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Born in Washington, raised in Reston, Virginia, Michael Hersch is the head of the Composition department at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. John Corigliano wrote of his former student, "There is no doubt in my mind that this extraordinary creator, who already has his own special voice, will be a major force,"; Tim Page says, "a natural musical genius who continues to surpass himself,". Below is a transcript of our April 14, 2014 conversation with the brilliant composer Michael Hersch.
EH: Robert Schumann was fascinated that the music he heard in his head would sometimes naturally appear in the form of canons and such. You came to music rather late, and it's been said that music comes to you in generous volumes. Has your methodology changed over the years, if one can ask such a thing ?
Hersch: I think it’s changed a lot since I first started composing. I wrote much more quickly when I was younger. Over the years I’ve required more time in order for the pieces to arrive in a place I am happy with. The process cannot be rushed. Although in the heat of inspiration a piece might appear to me finished essentially upon conception, in my case it almost always is not. I’m not talented enough for it to be where it ultimately needs to be without living with it for a while.
Most of the process is very quiet and takes place within the mind’s ear. The process is an internal one. I still write with pencil and paper, actually, but this happens toward the end of the process. I don’t play, and I don’t write anything down until I’ve worked things out in my mind.
EH: You studied with one of the great voices of our time, John Corigliano. If you’re comfortable sharing, what are your lasting impressions of this distinguished creator, and what role did he play in shaping your artistry ?
Hersch: I was fortunate to work with Corigliano for a few years in the mid-nineties. Meeting and working with him during those formative years was an important experience. I think one of the things that made such a powerful impression on me was his unwavering commitment to his music regarding what it required from the musicians performing it - what each pitch, rhythm, color, silence ... what every detail needed. It was purely about the music. And through this approach he was able to achieve what the music required from the musicians performing it, often with amazing results.
EH: You are currently the head of the Composition department at the Peabody Institute. I often ask recent graduates if there is anything about music and the business that they would have liked to learn, something that had not been taught. In your opinion, is there a common misconception that you’ve noticed amongst students – ideas about music, career, etc. that you would perhaps like to clarify ?
Hersch: George Rochberg once said that ‘to be a composer, you need to have fire in the belly, fire in the brain, but most importantly, an iron stomach.’ This is true. We live during a difficult time for artists - relatively speaking - especially regarding the ability to make a living in music, or any of the arts for that matter. One has to persevere. The culture has no doubt suffered severe setbacks since the early 2000‘s regarding issues of funding. Perhaps a better sense of what awaited would have been a positive thing. However, I’ve been amazed at the resiliency of those involved with contemporary music in this country. I think composers have reacted with tremendous creativity and resourcefulness. When I returned from Europe in the first decade of the 2000’s, I was quite worried about what was happening here. But I’m quite optimistic. The American compositional scene is remarkably vibrant.
EH: I read in an interview from the late-90's that Franz Liszt is a figure you admire. There has been much criticism of Liszt and his body of works over the years. Has your opinion of this composer changed ?
Hersch: The music of Liszt I most admire is the work he wrote toward the end of his life. This is often music of tremendous inventiveness. The music seems to be seeking something. It tends to be restless, dark, unpredictable, often very sad. Another aspect of Liszt’s music-making I’ve always admired is his approach to arrangement. I’ve always enjoyed playing non-piano music at the piano, and as a young composer I had aparticular fondness for Liszt’s Beethoven Symphony arrangements. I still enjoy the challenge of taking something that was not meant for the piano, distilling its essence and writing or improvising it for/at the piano, but having the listener forget that he or she is listening to a piano. A lot of my approach to the instrument, especially as I’ve gotten older, is to treat the piano in ways that are not very pianistic - to consider the sounds I’m after first, and to deal with technical considerations later.
EH: Over the past two-hundred years or so, there has been a trend veering away from the performance of contemporary works. In your opinion, do today’s performers have the duty to perform the works of their peers ?
Hersch: I don’t think performance out of duty yields very much. Coercion is never the way to go. If people want insights, if they want to swim in the currents of their own time and share the experiences of their time, then it makes sense to engage with the artists of one’s own time. While I believe there is certainly a phenomenon of timelessness in art, the people writing today can comment on today in an exclusive manner. That’s special I think. I do believe it is okay to obligate young people to try different types of music - that is what education is. But once you’re in a situation as an adult, it doesn’t benefit anybody – at least in my experience – to force music on people that they don’t like or do not have an interest in - whether it’s three-hundred years old or newly written.
The best results come when people believe and feel strongly about the music they are playing. Just as composers write for certain types of performers, performers are also looking for certain things. I’ve never seen as many contemporary performance groups as we have now, at least in my twenty years of doing this. The proliferation of new music groups and individual performers focusing on new music is a remarkable and heartening thing. On the one hand, the culture is very resistant to new things, and yet it continues to grow.
EH: There's been some talk from prominent conductors about the abilities of women as conductors. You've had experiences working with several female conductors - most notably, Marin Alsop. As the composer, the one who has the ideal blueprint of what's needed, is there any strand of truth to these ideas, which aren't as uncommon as we'd like to believe?
