Intimate epics: Michael Hersch’s “Last Autumn”
There was a fair amount of buzz a couple years ago (including here at s21), when composer Michael Hersch‘s enormous piano canvas The Vanishing Pavilions was released on CD. What the New York Times has written about Hersch’s work in general seems to apply quite well to this two-hour-plus piece: “If the symmetries and proportions of Mr. Hersch’s music evoke the grounded fixity of architecture, its dynamism and spontaneous evolution are those of the natural world. Its somber eloquence sings of truths that are personal yet not confessional… Within the sober palette, the expressive power and range are vast.”
Turns out that this evening-length piece was only the first part of a trilogy of evening-length works — or rather, a “tet-trilogy”… The second part, Last Autumn, is a duo, and it exists in two versions: one for horn and ‘cello, the other for saxophone and cello. The horn/cello version was premiered in Philadelphia back in October last year, at the able hands of hornist (and Hersch’s brother) Jamie Hersch and cellist Daniel Gaisford. About that premiere, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns wrote:
“As great as [The Vanishing Pavilions] is, Last Autumn eclipses it. In the airier, more distilled Autumn, whose emotional riches defy the harmonic limitations of the instruments, the music exploits the instruments in every imaginable way. …Idea and sound were inextricably one, and more viscerally exciting for it. … Long, vigorous applause indicated that Hersch’s more personal and demanding works are no longer appreciated by only a few.”
And now the saxophone and ‘cello version of Last Autumn is getting its premiere this Saturday, Feb 27 at 8pm in Merkin Hall here in NYC. Once again Gaisford is cellist, joined this time by saxophonist Gary Louie.
I had a chance to ask Hersch some questions about the work, the trilogy as a whole, and his motivations. I was also able to get a few questions to Louie, about what it feels like to be involved in a piece of this scope:
S21: Michael, being a composer myself I know better than to ask you about why these enormous musical expanses have become necessary in your work. Still, even when following what we can’t help feel is the absolutely right path this music is leading us, short (Webern) or long (Wagner, Morton Feldman, Andrew Violette, David Toub, you), was there ever a moment where you had to look at the sheer size of these visions and think “is this crazy or what”?
Michael Hersch: When I first began to compose, many of the works I wrote were quite long. Most of these earliest efforts however are now withdrawn, including my undergraduate recital work which consisted of a single program-length piece (a work for trumpet and strings). As I progressed through my twenties I felt that I should try and broaden, or in this case contract, the canvasses which I was working with. While there are a few works still in my catalog from those years, most of the pieces I wrote during this period I also am not satisfied with. It wasn’t until my thirties that I felt able to begin to naturally express myself in works of varying lengths – especially in pieces under thirty minutes. It was at this point however that I decided to begin work on The Vanishing Pavilions, which seemed a natural outgrowth of what I had done before. I also recognized that beginning this project was a decision that would necessarily have deep implications on how and what I would write for the foreseeable future. I certainly knew that a work of this scale would have little chance of ever being programmed. That said, most anything a composer writes in our age suffers this reality. If their were performers who could play this particular work or its later siblings, they would have to commit vast amounts of time and energy to learning a piece that they rarely, if ever, would be asked to perform. For The Vanishing Pavilions, my intention was to write, premiere and record the work myself. For Last Autumn, I was remarkably fortunate to have found performers beyond myself willing to commit the necessary time to the piece. It has been a surreal experience to witness the kind of selflessness they have brought to the task of learning the music.
You asked if I thought it crazy to write music on this scale. There is certainly precedent for composers embarking on journeys like this in the past. In my case, I think I felt at a certain point that due to life’s uncertainty, my time was best spent following what seems that absolutely right path you mentioned.
S21: Do you see the piece as an evening-length work from the outset, or does it only become apparent after starting the composition?
MH: I knew that the three works of this cycle would be in the neighborhood of 3 hours each from the outset. Writing each piece has been a slow, deliberate, years-long process, with unexpected turns along the way. The Vanishing Pavilions took over four years to write, Last Autumn three years. When I complete the last work in the cycle, the entire undertaking will have taken some ten years.
