MICHAEL HERSCH (BM ’95, MM ’97, Composition)
Images from a Closed Ward
Blair String Quartet
Commissioned by the Blair String Quartet, who throw themselves into the recording as if not only their life but the composer’s as well depended on the relentless intensity of every bar, Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward demonstrates the extreme musical and emotional lengths to which a composer and a string quartet will go these days to maintain a serious relationship. Hersch’s grim graphic quartet responding to Michael Mazur’s etchings and lithographs of inmates in a Rhode Island psychiatric hospital during the early 1960s lives a separate though equally haunted life from its visual inspiration. It tells no narrative story, only disquieting human agony.
Although the music’s searing pain and endless despair, desperately trying to escape mortality – which erupts most violently in the 10-minute 11th movement – never really subside, a radiant core seems to emerge in the third of the music’s 13 untitled movements. This core leads gradually over time to the possibilities of peace through release and consolation through moments of recognisable classical harmony, hybrids of late Beethoven, Schubert and Ives. The music also features some remarkable special effects such as the eerie tuning-up and concluding cascading double-stops in movement 12, about which composers and string quartets will ask: how did he do that?
Judith Sherman produced the sessions at Vanderbilt University, where the Blairs are quartet-in-residence; her close-up, clinically precise, occasionally gritty sound adds an emotional component to their passionate laying-out of Hersch’s notes. Aaron Grad’s intimate, florid essay in the booklet is indispensable.