Reviews are, to a greater or lesser extent, testimonials. Any review that attempts to claim some sort of aesthetic fixity or infallibility thus misses the point: hopefully, a writer might illumine or otherwise offer perspective upon a work, a perspective that is ultimately derived from a personal (if informed) experience. These are important aspects to keep in mind when considering the music of Michael Hersch, and namely his monodrama On The Threshold of Winter, premiered first on June 25, 2014 in Brooklyn, NY, and receiving its second performance this past weekend on Saturday, October 3 at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, MD. Both performances featured the Nunc ensemble (the fearless artistic director Miranda Cuckson is a frequent Hersch collaborator), with the expressively precise force of Tito Muñoz conducting, and Ah Young Hong as the sole singer onstage. (NB: There were revisions to the score for the new performance, but I don’t claim the eiditicism necessary to speak to the differences—the cavernous realms explored in the first performance certainly echoed with similarity in the second.)
Personal experience, illumination, and fixity are, to me, central issues in approaching Hersch’s music (if not the works themselves—though I believe their relevance), more so, perhaps, than questions of harmonic language. This is not to dismiss any sort of harmonic, melodic, or motivic content that, ultimately, makes up the foundational elements of our interactions with his (or any) musics. Hersch’s soundscape has frequently been referred to as “searing,” “intense,” or “dissonant,” which are more than apt descriptors, particularly for those passages which utilize dense chromatic clusters. Personally—and here we enter the testimonial—though the searing intensity of these clusters is a potent element (e.g., throughout The Vanishing Pavillions, or the dashing linear clusters in the winds in his Third Symphony and his trumpet concerto Night Pieces—figures which are displayed prominently in Threshold), the harmonic element that drives my understanding of Hersch’s music is this:
This chord (“simultaneity” in the argot of 21st-century theory), a perfect fifth with a minor second, seems a better harmonic summation than the cluster for approaching Hersch’s work, mainly because it accesses tonal and voice-leading elements that may (at first) seem to be at odds with dense chromaticism. Behind the veil of density, Hersch frequently reveals clean, cool fifths, tonal progressions that accrue semitones as metals accrue oxidization, new colors clinging to underlying forms.
Particularly for this monodrama (as well as in his song cycle a breath upwards, also performed by the heroic Ah Young Hong, now fully steeped in Hersch’s music), hearing the interactions of line converge and diverge—creating spaces and objects sometimes exactly repeated, sometimes evaporative—is a central aspect to the experience. For Threshold, the success of the entire work is musically dependent upon the Ah’s realization of that single vocal line—a realization that, through her vocal prowess and artistry, transgresses performance to enter embodiment. Thematically, this is a mirror of the work’s experiential genesis for both poet (the libretto, adapted by Hersch, is from Marin Sorescu’s The Bridge, which delves heartbreakingly into the pains of cancer) and composer (Hersch has confronted cancer, both in himself and in his best friend’s diagnosis). A fixed point, a nexus of cancer, time, and death, creates an undeniable gravitic force throughout, and along with it, a question of how one should treat any sense of self in the face of something so small, so massive, a black hole: “And what should I do with the fire that you gave me, Zeus,” from 13. In the battle…, becomes, perhaps, a questioning of creativity—what to do with such artistic prowess? The answer: “Put the flame to your pyre, the one you’re bound upon.”
The struggle of ephemera against fixity was realized brilliantly by James Matthew Daniel, the director of the 2015 production. Utilizing the sculptures and casts of Christopher Cairns [please visit this link to witness his extraordinary sculptures], and with the assistance of Kevin Tuttle, set designer, and Peabody’s Douglas Nelson, lighting designer, Daniel created an on-stage world of tarp-covered metal scaffolds that orbited about a central obelisk, an 18-foot sculpture with a twisted, perhaps desiccated figure atop, a starkly iconic Cairns-ian model that was reflected in other pieces littered about the stage. When the monodrama begins, sheets and tarpaulins cover most set elements, but these are removed as Hong interacts with her world—a world that, like Hersch’s music, seems to somehow become narrower in focus and wider in scope as the work proceeds. Statues become characters: in 4. This buffeting…, at the final cry of “Mother!”, Hong reaches from a hospital bed (one of the few literal set inspirations) to draw back a sheet-covered figure revealing: something. A seated (swooning?), dead (dying?), wrinkled (shrouded?) figure—victim, memory, or visage, it is a striking, emotional moment that reveals future and past, and their dissolution.
The first act involves Hong’s interaction with the world about her, both musical and physical. Many of Hersch’s “first acts” create a world wherein transformation, repetition, and decay may occur. Threshold seems similar to The Vanishing Pavilions in this way: the first book, a block of granite; the second book, an entropic force that eats away at certainty and fixity like acid. (Even the introduction of the titular elements seems to parallel: both works’ texts reference the title about ¾ through the first half; in Threshold, the title is sung against a small, shivering major triad).
Hints of this entropic force are utilized throughout the first act of Threshold: flowers are torn and thrown upon a sheet during 7. I watch with great interest…, where the libretto indicates such an act over a grave, preceding the desperate cries: “Give it another try! Another try!,” followed by 8. A little blood. (I also appreciated the strewn petals as a perhaps-reference to Hersch’s violin work A wreckage of flowers.) Blood does not appear until later, however. Before such viscera, Hong herself must act as an agent of entropy.
Aside: Cairns’ Pennsylvania studio, where Hersch curates an occasional concert series, is an otherworldly realm. The forms and paintings therein lead the eye, the mind, to paths that we normally avoid. Twisted bodies, crumbling walls, all seem to root and transport us into the world and beyond it. The sculptures seem fragile, ready to collapse in upon themselves at a single breath. I am filled with trepidation and wonder among them, for both the fragility of the form, and of self.
