Interview with Chaya Czernowin

Photo by Zvia Fridman

Her music is both free and precise, conceptual and physical, and above all, highly emotional. A conversation with one of the most performed composers of our time, Chaya Czernowin.


Daniela ShemerWith leading contemporary composers such as yourself, Gubaidulina, Kaija Saariaho Jennifer Higdon and others, I’m wondering whether contemporary composition might be a success story with regards to gender equality. Is it an existing topic in your life as a busy composer? 

Chaya CzernowinIt is far from a success story: the myth of the “genius” (male) composer, as well as many other prejudices, are slowing down equal footing for women, but I think that nevertheless we are experiencing a slow transformation, the result of which is inevitable: equality. 

DS: While listening to your piece Ayre, I was thinking of sound as an entity in its emergence… Like a creature “attempting to be born”, as fragments of sounds and hints of melodies seem to push there way out into the world. Was this work composed for a particular space or with a certain physical state in mind? 

CC: Indeed, this work originates in a very strong sense of physicality; of a mass being dragged over a surface, which is not smooth. later the friction is applied in short bouts, which create the emergence of a voice.

DS: Your writing is exceptionally pedant in terms of perfecting the use of instruments and sound result. Do you tryout your compositions with fellow musicians? 

CCIn the past I spent countless hours with many players and improvisers, recording them responding to my questions and bringing their own suggestions. Now I rarely do this, but for example, when I worked on the Cello Concerto, I did work for a long time with Severine Ballon, on getting the exact sound the music needed.

DS: Izhak Sadai taught music theory to some of the finest musicians coming from Israel. What are your strongest memories from the time you were studying with him?

CC: Yes! in our first  lesson, I brought a very large choir piece. Sadai proceeded to ask me to come next week and analyse every pitch, every rhythm, every dynamic. I was supposed to be able to explain all of my decisions and clarify them. It was quite amazing to find out that indeed, things are tightly connected, and that I made a lot of subconscious decisions, which do add up, even though I did not have a clue that I have done so.

DS: Is it still relevant and important for today’s composers to study classical techniques such as harmony and counterpoint? 

CC: This is a complex question. I believe that it is helpful for composers to study these techniques, and that musicians doing music, which is located within the western domain, need to understand harmony, counterpoint and the bases of tonal language. In regards to the question if composers have to write in styles and practice writing chorals and  inventions etc’,  I would say that practicing techniques in any domain, for example studying Gamelan or Arabic Maqams, can be helpful for some students. This means any technique, where one can work stage by stage, while focusing on limited  musical parameter, or while focusing on a known language with clear rules of behaviour. This, however, does not fit all students, and at any rate the most important thing for young composers is, to work on free composition in a guided way and individually, and to listen to a lot of musics.  

DS: To which music do you listen in your free time? 

CCI mostly listen to silence, or to what happen in the news lately. But when I need music, lately I go to Gesualdo. 

DS: Which instruments do you play?

CC: I play the piano and sing a bit. I studied the flute and guitar as well, for a short time.

DS: Can you recommend a book? 

CCTRILOGY by Jon Fosse, and any book by Can Xue. 

DS: Your compositions often address political issues. Do you consider it an obligation for artists to carry a political agenda, or is it more of a subjective source of inspiration for you?

CC: I do not believe that artists have an obligation to anything but to their artistic vision. I am not the first to say, that in a way, all strong art is political.

DS: Unfortunately I couldn’t take part in the concert tour of the West-Eastern Divan, when your work was performed. How was your experience working with this particular orchestra?

CC: It was wonderful. They were warm-hearted and open, and really wanted to understand the work and not just perform it mechanically. Also, Daniel Barenboim  was extremely generous and I thought he worked beautifully on the piece. It was a beautiful experience.

DS: Do you generally prefer working with musicians who are specialised in contemporary music performance, or not necessarily?

CC: It depends. If I write a large scale piece I always prefer to have some soloists or a soloist, who are specialists. However, I did have great experiences with regular orchestras just like West-Eastern Divan.  Of course I also had some dreadful experiences with orchestras as well.

DS: The MOUNT DELA question: what is more important, knowledge or fantasy?

CC: Oh – but  knowledge and fantasy are sisters! The imagination works from what it already  knows- outwards, and in order to really know something, in order to really  understand it, you do need fantasy.