The Free-Reed Review
Critiques of Compact Discs, Books and Music Scores

CD Review: Chaya Czernowin

CD Image

total time: 67:27
released: 1999

label: Mode
PO Box 1026
New York, NY 10116

  • Arditti Quartet
  • Mayumi Miyata - Sho
  • Susan Barrett - oboe
  • Robert Zelickman - clarinet
  • Takashi Saito - alto sax
  • John Fonville - flutes
  • Ivan Raykoff - piano
  • Steven Schick - percussion
  • Irene Arditti, Janos Negyesy, Giraeme Jennings,Arun Bharali,Erik Ulman - violins
  • Garth Knox, Pavikki Nykter, Mary Oliver, Conrad Bruderer - violas
  • Hugh Livingston, Rohan de Saram, Frank Cox - cellos
  • Bert Turetzky, Keizo Misoiri, Ulfar Haraldsson - double bass
  • Harvey Sollberger, Fumio Tamura - Conductors

Program: (All compositions by Chaya Czernowin):

  • Afatsim
  • String Quartet
  • Die Kreuzung
  • Dam Sheon Hachol
  • Ina

Review by Steve Mobia

It's good to know there are still some diehard avant-gardists out there who haven't given in to the backsliding neo-romantics or the irony infested postmoderns. Israeli born Chaya Czernowin is certainly one of those pushing the limits of sound production in a serious committed way. Since age 25 she has lived abroad and currently teaches at the University of California, San Diego. She has won numerous awards and commissions while her work has been performed in Israel, Japan, Germany and the United States.

I think a true critical review of such music must rest not only on one's personal taste but if the work succeeds on its own terms. Of this her own statement is illuminating: "searching for an alternative to a linear dramatic temporal experience", she says in the liner notes. And so the conventional dramatic arcs, contrasts and climaxes are totally missing from these pieces. The listening experience is fragmented into tiny intense clusters. She doesn't at all shy away from harsh dissonances, screeching woodwinds, loud gun shot-like percussion but nether does she avoid soft subtle articulations as well as sudden prolonged silences. For a listener not biased against such a sonic landscape, there is much excitement and imagination here.

That being said, I think the pieces only partially succeed in conveying the creative programmatic aspects she outlines in her writing about them. For instance the first piece Afatsim is said to depict metaphorically the growth of disfigured mutations on the surface continuity of a branch. To me, the "surface continuity" is missing even though the disfigurements are emphasized. The contrast between "branch" and "disfigurements" is very hard to pin down just by listening. Programmatic references in the other pieces are likewise only obliquely present: the "Temple of Dawn" in Thailand or a Kafka story questioning existence make rich starting points but the results in sound though fascinating fail to encompass their subject.

Czernowin sometimes uses linguistic models on which to base her compositional decisions. Just as words are constantly recombined to form new sentences, short motifs such as a descending tone, a halting flutter, a scraped string are recombined throughout. There is an interesting dilemma here, music like stage drama and film does unfold in time. Perhaps this being a constant gives Czernowin something to play off against. It does often feel though as if one could start and stop listening at any time much like many 12 tone pieces of the sixties. The momentum of a composition as a whole is sacrificed for the momentum of the moment.

Another characteristic strategy is the formation of "composite instruments" where the complex mingling of many voices gives way to certain pairings and groupings of instruments which make larger statements as a combined super-instrument. There's nothing really new about this idea (see any orchestration textbook) but Czernowin's approach is distinctive. So is the astonishing variety of sound she extracts from her players.

If you're wondering why this record was chosen for review by The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. it's because of one piece Die Kreuzung which includes in its instrumentation a Japanese Sho (an alto sho to be exact, played by Mayumi Miyata). The sho is combined with an alto sax and double bass which together form one of her "composite instruments." Those expecting virtuoso passages for sho will be disappointed however since it's used primarily to support the sax and double bass which offer far more varieties of sound. Abrupt twists and turns are punctuated by repeated unisons. There is much subtlety and difficulty in the playing and has been highly practiced by the performers. Like most of the other works on this album, the listener's journey is broken up into tiny crystalline events.

All these pieces despite the rich and ingenious concepts behind them, often end up leaning toward emotionally neutral academic music. Only Dam Sheon Hachol (Hebrew for the bleeding/stillness of the hourglass) has a sustained numinous atmosphere reminiscent of Gubaidulina with its long extended textures. Czernowin in general seems to have turned away from slow unfolding forms in favor of busy abbreviated phrasings.

The recording quality, acoustics and stereo separation are excellent as is the musicianship displayed by all performers.

Click Here to see a review by La Folia.

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