To Touch Sound

by Michelle Lou

Gazing upon a landscape that is at times delicately fragile, taking notice of rocks, grains of sand, grass and patterns of light, there is an underlying corrosion; a glacial movement of a scale that seems imperceptible at first, but it is growing, teetering on the edge of transformation. It is the force which comes just before a landslide. Chaya Czernowin’s music possesses an almost primordial gaze, originating from an immense and bottomless core. There is a physical immediacy to her work, and while sensing an organic familiarness (like leaves, earth, wind, water, creatures, body, stomach), this is also a very foreign place – intricately constructed, shaped, and precise like an object carefully invented by a skilled hand. Her work resides in a place where experience is felt as a kind of instinctive embodied awareness that precedes language; where words have yet to be fully formed. For Czernowin, communication begins underneath, beyond categories of musical style, motives or metered rhythms. Meaning is found as an accretion; it is emergent and fluid as it attempts to reveal the tenebrous substance beneath. This process of “uncovering” is a central concept to Czernowin’s oeuvre. Having lived in five countries since the age of 25, the question of identity forged the impulse to excavate the layers that cohere a selfness to reveal something more coextensive. She writes:

…my music almost obsessively tried to stretch the idea of identity: from the inside, exploring separate and contrasting voices (or identities) within one larger identity, investigating how much dissent and difference can exist before the seams start to tear apart and all of a sudden, we have more than one identity. Dialectically, I stretched identity by combining different instruments into a unified meta instrument.
— “The other tiger”

The use of metaphor is also central to Czernowin’s compositional thought. Because words have no credence and definitions are therefore slippery, only metaphors are suitable tools to get closer to the thrust of her intentions.  In the massive work, Maim (water), Czernowin sought to use of the image of water. Maim is scored for orchestra, five soloists (a disparate instrumental formation of tubax, guitar, harpsichord, oboe and viola) and live electronics. It appears in three large movements written from 2001-2006, Maim zarim maim Gnuvim (strange water stolen water), The memory of water, and Mei mecha’a (water of dissent). What was intended as an engagement with the “beauty and fluidity of water” became disrupted by the events of September 2001. Water hardened and for her, “the piece became a stage for the dialogue which emerges between the necessity to turn the eyes inside and shut the world out and the necessity of being aware and reacting to a troubled reality.” It is at this point that she understands and embraces the idea of the political in her work.

Along with her body of chamber and orchestral pieces are two operas. Her first, Pnima…ins Innere, for the Munich Biennale (2000) was based loosely on David Grossmann’s novel, “See under: love.” It is a haunting work that portrays the difficulty of communicating a traumatic experience between a boy and his grandfather. The weight is so oppressive, burdensome, that words have retreated, reverting to utterances. The work was awarded the Bavarian Theater Prize and was named “Best Premiere of the Year” by the critic’s survey of the magazine Opernwelt. In 2005 and in 2006 Czernowin was composer-in-residence at the Salzburg Festival, where she was commissioned to write a counterpoint piece to Mozart’s fragment, “Zaïde.” The resulting work Zaide/Adama, is the  first attempt of its kind to answer an unfinished work with an intervening contemporary “counterpoint work.” With two orchestras and two casts, Czernowin’s Adama is a portrayal of forbidden love between a Palestinian and an Israeli.


Physicality. In the large orchestral works, The Quiet (2011), Zohar Iver (blind radiance) (2011) and Esh (2011),  Czernowin further extends the experiential potentialities to transcend language in attempting towards music “to be seen, touched and felt through the ear.” The threads of connection can be very fragile, holding together rather heavy, weighted sections of material, along with multiple strands of opposing forces. They are following the laws of nature (in an invented landscape), of energy, entropy, and transference. In fact, her music is concerned with  physics: matter, energy, atoms, particles, masses and their interactions and motion over time that is variously fragmented, altered, static or abrupt. She does not prescribe the listening experience, but rather lays the foundation for personal observation. It is this balance of addressing both the sensing body and the grasping mind in her music that motivates her; a balance that is on the edge of tipping, seeking a third realm, one that is on the fringe of our consciousness; a liminal space that “digests” personal and shared histories; mythologies worked out by dreams towards something that is in between, defying reduction by category or description; it is always in motion, alive.