To see Hong pick up a cast of a head, then, from a pile of sculpted limbs and bits on the stage opposite the “Mother,” and to see it fall, explode in dust upon the floor, was staggering. Rubbing the dust upon her own limbs, she sings: “On a speck of dust with a window to the sea, that rests on another speck of dust…springing up from the very core of yet another speck of dust…” She climbs upon the scaffolds, trying to see better, the music seeking, something, our there, amidst the dust. And, finally, at the end of the act, she descends, pained, and sings 17. The ram with coiled horns, picking up a limb (a leg?), held in the once-bed-, now grave-sheet, filled with torn flowers and dust, and then: blood, dripping, somehow, from the leg—an offering, perhaps, or a reliquary. And the act coalesces, the dust clears, and we see where all is headed: in an instrumental interlude, Hong exits, pushing the hospital bed “aim[ing] straight” (a cue perhaps derived from the libretto), and returns in a longer gown, with red roses, to finish the act: “’The foot of this bridge is death.’ This bridge.”
Aside: When I began my immersion in Hersch’s music a little less than a decade ago, one of my first impressions was of the unbelievable clarity of the ideas. The ideas seem organic, yet crystallized, growing things whose bounds have seemingly been foretold. It is as if the music exists in a landscape, the details of which I am blind to; but the progression of movements, of motives, guides me through, introducing me to paths and objects that are beyond what I could alone imagine, and can, perhaps, only touch—aurally—and not fully comprehend: a blind monk in the koan seeking to understand an elephant from only one part. Yet, each movement, each passing idea, cyclical though driving forward, peels back one layer, and another, revealing unsought interiors—unsought, perhaps, because they mirror our selves too closely.
The second act breaks down the once-fixed world of the first, through music, characterization, and stagecraft. The act begins with Hong pushing—something—onto the stage, a reincarnation (or dys-incarnation) of the hospital bed, atop which lies a sculpted figure, browned, shriveled. This is the only new element: indeed, Hong pushes away the old fixities—the scaffolds and their coverings—so that the central obelisk, which she has oft approached and left again, looms large in the vacuum. This act makes use of Nelson’s artful lighting on a wrinkled translucence which hangs in front of the back scrim, lacy clouds that catch the sometimes-green, sometimes-sunset-exploding colors which counterpoint the increasingly desperate visions portrayed so completely by Hong. The stage is lonely now—in preparation for 23. A spider’s thread… a single strand of light illumines the obelisk, dust and clouds (fog from offstage) sifting through, leading to the secco, half-spoken and heart-wrendingly delivered “Oh Lord, I lived among your creatures. Was that wrong?” Dramatically, 27. ‘Shoot me my friend…let it be over quickly’ reveals the browned recumbent figure to be clay, as Hong digs into it, launching wet lumps (she had poured water upon it earlier, as if in a burial ritual) onto the floor, slick and sickly slaps against the wood. Like a dream in which one is actor, stage, and audience, Hong seems to be tearing into herself, the very act of cancer.
Such intensity leads to what I have often endeavored to describe, inarticulately, as a “low climax,” a musical nadir that seems to cast shadows with its own darkness, revealing in such strange relief the trajectory we have travelled, and the remaining distance yet to come. This occurs in several works by Hersch. In The Vanishing Pavilions, it is movement 47, “The note pad and over it the candle glass,” occurring, like 28. The light in the eyes has dimmed in Threshold, just a few movements before the close of the work. This intensity takes a different form than any “searing” moments which have preceded; rather, it is a revelatory act, displaying the background bones which have—until these last moments—allowed for ambulation. At “But the day isn’t dark. People go by in the streets, laughing merrily…”, the piano (performed exquisitely and seemingly effortlessly by Michael Sheppard, belying an intensely difficult score with which the pianist has lived in a variety of forms and versions for the past several years) reveals a quiet chaconne-like progression, and, through repeats and alterations, builds—more instruments joining—to an eruption: “Nothing happens in this world except matters of substance, bathed in indifference.” Hong’s stratospheric vocal capabilities are astounding in moments such as these, including the beginning of the work—but it is this moment that seemed to me to be a crux, a turning point, wherein the labyrinthine wanderings of score and stage were now directed—Inward? Outward? Towards something else, a space undiscovered.
Indeed—the remaining movements witness Hong approach the central obelisk, as the air about her glows, intense, and fiery, but cooling—a deep indigo by the last movement that burns out its coolness, until receding into a charcoal blackness against which the stark white monolith glows, implacable and unaffected. At its foot, the mortuary slab with its torn clay resident, and at its foot: Hong sits, leans, wrapping herself in a sheet, declaiming in a low resonance that fades in the last words: “Terrible is the passage into the fold both for man and animal.” The center of the labyrinth, which now itself disappears.
Throughout the work, all the musicians demonstrated the indescribable virtuosity necessary to realize such a complex and riveting score. But Hong faced the lion’s share: if the work is a labyrinth, a landscape created by Hersch through which we are led, then Hong is more than our guide, more than Hersch’s performer: she becomes an avatar through which the composer may speak and we as observers may experience. Her tone, redolent of early-music silver, is also filled with a post-Romantic power that unflinchingly delivers even the most musically and spiritually difficult (and there are many such) passages. The day following the performance, the work was filmed, for which we may all be grateful. The entire performance and production deserves whatever permanence the world can afford, a testament to the musicians’ ability, to Hersch’s vision, and to the experiences of the sick and cancer-ridden, lest we forget.