S21: Certainly unique among ‘epic’ compositions has to be that the whole almost-three hours of Last Autumn is a duo for two solo melodic instruments. Was there ever a temptation along the way to add another voice or two to the mix?
MH: When I decided to write the work, I knew that the specific performers I was writing for were capable of remarkable things on their respective instruments. The cellist, Daniel Gaisford, is able to solidly convey the resources of a cello, viola and violin, creating if called upon the illusion of a string trio. In saxophonist Gary Louie, I knew I essentially had access to a quartet made up of horn, saxophone, clarinet and oboe. In the case of my brother Jamie, I knew he was capable of creating the illusion at different times of a bass trombone, tenor trombone, horn and trumpet. Ultimately, in both cases I felt I was writing for not a duo of two melodic instruments, but in fact a septet.
S21: I know Last Autumn is composed of many smaller linked movements; did you compose them mostly in sequence in relation to the final “geography” of the entire piece, or come up with their order and placement later, or what?
MH: Although as I mentioned earlier unexpected changes/adjustments take place throughout the writing process, especially with details, the broad outlines of the work in terms of movement sequence remained relatively constant, even though I would not necessarily write the movements out on paper in order. I wrote the first group of movements of Book I right away, then the last group of movements of Book II. Larger movements would be composed along with their satellites. The order that I put the music down has little to do with how it is composed. Once I placed the double-bar few changes were made. In the case of The Vanishing Pavilions however, for the premiere and recording, I decided to not include one completed movement and part of another. I felt at the time of the premiere that the piece was stronger without those moments although, ultimately, I did keep the music in the full score and allow for the possibility of inclusion in the future. In terms of scale of individual movements within each larger work, while there are indeed many smaller movements, it might be worth noting that there are many movements which are longer, a number over ten minutes each, and these are central to the overall structure.
S21: And do you consider the overall as still closely related to some traditional classical form, or something less linear, even perhaps intuitive?
MH: While the structure is not modeled on any traditional form, it does have its own logic governed by broadly occurring use of repetition, harmonic and rhythmic relationships, and a structural approach to tension. This does not mean, I realize, that I succeeded in communicating any of this. The use of the text fragments by W.G. Sebald which are paired with a number of movements in Last Autumn are put into place more as a secondary narrative that can be accessed by the listener on the page should there be interest. The texts are not meant to be read aloud or projected during performance. They are more or less companions that came to mind as I was writing the work. They seemed to mirror a similar space.
S21: Last Autumn exists in two versions: one for horn and ‘cello, the other saxophone and ‘cello. Did you ‘simply’ write a part that could be played by either sax or horn, or were there there some differences based on each instrument’s idiosyncrasies?
MH: The piece is in two distinct versions. What was a new experience for me when writing this work was the fact that instead of writing one core version and then arranging it for another instrument, I wrote each version simultaneously, thinking of the particular worlds of both the horn and alto saxophone on each instrument’s terms. The result is two very different pieces that share a title.
S21: “Last Autumn” joins your previous and equally-epic piano work The Vanishing Pavilions, as the first two parts of an even larger trilogy. Can you tell us a little about what the final work is shaping up to be? Are there actual musical (thematic, etc.) connections between the three? What is it that you see that makes them part of a single encompassing entity?
MH: The final work, Cedar Apostles, which I expect to complete early next year will, like The Vanishing Pavilions, be for solo piano. I had a fairly clear picture of how the entire work would unfold when I began the project in 2001. That said, I did not anticipate with accuracy what the future held. And I mean this in the broadest sense. There were personal events that occurred in the intervening years that deeply and directly affected each piece. Practically speaking however, there are thematic, rhythmic, and harmonic connections within and between each work. Ideally, the pieces are meant to be heard as a unit consecutively, one per evening. Unlike The Vanishing Pavilions, which companions music with text fragments of British poet Christopher Middleton throughout half the work, and Last Autumn, which as mentioned before companions a number of movements with text fragments of W.G. Sebald, Cedar Apostles will have no textual associations within the work itself.
