that there is in this relentlessly uneasy partita.

The album’s title suite comprises fifteen pieces for violin and cello, inspired by texts by Robert Lowell – madness, torment and death are recurrent themes in Hersch’s work. Austere clouds of harmony slowly shift through the sonic picture. Minute timbral changes alternate between airiness and grit, often drifting into richly unsettled microtonal territory. Sudden swells and fades give way to keening, oscillating harmonics, occasional Bartokian irony or muted gloom. The finale is a drifting, Shostakovian elegy. It’s music to get completely lost in, yet Hersch always finds a way to jar the themes out of any kind of resolution.

This doesn’t have the sheer horror of Kopatchinskaja and International Contemporary Ensemble’s performance of Hersch’s End Stages, but it’s still plenty riveting. Of all the composers working in new music today, Hersch is as individualistic as anyone and may well be the very best.

— delarue, 7.16.2020



Michael Hersch remains one of the most powerful voices of our time. This disc, named after the final track, Carrion-Miles to Purgatory, is the latest in a line of discs reviewed for Fanfare that have consistently impressed: The piano piece The Vanishing Pavilions (Fanfare 32:3) was the first; the uncompromising choice of subject of life in an asylum was the subject of Images from a closed ward (38:1); two discs turned up for 42:2, one all-Hersch (cortex and ankle and Black Untitled) and a breath upwards coupled with Babbitt’s Philomel on the other.

Taking poetry by Christopher Middleton, a poet whom Hersch has quoted in scores but not actually set in music before, … Das Rückgrat berstend (The Backbone Bursting) is scored for violin and cello. Luxury casting is present here with the ever-stimulating Patricia Kopatchinskaja. The text moves from agitation through violence towards oblivion. It was at Kopatchinskaja’s request that Middleton’s text was translated into German—appropriately, as Middleton was himself a translator of German poetry. The poetry is recited by Kopatchinskaja herself in this fabulous performance. Hersch’s writing is typically stark, requiring a stack of effects to reveal the raw aspect of string performance. Hersch’s imagination knows no bounds, but the piece appears as thoroughly consistent. The performance is astonishing. One major aspect is the accuracy of tuning between Kopatchinskaja and the excellent Jay Campbell. The two instruments move mainly in parallel, often working in cluster, and one really can hear what difference fine attention to tuning makes. Dynamics, too, are beautifully honored, not least when they hover on the verge of audibility and the utmost control is warranted.

It’s great to have the composer himself on piano for Music for Violin and Piano. The title seems to be a deliberate statement that this is abstract music, far way from a program, poetic or otherwise; in effect, Music for Violin and Piano is a distillation of core Hersch. It is Webernian in gesture, while concurrently implying that we are eavesdropping on some greater continuum. The power here seems also to be when the music is at its quietest: It is as if one can feel latent explosions which may or may not come. Miranda Cuckson is a fine violinist (as violist, she contributed to the Hersch/Babbitt disc mentioned above) and there is no doubting the rapport between the performers. It’s a fabulous piece.

Returning to the violin and cello format, Carrion-Miles to Purgatory, commissioned by the Library of Congress, is by far the longest work on the disc (the first two are just over 11 minutes; this is over 49). There are 13 movements, and each of those is paired with a text fragment from Robert Lowell’s Pullizer-winning collection of poems Lord Weary’s Castle. In his booklet notes, David Pylar uses a remarkable phrase that sums up perfectly the methodology here: The movements represent, he says, “13 fragments of a single shattered geode.” Whether it be in the implied processional of the third movement or the resignation of the eighth, the explorations of the ninth or the emotionally shattered stasis of the fifth, Hersch’s voice is consistently compelling. The sheer demands on the players in terms of stamina of concentration are enormous, not to mention the sheer physical control required. That this performance indeed succeeds in taking the listener into an “other” space is a testament to its success.

Michael Hersch’s music continues to impress like that of few other contemporary composers. The recording is impeccable, as are production values of all aspects of this release. Hersch’s music demands much of the listener; but it gives back even more in return.

— Colin Clarke, 11.15.2020

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