Nature, Song, Transfiguration: The Instrumental Music of Chaya Czernowin. 

by Trevor Bača 

Bitingly astringent and deeply beautiful, the instrumental music of Israeli-American composer Chaya Czernowin (*1957) summons the energies and transformations of nature with a delicacy of sound riven by moments of unexpected suddenness and frequently ferocious intensity. Czernowin’s instrumental music includes nine pieces for large orchestra, a string sextet, four string quartets and more than two dozen other works for chamber ensemble. With the exception of only three pieces, the works are scored for western instruments, with the occasional addition of prerecorded tape or live electronics.

Czernowin’s explorations of the classical elements — earth, wind, water, fire — point to moments in the composer’s music that engage the properties of matter according to a regime of the fantastic. This ‘elementality’ of the music — sometimes extended to include a fifth term in the form of electricity and its currents — introduces unexpected types of motion into the composer’s writing, animating details of Czernowin’s music in ways that make it seem to course, surge or suddenly to congeal. The hourlong orchestral triptych Maim (2001-07) explores a music that falls like drops, runs in rivulets, and floods; the title is the Hebrew word for “water.” Shimmering orchestration, analogous to the aerial perspective of painters, combines with an approach to gesture that sets the guitar afloat in Czernowin’s only concerto, White Wind Waiting (2013), invoking both the properties of air and the ways that air may be made to move.


The elasticity of rubber, the growth of crystals, the back-and-forth movements of a pendulum and many of the other investigations discoverable in Czernowin’s scores attest to a central position of importance that the composer gives to the physics of motion as a determinant of composition. This sort of compositional thinking — the animation of music according to an imagined physics — gives rise to complex types of musical metaphor in the composer’s music. Anea Crystal (2008) comprises two free-standing string quartets — Seed I and Seed II — that may be played either separately or at the same time. The preface to the score explains that “anea” is “an invented name for a music crystal made similarly to an ionic crystal.” Because ionic crystals, like salt, are compounds that consist of positively and negatively charged particles packed extremely closely together, the “seed” in the titles of Seed I and Seed II can be compared to the seed crystals chemists use to precipitate the growth of crystals in solution. Seed I and Seed II are musical “seeds” that function as fragments by themselves and that, when taken together, precipitate the growth of a larger complex. This sort of compositional thinking provides the composer with a sort of laboratory in which new details of musical structure can be invented and explored, metaphorizing the motion of music according to an understanding of chemical process.

Certain moments in Czernowin’s instrumental writing sound as though they emanate from spaces other than the room or hall in which the music is performed. The opening of The Quiet (2010), scored for orchestra divided into three groups, marshals the low-register instruments of the orchestra under a tutti pianissimo sustained for several minutes. The resulting “heaviness” of a quiet scored so thickly makes the music sound as though it were positioned at the interior an enormous cave, an effect that appears frequently in Czernowin’s orchestral writing. Later in the same piece, at two moments labelled “fast talk” in the score, the woodwinds and the brass speak unintelligible syllables directly into their instruments. Because of the instruments’ resonance, the resulting music seems as though it were passing by or through an enclosed space rendered suddenly visible from within, like an airport terminal or the lobby of a busy building, the doors swung wide open and the conversations inside unexpectedly exposed.

Instrumental ‘song’ pervades Czernowin’s music. This sort of ‘song’ — a linear sequence of notes laid out one after the other like a slow-moving melody with rhythmically roughened edges or microtonal disturbances — is usually scored for multiple instruments to ‘sing’ in a type of detuned heterophony. Zohar iver (2011), written for orchestra divided into three groups with a quartet of soloists, includes four instrumental “madrigals” written for the soloists to sing over the nocturnal valleys of the other instruments’ accompaniment. The instrumental ‘song’ that drives The Quiet to its conclusion is scored for the full orchestra playing fortissimo. The cadenza, or lament, at the conclusion of White Wind Waiting is written as a type of ‘song’ for the guitar, though with all six strings of the instrument tuned only fractions of a tone apart, rediscovering the heterophony of the technique at the hands of the soloist alone. Perhaps because the presence of melody can seem so unexpected in the context of Czernowin’s scoring, newcomers sometimes recognize the instrumental ‘song’ flowing through so much of the composer’s music after only a number of hearings. But once identified, the technique becomes a recognizable feature of Czernowin’s music, a trace of the composer singing to herself during the act of composition and an agent of the listener’s consciousness amid the music’s concerns for nature and its transformations. The technique also helps make clear one of the most important methods of exposition by which new materials are introduced in Czernowin’s music: stuttering or sputtering, bit by bit, like the hesitant process by which one finds a voice before one begins to sing.

