Editor’s note: This interview was conducted during the 2019 Ostrava Days biannual festival of modernist and contemporary music.
Chaya Czernowin is an internationally acclaimed Israeli composer. She studied in Germany and the US, and then was invited to live in Japan via an Asahi Shimbun Fellowship and American NEA grant in Germany—as a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude—and in Vienna. Her music has been performed worldwide by some of the leading orchestras and performers of new music, and she has held a professorship at the University of California, San Diego, and was the first woman to be appointed as a composition professor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, Austria. Since 2009, she has been the Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music at Harvard University.
Ondrej Veselý (Rail): What is special for you at this festival?
Chaya Czernowin: It is craziness and like with every craziness, it is good that it exists! It is a small miracle brought to life by Petr Kotik and Renata Spisarova. It's so important to have such occasions where you can listen to rare pieces of the American experimental tradition and its European offshoots.
Rail: Have you heard here some music that has inspired you?
Czernowin: Yves Klein’s Symphonie Monotone-Silence (20 minutes of one chord and 20 minutes of silence). Most exceptional was the quasi-silent part right after the chord stopped. It was very special to experience it. But in general, I am very, very hard to impress.
Rail: Why is that?
Czernowin: It has nothing to do with taste, I get impressed when I hear something that I need to learn. I can enjoy a lot of music. The reason why it is so hard to impress me is that I have been in this world for many, many years not only as a composer but also as a teacher. And in both functions, I work against conventions. I am really a fighter of conventions, that is the center of my musical thinking. I smell conventions and habits very easily. I smell the moves of a piece which makes it not explorative. I am very fast to see through those things.
I am impressed when something keeps my disbelief for a long time, when I do not understand what is going on, but my curiosity is piqued, and that does not happen very often.
Rail: What about the young generation of composers?
Czernowin: Young composers today bring a vision which inquires what it means to write music or to play an instrument, and what it means to live in a reality which is half virtual and half real, and what it means to write music in a world which is full of melodies and dance where you do not want to dance or sing.
Rail: Do you stumble on cultural differences between your European and American students from time to time?
Czernowin: Absolutely, but it also depends on which European country they come from. I have a Russian student, a Serbian student, Turkish student. They are very different than other students who come from Italy and France. Every country has its own color when it comes to composition. I believe that you have it difficult if you are born in Germany or Austria. It is difficult to be a composer there, because you feel like you are a part of such tradition and that you are amid this tradition.
Rail: That is a bit odd to feel tradition like a heaviness. It is a precious thing to have a tradition, yet we feel it like a burden.
Czernowin: You do not start to compose only in order to continue something. When you start to compose there must be something which compels you to speak. You must have that need to speak in such a strong way that you feel you have something to say. That is very different than I have something to add and develop, something which my father gave me. It is about what I can contribute. And in this sense having the weight of tradition on your shoulders is not always so easy.
Rail: Does teaching have a liberating effect because you do not have to live from commissions?
Czernowin: Absolutely! I had no doubt that I would always compose, but I did not know that I will be a composer, and definitely not a composer who will be traveling the world all the time, I had no idea about that. Around the age of 18-28, I had so many relationships of all kinds and was so engaged with this that I thought that was my main interest in life. I only wanted to be intensively in relationships, and I believed that I will not have time for a career of a composer.
But around 28 or so, I started to realize that I am actually ambitious. I started to sense that I need a place for my work. At that time, I decided that I will never run after anybody for a commission, that I will leave my work to grow and develop as it needs and for my breadth I will teach.
My first composition teacher, Abel Ehrlich, told me when I was 19: “Chaya, I am going away for a year, can you teach my student who is 15?” I came to the lesson not knowing what it would be and was amazed that I had a lot to say to that student.
What I did not know was that teaching would become part of my compositional work and that it will help me to compose, because the students we choose to work with at Harvard, to tell you the truth, teach me as much as I teach them.
Rail: Is it possible to teach music composition in a traditional way? What does it mean for you to teach music?
Czernowin: Many times, I teach in places where I meet students from different schools or students who were chosen by a festival. That is exceedingly interesting because these are students I do not know, they come from a totally different musical aesthetic and they might have a lot of difficulties with composing fluently. So, I meet a lot of different characters and I have one hour to hear one piece or maybe to look at one to three pieces quickly and I have to give something to them. It is not about teaching, it is more about listening, putting on my ears, thinking, and experience in service of their creativity. In most cases, it is like me shining the light on their process, their intentions, and empowering them towards a better realization.
Rail: When I was listening to your Guardian for cello and orchestra, I got interested in how you build an architecture of your music.
Czernowin: First of all, one has to understand the piece is not a cello concerto. Actually, it is a piece for cello solo with an amplified orchestra, as if the cello is so huge and inside it there sits an orchestra—the cello is playing the orchestra almost until the very, very end. So, it is like one voice that contains the whole orchestra. The cello is the hard skin of the orchestra which is the soft flesh.
Rail: But how do you achieve that it does not fall apart?
Czernowin: Well, I have been working very consciously on time for many years. Time is my main area of conscious concern. Not many composers are really engaged with this directly. In the ’90s, after I wrote some pieces that worked like a normal drama (they started small, developed, had a big high point and then dissolved, and everybody loved it) I told myself: “Basta, I have done it, I know how to do it, but it is absolutely boring and I am looking for something else.”
Then I started to cut and to understand why something is placed in the beginning, and how will it sound if it is in the middle or in the end. So, then I started to cut in many ways. I had three copies, one copy cutting very small segments of materials, one copy medium or very large segments. Those cuts are not patterns and they do not repeat like patterns. They are cuts of dramatic material which are very expressive and had a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. [Laughs]
So that was the first stage. After I started to create strange continuities or referential continuities. Nowadays, I am in a place where I talk to the material and the material tells me about itself. It guides me, but it is not only a material that guides me but also a situation. The musical situation where what happens in the piece is taking place. What is the environment around me, what is about to happen—it is a whole universe. In every piece, there is a kind of universe that opens, and then it has its quality—it is not a narrative, but an essence that can open, emerge, and change.
Rail: What is important in your music for you?
Czernowin: There are places in my pieces, (even if I heard a piece many times) where I really do not know what is happening or what will happen. Those are places where one can feel the danger but also the vitality of existence. When you feel that a real and unpredictable uncontrolled but immanent change is about to happen—that moment where something beyond one's control is happening relentless but as yet unknown.
Rail: Are there threats to independence as a composer?
Czernowin: If people come to you as a young composer, and say: The important opera house is doing a project about Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. You are one of seven people who can write a half an hour piece that connects Bluebeard to your work, and we will perform it. If you have no connection to Bluebeard’s Castle I think that is a threat.
On the other hand, sometimes it is good to have restrictions or things you do not like. But I think that if you always take on what comes from the outside, you will not do the projects you really need to do for your own development, the pieces that come to you and want to be written. You have to write those pieces. That has to do with artist’s independence.
There are communities of composers where they all believe that loops or some philosophy of composing is the only thing which is cool, and everything else is not. And sometimes you have to be the non-cool person. And I have been a non-cool person several times and I am proud of it. I try my best to never disconnect from my subjectivity nor from my vision.