Michael Hersch: the script of storms

, composer


Composer Michael Hersch releases two works featuring his frequent collaborator soprano Ah Young Hong: cortex and ankle with Dutch based Ensemble Klang and the script of storms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Tito Muñoz. Hersch sets powerful texts by Christopher Middleton and Fawzi Karim respectively in these gripping works.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Performer(s) Time
Total Time 54:11

cortex and ankle


the script of storms


Michael Hersch’s music is unique in the true sense of the word — not just unusual but singular, unreproducible. Throughout his career, his unflinching exploration of trauma, death and catastrophe, using a language that is both emotionally raw and intensely modern, has set him apart.

cortex and ankle and the script of storms belong to a relatively new commitment to the voice in Hersch’s work. After years dedicated to instrumental music, he has written 14 works with voice since 2012. Many of these were written with Ah Young Hong in mind, the soloist featured here.

Soprano Hong has performed a diverse spectrum of repertoire in both chamber and concert environments, from Monteverdi and Bach to Haas and Kurtag. Her voice is protean in its musical and emotional versatility, which Hersch explores fully. In her highest range, Hersch gives her incantatory, extremely extended tones that float over the ensemble. Her voice is a searing beam of light, focused on the intensity rather than the comprehension of the words. Throughout she sings with a supple tone, melting into the timbres of the instruments. Mostly she sings without vibrato in these works, giving a bright innocence to her already clear-ringing voice. She confidently leans her voice into Hersch’s microtones as if holding a sharp object.

Read More

When the singing voice cannot contain what needs to be said, Hong relates it in unadorned, nuanced speech (“The dead are tangled in a heap, Scooped up and in and left to rot.”) What could a melody say about that?

Fragmentation and discontinuity are central to Hersch’s aesthetic. Rather than setting an entire poem, he mines the poets’ words, selecting lines that speak most powerfully to him. Musically, the songs here are incomplete — they are not so much movements as fragments, without their own self-contained trajectories. But neither is their sum total a completeness; the discontinuities suggest missing verses, musical lacunae. Hersch’s music exists after the catastrophe and there is no wholeness left to find. The work itself has been shattered and only shards remain.

cortex and ankle (2016)

cortex and ankle was composed for Hong on texts by the English poet Christopher Middleton (1926-2015), a seminal figure in Hersch’s development. The prologue opens like a slow-motion storm in progress. There’s no explanation for its intensity, and it quickly diminishes. It’s a way of transitioning to Hong’s gentle intonations in the next movement, an understated tune, at first dispassionate, only lightly accompanied, that grows into insistence as her range increases. She rings out over the cataclysms.

This sixth and seventh movements share a clangorous, aqueous environment, all pipes and muted piano and low brass, shot through with piercing exclamations. As Hong sings, the pressure of the sentiment seems to push the ends of her phrases into speech, or whispering.

In many of these songs, especially in the quieter moments, Hong’s melodies are accompanied only by a simple piano line, or perhaps a single clarinet. However, just after the beginning of the eighth movement (“Visible through a gap in needles of juniper...”), listen for when high instruments suddenly surround her, like a weird and holy nimbus, a brief moment of beauty to be savored.

the script of storms (2018)

Composed for Hong, the script of storms was written after texts by the Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim (1945-2019), a close friend and inspiration of Hersch. Much of Karim’s poetry, including this, is taken up with the bloody conflicts he witnessed in his early life.

The song cycle opens on a soft gray pallet of strings. We are jolted out of this foreboding by Hong’s exclamation, “The eye turns black.” Between the urgent instrumental waves a tragic loss of innocence unfolds — the poet is no longer shocked by the smell of burning human flesh.

The fourth song is aimed directly at us. Between screaming high woodwinds and low rumbling brass, Hong delivers the words with an accusatory tone: “You who avoid coming close, we would advise you to tremble…” We are witnesses to this horror.

In the final song, where “there was nothing there for me to look for,” the poet recounts his most terrible visions. Hong’s voice emerges seamlessly from the brass. Later, with all that has been seen, it is as if the possibility of song has dropped away, leaving the words alone except for knowing assent from the orchestra. Hersch leaves us with the most existential question of all: “Is the dawn to be?”

– Kyle Bartlett

Tracks 1-11:

Recorded by Arne Bock in the Jurriaanse Zaal on December, 8 2016

Mixed and produced by Arne Bock and Pete Harden

Mastered by Arne Bock

With support from De Doelen, Rotterdam


Tracks 12-20:

BBC Recording Engineer: Pete Smith

BBC Assistant Recording Engineer: Chris Rouse BBC Recording Producer: Ann McKay

Venue: Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios

Date of recording: 2/14/2020


Edited and mixed by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, NY

Produced in association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Radio 3

Album mastered by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, NY

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.


Related Albums