Though they are rare, important moments of Czernowin’s instrumental music are structured as personal responses to events in the world. The opening of the last movement of Maim, “Mei mecha’a” (“Water of Dissent”), is manifestly a depiction protest: increasing numbers of small ‘smears’ — short down-glissandi in the strings and winds — layer on top of each other, wave after wave, building to a texture like that of rocks or slogans hurled at a demonstration; such demonstration is put down repeatedly by a pair of loud, insistent chords in the brass, which the score indicates “should be extremely stable and unmovable, like a huge metallic object,” quashing opposition. (The composer has written about the ways in which the composition of Maim changed from a formalistic exploration of the properties of water to a reengagement with events in the world following the Second Intifada and 9/11.) This same musical material returns in At the fringe of our gaze (2013), which Czernowin wrote for Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, six years later. The seven sections in At the fringe of our gaze are labeled “Music I,” “Underneath,” “Unmovable I” “Horizon I,” “Music II,” “Unmovable II” and “Horizon II.” Within this collection, the three-part series “music → unmoveable → horizon” repeats twice. The transitions between the sections in this series function as a type musical argument about the ways we come to terms with our position in the world. The transition from “music” to the “unmovable” takes the listener from historically recognizable types of music to writing that previously functioned, in “Water of Dissent,” as an agent of oppression. Such a sequence can be understood analogously to a process of political maturation: an understanding of life before adulthood that sees the world as just — as “music” — is changed in its first encounters with oppression. The political realities of the world — the ways that groups of people oppress each other in the struggles of our politics — seep inevitably into our experience of the world: the places at the fringe of our gaze are the source of this dawning realization that we will not escape the political but be entangled in it. The transition from the “unmovable” to the “horizon” functions differently. The “horizons” in At the fringe of our gaze are scored as elaborately orchestrated pedal points, similar to the enormous “field” in Zohar iver, written two years before. The “horizon,” or the “field,” occurs again and again in Czernowin’s music. Orchestrated as a type of middle- or lower-register pedal point, the “horizon” or the “field” is where Czernowin’s music imagines a time before people arrived or a time after people have gone. At the fringe of our gaze’s transitions from the “unmovable” to the “horizon” argue for a space at a remove from the political from which it might be possible to reconsider our position in the world and the political realities the world contains, a point made especially meaningful on reflection of the fact that Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for the purpose of bringing young Israeli and Arab musicians together to make music.

The collection of sensations engendered by Czernowin’s music is complex. But it is perhaps the affect of awe that more distinctively characterizes the composer’s music than any other, especially in the music’s persistent engagement with sensations of depth and massiveness. Czernowin’s insistence on a music that approaches a freedom of pure motion — flight, flood, tremors, growth, decay, crystallization, dissolution, suspension, rotation — combines with resources of instrumental scoring in the creation of an affective space that is at once liberated and incredibly vast. Moments of gradual revelation in Czernowin’s music announce what seem like musical impossibilities — spaces that become even darker and even deeper than could be imagined, instrumental ‘voices’ that become even further transfigured than they could possibly have been at the outset — yoked together over impossibly long durations or impossibly short events. A shared perception that the world is somehow bigger than we knew — that even at what we thought to be the end of a musical process there is still, somehow, much more to come — is perhaps the most recognizable feature of awe in these moments of the composer’s music. The largest of Czernowin’s orchestra pieces engage in what is frequently an orchestration of absence — the resources of an enormous orchestra holding its breath while almost impossibly small details are rendered before the return of the storm — while the smallest of the composer’s chamber works seem somehow to establish a scale of events much larger than the scoring would allow. These contrasts in the scale of objects and events — and the compelling contradictions of a music that weaves everywhere into the immensities of nature the hesitation of a deeply personal song — imbue Czernowin’s music with both the overt physicality of the music’s materials and also the sensation of awe that colors the music as its materials arise and then return again to sound.

