How an artist or composer brings a work into being varies individually. As opposed to visual art, which is usually a solitary exercise, composing music cannot be entirely a one-on-one experience. The composer needs musicians as intermediaries to define the work for an audience. In the case of Images from a Closed Ward, the creative cycle began with visual artist Michael Mazur’s etchings individually eliciting a response from composer Michael Hersch. Hersch then set about translating his feelings about the images musically, ultimately to be interpreted by the Blair String Quartet and rendered to many people in an audience, making the process one of creativity as domino effect.
“The fact that it was something visual [as a catalyst] was a new experience for me,” Hersch says. “It’s not about trying to render these [images] musically, it’s more a shared experience. I found in these images something that I was feeling already, and they became, for lack of a better word, sort of companions with me in the journey of writing this piece.
“What I see in the artwork is a shared terrain,” he says, “[the artwork and music] share similar human landscape. Below the surface feels quite similar.”
How Hersch brings that shared human landscape to the music is enhanced by his titles for each of the 12 movements in the work.
“Most of his movements have expressive titles,” violinist Christian Teal says. “The third movement says ‘longing, quiet, extreme grief.’”
“The second [movement] is ‘ferociously,’” adds violinist Connie Heard. “The 11th movement says ‘raging violently throughout,’ and it was some of the most loud, ‘raging violently throughout’ music that we’ve ever played.”
The climactic 11th movement is a massive contrapuntal movement that reminds the quartet of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge”, originally written as the last movement of the Opus 130 Quartet in E flat Major. This piece has been described by NPR commentator Cathy Fuller as “a roller-coaster ride: Beethoven takes four voices, fully engaged and throbbing at high speeds, and drives them to the edge of a cliff before stopping them on a dime to listen to the vastness of silence.”
“This movement is quite long also,” Heard says. “The difference is that in [Beethoven’s] ‘Grosse Fuge,’ there are moments of relief and moments of melodic beauty. In the ‘raging violently throughout,’ there is no relief. It was a very intense experience to read it the first time and say, ‘Wow, how are we going to do this?’”
“It’s interesting that for the movement right before that movement, [Hersch] writes the word ‘frozen’ over that, and it’s a very sparse, quiet movement,” Teal says.
“It makes a shocking moment that much more shocking,” violist John Kochanowski says.
“My expectation would be that if someone had the experience of looking at these images,” Hersch says, “and they separately had the experience of listening to the music, it wouldn’t be surprising that they came away with similar feelings, even though each person is going to bring something different to the table.
“That’s one of the wonderful things about art.”
© 2016 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: Steve Green