Chaya Czernowin

Mike Silverton

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

CHAYA CZERNOWIN: Afatsim. String Quartet: Arditti Quartet (Irvine Arditti, Graeme Jennings, violins; Garth Knox, viola; Rohan de Saram, cello). Die Kreuzung: Mayumi Miyata, Japanese mouth organ, Takashi Saito, alto saxophone; Keizo Misoiri. Afatsim: Sonor Ensemble (John Fonville, bass flute; Susan Barrett, oboe; Robert Zelickman, clarinet; Ivan Raykoff, piano; Steven Schick, percussion; Janos Négyesy, violin; Pavikki Nykter, viola; Hugh Livingston, cello; Bert Turetzky, double bass), Harvey Sollberger, conducting. Dam Sheon Hachol: Arun Bharali, Erik Ulman, violins; Mary Oliver, Conrad Bruderer, violas; Frank Cox, cello; Ulfar Haraldsson, double bass). MODE CD 77 (77:37)

An Israeli-born composer’s exotic handle, and that of this delightful release — Afatsim — leads one to anticipate plummy ethnicities of, perhaps, an easy-going complexion. But the label is Mode; moreover, a quick scan of performers questions one’s suspicions. The British-based Arditti Quartet (Irvine Arditti, Graeme Jennings, violins; Garth Knox, viola; Rohan de Saram, cello) has long impressed this listener as among new art music’s most skillful and zealous advocates. The Arditti’s strikingly separate identity from that of the better publicized, rock-star-quality Kronos is emblematic of the paths art music has taken. The same intensity of advocacy attaches to the rest of this list.

To dwell on the Arditti for brevity’s sake, its roots trace back to the post-war European Modernist movement, where, with notable exceptions, they remain. I suppose this makes them old fashioned, perhaps even damned to the margins. If so, more’s the pity. Art music composers who consciously reach out to the largest possible audience traffic by definition in kitsch. Yes, yes, I know, I’m being a pompous snot, but it’s true. One has only to listen to the gaseous confections that purport to resurrect Romantic rhetoric or the zombie-like attenuations of an long since winded Minimalism to understand how seriously degraded Western art music’s foundation has grown.

This revelation from Mode, one of my favorite independent labels, cheers me somewhat, as do the so-far three EMI Thomas Adès releases, as happy alternatives to the perfumed cadavres cluttering the terrain. For here are two quite different composers who partake each in his/her way in a critically important virtue: they knuckle under to no one and nothing while succeeding in making music bound to charm all but the most sclerotic of sensibilities.

The succinct (9:36) nonet’s title, Afatsim, translates to Galls, i.e., tissue swellings “often distinguished by a characteristic shape or color” brought about, usually, by parasites. Never you mind, this 1996 morsel plays as entirely appetizing. The String Quartet of 1995, perceived by the composer as “a single composite instrument,” draws its inspiration from a visit to a Thai temple. An absolute show-stopper, Die Kreuzung, for u (an alto sho, or Japanese mouth organ, or, in a pinch, accordion), alto sax, and double bass, draws its title from a story by Kafka about a strange animal which reflects on the absurdity of such an existence. (No modernist worth his or her salt can afford to neglect Kafka and absurdity!) Dam Sheon Hachol (The Bleeding of the Hourglass or The Stillness of the Hourglass, 1992), a string sextet for string quartet, viola and double bass, awakens a “perceptual gap,” as if “one were to follow the opening of a flower and the movement of cars on a nearby highway, while not losing sight of a fly….” Ina, for live bass flute and six pre-recorded bass flutes and piccolos (1988), indulges in what, for me, always plays as a fruitful success: the interaction of live and recorded sounds (not pre-recorded, please!).

Ms Czernowin keeps good company. Her teachers include that British institution, Brian Ferneyhough, a German institution, Dieter Schnebel, among America’s best-know women composers, Joan Tower, and Roger Reynolds, among others. Grants and fellowships sufficient to choke a goat, all manner of goodies. And yet, were it not for Brian Brandt of Mode, would we know of her existence? Thank you, Brian, you excellent man! Produced by Chaya Czernowin; recorded in several locations, two of them “live,” all successfully, by Josef Kucera; Hessian Radio; NKH Radio, Japan. For Internet contact, http://www.moderecords.com/.