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.

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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.





As I wrote about his searing 2020 album, I hope we get a chance to visit soon, we owe Hersch "a debt of gratitude for never turning away from subject matter that would make other artists uncomfortable." That obligation continues to grow with the title piece here, composed in 2018 and based on poems by Fawzi Karim, an Iraqi author who often focused on the horrors he witnessed during his war torn childhood. As the text in the devastating final song reports:

"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."

Hersch gives these words breath through the vocal lines he wrote for soprano Ah Young Hong, who sang on his previous album and delivers another furiously concentrated performance here. Often singing in the upper realms of her voice, sometimes ending lines with a shriek, it is impossible not to feel the impact of these unflinching songs. The fourth song makes explicit why it is critical that we listen very closely: "We are not victims of some past epidemic./Nor were we ever fodder for lost wars./No, we are your mirror."

The music, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Tito Muñoz, maintains a churning intensity, punctuated by violent outbursts. The imaginative orchestration and dynamic range are reminiscent of Shostakovich's 14th Symphony, itself a response to Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death.

Cortex and Ankle (2016), another song cycle featuring Hong and played by Ensemble Klang, opens the album seemingly in medias res, with a dramatic blast of piano, woodwinds, and percussion, before an electric guitar fanfare leads the way to the first song. The words of British poet Christopher Middleton provide the texts here, and while often more abstract than Karim's, also approach humanity's dark side in a manner both visceral and clear-eyed, as in the 11th song:

"The dead are tangled in a heap,
Scooped up and in and left to rot.
Waves of them come up with a stink,
Agony in the gaping rhomboid mouths,
Some with bedroom slippers on their feet.
So many, how to identify them?"

By animating the texts in both pieces with music of great integrity and color, Hersch pays homage both to the masterful poets and the people whose lives - and deaths - they describe.

— Jeremy Shatan, 11.20.2022


Lucid Culture

Michael Hersch might be the most macabre of all contemporary classical composers. While the macabre is one of many themes in his music, it’s hard to think of anyone who goes as deeply into it as he has, from his chilling musical portraits of the inmates of a closed ward in a mental hospital, to the torments of terminal cancer patients. His latest album The Script of Storms – streaming at New Focus Recordings – comprises two suites.

The first is Cortext and Ankle, a setting of texts by the doomed writer Christopher Middleton, sung by soprano Ah Young Hong and backed by innovative chamber group Ensemble Klang. In the second, she sings the words of Fawzi Karim with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tito Muñoz.

There’s horror, and fingertips being torn off, “the dead tangled in a heap,” and an ineluctable end to all things in the initial eleven-part sequence. It’s prime material for prime Hersch, although the music itself is generally more airily portentous than sinister.

The brief overture is the closest thing to traditional film noir music that Hersch has written: an anxious, acidic bustle with furtive percussion flickers. Hong enters with a poignant, wistful resonance, until the group explodes with brassy growl and dramatic intensity behind her, a recurrent and judiciously utilized device. Austere, slowly shifting segments follow in turn. Hersch is known for employing a lot of space, and he does that here.

Anton van Houten’s determined trombone crescendos along with sudden bursts of activity from saxophonists Michiel van Dijk and Erik-Jan de With contrast with Hong’s resolute calm, but she leaps without warning to a full-throttle arioso power. Pianist Saskia Lankhoorn is often required to do the same. Percussionist Joey Marijs gets to contribute occasional surreal, clanking industrial textures, while guitarist Pete Harden’s contributions are even more skeletal.

The nine-part title suite, a grim reflection on the 1958 coup d’etat in Iraq and summary execution of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Said, is closer to Hersch’s earlier work, even as it follows much of the same template as the album’s first piece.

Ominous trombone also features heavily here. Anxious clusters of strings and reeds burst in, only to disappear. Familiar and juicily spine-tingling Bernard Herrmann tropes appear everywhere: shrieking high winds, ghostly slithers, and doppler crescendos. The drifting close harmonies and microtonal mist toward the end of the suite are particularly delicious, if disquiet is your thing. The persistent rhythmic overlays are just as clever as they are effective. As fits the subject matter, this is a horror film for the ears and a mighty effective one. Not for the faint of heart, but Hersch is the rare composer who seems committed to never backing away from any subject matter, no matter how disturbing.



Previous Fanfare reviews of music by Michael Hersch find it at once gripping and disquieting, which has been a proud avant-garde tradition going back to Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Pierrot lunaire. But shock decreases with repetition, and it takes real imagination to combine satisfying musical values with an unquiet mood that shakes the listener. There is also the possibility that the kind of updated Expressionism I hear in these two song cycles by Hersch is intended to be beautiful—everything depends on what your ears hear as beauty. This is my first encounter with Hersch, who was born in Washington, D.C. in 1971 and trained first at the Peabody Conservatory and later in Moscow.

In Erwartung Schoenberg’s intensity sprang from the psychological turmoil of a woman in distress, and Hersch’s journeys into darkness are on a similar trajectory. The two cycles feature extraordinary singing by soprano Ah Young Hong, encompassing difficulties that in their own way rival Schonberg’s. The valuable program notes by Aaron Grad, which are lucid and jargon-free, begin this way: “Much of Michael Hersch’s recent music is situated around the frailty and destruction of the human body, whether it is terminal cancer in the opera On the Threshold of Winter, sketches of dying patients in End Stages for chamber orchestra, or confinement to a psychiatric hospital in the string quartet Images from a Closed Ward.” Unquiet music is the only kind befitting such deep distress.

