Writing On Walls

When someone asks you to write something, you should always say yes.

I recently had the opportunity to write a program note for a concert that took place last December at a restored warehouse in Philadelphia. I’m often struck by how conventional concert notes couch musical works in overly broad historical or aesthetic terms instead of making a case for their unique appearance here and now. This detachment is the result of collecting notes from other publications and of treating the program itself as an afterthought. But I had the opportunity to write something unique, and I went about making sense of this project by casting the venue of performance as a character in the musical story of each piece.

The Icebox Project Space initially functioned as the first-floor freezer room of the Crane Company Warehouse. This design lends the space a particularly overwhelming reverb. You can hear all these proliferating reflections of sound in the above clip; you can imagine the buzzing feeling of having these echoes attack you from all sides. The works on the program were united by their peculiar relationship with the room itself.

I didn’t want to miss the chance to  present the works through the lens of my own weird preoccupations. Lately I keep thinking about all the ways in which the art we make exposes our fundamental lack of agency, as opposed to the ways our creative intent or sense of purpose attempts to overwrite this by sheer force of will. Translating this into musical terms, I began to think of the echo as something insidious and invasive. It is unsettling that we have so little control over sound, and that the echo goes wherever and does whatever it wants. We become trapped by our own voices, or maybe the sounds we make just become the voice of something else.

The event centered around Michael Hersch’s Images from a Closed Ward, a work inspired by Michael Mazur’s lithographs and etchings of patients in a mental asylum in Howard, Rhode Island. It seemed natural to turn all these inert walls into faces reflecting the characters of each work and Mazur’s locked wards like so many echoes.

Program for December 16, 2018

Michael Hersch’s Images from A Closed Ward featuring the FLUX Quartet and Ah Young Hong:

  • Experiences No. 2, John Cage (1912-1992)

  • Susanne un Jour, Orlande de Lassus (ca. 1530-1594)

  • Images from a Closed Ward (I—XIII), Michael Hersch (b. 1971)

  • Susanne un Jour, Orlande de Lassus

  • Only, Morton Feldman (1926-1987)

An Asylum of Faces

Think about the agency of walls.

If you think about the agency of walls, you might feel ill at ease in the room you are in now, noticing the smallness of your own body in comparison. You might then think of the resonance of the sounds we make as the brutal wall’s resistance to the siege of our slim voices against it. This might give you some sense of the courage of music.

In Experiences No. 2, John Cage erects the wall of a face, whose eyes and mouth and ears are all windows into an abyss of possibility. The face is an essential resistance, one which marks the limit of our private self. Our voice is a way of probing this abyss, of forming an impossible communion between our self and another.

Lassus’ Susanne lays between two obstinate pillars. Her struggle takes place in another locked ward, enclosed by these rigid male figures. The poem recounts a biblical story from the Book of Daniel in which Susanne refuses to surrender herself to two elders and is subsequently arrested on their false claims of her promiscuity. A painting of the scene by Massimo Stanzione shows Susanne as a pale body held captive by the men’s shadowed faces.

The opening musical gesture of Morton Feldman’s Only is like a tentative hand pushing against the door. In its striving for freedom, “only when” becomes an impossible proposition with every devastating repetition of this interval. Rilke’s twenty-third Sonnet to Orpheus gives us the problem of the wall— and of the face– in its widest frame. The sonnets were written over a span of three weeks after Rilke learned of the death of a young girl, a friend of his daughter. Her flight is a confrontation with the white wall of the sky, the face of God. She flies without machine and without tools, whose only function is to build other walls like mirrors around ourselves.

Michael Hersch’s Images from a Closed Ward distinguishes itself from these other works by making no appeal to a world outside the walls of the asylum. There is no deliverance and no communion beyond the commiseration of four voices. And yet all of the pieces on tonight’s program are united by their instantiation of human subjects in the context of their own surrender. The agency of each voice is already removed. The harm of every resonance blurs them into shapes. Just as the facelessness of Mazur’s subjects turns our observing faces into another wall to enclose them, the echoes of these voices conjoin and become the voice of the wall that surrounds them. We are witness to this transformation, and we are complicit.