— Trevor Bača

Chaya Czernowin

by Martin Iddon

French translation:

Chaya Czernowin’s music is a music of unlikely, impossible fusions and explosions. The music’s own heritage—which is to say the history it makes for itself, the other voices one may catch on the wind of Czernowin’s output—recalls a range of composers, not quite central in canonic histories, but not true outsiders either. This is music in a historical tradition where the major figures might be Hugo Wolf,Leoš Janček, and Giacinto Scelsi, alongside Edgard Varese, Alban Berg, and Morton Feldman. It is music, then, at the end of a strange, almost alien history of music which is, nevertheless, one which is wholly recognisable and somehow familiar.

It is forceful, direct, and physical, recalling the immediacy aimed at by the composers of the Neue Einfachheit, specifically the sorts of ways in which Berg (and Beethoven too) was evoked by Wolfgang Rihm in the mid-1970s. Yet in Czernowin’s music this is achieved without any reactionary return to tonal resources or retreat into traditional forms. Where Janček’s music is, famously, concerned with melodies derived from the patterns of speech, the voice in Czernowin seems to create musical expression from the impossibility of speech, from subjects who are emotionally overwhelmed and can, at most, mumble, stutter, or wail.

Her music is concerned with questions of scale, recalling both Feldman and Iannis Xenakis, but not for the sake of scale ‘itself’ but rather to reveal the tininess that is hidden within scale: if Feldman’s music is already massive in its length or Xenakis’s in its presentation of monoliths of sound, Czernowin’s presents instead the ‘exploded view’, revealing the fragility of the monolith, while never denying the monolith the truth of its immensity. No less, however, does this evoke Wolf, in his condensation of the mammoth scale of Wagner’s operas into the tiny scale of the art song. The very specificity of this impossible combination—and many others detailed more fully in what follows—is at the heart of what Czernowin’s music is ‘about’, both in its own terms and in a broader sense. Musically, it shows that immiscible worlds—the super-saturation of the New Complexity and the timbral fragility of composers like Mark Andre, say—fold into one another and that, as such, musical narratives neither of collapse and fragmentation nor ones which suggest ‘everything has been done’ nor ones which repeat or retreat to the past are adequate. Figuratively, it suggests that, though perhaps the tides of massive monolithic forces cannot be held back, the tiny triumphs within the failure are always significant, always palpable.

Many of the major interests of Chaya Czernowin’s music are already evident from the tight cluster of ideas which inform the titles of pieces. She is the composer of Maim (water), a triptych for orchestra (2001–07), Adama (earth), a chamber opera which is interleaved with Mozart’s Zaide (2004–05/1779–80), and Esh (fire) for countertenor and orchestra (2009). Even if there is, as yet, no piece entitled ruach or avir (air and wind respectively in Hebrew, both words thus connoting the element of air), the latter appears, translated, in White Wind Waiting for acoustic guitar and orchestra (2013). The nature of the elemental is dealt with directly, while intuitive associations which seem to sit between elements produce other seemingly ‘basic’ materials. These materials might be considered—in Czernowin’s terms—ways of thinking about what sits below music, what music rests on, and what gives rise to the possibility of music. These primal forms—the ground of music—are precisely that which music hides, which music makes it hard to hear: music must be amplified, magnified in order to peer through the cracks, to stretch one’s ear, as it were. Although all four elements have featured significantly in Czernowin’s music, it is arguably water which has predominated. The first major statement on it, Maim, occupied her for much of the 2000s: the opening panel of the triptych—Maim zarim, maim gnuvim(Strange Water, Stolen Water)—premiered in 2001, followed by The Memory of Water in 2004 and Mei Mecha’a (Water of Dissent), written from 2004–06. As such, Maim provides a useful frame to consider how such elemental materials are deployed in practical terms, looking both backwards to the earlier part of Czernowin’s career and forwards to her more recent output.

