Mulieres Triumphantes

Mike Silverton

[January 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:2.]

We live in interesting times, which is to say, on a slippery deck. For example, does one give offense in celebrating women composers as such? I recall as a young music lover remarking to myself that there didn’t seem to be very many. Why, I wondered, was that. No need to hammer on a blunted point: times have changed and so have perceptions. It delights me to report on a pair of Mode CDs featuring music remarkable by any measure; that it happens to be by women merely cancels what turns out to be an invalid assumption or, from a broader, timelier angle, a liberalized milieu in which merit will out, irrespective of gender, blood type, postal zone, etc. I’ve known of Kaija Saariaho’s good work for some time now and have long regarded her as among the front rank. The other, Chaya Czernowin, was a stranger to me till I heard and was dazzled by Afatsim [Mode 77].

Both Saariaho and Czernowin are possessed of great gifts. I could not possibly settle in my mind which of the two is the more impressively endowed, particularly since, relative to Saariaho, I’ve heard so little of Czernowin’s oeuvre. As to an understanding of what they’re about is the easier task. Saariaho quite clearly sets out to create an environment apart from the ground upon which we dwell. To wrench a Japanese term out of context, it’s a floating world; no surprise, then, that the second work on Mode 91’s program, Grammaire des Rêves (1988-89), for soprano, contralto, two flutes, harp, viola and cello, sets lines by Paul Eluard. Great Surrealist poetry likewise thrives adrift. That the words as sung are unintelligible is of no consequence: the gesture’s the thing.

This sense of shed moorings sets Saariaho apart, literally and figuratively. To attempt to locate what one hears, we need to brandish a sweeping generality. While all music evokes mood as a matter of course — true even of Cage’s strictly aleatory work — one hears certain composers engaging in structure, with mood a by-product. Others one hears crafting mood, with structure a necessary, indeed unavoidable, yet secondary aspect. The distinction comes to pure or absolute music to the one side, programmatic or Impressionistic to the other. Stravinsky partook of both directions, having worked through programmatic to absolute, the latter encased in a distinctive re-application of Baroque, Gallant and Classical styles. Saariaho’s niche might well be called Full-Tilt Evocative; that is, Impressionistic as spelled out by clouds. (To understand anything relating to these thoughts, one would need to hear a few recordings, which I urge the reader to do.)

When it appeared on recording in 1993, the Finnish composer’s Du cristal and …à la fumée, both for orchestra, the latter featuring alto flute and cello solos, seemed at the time among the best new-music orchestral releases I’d heard in a while [Ondine ODE 804-2]. Saariaho connects the present program’s opener, Cendres (Cinders), for flute, cello and piano (1991/96), to …à la fumée. As impressed as I was and remain by its 1990 quasi-concerto predecessor, Cendres sounds, within the vertiginous context both share, the more keenly focused conception. The female voices in Grammaire des Rêves integrate with the chamber instrumentalists into an ensemble that fairly flies overhead. Saariaho composed Solar (1993, flute doubling piccolo, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, two percussionists, harp, piano doubling sampler, synthesizer, violin, viola and bass) for the fine band featured on this disc, Champ d’Action, James Wood, conductor. At seventeen-plus minutes, it’s the longest offering here and, with regard to a virtuoso command of timbral complexity, the most impressive. The resemblance to Du Cristal is striking, especially in the leisurely, masterful pace of its vaguely sinister core. As a nice, symmetrical touch, the CD concludes with New Gates (1996), like Cendres, a trio, this for flute, viola and harp.

Gratitude all around for splendid instrumental and vocal performances (soprano Allison Wells, contralto Mary King). May we never take a fine new-music ensemble for granted!


On now, for this writer, to a far tougher case. This listener hears Chaya Czernowin’s music as no less evocative, yet a question intrudes: evocative of what? As a convenience, then, and nothing more, evocative of itself, which puts us closer to the Absolute’s sphere. As a mild irony, several of Czernowin’s titles would lead one to surmise (incorrectly) exotic, ethnically spiced fare: Afatsim, a nonet for bass flute, oboe, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, viola, cello, double bass; Dam Sheon Hachol, for string quartet, viola and double bass; and Ina, for bass flute and six flutes on recorded tape. (The usual term, “pre-recorded,” is a redundancy, along the lines of “another alternative.”) Die Kreuzung is a trio for u (a Japanese mouth organ), alto saxophone, and double bass. Finally, we’ve an untitled string quartet. Ina of 1988 is the program’s earliest work, the others dating throughout the Nineties.

By way of a preliminary, hearty praise for technical excellence. Would that all new music were so well engineered. As with Champ d’Action, one offers thanks to the San Diego-based Sonor ensemble, the Arditti Quartet (recorded in Germany), the trio’s Japanese performers (recorded in Japan), flutist John Fonville, and the sextet’s instrumentalists for providing interpretations I doubt can be excelled (or are likely to be repeated on disc, given the way of the world).

I recently played the title track, Afatsim, for composer Tom Hamilton and his wife Jackie Martelle. As is so often the case when others are present, I re-evaluated a work I thought myself familiar with through another set of sensibilities. Two observations from this out-of-body experience: Czernowin shows remarkable courage in remaining with such uncompromising, tough-minded fare — let’s call it high-road modernist — in a period where most anything goes so long as it attempts to please. Afatsim is at least as much about emancipated sounds as the sort of coherence we expect a work to articulate, or better said, the coherence we are forever poised to anticipate. It’s not there by any obvious measure, and I count that a strength and, again, an act of courage. The 1995 String Quartet is similar in spirit to the title work of 1996. The string sextet, Dam Sheon Hachol (violins, violas, cello, double bass, 1992), evokes a mood at once and by turns dark, menacing, otherworldly, tragic. Perhaps not coincidentally, the sextet articulates along what in this context resembles rather more Romantically traditional lines, though only slightly so. It is about something, but what it might be remains one of music’s essential mysteries. Czernowin’s mastery of sonorities dominates the string sextet and operates equally affectingly in Die Kreuzung (1995), a trio for Japanese mouth organ, alto saxophone and double bass, as well as in Ina (1988), for solo bass flute and six flutes on tape.

I’ve returned to this CD often, quite apart from a need to concoct comments. It remains a great favorite.


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