Making Dark Sounds Together


I had the opportunity to write an introductory program note for Ah Young Hong’s April 7 recital at Spectrum NYC. I tried to place the pieces by Michael Hersch, George Friedrich Haas, and Milton Babbitt in the same world. As essays on darkness and light, they each seemed to trace characters as flickering embers veiled and swallowed up by a murky, never-ending landscape.

The title of my note, Dark Sounds at the Threshold of Burning, is itself a venue for encouraging the individual pieces to all work together. It mashes up lines from Babbitt’s Philomel and Haas’ ..wie stille brannt das Licht while also nodding to Hersch’s opera On the Threshold of Winter.

III. Philomel
Living, growing, changing, being in the hum always
Of pain! The pain of slow change blows in our faces
Like unfelt winds that the spinning world makes in its turning:
Life and feeling whirl on, below the threshold of burning…

—John Hollander

May showers
You have wound your warm soul
Around my disintegrated heart
And all its dark sounds
Have died away like distant thunder…

—Else Lasker-Schüler

The program design is based on a system of abstract lines meant to reference the textural language of the works— full of clusters and quarter tones, densities and adjacent emptiness.


April 7, 2019 at Spectrum NYC

Ah Young Hong and Jacob Rhodebeck perform Babbitt, Haas, and Hersch

  • rake forth the embers, Michael Hersch (b. 1971)

  • Philomel, Milton Babbitt (1916-2011)

  • ...wie stille brannte das Licht, Georg Friedrich Haas (b. 1953)

View the full print program

Dark Sounds at the Threshold of Burning

The two premieres on tonight’s program each explore their own distinct corners of the proliferating landscape of sadness, a field upon which quotidian and chimerical images dissolve into one another. Babbitt’s titular Philomel acts as an archetype: her myth tells us that after exacting revenge on her tormentor, the princess of Athens is transformed into a nightingale. The punishment for fervent hope is always a cage of abiding despair. The nightingale’s unique evening song is the occupation of the unpaired of the species, it is a call for a companion in the ever-dimming void.

Michael Hersch’s rake forth the embers and Georg Friedrich Haas’ ...wie stille brannte das Licht (how quietly burned the light) interpret the act of singing itself as a passage from light into darkness. This quiet burning of smoldering embers suggests a fire dying and dissolving slowly into black: ultimately a metaphor for life itself. Both Hersch and Haas play with the ambivalent chiaroscuro of this image to prolong our sojourn into the abyss.

rake forth the embers bridges two poems by poet and novelist Thomas Hardy. The verses from A Commonplace Day and The Church and The Wedding join at the moment twilight’s “beamless black” becomes the night’s enduring “moan.” The transient warmth of humanity floats as a thousand loose embers against an ageless cold.

Hardy’s “further and further” suggests such a cosmic time. Hersch designs his own musical cosmos around this, introducing the work with material which would later prove central to his 2015 Violin Concerto. Hersch wrote these works, along with his monodrama On The Threshold of Winter, while dealing with the sudden loss of a close friend. They treat the same absent subject, and the nature of protracted grief engenders a sense of frozen time. rake forth the embers is unique in its considered movement, absent the wrenching fragmentation that characterizes the composer’s cornerstone works. This episode of grief is allowed its uninterrupted statement. What we might interpret as Hardy’s characteristically misanthropic encounter with the eternal question, Hersch transforms musically into an essay on the nature of time and the impressions of absence.

Embers as the fleeting gestures of human life— always at the point of disappearing— defy night’s permanence. For soprano Ah Young Hong, this image of hope flickering in unfathomed darkness is an intrinsic aspect of Hersch’s language:

I have always felt his music embodies a space where at first shadows do not even exist. In order for shadows to exist, there must be light. However, if you live in that space long enough, you can sense light. Thin, silvery beams of light that bleed into the space from time to time, allowing all of us some kind of relief, giving us some kind of hope there is another place where this light exists and it is somehow finding its way into our soul.

Writer Nicholas Dawidoff noted a similar phenomenon in Hersch’s early work, an observation which could perhaps apply to broader issues of light and dark in all this evening’s music that, for the listener, “an adjustment has been made and somehow it is enthralling to root around in these places of yearning, decay and oppression. Once the eyes are accustomed to the dark, there is a lot to see there.”

Other lingering embers wend through Georg Friedrich Haas’ ...wie stille brannte das Licht as Haas explores his own dark places. Like Hardy’s day turning ghost, an incipit gesture draws a circle from end to beginning. The first poem of the cycle, Georg Trakl’s Nachts, shares a secret language with Else Lasker-Schüler, whose Maienregen closes the work. As his speaker surrenders both to the night and to the blurry delirium of a lover, Trakl and Lasker-Schüler diffuse into one another as well. Her obsession with the eye— as the essential threshold— and his with the mouth— as the abyss— weave their works into a single poetic countenance.

The poets speak to each other across incomprehensible distances in a communion forever deferred, and Hong completes the deliberate task of reuniting them into a single voice. Of her relationship to the work, she writes:

The texts themselves tell of a kind of love that is so fierce and so desperate. This kind of love is immediately tragic because anything this profound can only exist with the other side of love, the end of love, the abyss where loneliness is never lacking. Sometimes it feels as if I am trying to devour, to breathe in, to drown in that love. If only I can inhale it, breathe it, let it crash into my being... but it is heartbreaking no matter how strong the passion; one will ultimately be left alone.

Hong’s interpretation of the cycle is special not only for the ways she embodies the speakers of these poems but also in the way she calls into being the invisible characters that surround and envelop them, each absent or implied or actual you. What she describes as a “sense of belonging” to the music allows us to feel these others reflected through her.

Haas examines the process of reconciling I and You. Philomel explores the purgatory she traded for hell. Hersch discovers the solace of atrophy. Each of these works, in its own way, finds that there is no catharsis without some form of surrender. Each cluster, each gradient of tone, helps to construct a soul made of experience and observation, of fruitless striving and fecund sorrow. And over this course, our eyes adjust to the darkness. If the separate worlds of Babbitt and Haas and Hersch dwell together in the same obsidian sadness, it is Hong who searches and shines her particular light on each of them. She stands beaming at this threshold to help us see further beyond.