On the one hand there are more-or-less literalistic musical translations of flows and points of water: the end of Maim zarim, maim gnuvim presents drops of water, surrounding the audience, as the sound of the solo tubax is electronically multiplied; the same points appear as a cloud of mist, in the process of condensation, at the beginning of Mei Mecha’a and seem to crystallise or freeze into solidity as their meccanico repetition turns them into line in the centre of The Memory of Water. Nevertheless, these are not ‘natural’ states, nor simple programmatic figurations of water as a chemical substance. In Mei mecha’a, it seems at points as if liquid water sheaths a solid, strange watery mass, yet one not made of ice, while, in the centre of the movement, a curious machine, half-pump, half-catapult, hurls water of a wholly different type toward both mass and flow. These can, to be sure, all be heard as ways of figured the various ideas of what water might be, but their simultaneous—impossibly simultaneous—presence estranges water from itself. Nevertheless, a sort of ‘natural law’ applies: downward glissandi are a major feature of the texture of Maim, heard as if the pull of gravity demands their fall, while upward glissandi seem to struggle to rise. It is the water, then, which seems so familiar, but which acts in such an alien way, strange, stolen, dissenting, half-forgotten: the plants watered by it are “bruised and blistered” .[1] This, at least, is one way of conceiving what takes place in Czernowin’s music. It should be noted that this, apparently metaphorical, description of process could be re-framed in more strictly music analytic terms: the blocks of matter described above are, still, musicalmaterial in a more traditional sense; what happens to these materials, too, could be mapped according to the now well-developed analytical functions of musical gesture. Yet here it might well seem that it would be the music analytical terminology that would become mere metaphor for the experience that develops in the hearing of this music. Although one can easily be led astray—especially since the composer herself favours a seemingly metaphorical approach to describing her output—to turn to a merely technical vocabulary would do a disservice to the music, even though the reader might, perhaps, hear the thrum of the language of the music analyst sitting quietly below the surface of what follows. It is, too, intimately informed by those descriptions Czernowin has made of her music and process, but aims to reveal, too, what lurks in the cracks of those descriptions, and what can be heard in them, if one lends a careful enough ear.

That maim and esh—the seemingly immiscible water and fire—are fused in shamayim (the heavens) is a well-known Kabbalistic etymology. These Hebrew titles, then, already suggest spaces between elements, where there is sometimes fusion, but where sometimes the gap between the two halves remains visible: esh (through a slightly different transliteration, as aish) finds itself fused with ruach in the expression ish-ruach, literally ‘a man of spirit’, but more usually an intellectual or person of culture. These same spaces between elements recur repeatedly in the titles of Czernowin’s music, sometimes with the gap bridged or concealed, sometimes made obvious. Winter Songs II and III (both 2003) bear the subtitles ‘Stones’ and ‘Roots’ respectively, matter intersecting with, intertwined with, or made of solid earth. Light, which would have been understood by the medieval alchemical tradition of the elements as fire appears in the subtitles ofWinter Songs I and V, ‘Pending Light’ (2002–03) and ‘Forgotten Light’ (2014). Water reappears in the subtitles of the three Slow Summer Stays, ‘Streams’, ‘Lakes’, and ‘Upstream’ (all 2012), while the warmth of the summer evoked by the title hints at the dryness of earth, again according to the same alchemical tradition, opposed to the wetness of these liquid bodies. Water occurs again in Hidden (2013–14), for spatialised string quartet and live electronics, where precisely what is hidden are the rocks of Winter Songs II, now arranged, as if symbolically, meaningfully, in an underwater labyrinth which is also made of those same stones:

The material of the piece moves as if it is under water, devoid of sharp or dramatic gestures or any external drama. It is comprised of a submerged labyrinth of monolithic aural rocks, which are heard from varied distances and angles. It is inhabited by voids, low vibrations and different kinds of silences which are felt rather than heard as the landscape becomes increasingly unfamiliar. Along the course of its ever deeper descent from the surface and from the conventions of musical expression, the piece attempts to give testimony to that which it cannot decipher.[2]

