On the occasion of the creation of her new opera « Infinite Now » on April 18th in Ghent, we met Chaya Czernowin. The Israeli composer brought together Luk Perceval’s « Front » theater experience with a short story by Chinese writer Can Xue, « Homecoming ». We talked with her about this exciting project.
Your new opera Infinite nowwill be premiered the 18thof April at Ghent, and will then be performed in Antwerp, Mannheim, and at the Philharmonie of Paris, the 14th of June. Can you explain us the genesis of it ?
In 2014, I was approached by the director Luk Perceval and by Aviel Cahn, the director of the Opera Vlaanderen, who wanted to work with me on Front, a piece by Perceval about the First World War inspired by All quiet on the western front by Erich Maria Remarque and by Under fire by Henri Barbusse.
At first the project didn’t interest me much, because I already wrote an opera about the Second World War (Pnima…ins Innere) and I didn’t want to be the “composer of the wars”.
Finally, I accepted their invitation to see Front in Hamburg and I changed my mind.
In order to turn Front into an opera, I realized I had to find a different approach, so I started talking about it with Luk Perceval, who suggested creating a conversation between music and theater.
I proposed to add to Front the story Homecoming by Can Xue (from the book The embroidered shoes) and create a dialogue between the two materials. Perceval agreed, and at that moment I knew we will do the piece.
Homecoming is a very peculiar novel, what is it about ?
Homecoming is not a very narrative novel. The plot is about a woman who walks in a place she knows, then arrives to a house, where she was many times before, and meets the old man that always greets her. But this time, something has changed: it’s now impossible to leave the house, because it’s built on an abyss, fact that she was unaware of. In this house nothing changes, there isn’t any day nor night, it’s a constant now. The whole story is about the protagonist dealing with this knowledge, while she stays there forever.
This relates perfectly with Front.
Exactly. But, strangely enough, both stories are not completely hopeless, and both relate to our situation right now. For me they both hold a time stretch where something can be experienced and distilled by navigating the hopelessness.
In « Infinite now », there is the feeling of an imminent disaster. Do you mean a political or an ecological one, or perhaps both of them ?
It’s the feeling that we are living in a strange period, in which we know what happens in a lot of places in the globe, but at the same time we are not in control of it. There is a strange feeling that as much as we know more, we know less.
Everything is unsure and volatile now, just like the weather, because of climate change.
The disaster I’m talking about is not a huge dramatic event, but the fact of living an imminent disaster… constantly.
In the text presenting your opera, you talk about « the moment becomes dilated to the point of infinity». The title Infinite now can so be seen as a paradox as well as a possibility ?
Front is a very historical text, as it includes letters by solders and the text by Remarque, but, in a way, I stripped it from its historical connection and made it into a metaphor for the human state. The same is true with Homecoming.
In the opera, those two texts begin to talk and relate to each other: a very strange dialogue is established, that brings it all to the Now. It’s an understanding that that moment of the present, is indeed endless.
The concept of infinite becomes also psychological…
In the end, the opera reaches a place where if you go deep into the Now, in the most pertinent and focused way, you can find life. The idea is that regardless of the darkness of a situation, there is a grain of life out there, and you find it, because you have to go on.
In the opera there are many recordings of water and air, underlining the fact that we’re so lucky to be alive. One of the texts of Remarque talks about life in such a beautiful way, explaining that sometimes in places (or times) of trouble, you can feel the urgency and the vitality of what it means to be alive.
There is also an idea of scaling…
In composition, people are used to talk about the relationship between large scale thinking and the material (as we call it). What I’ve been doing in the last years, is finding a place where this dichotomy doesn’t happen. The material carries in its DNA the large form: there’s something very spontaneous inside it that can change the form and create a kind of quantum leap, in no time, under certain conditions. It’s really like the development of the human being in the world.
In anthropology, it is thought that the destiny of a person can be foreseen knowing to which conditions one is born, but I think that while this holds, there are a lot of surprises and I believe in our ability to create them.
In the way you composed your opera, familiar and unfamiliar are getting along. I’m thinking for example about the gates that close every time an act starts. Can you explain us this choice?
