A few moments with Chaya Czernowin

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (actually only this year, but it seems like much longer ago than that), Riot commissioned a new work from one of our favourite composers, Chaya Czernowin. Chaya’s piece Ayre: Towed through plumes, thicket, asphalt, sawdust and hazardous air I shall not forget the sound of has become a regular part of our repertoire – appearing on our Speak, Be Silent CD in 2019 – and we just had to have her write a new piece for us. That piece will be Fast Darkness I: I can see your turned eyes from inside your body, for the wonderfully sonorous line-up of solo bass/contrabass clarinet plus bass clarinet, baritone sax, trombone, tuba, guitar, keyboard, percussion and strings. We dearly hope to be able to give the first performance at Wien Modern in November.

Chaya has been working hard on her piece through lockdown. In this first of three interviews, she told Tim Rutherford-Johnson how it has gone so far.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: You’ve recently posted some pictures of your studio online, with the trees just outside your window casting shadows around the room. How are you finding composing during lockdown?

Chaya Czernowin: The lockdown hasn’t been easy at all, but in terms of composition it has been a blessing – having time with no borders is a real gift. Not travelling and having almost no teaching means that I can stay in my composer’s space without being forced out. It made me live in my work even more intensely than usual.

TR-J: Could you tell us a little bit about that composing space – what do you mean by that, and what does it signify for you?

CC: A piece is a small universe. It has a feeling about it, an atmosphere, it might even have a smell or a concrete feeling of time and speed. You might be always breathless when you think of it or you might be able to finally breathe deeply when you are in it. So the piece has a certain kind of physicality which unfolds and transforms as you witness it through opening the possibility of its existence. 

I love living in that space. It enables a real broadening of the self towards a more liberated form of existence. You can forget about yourself and simply meet something else inside you. When you have met that something else your only concern is to become very aware of what it is, to reveal and build it in the best way you can. It is at the same time an oasis away from ‘normal’ existence and a magnification of something of it.

TR-J: Do you work on one piece at a time, or several at once?

CC: I work on one piece at a time but I know the next pieces I have to write and they are growing more slowly in the shadows as underground processes.

TR-J: Do they influence each other?

CC: They all come from the same area of concerns in every period but I can’t say that they influence each other – each would like to be autonomous. In that sense each piece would like to feel that it is the be all and end all.

If I write a series of pieces then they are like siblings, and if there are concrete relationships between pieces, like in Anea Crystal (2 pieces which can be played simultaneously) then clearly the relationship has to do with the basic premise.

TR-J: Like Ayre … the piece you are writing for Riot has another extraordinary title: where did this one come from?

CC: I needed to invent a title that would give me the feeling of speed and disorientation. So this is what came to mind. It is as disorienting and speedy as this next sliver of a second. To give another metaphor: mouse A trying to catch what it thought was its own tail, but found it to be mouse B’s tail. But then mouse B is found to be mouse A, which was simply confused … Of course the speed of all these proceedings is extremely fast. No reflection here.

TR-J: Images of time, spaces, and of light and dark run throughout your work, particularly in your recent music. I can detect all three in this title. How do you see them coming together in this piece?

CC: The images are like symptoms of something deeper. They emanate from the universe I spoke of, and that universe, while hard to describe verbally, has a very strong and deep vitality of which these characteristics and images are a reflection. But I would not normally know the key and the real full spine of that universe until I had finished my piece, and in some good cases until had I heard it.

In this piece all these images come together to create a swish of something of which we can see only a part, and that part appears and disappears fast.

The darkness is what seems to be hiding the object but we might understand later that it is a part of the object itself. It’s all about how what is presented constantly renders the secret (of what is the piece) bigger and more confusing  rather than divulging and clarifying it.

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