Israeli-born Chaya Czernowin is one of the most sought-after composers in the world, receiving commissions from organizations like IRCAM and festivals like the Munich Biennale, as well as being invited to teach for programs like the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt. She has served on the composition faculty for the University of California San Diego and the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, and is currently a professor at Harvard University. I spoke with Czernowin in Chicago shortly before a concert featuring several of her works. This portrait concert, performed by Ensemble Dal Niente, included the premiere of her latest piece The Last Leaf for sopranino saxophone.
I first wanted to ask about The Last Leaf because I haven’t seen a lot of pieces that you’ve written for solo instruments. Your music really pulls from a diverse range of timbres that can conceal the instruments they come from, especially when used in combination. So did you find it a challenge to write for only one instrument? Was there a feeling of being exposed?
Obviously I’ve waited to my old age to do this! I had no interest in writing a solo piece before, you know. [Oboist] Peter Veale and I have had a very long connection that goes back to many, many years ago, and we always wanted to do something together. When James Avery passed away I was asked to write a piece to his memory, I wrote a piece for Peter. But I was totally unhappy with it.
The oboe is a very inflexible instrument in some ways. But I had been working with Peter for many years; he helped me, for example, when I first started my piece MAIM, which is a huge orchestra piece that has all kinds of oboes. So I really found that working with him was very inspiring for me and really created the motivation for a certain kind of piece. And the piece was a very personal present that I wanted to give him. After it was finished I had a plan to make it into a duo with saxophone sopranino. But then I thought it could itself be played by sorpanino saxophone and it would sound very, very different. That was about the time that I was talking to Ryan [Muncy, saxophonist of Dal Niente,] and that’s how the sopranino version came to be. It was all a game of coincidences.
In this solo piece I tried to create such extremities of expression and instrumental expression that it’s almost like three instruments are playing. Not simultaneously; you have one, then the second is introduced, and then the third one plays in a kind of duo. That’s how I approached it.
You’ve said in previous interviews that you’re not expecting an audience to fully grasp your music upon the first hearing but that your hope is to pique curiosity. Of course, in an ideal situation there would be multiple performances of your pieces more frequently, but usually there’s just a recording. Would you be in favor of—say for this concert that’s coming up—instead of programming four of your works, maybe doing two of your works but playing them more than once?
No. Because the idea is not to give the audience as much understanding as possible. Also, when I say that I want to pique the listener’s curiosity, it’s only half true. I would like a person who hears my music to experience something. And I hope that the experience would be visceral and very, very strong. But if I was asked then what should a person take with them, it should not be “oh, I got it; this is the piece. That’s what it was about.” When you are in the middle of a very strong emotional experience, it’s very hard to figure out what’s going on. It’s actually impossible. It takes perspective, it takes time, and it takes cooling down. So in a way the wish is that the music will be a kind of–of course, it’s very rarely completely manifest–that it will be like an emotional experience, you know? Emotional, or aesthetic, or… Just a life experience.
In addition to your compositions which Ensemble Dal Niente have selected for their concert, you’ve programmed Webern’s Four Pieces for violin and piano. Why did you pick this work?
Well, if I had to choose from Webern—if I had all the time in the world—I would have chosen some other pieces. Maybe from the string quartets or the clarinet concerto. But Webern is an extremely important composer for me. Because of the crystal quality, the multi-mirrors. He’s a very fractile composer. I’m very interested in that and in that quality of his music. He writes miniatures, basically, but they are not miniatures. These are pieces that seem to be like appetizers but actually they are huge meals. And I like that paradigm. I like that misleading information about the temporality of something; what is the real experience and what seems to be the experience? I like this discrepancy.
Webern is an amazing teacher in that regard. Also, an extremely mysterious composer. Both his father Schoenberg (so to speak) and his colleague Berg are very connected to Romantic music. And he as well, but he is very connected to the future, in a way much more than them. And this has been said by Boulez before me, you know. I like the strange forward-looking quality of his work because it’s actually not a statement, it’s a very internalized and introverted result that we get from a kind of hermit world.
In your interview with Dal Niente regarding instrumentation, you said that the instruments are a vehicle towards your compositional idea. When you’re writing, do you ever discover that this process becomes reversed? Or perhaps that you discover a particular quality in an instrument or group of instruments that takes precedence over the sound you originally had in mind?
Let’s put it this way. When I was composing very close to the instruments (in the 90s when I was in the vicinity of a lot of players at University of California San Diego) this was always a part of the process as a mutual feedback. It was really not going to one side or the other. If I knew that I wanted trombone in my piece–what kind of trombone I wanted–I would meet with a trombonist and they would say “yeah, yeah, that’s okay, that’s possible, but how about that?” and that would open a new door. So before I would even start to write (or somewhere in the middle when I would look for sound) it was always a kind of a mutual process. It goes from the piece out, but also from the instrument into the piece. This never changed the first idea. But it could enrich it, it could make it more valuable, more inclusive. But I would never go against it; it would inform the original idea.
In Anea Crystal, a work where two separate string quartet pieces can be played simultaneously, there seems to be this notion of disparate worlds existing in the same space. When you’re writing a new piece, do you think about the sound worlds that you have already created in the context of the forthcoming one? Do you view your oeuvre as a space where all these different kind of worlds can coexist?
Oh, definitely. And not only my body of work but in general, I think there is a creative process that can apply to a lot of composers which I would describe in the following way: first, one has to figure out where their feet are and what are their feet. And then once they discover their feet they have to create a small island for these feet to stand on. Once this island is there (and it might just be a small hill of sand) they have to discover the area, the terrain. And they create this small cosmos which is their language or their behavior in musical terms. But at a certain point, hopefully, that will just not be sufficient. Because you create certain methodologies, certain behaviors, certain habits. And at some point they stand in your way because you have actually grown out of them. Then you have to look again at your feet and find a new island to basically start anew. Let’s say that after you have two islands, you can start thinking about your universe, and see them as a part of the same universe.
This description sounds like a children’s parable but for me it isn’t. This is the description of my biographical compositional development, and I can tell you that right now I’m standing on the beginning of my second island. So my recent orchestral pieces (which have been performed but not yet released on a CD), this is the new terrain and this is the new island. What will happen in probably five years after I’m more aware of what is in this island is really a much bigger place to work from where I combine the former music with the music of now. So this is also a very nice prospective.