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Interview with composer Michael Hersch

Composer Michael Hersch
Michael Hersch

In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at] A full list of interviews can be found here.

Born in Washington, raised in Reston, Virginia, Michael Hersch is the current head of the Composition department at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. John Corigliano wrote of his former student, "There is no doubt in my mind that this extraordinary creator, who already has his own special voice, will be a major force,"; Tim Page called him, "a natural musical genius who continues to surpass himself,".

The New York Philharmonic has commissioned a solo violin work, 'Of Sorrow Born', to be performed June 3 (ticket and information), and the premiere of Hersch's opera, 'On the Threshold of Winter', will be given by NUNC on June 25, the composer's birthday (ticket and information). Hersch's latest album, 'Images from a Closed Ward', has just been released by Innova. Below is a transcript of our recent San Francisco conversation with the brilliant composer Michael Hersch.

EH: Robert Schumann was fascinated that the music he heard in his head would sometimes naturally appear in the form of canons, inversions, and such. You came to music rather late, and it's been said that music comes to you in generous volumes. Has your methodology changed over the years, if one can ask such a thing ?

Hersch: It has changed somewhat since I first began composing. I wrote much more quickly when I was younger. Over the years I’ve required more time in order for the pieces to arrive in a place I am happy with. The process cannot be rushed. I have to live with a piece for quite a while to feel it ultimately is where it needs to be - though anything resembling complete satisfaction remains elusive.

Most of the process is very quiet and takes place internally. I still write with pencil and paper, actually, but I do not write anything down until I’ve worked things out in my mind.

EH: You studied with one of the great voices of our time, John Corigliano. If you’re comfortable sharing, what are your lasting impressions of this distinguished creator, and what role did he play in shaping your artistry ?

Hersch: I was fortunate to work with Corigliano for a few years in the mid nineties. Meeting and working with him during those formative years was an important experience. One of the things that made a powerful impression on me was to see his unwavering commitment to his music and what it required from the musicians performing it - what every pitch, rhythm, color, silence ... what each detail needed. His approach was purely about the music, and through this approach he was often able to obtain exactly what the music called for.

EH: I read in an interview from the late-nineties that Franz Liszt is a figure that you admire. There has been much criticism of Liszt and his body of works over the years. Has your opinion of this composer changed ?

Hersch: The work of Liszt I most admire is the music he wrote toward the end of his life. This is often music of tremendous inventiveness. The music seems to be seeking something. It tends to be restless, unpredictable, often very sad. Another aspect of Liszt’s music-making I’ve always admired is his approach to arrangement. As a young composer I had a particular fondness for Liszt’s Beethoven Symphony arrangements for the piano, and to this day I enjoy playing non-piano music at the piano. I still enjoy the challenge of taking something which was not meant for the piano, distilling its essence and writing or improvising it for/at the piano, but having the listener forget that he or she is listening to a piano. A lot of my approach to the instrument, especially as I’ve gotten older, is to treat the piano in ways that are not very pianistic - to consider the sounds I’m after first, and to deal with technical considerations later. Liszt taught me a lot in this respect.

EH: Much of the greater public is in the dark with respect to contemporary composition, choosing instead to follow the simpler sounds of pop-music, etc. Is there something to be said about the allure of simpler, more concise sounds – Virgil Thomson, for example, admired Erik Satie very much for this - and is it the goal of composition, as with other art forms, to refine and be able to communicate something that can be understood by the many ?

Hersch: Just as all pop music is not simplistic, not all contemporary concert music is complex. Often what a person connects with goes much deeper than generalized issues of simplicity and complexity. The terms themselves often mean very different things to different people. I think the tendency to paint composers or styles of music with too broad a brush - for example, identifying composers as writers of “simple” or “complex” music - has become increasingly problematic and is almost never productive. Part of what makes music so interesting is the lack of consensus on just about any given topic.

Your question about goals of communication is something that almost every artist will answer differently. If somebody responds positively to what I’m doing - if there is a connection - that can be very meaningful. If someone reacts with displeasure, confusion, hostility, well, that is not pleasant, and can often be upsetting. My own goals center around writing the best music that I can, and only I can determine whether or not I’ve succeeded in accomplishing that. I write because the act of writing itself is what drives me. It’s a private communication within myself - nothing more or less. This doesn’t mean I do not want to share with people. There are times I’m completely uncomfortable with my works being performed publicly, and I haven’t attended certain concerts because the prospect is akin to having a diary read on stage. But there are also situations - whether with an audience of one, or many - where the concert experience can be deeply special, and those experiences are often unpredictable, and wonderful when they occur.

EH: Over the past two-hundred years or so, there has been a trend veering away from the performance of contemporary works. In your opinion, do today’s performers have the duty to perform the works of their peers ?

Hersch: I don’t think performance out of duty yields very much. Coercion is never the way to go. If people want insights, if they want to swim in the currents of their own time and share the experiences of their time, then it makes sense to engage with the artists of one’s own time. While I believe there is certainly a phenomenon of timelessness in art, the people writing today are of course uniquely qualified to comment on their own time. That’s special I think. I do believe young people should be obligated to try different types of music - that is what education is. But once you’re in a situation as an adult, it doesn’t benefit anybody – at least in my experience – to force music on people that they don’t like or do not have an interest in - whether it’s three-hundred years old or newly written.

