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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.
"Hersch's music gets under the listener's skin like no other ... the voice is central, but a voice that sounds like an instrument and that miraculously merges with the instruments, a technique that is tailor-made for Hong ... the intensity goes through marrow and bone." - NIEUWE NOTEN
"Hersch, the most poetry-driven of composers, set some of the darkest passages in Karim’s work ... a scene the poet witnessed as a child in Baghdad ― which comprises dragging a mutilated corpse through the streets ... a landscape that appears still and blanched ... a paroxysm of cries and frantic wings. The way the double basses suddenly have a two-note tune that aches gutturally as if straining from a swamp; its neck taut with the effort of utterance. Those twisted fanfares in the brass as if an entire regimental band is being crushed in a fist. And the voice, like a mother at the foot of a bloodstained wall ... upon hearing Ah Young Hong for the first time, Karim ... became obsessed with the progress of a composition that would serve as a vehicle for her remarkable voice. It was striking to observe how the most painful moments in his poems were delivered in high, piercing notes that seemed to obliterate the words themselves as if their fullest expression were not allowable." - PN REVIEW
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.
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 (945-2019), 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
releases September 23, 2022
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
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
New Focus Recordings is an artist led collective label featuring releases in contemporary music of many stripes, as well as
new approaches to older repertoire. The label was founded by guitarist Daniel Lippel (who is the current director), composer engineer Ryan Streber, and composer Peter Gilbert in 2003-4, and features releases from many of new music's most active performers and composers....more
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One of the most beautiful pieces of music to be released in years. Goosebump-inducing. A stunning adapation of an ancient sacred form to a modern idiom, and one of the most effective musical expressions of the trauma being wrought on our planet. Incredible. nankaiduck78