S21: Gary, I think it’s safe to say that there’s probably almost nothing else you’ve ever tackled that can be as demanding as this evening-length duo! Your saxophone and Daniel Gaisford’s ‘cello are front-and-center, always “on”, for well over two solid hours. What kind of mind-set and stamina is required to get yourself through it?
Gary Louie: I’m playing a recital on Sunday that is just as long as Last Autumn. It’s a whole evening of music and the sax is front-and-center – playing a Valentine’s program of works by a relatively unknown composer named Fernande Decruck, Bill Albright, Ned Rorem, and Benjamin Britten.
It’s not unusual for people to jump on the question of length in a recital, but to be fair the important question is not a matter of length but rather whether the material at hand suits the length. Five hours of opera can go by in a moment, as can a Mahler symphony. By the same token if the piece at hand, however short, is uninteresting or worse, eight minutes can be interminable and seem like you are having your tooth extracted. When a piece works, no matter how long, you feel at the end as though you had been to a great musical event. The material must be worthy of the time allotted for its performance. Material equals length. Michael Hersch and I have talked about this very question. These days it has become the norm to commission a certain number of minutes from a composer. Unfortunately this can lead to “filling in” the allotted time, rather than composing from the ground up and allowing the music to unfold naturally.
S21: Was the shape of the entire piece apparent from the outset, or was there a gradual process of discovering the lay of the whole work?
GL: The structure of any work takes time to solidify itself in the mind. With any composition, you’re trying to catch up with the composer. He’s had months to live with it, if not years. One has to allow a piece to unfold, to discover the piece. It’s no different from any other piece I’d play. One page, then on to the next. It can take years before I feel comfortable with any work. I’ve had a long relationship with the Hersch piece. This is also why certain performers keep going back to the same repertoire, which is never the same as you play it over time.
S21: Do you find yourself hearing, appreciating, feeling anything differently in Last Autumn, than say from a more typical 8-15 minute work?
GL: Over the last few months the piece has required me to explore different sound concepts and different ways of beginning sounds, technically called “attack & release,” but I’ve never liked the word attack. I’ve had to develop a whole series of different control issues – volume levels that range from very, very soft attacks to harsher attacks, using a flap tongue, and all the range of flap tongues inbetween. In rehearsal with Daniel Gaisford, I’ve asked him: “do you want me to really sting this? Or would you prefer an air attack?” I’ve always had to work on this, but here we’re really codifying it. And this has nothing to do with whether the work is short or long. That’s one of the ways in which it’s changed what I do as a player. Playing with a cello has been interesting, too. I like playing with the cello; I love the sound of strings, the contrast. Daniel will be starting to play something and I’ll hear a color arising from the cello that has an influence on my own sound production. This has been a wonderful new experience. Let’s say Daniel is playing something very gently – using just about three bow hairs – he doesn’t want to bear down any harder, so how can I capture this volume? p to pp to ppp…each one of these is very different from the other. I am concentrating on how to express a phrase that’s marked “piano” without sounding though I’m walking on eggs. Trying to get to a true pianissimo phrase that still has its ebb and flow. My hope is that the audience will feel this, too. That’s been fun, especially playing with cello.
S21: You’re giving the premiere of the piece in its saxophone/’cello version, following fairly closely on the heels of the premiere of the version with horn done by the composer’s brother, Jamie Hersch. Have you had a chance to hear that performance, and if so are there any aspects that strike you about the two different instruments inhabiting and interpreting the same part?
GL: I was at the premiere for horn and cello. In my life I’ve done a lot of transcriptions to broaden the saxophone repertoire and one of the things that’s appealing to me is the challenge it gives me as an instrumentalist. When I heard how the horn approached some of the movements it made me try to imagine how I would tackle the same passages on my instrument. Maybe in a different way. In fact, there are some radical differences between the way Michael wrote for each instrument. When he was writing for horn, the sound world of a French Horn, bass trombone, and trumpet came to mind. Turning his attention to the saxophone, the tone colors changed and he thought of the oboe, the bass clarinet, the flute. Thus what might appear to be the same piece, arose in a strangely different way.