Creating to break free, composing to endure

Composer Chaya Czernowin plunges us into the depths of her imagination and introduces us her new piece, POETICA. She takes us on the discovery of her creative process and artistic philosophy.

FRANK MADLENER : Can you tell us about the space that you are creating with POETICA – you spoke of a “memory palace” – and about the sense of cohesion, you want to create in this space?

CHAYA CZERNOWIN : POETICA is not exactly about “cohesion”. It is more like a layer, inside a layer, inside a layer..., in some kind of consciousness. Or rather, it is like a sort of terrain, which would be constituted of many layers of rocks: a topological space. What we are dealing with in POETICA is not actually archeological, of course, but it is about exposing these layers. In that sense, this piece is kind of a sister-piece to HIDDEN, a quartet with electronics. HIDDEN was, in a way, comparable to going down into the depths of water, whereas POETICA symbolizes going down into the shadows of words, into the shadows of finding meaning. It all started with the notion of memory, because memory is a very complex layered system within our consciousness. Some memories are hidden from us – traumatic memories – while others are more approachable, and some others are constantly changing, because we forget, and we reshape them under the external influence of other people. Memory is something that is very fluid and not fixed. For a long time, we believed that memory was like a sort of cabinet that we physically kept locked somewhere in our brain and that we could open to access it. Of course, that is not how it works, as science has later shown. Memory is constantly active, fluid and changing.

When you initially named your piece Memory palace, you had referred to how memory is closely connected to specific spaces, and is moving from one space to another. Are there some lyrics in POETICA that are anchoring this memory?

There are no really lyrics, per say. The piece has more to do with the interaction between memory and the present. First, we have the soloist, Steven Schick – a genius percussionist – then the four members of the Percussions de Strasbourg who are surrounding him, and finally comes a very mysterious ensemble constituted of three strings which are hidden, away from the stage. Although this decision was originally made due to space constraints to make the piece more functional, it eventually became one of its most interesting parts. It shows just how some constraints can end up turning into the biggest asset of a piece. What I mean when I say that the trio is “hidden”, is that we don’t know they exist: in fact, they are not even always there. They are forced into being through the play of the percussions.

And about the electronics?

We could not get the result we were looking for by only using the sound produced naturally by the strings. So, we had to tweak their sound so that it amplified that of the percussions while also seeming like the strings were present within the percussions’ consciousness, as though they were an organic, thinking being. I am opening a kind of psychological arena, where we have the soloist, the percussions and the strings. The soloist manifests itself by his breathing. In a way, you can say that the whole piece is just like one long breath.

Could we say that you are transforming the instruments into living subjectivities? At the start of the writing process, you were questioning whether your piece was an installation or a performance. Did you, in some way, end up combining both?

I would say it really became a performance. But it is very elemental, using the minimum needed. Just like when we breathe, without even being aware of it. Breath is life, the whole universe itself is breathing, contracting. It is the same with POETICA.

Chaya Czernowin and percussionist Steven Schick rehearsing POETICA at Espace de projection © Deborah Lopatin

You have a strong background in theatre. Would you say this piece also has some kind of dramatic dimension, almost like an opera?

It is very operatic indeed. You could call it the “opera of breathing”, or the “opera of the breath”.

With this piece, are you proposing a new form of communication? Not only between the sound and electronics but with the public as well?

I would say it is more about a communication between the layers that constitute the piece, as we go down into consciousness. It is about connecting the different spaces within one mind. But this “opera of the breath” is also suggesting a certain objectivity because, while this internal conversation is going on, we can also hear the sounds of demonstrations. I was there during the demonstrations that took place in Paris and Tel-Aviv, and I have also been watching TV here in America. So, I decided to record them, adding some other sources as well. These recordings bring an external dimension to the piece and give the impression that the ensemble is trying to survive from the burning of the world. Because, when we think about it, what are demonstrations really about? It is nothing more than a gathering of thousands of people clamoring about things they are defending or fighting against. What we hear are therefore the screams of an unhappy world, which has no control over the constant changes it is facing. And in this world which is hurting us, we have to fight to remain human. Just like we do when we are focused on our breathing – how it goes up and down, like a meditative act, in the face of a changing and treacherous world.