When Grad remarks that Hersch’s music is “an invitation to experience the world in all its unfiltered, visceral intensity,” I want to accept, although I realize that others might be repulsed. The text to the first cycle, cortex and ankle, come from the British modern poet Christopher Middleton (1926–2015), who had a powerful influence on Hersch after their first meeting in Germany in 2001. After a crushing instrumental prelude delivered powerfully by Ensemble Klang, there are 10 fragmentary texts by Middleton. Their bleakness is indicated by the first one: Wires twist ... round cortex and ankle. Slow image, painful, breathless... Hong’s voice rises to stratospheric heights against a background of at times violent instrumental music, although there are contrasting periods of haunting eeriness. The 11 movements are short—the overall length of cortex and ankle is roughly 26 minutes—and yet each has its own musical identity.

What I find striking about this work is its immediate impact and beauty, which is founded on a keen musical imagination and very original relationships between the singer’s voice and the instruments. There are no strings, the most prominent solo parts being for saxophone, trombone, and percussion. Hersch employs a full orchestra for the script of storms. This time I find the source genuinely disturbing. The cycle is based on the poetry and paintings of the late Arab poet Fawzi Karim, who was a personal friend. In his composer’s note Hersch evokes “a landscape of empathy, beauty, and often unspeakable horror.” To my ears, beauty plays little or no part.

Fawzi, born in Baghdad in 1945, one of eight children in a grocer’s family, was alienated by the extremist ideology sweeping the Arab world. He left Iraq for Britain in 1978 and became an editor and literary commentator in addition to writing poetry. He died of a heart condition in 2019 at 73. Karim certainly earned the right to depict the brutal horrors in his verse, but in the portrait paintings selected for the booklet, the unmitigated pain approaches the unbearable. Hersch’s nine settings attempt to make this pain immediate and unmediated.

The score ups the shock value over cortex and ankle—the smell of corpses is in the verse and the music, too. I think it was a mistake for me to listen to the two cycles in a row. There is again the use of very high tessiture in Hong’s singing, and the orchestra exploits a wider but similar range of disturbing effects. Insofar as can be judged in such a welter of sounds, the BBC Symphony plays expertly under conductor Tito Muñoz. I wouldn’t want to hear Erwartung and Pierrot lunaire on the same program, and I’d advise listening to Hersch’s two cycles separately. I must concede that as much as I admire the intention to depict unspeakable horror, a degree of morbidity and revulsion are inescapable. In some ways the script of storms is like watching a documentary on the Holocaust.

One cannot deny Hersch’s seriousness in confronting the bleakest aspects of the human condition, and he has the musical gift to convey his intentions fully. Both scores are hugely impressive and at the same time very hard to take.

— Huntley Dent, 2.14.2023


Opera News

COMPOSER MICHAEL HERSCH (b. 1971) has weathered several cancer-related traumas: he and his wife both recovered from respective diagnoses, but one good friend did not. His harrowing, two-hour monodrama On the Threshold of Winter (2014) dealt with the horrors of terminal illness. The two recent vocal works represented here are not disease-related but continue to explore layers of human suffering and, occasionally, degradation of the human body. Both cycles are sung by soprano Ah Young Hong, an extraordinary performer and a frequent Hersch collaborator.

Cortex and ankle consists of eleven short movements that set fragments by British poet Christopher Middleton (1926–2015). The cycle begins with a short instrumental prelude that’s savage and piercing, alerting us that this piece is not for the timid. When Hong begins to sing, it’s much quieter but still dissonant; she intones the syllables of the first movement’s text with vibrato-less tone over sparse, often single-note accompaniment from Ensemble Klang, a Netherlands-based group consisting of piano, guitar, trombone, two saxophones and percussion. As we are lulled by Hong’s deliberately paced, affectless declamations, a sudden, cataclysmic crescendo leads into the phrase “any moment some unspeakable thing,” and Hersch catapults Hong to the top of her range. Whatever this thing may be, Hersch gives it a ferocious, deeply unsettling musical representation.

The texts are mostly not set for easy comprehensibility; in one passage in which the syllables are particularly drawn out, the word “coherence” is hard to understand. Some of the most disturbing phrases—“a cascade of rough bark tearing your fingertips off”—have delicate, contemplative settings, as if the singer were lying in a hospital bed, numbly recalling a shattering experience. The cycle offers little redemption or optimism, just a quiet, abrupt ending on the phrase “the center point where all is at an end.” Hong ends on a middle C, which hangs in the air discordantly against the fading B in the piano.

We are given a little more context for the script of storms, the cycle that gives the album its title. Some of the texts by Fawzi Karim (1945–2019) are about his early memories of the 1958 Iraqi coup d’état in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Said’s corpse was burned, dismembered and hung from a bridge. For this nine-movement work, Hersch writes for soprano plus full symphony orchestra (here, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, expertly led by Tito Muñoz in a blistering performance). Hersch’s treatment of the orchestra is wizardly, almost supernatural, with results that are fearsomely atmospheric—sometimes desolate, sometimes terrifying.

The script of storms places us right at the scene of various atrocities: “Now I smell the roasting of a thigh”; “a death squad ten strong”; someone who “died within his coat as he tore at his insides.” Hersch’s ability to use instrumental texture to probe the substructures of human suffering is unmatched. Hong is his perfect exponent: she can shriek with horror, straight-tone (as if anaesthetized) or speak with an urgency that sets your neck hairs on end. And her musical skills—pulling pitches out of the air, nailing the contours of an impossibly angular vocal line, confidently rendering microtones and clashing dissonances—are awe-inspiring.

A whole album full of these compelling but often disturbing vocal pieces in one sitting might be too much for many listeners. And some of the tracks begin to sound similar. Regardless, Hersch is determined to represent the dark, unfathomable side of human existence in his art, and his singular vision, coupled with astonishing compositional skill, makes it difficult to turn away.

— Joshua Rosenblum, 6.23.2023

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