The more you go into the opera the more estranged things become. It’s like staying on an island that becomes smaller and smaller, but then it gets to a point where, inside it, you can find the most vital things like water or singing…
To achieve this, I cannot just get the listener with me, and make them experience things out of the blue. It has to be earned. So I’m misleading them to a certain degree, because what I want to create is completely out of the ordinary and unfamiliar, but I’m giving strong and irrepressible trajectories and structural support which creates a kind of track to hold on to, a track of familiarity.
I don’t want to make an intellectual statement, which is not enough for me, but I want to create an experience, extremely physical and emotional.
Because you don’t want your music to be entertaining.
I really want to do something that is opposite to entertaining!
I don’t want to treat the audience like children, giving them candies and sugar. I want to give them another kind of food altogether.
What is your perception of time as a composer ?
Throughout my creative life, the question of musical time is the one that has engaged me the most.
While I engage with material, form (which I consider as one) and other components there is a strong accent on time. Everything is about time.
When I started writing, I liked the pieces where time was transformed, where I could experience a very different sense of it, like in late Beethoven, or in Gesualdo, who opened my mind to the way harmony works with time and how it can actually hold it.
That is true also for Schumann, who has accompanied me for a long time as well. But of course there are also tendencies like Webern, where a miniature is an infinity, Feldman or Scelsi.
I tried to figure something other than (what I will call here for the sake of brevity) the normative time. I made a lot of experiments, cutting things, thinking about the different functions of beginning, middle and end, and of the speech-like structure of music.
With Infinite now, I’m beginning a new period. Actually it started with my piece Hidden, where time is a time of « infinite now ». It doesn’t progress narratively from past to future, with its memories and expectations, but it’s more like time is going inward.
Every musical phrase has a world inside it, an element that is questionable and intricate. So you start to create a phrase only from that « island » and you go deeper and deeper inside it, to discover what it is. This is one of the ways in which Infinite now explores time.
You are very engaged with music teaching, as well as a professor at Harvard University, you funded different summer academies for young composers, like the one at Schloss Solitude. Can you talk us about the way it works ?
In all the courses I started-up, I tried to create communities of composers, so that they can nourish their work and develop as artists.
We created an atmosphere of trust, where it’s not about critics and compliments, but about understanding what someone wants to do. The participants are able to pose a mirror to each other work, focusing on what works and what stands in the way. We try to understand what the real intentions are, and once this is clearer it is also possible to work on their realization.
However, the creative process is complex and intentions change : this is a very vital and organic conversation. When you have more artists around who are looking sensitively at what one does, one can gain a larger understanding about the way this “internal conversation” is projected outward thought the work.
Composer Steven Takasugi, my husband, came up with the idea of the « one and one », where students talk about their music and give each other composition lessons. This creates a special atmosphere that really connects people, and brings them to stay in contact for a long time, after the classes end.
What are the qualities you look for in your students?
The first quality is independence. Autonomy is a very important thing, I get excited to teach people who have a strong creative personality and a strong need to assert it. I also appreciate the ability to move between the concrete to the abstract in a flexible way.
How are the participants chosen?
There’s a group of people who make the decision, based on the candidates themselves, but also on the organization of the group, in order to create a balance.
One kind of balance that is important for me is between women and men.
This is very interesting, because some months ago the SACD (Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers) published a study showing that in France only 1% of women studying music and dramatic arts become composers.
That’s surprising and depressing. But I believe that underneath those dry facts and numbers there are tendencies and trajectories. And the tendency is that more and more women composers are coming to the foreground.
Women are now writing music, and are writing powerful music. Women are composers, point!
We just have to go on being active and take care that other women will have opportunities.
You know, I was asked so many times if I could tell the difference between the music of women and men. Which is a terrible question… [laughter] For me every person is female and male in various proportions, and it’s the same with music.
Which is totally worthless !
Let’s finish on a positive note : what are your upcoming projects ?
In June, a new version of Zaïde/Adama, my counterpoint work to Mozart’s Zaïde (which is played with), will be done with the addition of a choir. It will be premiered at Theater Freiburg in Germany.
It’s a collaboration with the director Ludger Engels, and it’s going to be a very political work.
Then I’ll be writing a work for cello and orchestra, which is called Guardian, for Séverine Ballon and the South West Rundfunk Orchestra for this year’s Donaueschinigen Festival. I’m looking forward to it!