In just this way, Czernowin’s music is concerned with the subcutaneous, that which is concealed, internally, but which is also on the edge of perceptibility, the just hidden, the becoming concealed. This is evident from the outset in the case of Hidden—the listener seems not to encounter the labyrinth ‘itself’, only its echoes and vibrations as its mere presence affects the flow of the piece from the listener’s perspective—but is no less significant as a guiding principle in At the fringe of our gaze (2013) or the seemingly impossible bilocation of Zohar Iver (2011), the two words of its title juxtaposing ‘blindness’ with ‘radiance’.[3] Nevertheless, in Hidden, the puncture of the ‘real’ world which occurs at the close of the piece—as the electronics turn, finally, outside, rather than inwards, broadcasting the seemingly unprocessed, ‘authentic’ sounds of field recordings of rain, a quiet night-time soundscape, and a passing car—becomes truly shocking, as abstraction, almost comfortable abstraction, is suddenly removed. This seems in part to be a radical reconsideration of (or return to) Czernowin’s ‘breakthrough’ piece, the operaPnima (1998–99), which is to say ‘ inwards’, in which the audience encounters two characters—an old man, a holocaust survivor, and a child, his grandchild—whose interior lives, and the impossibility of communicating the truth of them mean that the audience sees and hears little more than the superficial reflection of this interiority, mirrored in direct ways through the absence of a libretto containing any comprehensible words—only vocables are indicated—and by the singers being positioned off-stage: two off-stage female voices sing the part of the child; two off-stage male voices the part of the old man; the on-stage characters are performed by actors. Though one might imagine that the ostensible bleakness of Pnima is suffused with pessimism, it is here, in fact, that the hopefulness which underpins her approach may be found. Although the old man and the child can almost not communicate, the ‘presque rien of communication stillremains communication and, even in its imperfection, a broken, fractured communication might allow—in the case of the otherwise incommunicable and unrepresentable experience of the camps—some sort of dialogue for and with successive generations. It is this testimony—an undecipherable, but vital one—that finds itself re-thought, on a more oblique level, in Hidden.


As early as Afatsim (1996), there was an interest in treating music as if it had, as it were, some sort of swelling, a gall, caused by a parasitical infection, just underneath the skin. In that earlier piece, this meant an attempt somehow to disfigure ‘pure’ linear structures, as tiny moments—or what ‘should’ be tiny moments if the piece were somehow ‘properly’ musical—are magnified out of all proportion, causing a shifting sense of the passage both of time and of what and how musical matter is supposed to signify in such a context. Elsewhere, the idea that something organic is trapped beneath the surface of some, more or less, elemental matter recurs. It is surely hard to think of amber, without thinking too of an animal—an ant, a mosquito, a fly, in any case an animal which is ancient and primal—trapped inside it. Three (intersecting) pieces to date have been concerned with the substance: Amber (1993) for large orchestra, White Liquid Amber (2000) for three piccolos, and Liquid Amber (2000) for three piccolos and large orchestra. Similarly, the string quartets Seed I and Seed II when combined precipitate into the composite piece, the string octet, Anea Crystal (all three, 2008). This sort of conception surely returns Czernowin to the impossible conceptions of the alchemists. Where they, according to the well-worn cliche, attempted to transform lead into gold, Czernowin transforms organic, not-yet-germinating seeds, into (non-organic?) crystal. What could not be achieved with a science which never truly was one, can be presented in an art where such impossibilities can, really, exist. That intersection of the elemental and biological—in part presented as a figuration of the physical intersection of real performing bodies with the pure surfaces of a certain sort of idealised modernism—appears too in the single-movement song cycle, the monodrama Algae (2009), on a text by Wieland Hoban. Early in his meditation on the nature of water, and its artistic presentation, Gaston Bachelard—arguably the most significant twentieth-century thinker to have theorised a poetics of the elements—signals the presence of such vegetable matter in ways which well describe the experience of the piece: “In the depths of matter there grows an obscure vegetation; black flowers bloom in matter’s darkness. They already possess a velvety touch, a formula for perfume.” [4] Perhaps these are, again, the plants of Maim, growing in more fertile territory, but no less alien. It is in precisely this territory that one encounters in Czernowin’s music a sense that the musical materials are somehow unruly: they feel like they are subject to natural laws which precede the authority of the composer who can, too, only fight against those laws to the extent she may feel the struggle worth the candle. Moreover, as organisms in their own right, they have their own desires, to which the composer may or may not accede. As she has herself suggested, discussing the physicality of the relationship her composing hand has with the page, “It is as if the musical material and the writing hand are constantly thinking and speaking with each other, and we see the evidence of their dialogue in the shape that the piece ends up taking.” [5] This note recalls Bachelards claim that “the hand has its dreams, too, and its own hypotheses. It helps us to come to know matter in its secret, inward parts. The hand, then, helps us to dream matter.” [6] These activities are, in a way, the galls under the composer’s own musical skin. As Bachelard argues, continuing his discussion of the poetic presentation of water: “it seems as though the water itself dreams and is covered over with a nightmarish vegetation. This oneiric vegetation is already induced by a reverie when one contemplates water plants. Aquatic flora is, for some people, a true exoticism, a temptation to dream of a beyond far from the sun’s flowers and a life of limpidity.”[7]

