Creation, translation, interpretation, performance. The process of bringing a piece of music from the composer’s hands to the ears of an audience is a long one that requires trust and commitment for both the composer and the commissioning ensemble. When the Blair String Quartet approached composer Michael Hersch about writing a string quartet for them, the tumblers fell into place for an extensive creative journey. In this case, Images from a Closed Ward, made possible through funds from the James Stephen Turner Family Foundation as part of the Blair Commissioning Project, has just begun that journey. That journey will not end with the premiere of the work next spring, but continue to develop and evolve with each subsequent performance of the piece.
How Hersch and the quartet came to work together is described by both as serendipitous.
“I had been asked a fair number of times over the last two decades to write string quartets,” Hersch says, “but there was nothing in my imagination, nothing in my mind’s ear. I didn’t think that I could write a good one. I wanted to write other things, and I didn’t hear a string quartet.
“It was an extraordinary confluence of events,” he says. “If they had contacted me two or three months earlier, I would have said no. It’s as simple as that.”
The ignition point, as Hersch calls it, for writing a string quartet was living with prints by the American visual artist Michael Mazur, whom Hersch met in Rome in 2000. Mazur’s The Inferno of Dante, an exhibition of 41 etchings with accompanying texts translated into English, was being shown at the American Academy in Rome at the time. As Hersch wrote in his composer’s note to the piece for the Blair String Quartet, “Although we worked in different mediums, I often felt that Mazur understood what I was doing better than most.” A friendship developed between the two artists.
Hersch acquired some of Mazur’s prints in 2008 from the Closed Ward and Locked Ward series of etchings done in the early 1960s. They hang in his work space.
In mid-2009, “this amazing period of serendipitous events happened,” Hersch says. “My mind’s ear started composing a string quartet around these images of Mazur’s, and then I was going to contact him.” Instead, Hersch read of Mazur’s death in a newspaper the day before he planned to reach him. “Not more than a few months later, I was contacted by the Blair String Quartet.”
The Blair String Quartet listened to 30 or 40 different composers before deciding that they wanted to ask Michael Hersch to compose a piece for them. Each member of the quartet was inspired by different aspects of Hersch’s work.
“For me,” says John Kochanowski, professor of viola, “it was a certain passion that he brings to every piece he’s written, and a discovery of voicing, as Beethoven voiced so beautifully. Michael has that ability to voice for four people in an extraordinary way. He really understands the conversational attitude, the parameters, the darkness, the ecstasy. We were excited by the possibility that he could be a great quartet composer.”
“We also wanted a prominent American composer who had not written for string quartet, so that this would bring some attention as the first string quartet of his work,” says Christian Teal, Joseph Joachim Professor of Violin.
Connie Heard, Valere Blair Potter Professor of Violin, honed in on Hersch’s ability to focus. “When we first listened to him,” she says, “we listened to some short piano pieces that he was playing. They were beautiful, very personal and focused—they weren’t trying to do a lot of things. He will have the kernel of an idea and really develop that kernel rather than trying to do six different things at once.
“He’s not bound by the instruments he’s writing for. He’s not afraid to be stark,” she says. “He’s not afraid to be performed only once.”
Felix Wang, associate professor of cello, was impressed by Hersch’s artistic integrity. “When you hear this piece, it’s not going to be something a string quartet would sound like. It’s not necessarily going to follow those parameters. The voice that you hear in his music is original.”
“I think we just lucked out with the timing,” Heard says, “where he was in his life, where he was with his composing. His thoughts were that we just happened to drop in at the right time.”
Hersch was somewhat familiar with the Blair String Quartet as well.
“I’d never met any of them before,” Hersch says, “but I knew John’s name, because he was with the Concord Quartet, and I heard them a lot when I was younger. So he was very familiar to me, even though I didn’t know him. And I had known of the Blair quartet’s reputation broadly, because they had been around a long time in different iterations. All I had to do was hear them, and I listened to them a fair amount and was very excited.
“It just felt right, and deciding to write a piece for someone, a group or an individual, is a very serious commitment,” he says. “A lot has to be right. It’s as intimate a connection as you can have in terms of creating something.”
Kochanowski agrees. “There is no way to write a string quartet without tremendous intimacy,” he says. “Because of our four ways of discussing, arguing, doing everything we do with each other musically, I think it’s a challenge for someone to say, ‘I want to get involved in that discussion with four human beings.’”
Writing the piece took less time than the quartet expected, with the score delivered to them about six months earlier than originally projected. Now that they have the score, there will be much more interaction between Hersch and the quartet, though, as Hersch puts it, the collaboration begins when you know for whom you’re writing.
“A lot of people think that there has to be a lot of back and forth, and that does happen,” he says, “but in this case, the process of composing the piece went relatively quickly, and the biggest part they played was that I felt that I could write whatever I wanted. That is participatory. That doesn’t mean that things won’t change after they start working on it,” he explains, “but I knew who I was writing for from the very beginning, and that’s a major collaboration in and of itself.”
The quartet met Hersch last February, when he came to Blair with his brother, horn player Jamie Hersch, and cellist Daniel Gaisford for a performance of Hersch’s Last Autumn for horn and cello. Hearing the piece, written in two parts and lasting two and a half hours, was revelatory for the quartet.
“The piece was stunningly beautiful, powerful,” Heard says. “The idea that someone could make French horn and cello work for two and a half hours is original and bold, and he is both those things. He is not a composer who is always trying to get his works performed. He’s writing for the purity of what he wants to write.”
Hersch puts it this way: “At the end of the day, one of the most important things for a composer is to feel that whatever the composer is writing feels necessary. So, if I’m going to write for a string quartet, I have to feel that the music I want to express, it’s necessary that it be a string quartet. It couldn’t have been anything else. And if you do a good job, all the things that are important to the musicians will follow.
“I was deeply moved that they approached me,” he says, “because it meant that they felt something in my work that they connected with. I will assure you that not everybody gets what I do,” he says with a laugh, “so when people do connect with it, that’s meaningful to me. It means that there’s something there that’s worth pursuing, because it doesn’t happen with regularity.”
“The performer/composer relationship can be very complicated,” Wang says. “Ultimately, it can be very rewarding, but it can be complicated because you have these artistic personalities that by nature have strong opinions. But the creative process of taking a piece of music, learning it and eventually performing it and letting it come to life is very satisfying. Spending time in collaboration with someone you deem artistically inspiring is very satisfying.
“And selfishly,” he adds, “we just want to be part of the process of bringing to life a masterwork.”
© 2016 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: Jim McGuire, John Russell