Chaya Czernowin: A Strange Bridge Toward Engagement

Claiming Chaya Czernowin as an American composer is somewhat disingenuous. Although she currently resides in the United States where she is the Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music at Harvard University and holds degrees from Bard College and the University of California, San Diego, the Haifa-born Czernowin has spent a great part of her life in many other places—her native Israel, as well as Germany, Austria, and Japan. All of those places can lay claim to her as much as the United States can, but ultimately she is not the by-product of any specific culture or nationality.

Like many composers today, Czernowin is not attached to any one place and her trans-nationality informs her outlook more than any specific geographical roots. And in her particular case, as the child of parents who fled the Nazis and a relative of others who were less fortunate, identifying with a specific nationality actually has some extremely unpleasant associations:

Growing up in Israel one is so imprinted with the identity of nationality and being a Jew after the Second World War. When I went with my father to a wedding everybody said, “She looks just like your sister,” who of course was murdered in the Holocaust. When you’re born with such a weight, it’s very natural that when you get to adolescence the last thing you want to hear about is nationality, origin, or anything connected to that. You just want to be a person, an ahistoric individual who believes in individuality. And that’s what I’ve been. It took me a long time to re-connect and to assume the weight of my origin and nationality and get into a more aware dialog with it.

Czernowin’s seeming aloofness from personal roots has led to an unusually omnivorous music, even by today’s standards. While she has written important repertoire for long-established instrumental combinations including her 1995 String Quartet, composed for the Arditti, and the powerful string sextet Dam Sheon Hachol from 1992, she gravitates more often toward extremely unusual combinations as in the extraordinary 1995 composition Die Kreuzung, a trio for alto saxophone, double bass, and u (a Japanese mouth organ with a lower range than the still exotic, but more common sho). Even more typical of her work are compositions like MAIM—a massive work requiring a large orchestra and five soloists (one of which is a tubax of which there are only five in the world), plus live electronics, and non-narrative music theatre works such as the opera Pnima…ins Innere or Adama, a work created to co-exist with but not in any way connect to Mozart’s incomplete Zaïde.

While she admits that the work she creates might in part be the result of having lived all over the world, she is quick to point out that—for example—her interest and subsequent immersion into Japanese music happened long before she ever lived in Japan. As in her stage works, there is no clear trajectory for how her music has evolved or how it should be perceived. And that’s exactly the way she likes it. She does not want her music to be understood immediately and is very wary of the belief that artistic creations should be accessible. But that doesn’t mean that she wants to be hermetically sealed off from audiences either, although she acknowledges that her path is “a strange bridge to go”:

For me accessibility could be redeemed by a different word, maybe an engagement. […] You don’t want to write music that will actually be so covered and so internalized and indecipherable that no one can get in and no one would like to even have the interest to get in. So there are some things in the music that need to call out and say while you’re not getting in now, there are things here that you can hold onto in a second or third listening that will get you in the future, if you will engage.

It seems odd that she would choose to come here given how specialized her music is and the immense support that she has received for it in other places—MAIM, a work that would require a huge commitment from a presenter to be mounted here just once, has already been performed in Donaueschingen, Salzburg, and Berlin. But that seeming greater difficulty in being able to realize her goals was actually a lure to some extent, as was her belief that we are actually now in the beginnings of a contemporary music renaissance in the United States.

I think (especially in composition) we are having a grass roots revolution, or evolution. And almost every day there are really good concerts of new music, very complex music which is very demanding and those players can play it. That was not the case ten years ago; nobody could play this music. Things are [now] really active and growing. We can ride a wave that exists already and we can help it materialize somehow. I never felt that in America before, but now I do.

Indeed, despite her own intentional rootlessness, the new music community in the United States has clearly welcomed her return here. In addition to her stint at Harvard, a series of four extremely fine recordings of her music on Mode plus a portrait concert devoted to her music performed by the Either/Or ensemble at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre earlier this year has shown how devoted Americans are to her unique compositional aesthetic.