As time has gone on, the disfigurations of Afatsim have become less significant—or less obvious, in any case—but the concern with the subcutaneous and the almost wholly withdrawn, that which can be educed only by inference, has remained. Czernowin herself argues that the listening experiences suggested by the musics of Brian Ferneyhough, Alvin Lucier, and Morton Feldman enable us to aim towards music which is in itself on the fringes of our perception, or is in itself a highly sensitive seismograph at the borders of perception, where gaps and incongruities emerge as we experience our innate limitations. For me, personally, in order to express musically something pertinent, I need to speak from that perspective.[8]

This has two consequences. First, the music becomes concerned with the idea of the quiet: even music which is, for the listener, actually loud may very well be investigating, on a different level, what quietness—in the sense of that which can just be encountered aurally—might mean, just as the seismograph can capture extremely powerful movements of earth which would be, nevertheless, wholly humanly imperceptible otherwise: the quiet, in this sense, is that which is on the edge of perceptibility. Second, the music becomes concerned with amplification or magnification: the metaphorical gaze of the listener is asked to examine these vanishing materials close up, as one might have to while they are in the process of disappearing, dissipating. This is, hardly surprisingly, at its most obvious in the orchestral piece, The Quiet (2010). Here, the orchestra is divided into three groups, performing simultaneously, a division that recalls the triptych of Maim, especially since here the strange flows of water whichcharacterise the earlier orchestral essay become deep frozen in a projection of the almost silent violence of a snowstorm. The flows, the glissandi of Maim, which then seemed impelled by a sort of gravity to come to rest even where countered by another force, seem in The Quiet to have the same sort of force, but are here almost weightless, buffeted back into motion whenever they slow or settle. The frozen water of the snowflakes is, too, another sort of crystal.

To say that Czernowin’s work is elemental is not to say that it is in any way primitive. Or, to be more accurate, it is to note that there is a radical dissimilarity and discontinuity between what might be thought of as primitive  scientific thought and primitive artistic thought. As Bachelard notes, “[i]f we look at the problem from the standpoint of psychology, we shall soon see that, paradoxically, primitivity in poetry develops very late.”He goes on to argue that, further, [p]rimitive poetry must create its language, it must always be accompanied by the creation of a language, and thus it may well be hampered by the language that has already been learned ”[9] Indeed, as early as 1938, Bachelard  “had already described the task of poetry as re-living primitivity.”[10] In any case, the sorts of pre-scientific elemental imaginings of the medieval alchemists, doubtless recall, with a sort of immediacy, the sonic experience of Czernowin’s language: “before science, people explained natural phenomena by analogy with their own bodies, feelings, and dreams. Minerals contracted diseases, alcoholics spontaneously burnt like alcohol itself, electricity was ‘lively,’ and so on.”[11] Equally well, one might hear in Czernowin’s music the ‘principles of reality’, which Giordano Bruno outlined in his theory of magic, toward the end of the sixteenth century:

first, water or the abyss or the Styx; second, dryness or atoms or earth (I am not speaking of the terrestrial globe); third, spirit or air or soul; fourth, light. These are so different from each other that one cannot be transformed into the nature of another, although they do come together and associate, some times more or less, sometimes all or some of them.[12]

Clearly, just as Bruno was not speaking of the earth ‘itself’, as a physical thing, so Czernowin’s music is no simple simulation of physical realities, even where she speaks of “a concise and concentrated focus on a singular physical gesture. Close examination of the gesture reveals the strange physical laws of the world in which the gesture exists, and the body performing it”.[13] This is, instead, an attempt, on the one hand, to think of the activities of impossible matter under the restrictions of the laws of the natural world and the bodies which populate it, and, on the other, to (re)capture a pre-rational artistic response to the world, remembering that “alchemic texts presented mercury as the (male) child of water (which is female), but older than her, and sometimes as the water’s child and father. In these texts, mercury is sometimes fighting for a kingdom against his father, whom he kills.”[14] Just these sorts of impossibilities have little place in a rational, scientific world view, but are precisely the theme to which Czernowin finds herself devoted. What links Czernowin most strongly to the alchemists, however, is that, although these idea are presented in poetic form, they are not (or are certainly not only) metaphors.Czernowin says that, in Sahaf (2008), for saxophone, electric guitar, piano, and percussion,

one can think of a river, in which there is all sorts of junk. Wood, metal, glass, leftovers, whatever. At the delta of the river, everything empties into an enormous mill. But the hard bits don’t simply allow themselves to be crushed. The machine begins to stutter, the mill machinery threatens to break, but then frees itself and starts up again more powerfully...[15]