The best results come when people believe in and feel strongly about the music they are playing. Just as composers write for certain types of performers, performers are also looking for certain things. The proliferation of new music groups and individual performers focusing on new music today is heartening. On the one hand the culture is very resistant to new things, and yet it continues to change and grow.

EH: You are currently the head of the Composition department at the Peabody Institute. I often ask recent graduates if there is anything about music and the business that they would have liked to learn, something that had not been taught. In your opinion, is there a common misconception that you’ve noticed amongst students – ideas about music, career, etc. that you would perhaps like to clarify ?

Hersch: George Rochberg once said that ‘to be a composer, you need to have fire in the belly, fire in the brain, but most importantly, an iron stomach.’ I feel this is for the most part true, and hope I might convey something of it to younger composers. And these days it is difficult for a musician, or any artist for that matter, to make a living. One has to persevere. The musical culture in the United States has no doubt suffered severe setbacks, especially in funding, since the early 2000’s. However, I’ve been amazed at the resiliency of those involved with contemporary music in this country. I think composers and those dedicated to contemporary music have reacted with tremendous creativity and resourcefulness. The American new music scene is remarkably vibrant.

EH: In your opinion, with the rise of blogs and social media today, what is the role or purpose of the music critic ? Has the role changed since the days of Virgil Thomson and other prominent writers ?

Hersch: I don’t think the role of the critic has changed very much. In the most positive sense, the music critic is one who helps the public navigate what’s out there, especially in bringing attention to things they otherwise wouldn’t hear about, or to provide a new window into something familiar. A critic can serve as guide. I think there’s an understanding amongst the public that critics have their own preferences and dislikes. The best critics leave the reader curious to pursue something further, but still to let the reader have his or her own honest, unique opinion. We live in a culture with so little music education that many critics have become de facto teachers. That is a lot of responsibility, and I think it should be wielded with care. Most people appreciate sincere guidance. A healthy dialogue is always good.

EH: There's been some talk from prominent conductors about the abilities of women as conductors. You've had experiences working with several female conductors - most notably, Marin Alsop. As the composer - the one who has the ideal blueprint of what's needed - is there any strand of truth to these ideas, which aren't as uncommon as we'd like to believe?

Hersch: My interactions with musicians have been simply that: interactions with musicians. Issues of gender, or anything else beyond the music-making, have in my experience played no role in whether or not a musician has been able to articulate my intentions as a composer. As I see it, the major requirements for a strong and able rendering are an understanding of a work's structure, voicing, and trajectory; an ability to execute the details on the page from largest to smallest; technical command, and hopefully a connection with the overall expressive impulse (though the latter is not at all necessary to give a good performance). Of course, all people have their own reasons for believing what they do about gender. In my case, in over two decades of collaborating with men and women in music -- conductors or otherwise -- I have seen no distinction.

EH: The New York Philharmonic has commissioned you to write a new solo violin work, Of Sorrow Born, to be performed at its Biennial, and later in June, your chamber opera On the Threshold of Winter will be performed for the first time (information here). Can you give us your thoughts on these works ?

Hersch: They share certain DNA in the sense that they both deal with loss. The opera is based on Marin Sorescu’s final book of poems, “The Bridge,” in which he chronicled the final month of his life as he died of liver cancer. The writing of the chamber opera was set into motion with two transformative events in my own life: the death of my closest friend at an early age from cancer, and my own experience with the disease. The piece for the New York Philharmonic is a collection of seven elegies for people close to me who have passed away over the past fifteen years.

EH: Innova has also released an album of your first string quartet, Images from a Closed Ward. I would love to hear you speak about the work in any amount of detail you’d like. I read that you were inspired by the late Michael Mazur’s works ?

Hersch: In 2000, while I was in Rome, there was an exhibition there of Mazur’s works, a series of etchings he’d made to accompany various “Canti” from Dante’s “Inferno.” I was mesmerized by them. Mazur was a remarkable artist. During our time in Rome we became friends. I would often perform my works for him at the piano. Some years later I had come across his “Locked Ward” and “Closed Ward” series - two sets of etchings depicting inmates at a psychiatric facility in Rhode Island during the 1960s - and these works had the same impact on me as those “Inferno” etchings. I immediately knew that I wanted to write a quartet which would somehow incorporate these works into its structure, even though up to this point I had never done anything musically that had a relationship with visual art.

Soon after determining I wanted to write the work, I was serendipitously contacted by the Blair Quartet to see if I was interested in writing a string quartet. The group was open to anything, and the piece asks a lot of its performers. It was a tremendous journey for me to be able to work so closely with this group, and the recording is the result of several years of preparation.

EH: Many great composers of the past advocated the study of various art forms outside of music to help with the music-making. How does it all help with the understanding and perhaps creation of musical art ?

Hersch: Usually the more information one has, the better. The visual and literary arts are of perennial interest to me, and these other art forms have become more and more a part of my life; they have become companions of sorts. I cannot imagine my day to day experiences without the presence of these other art forms. They’re absolutely essential.

EH: Mr. Hersch, thank you very much for taking the time today.

Hersch: It was my pleasure, Elijah. I enjoyed speaking with you.

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