The Eloquence of the Inexpressible
Chamber Music by Chaya Czernowin on CD
For her beauty arises when it is possible to look into inner darkness - said Chaya Czernowin in connection with "Pnima ins Innere", the music-theatre piece that was very successfully premiered at the Munich Biennale in May 2000. This is a very harsh beauty since it is not concerned with assurance and security but rather with intensity of emotional existence, which is not always easy to bear. The compos-er, born in Israel in 1957, belongs to a genera-tion which knows the trauma of the Holocaust only from hearsay - or much more from concealment. Everyday experience shows, and psychological studies confirm, that most survivors can only defend themselves against the terrible past by repression. Unprotected memory and looking into darkness overtax their strength. That is precisely the theme of Chaya Czernowin's three-act work, which is based on David Grossman's novel "See under: Love". A child very cautiously gets an old man trapped in his memories to start talking. The burden of remembrance is passed on to the next generation and thus perhaps made somewhat more bearable.
Anyone who saw director Klaus Guth's highly sensitive production in Munich and experienced the theatrical power contained in Chaya Czernowin's utterly "unoperatic" music will hear her concert works with different ears. The five pieces of chamber music, brought out as a portrait of the composer by the small American company of Mode Records, sound like reflections of the themes involved in the stage work even though they are completely autonomous, having been produced in a completely different context. Here too the unexpressible, which Czernowin attempted to reach in her music-theatre, seems to vibrate subliminally. That is mainly expressed in the music's tone. This is enormously expressive music using purely instrumental means to explore the extreme ranges of the human voice, from stammering to screaming and weeping. Such an eruptive power, which appears to come from deep within the body, is perhaps still known from the time of the protesting avant-garde : from the young Rihm, from Hespos, Dieter Schnebel's "Maulwerke", or Kagel's "Halleluja", but it takes on a new quality against the previously mentioned background of experience. Schnebel is among the no fewer than seven composers whom Chaya Czernowin calls her teachers. She is certainly closer to his depth psychology anchored concept of musical expression than to the constructivism of a Ferneyhough with whom she also studied.
This music's similarity to language is, on the one hand, based on its treatment of instruments which are not concerned with "beautiful sound" but instead produce largely raw tones, denatured and noise-like, hard-struck, and expressively twisted through micro-glissandi. On the other hand on the nature of the musical structure. This is dominated by multiply divided unison or, conversely, the bundling of polyphonic elements as a single, highly diversified stream of sound. That is conceived as more heterophonic than polyphonic. Polyphony entails objectified regularities which affect the sounding together, whereas here there are proliferating sound processes that are unpredictable and often produce shocks. This is vividly implemented in "Afatsim" for ensemble. The title signifies "Gall", the tissue growths on plants deforming and distorting normal development. The nine instruments are combined as four groups, which as a multivoiced quartet conduct an excited discussion which sometimes assumes bizarre forms.
The multi-voiced split I in Chaya Czernowin's music is more than a structural principle. It possesses an archetypal quality. In her stage work she assigns her two silent characters to two textless vocalists placed among the instruments. The speaking subject thus takes on a complex identity. It changes between individual and collective, and its speech is continued in the most subtle ramifications of the instrumental sound. In her instrumental trio "The Crossing", inspired by a Kafka story about a hybrid joining cat and lamb, this splitting up is taken even further by way of an impenetrable network of formal relations. The fact that three such extremely different instruments (in character and origin) as the alto saxophone, double base, and the Japanese SM are again used by the composer as an "assembled instrument" is characteristic of her music, which can be understood as expression of an inwardly highly tense, diffuse, and constantly endangered identity.
In this discursive concept of music, linearity formed by timbre and rhythm is more important than harmony. The latter then mostly seems like the chance outcome of linear developments and exerts little influence on form. The "Dam Sheon Hachol" string sextet, dating from 1992 and the earliest work on the CD, is an exception. In the string quartet written for the Ardittis in 1995 the four musicians' gestures give rise to a fragile extended form. Here too this is once again a labyrinth of sounds and gestures akin to mysterious speech, making this composer's music an adventure in listening.
© 2000 Max Nyffeler
Chaya Czernowin, Afatsim. Five Chamber Works with Various Interpreters. Mode Records 77 (1 CD)