As she goes on to stress, though there is a metaphorical level, there is, too, a level on which these ideas are literally, though musically, figured: “Much of this image of the river can be heard in the music very easily: the stuttering of the machine, the detritus, perhaps the howling of the electric guitar.” [16] Yet the aural experience does not allow such images to be reduced to a simple dichotomy between the programmatic and the metaphorical. The sense is much more one in which such metaphors have taken on material form, such that they have real consequences, beyond the realm of metaphor: “the voices of water are hardly metaphoric at all; [...] the language of the waters is a direct poetic reality; that streams and rivers provide the sound for mute country landscapes, and do it with a strange fidelity; [...] murmuring waters teach birds and men to sing, speak, recount “.[17]


[1] Martin Iddon, “both/neither: On elements of and in Chaya Czernowin’s recent music”, Maim (Mode Records: mode 219, 2010).

[2] Chaya Czernowin, Hidden (Schott: ED 56379, 2013–14)

[3] “Zohar” might also be translated as “light”, but is not here related to the alchemical light which is coterminous with fire. Nevertheless, given the Kabbalistic readings of titles which pervade here, it is notable that The Zohar is a foundational text of the Kabbalistic tradition.

[4] Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay On the Imagination of Matter, tr. Edith R. Farrell (Dallas, TX: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1994 [1942]), 2.

[5] Chaya Czernowin, “Compositional Ideas and Trajectories in Recent Works”, Komponieren in der Gegenwart: Texte der 42. Internationalen Ferienkurse fuer Neue Musik 2004, ed. Joern Peter Hiekel (Saarbruecken: Pfau, 2006), 24–38 (25).

[6] Gaston Bachelard, “The Hand Dreams: On Material Imagination”. in Mary McAllester Jones, Gaston Bachelard, Subversive Humanist: Texts and Readings (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991 [1942]), 102–06 (105).

[7] Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay On the Imagination of Matter, tr. Edith R. Farrell (Dallas, TX: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1994 [1942]), 139.

[8] Chaya Czernowin, “Compositional Ideas and Trajectories in Recent Works”, Komponieren in der Gegenwart: Texte der 42. Internationalen Ferienkurse fuer Neue Musik 2004, ed. Joern Peter Hiekel (Saarbruecken: Pfau, 2006), 24–38 (25).

[9] Gaston Bachelard, “Mathematics and Poetry; On Lautre’amont’s Dynamic Imagination”, in Mary McAllester Jones, Gaston Bachelard, Subversive Humanist: Texts and Readings (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991 [1951]), 98–101 (100).

[10] Cristina Chimisso, Gaston Bachelard: Critic of Science and the Imagination (London: Routledge, 2001), 235.

[11] Cristina Chimisso, Gaston Bachelard: Critic of Science and the Imagination (London: Routledge, 2001), 90.

[12] Giordano Bruno, “On Magic”, tr. Richard J. Blackwell, in idem, Cause, Principle and Unity and Essays on Magic, eds. Richard J. Blackwell and Robert de Lucca (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 [ca. 1588]), 103–42 (118).

[13] Chaya Czernowin, programme note for Anea Crystal (Schott: ED 20538, 2008)

[14] Cristina Chimisso, Gaston Bachelard: Critic of Science and the Imagination (London: Routledge, 2001), 204.

[15] Chaya Czernowin, “Gespraech mit Chaya Czernowin”, in Klangperspektiven, ed. Lukas Haselboeck (Hofheim: Wolke, 2011), 249–55 (251).

[16] Chaya Czernowin, “Gespraech mit Chaya Czernowin”, in Klangperspektiven, ed. Lukas Haselboeck (Hofheim: Wolke, 2011), 249–55 (251).

[17] Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay On the Imagination of Matter, tr. Edith R. Farrell (Dallas, TX: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1994 [1942]), 15.