Hersch: My interactions with musicians have been simply that: interactions with musicians. Issues of gender, or anything else beyond the music-making, have in my experience played no role in whether or not a conductor or instrumentalist has been able to articulate my intentions as a composer. As I see it, the major requirements for a strong and able rendering are an understanding of a work's structure, voicing, and trajectory; an ability to execute the details on the page from largest to smallest; technical command, and hopefully a connection with the overall expressive impulse (though the latter is not at all necessary to give a good performance). Of course, all people have their own reasons for believing what they do about gender. In my case, in over two decades of collaborating with men and women in music -- conductors or otherwise -- I have seen no distinction.
EH: Much of the greater public is in the dark with respect to contemporary composition, choosing instead to follow the simpler sounds of pop-music, etc. Is there something to be said about the allure of simpler, more concise sounds –- Virgil Thomson, for example, admired Erik Satie very much for this - and is it the goal of composition, as with other art forms, to refine and be able to communicate something that can be understood by the many ?
Hersch: Every composer will probably answer this differently. In my case, if somebody responds positively to what I’m doing - if there is a connection - that can be very meaningful. If someone reacts with displeasure, confusion, hostility, well, that is not pleasant, and at times can be quite upsetting. That said, I write because the writing itself is what drives me. It’s a private communication with/within myself - nothing more or less. This doesn’t mean I do not want to share with people. There are times I’m completely uncomfortable with my works being performed publicly – I haven’t attended certain concerts because the prospect is akin to having a diary of sorts read on-stage. But there are also situations - whether an audience of one or many - where the concert experience can be deeply special, and those experiences are often unpredictable, and wonderful when they occur.
EH: In your opinion, with the rise of blogs and social media today, what is the purpose of the music critic ? Has the role changed since the days of Virgil Thomson and other prominent writers ?
Hersch: I don’t think it has very much. In the most positive sense the music critic is one who helps the public navigate what’s out there, especially in bringing attention to things they otherwise wouldn’t know, or to provide a new window into something familiar. A critic can serve as guide. I think there’s an understanding amongst the public that critics have their own preferences and dislikes. The best critics leave the reader curious to pursue something further, but to still leave the reader with an ability to render an honest opinion intact. We live in a culture with so little education that many critics have become de facto teachers. That is a lot of responsibility, and I think it should be wielded with care. Most people appreciate sincere guidance. A healthy dialogue is always good.
EH: The New York Philharmonic has commissioned you to write a new solo violin work, Of Sorrow Born, to be performed at its Biennial; later in June, your chamber opera On the Threshold of Winter will be performed for the first time (information here). Can you give us your thoughts on these new works ?
Hersch: They share certain DNA in the sense that they both deal with loss. The opera is based on Marin Sorescu’s final book of poems, “The Bridge,” in which he chronicled the final month of his life as he died of liver cancer. The writing of the chamber opera was set into motion with two transformative events in my own life: the death of my closest friend at an early age from cancer, and my own experience with the disease which happened simultaneously. The piece for the New York Philharmonic is a collection of seven elegies for people close to me who have passed away over the past fifteen years.
EH: Innova has also released an album of your first string quartet, Images from a Closed Ward. I would love to hear you speak about the work, in any amount of detail you’d like. You were inspired by the late Michael Mazur’s works ?
Hersch: In 2000, while I was in Rome there was an exhibition there of Mazur’s works, a series of etchings he’d made to accompany various “Canti” from Dante’s “Inferno.” I was mesmerized by them. Mazur was a remarkable artist. During our time in Rome we became friends. I would often perform my works for him at the piano. Some years later I had come across his “Locked Ward” and “Closed Ward” series - two sets of etchings depicting inmates at a psychiatric facility in Rhode Island during the 1960s - and these works had the same impact on me as those “Inferno” etchings. I immediately knew that I wanted to write a quartet which would somehow incorporate these works into its structure, even though up to this point I had never done anything musically which had a relationship with visual art.
Soon after determining I wanted to write this work I was serendipitously contacted by the Blair Quartet to see if I was interested in writing a string quartet. It had been almost two decades since I had written my last quartet. The group was open to everything, and the piece asks a lot of its performers. It was a tremendous journey for me to be able to work so closely with this group, and the recording is the result of several years of preparation.
EH: Many great composers of the past advocated the study of various art forms outside of music to help with the music-making. How does it all help with the understanding and perhaps creation of musical art ?
Hersch: Usually the more information one has, the better. The visual arts, literature and poetry are of particular interest to me, and these other art forms have become more and more a part of my life; they have become companions of sorts. Music has a particular place, but that’s because it’s coming from within. It all feeds into the same thing, though. I cannot imagine my day to day experiences without the presence of these other art forms. They’re absolutely essential.
EH: Mr. Hersch, thank you for taking the time today.
Hersch: It was my pleasure, Elijah. I enjoyed speaking with you.