You are creating a connection between directionality and slowness, which is a tricky topic in musical composition. How do you manage it?

In the past, it was considered that the field of music was constituted of three different categories: processes, spaces and events. Now, we are realizing that there is no such a dialectic division, and that these categories are more on a continuum. When we are in a space, even though it is cyclical, like breathing, there is a very slow process that is sneaking into the breathing, making it deeper, heavier. It then becomes more difficult to breathe despite the process in itself not being difficult, and it can take some time before we realize that something has changed. The speed (or here, slowness) depends on how invested we are in the space or the process. A fast-paced development brings us to the completion of the process, whereas a slow development takes us into the spatial dimension. Space is never solid, or fixed, it is always changing. What is fixed is rather the notion of time scaling, which is something very important to consider as well.

Sound engineer Clément Cerles, RIM Carlo Laurenzi, Chaya Czernowin and Steven Schick rehearsing at Espace de projection © Deborah Lopatin

Would you say that you still have faith in written music, then? There is much talk about the end of the separation between the profession of composer and performer, and about the emergence of a new hybrid job. What are your thoughts on this?

I am a very open-minded person and I always welcome change, because I believe that every initiative can have its benefits. Why should we always make choices? It is not a dialectic, and I think that the ones claiming it is simply are opportunists. What we need to fight against is the marketing system and the rise of mainstream culture, which is difficult to do, especially for those on the sidelines who suffer from a lack of visibility. But putting that aside, I welcome every initiative, even if it is different from what I believe in, because it can turn into an opportunity to learn something new.

So it’s a tribute to diversity that you are making, outside the market.

Rather than speaking of “market”, I would call it an arena of ideas. I can learn a lot from hip-hop dancing, or from the emergence of this new hybrid job of composer-performer… I can learn from a lot of things, but that does not mean that I necessarily have to seize every new opportunity. What I find most important is to always be able to challenge myself so that I can grow, and I don’t remain frozen in time. Earlier, I explained that POETICA is made of layers. I believe that there are also “layers” in time, which leads us to a few existential reflections. What will remain of us in the future? What is the bigger process that is taking place? I chose to fight for substance and longevity, but mainly for more depth. I think that depth is something that we are terribly lacking in our society.

This freedom you want to keep, this singularity, is this the fight you are waging?

It is a fight, absolutely. And to go back to POETICA, that is exactly what this piece is about, as well as my other piece, Infinite Now. You have an individual, with all his layers of memory, surviving in the midst of a hostile environment. The breathing becomes here a desperate attempt to stay alive.

Traduction by Pauline Destouches



Chaya Czernowin

Composer (born in 1957)
Chaya Czernowin   is a composer whose have been played worldwide. She was composer in residence in Salzburg festival, and Lucerne Festival,  She is Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music at Harvard University and was a Professor for Composition at the University for Music and Performing Arts Vienna Austria and UCSD.

Czernowin works imaginatively and analytically with metaphors as a means of reaching a sound world which is unfamiliar.  Things can appear and disappear at any time- it is an existential state where safety is not easily earned, She works towards creating a vital, visceral direct and real sonic experience which goes  beyond  style conventions or rationality  to give a voice to what is hidden from one’s view. Main pieces: Pnima, Maim, and HIDDEN.

Czernowin received  numerous awards such as the Siemens Foundation Composer Prize, Guggenheim fellowship, and  Kranichsteiner Musikpreis, Bayerischer Theaterpreis, PNIMA was chosen as the best new opera in 2000 in the Opernwelt critics survey. The CD the quiet won the of the German  record’s critics quarterly award.. Her work is published by Schott.