In this BLOG, the Writing Workshop of the Darmstadt Summer Course, directed by Anne Hilde
Neset, Peter Meanwell and Stefan Fricke, is publishing texts and audio reviews during the festival.
The articles represent the opinion of the respective author.
In her lecture about her recent work, composer Chaya Czernowin invites the audience to rethink the relationship between voice and breath, to see the complexities revealed when slowing down the singing process, two concepts she examines further in her upcoming opera Infinite Now.
As American-Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin shuts the door to mute the children playing outside, she quips, "[Let's] disconnect from the external world, and enter the new music world." The soprano's voice swoops like a siren, as percussive breathing and sudden vocalizations create an arresting landscape in her set of three etudes Adiantum Capillus-Veneris. Named after a delicate fern, the etudes are experimentations designed to test concepts for Czernowin's large-scale opera Infinite Now premiering in 2017, scored for full orchestra, six actors, six singers, and electronics. In both the etudes and her opera, Czernowin places breath and voice on an equal plane, a juxtaposition that Czernowin calls "intentionally awkward." This collage of extended vocal technique and melodic singing subverts the established relationship between breathing and singing - that breathing must foreshadow singing, thereby giving singing power. This close examination of voice begins Chaya Czernowin's lecture "On recent pieces" at Darmstadt's Summer Course for New Music, which explores her work from the past three years.
Her name commands interest at Darmstadt; not only has she long been associated with Darmstadt, she is also well-known internationally for her music that evokes otherworldly soundscapes. Chatter about her as a teacher, composer, and lecturer sweeps through the halls of Lichtenbergschule, Darmstadt's headquarters. Like a cartographer charting new territory, Czernowin investigates the singing process — the mouth is a site to scrutinize how a singer initiates sound and how sound comes forth. Voice has the power to evoke memory, serving as a blueprint for identification. Contrarily, when breathing does not instigate voice, there is no right or wrong way to breathe, no cultural baggage; after all, no one's gone to school to learn to breathe. It is precisely this friction between "oppositions as opportunity for continuum" that Czernowin hopes to magnify in her recent work.
Her lecture culminates in a preview of the opera's opening, a sketch recorded in two days, as Chaya humbly asks the audience to "upgrade the experience" and imagine a full production. Here, I found her lecture to find its purpose, its momentum. Her opera arises from the premise that for many of us in the audience, life generally feels secure. Yet, riots, warfare, protests, and hate-mongering fill the airwaves of those sitting safely at home, while others like refugees, experience the precariousness of safety much closer to home. Regardless of the personal experience of existential danger, in Czernowin's words, there is "a sense of imminent danger" that seems furled within our psyche, threatening to strip away our collective sense of control. Akin to the way she magnifies the process of singing, Czernowin amplifies this existential experience in her opera, as the viewer must question, "Where does this nebulous danger come from? When and how will it end?"
She pauses to find the right place in the audio track and gestures to turn the speakers way, way up. "This is loud," she warns. From suspenseful silence, the layers of frenetic voices and panicked breathing form a whispered sense of panic, from which clamorous sounds struggle to break free from the static. The broken Chinese phrases are barely understandable; yet the lilt of questions asked and gone unanswered is unmistakable. The tumultuous nature of the music reflects the
opera's text, drawn from two sources: the Chinese story "Homecoming" by Can Xue of a woman trapped in a house over an abyss, and the play "Front" by Luk Perceval, which tells the stories of World War I soldiers through their letters. The entwined narratives evoke the visceral pain of someone bearing witness to the entropy of their world. When Czernowin shuts off the music without warning, the contrast between the polite audience, seated in neat rows, and the claustrophobic voices and breaths bursting through the speakers exemplifies the distance between lecture rituals and existential crises.
Despite the dramatic scale of the forces involved in Infinite Now, Czernowin avoids grandiloquent claims regarding the opera. When asked whether the numerous musicians, electronics, and actors needed to stage her work contradicts her intention to examine existentialism, she emphasizes that existentialism does not equate to minimalism; instead, one should feel metaphorically naked by the end of the performance. Czernowin's music invites the listener to acknowledge both the frailty and tenacity of hope to survive in a fragile modern world. Perhaps this is what is most compelling; though not overt or didactic, Czernowin presents a possibility to see her opera as a reflection of our social and cultural climate, a new music piece that leaves the door open to the external world.