A few weeks ago, with the wonderful support of Seattle Symphony, I had the pleasure of giving the world premiere of along the ravines: fragments for piano and orchestra, a new piano concerto by Michael Hersch, which has come into being with the support of Borletti-Buitoni Trust. This piece is unusual in more than one way. Rather than a concerto, it is a series of fragments for piano and orchestra that are preceded by fragments of poems by the late Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. While the inclusion of quotations of poetry as “mottos” for musical works has been in practice since at least the early 19th-century, I feel that in this piece these fragments are almost part of the music in the sense that they could almost replace the more “mundane” directions such as tempo markings and performance indications with their atmosphere and spirit. It also lends the piece a certain intimacy, as if the composer draws both the musician and the listener into the world of images that may be behind the music.
But the fragmentary character of the music as inspired by the poetry also lends itself to uncompromising brusqueness, as felt immediately with the first movement. Just as abrupt as the ending of the first movement are shifts between very wild, violent moments and bleak stretches of barren repose.
Although there are recurring motives in the piece, it seems that the music’s primary focus is on its gestures – sometimes very modest and sometimes huge – but which seem to carry greater weight than the actual notes that make them up. Similarly, each textual fragment is quoted out of the context of the rest of the poem, like an abstract gesture in words, perhaps not unlike the way Debussy uses certain quotation-titles in his Preludes.
The use of multiple short movements highlights the episodic nature of the music but also the cumulative effect of many disparate elements joined together into one monolithic whole just as the textual fragments don’t necessarily form a clear narrative but seem to be linked by images of the cycle of life and death. Perhaps it is therefore inevitable that the end of the piece both comes full circle by bringing back the music of the beginning and still remains open-ended, fading away.
Composers often describe the process of composition as a way of fulfilling the demands of the piece itself rather than imposing the will of the composer on the music. This piece was originally scored for piano and 13 instruments and yet the music really did seem to call for a much thicker sound in many sections – particularly for strings – than the more sparse atmosphere of a mixed chamber ensemble. This, in turn, led to its reworking for orchestra which is clearly where it belongs.
In theater (as well as in French), they use the word ‘create’ in order to describe a first performance of a piece – essentially saying that a piece needs to be performed in order to truly exist. It also means that once performed, the piece starts to have a life of its own, given to it by its performance. Certainly in the case of a premiere, but perhaps beyond, it could be argued that in some way composition and performance are inseparable after all.