Images From a Closed Ward
Innova Records (884)
The Blair String Quartet
Release Date: February 2014
In Images from a Closed Ward, composer Michael Hersch has crafted a tone poem for string quartet inspired by the haunting images of Michael Mazur (1935–2009). By turns harrowing and uneasy, the work gives instrumental voice to something voiceless, finding a genuine grain of human experience in a dark, difficult place.
Art critic John Canaday, writing on Mazur’s etchings and lithographs of inmates from a Rhode Island psychiatric hospital in the early 1960s, said the subjects “have the terrible anonymity of individuals who cannot be reached, whose ugly physical presence is the only symptom of a tragic spiritual isolation.” It was these images that resonated with Hersch, leading him to compose his first string quartet in almost twenty years. The highly regarded artists in residence at Vanderbilt University, the Blair String Quartet, who gave the work’s premiere and for whom it was written, deliver a definitive accounting on his innova Recordings release.
The Philadelphia Inquirer said, “Much of the piece uses the string quartet medium to create sonorities that might be paradoxically described as vividly pale, against which there are dabs of more bold colors or short themes, vaguely pointing in several possible directions that are left unpursued. Rarely is there a completed thought: All movements end inconclusively, often with several seconds of designated silence that freezes the musical idea in suspended animation. … Emphatic, fortissimo dissonance suggests unsolvable crisis. One movement tosses and turns, like an ill person trying to find a position without pain. … This isn’t at all what W.B. Yeats had in mind when coining the term ‘terrible beauty,’ but it fits.”
"Like the series of lithographs and etchings by Michael Mazur that
inspired it, this 13-movement string quartet by Michael Hersch is dark
and unsettling. And like those black-and-white images of inmates of a
mental hospital in the 1960s, Mr. Hersch’s music is beautiful in a
timeless, eternal-night sort of way. The fine Blair Quartet brings
intensity and suspense to the dense harmonies that move by turns with
creeping dread and desperate urgency."
— The New York Times
"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 ..."
— Gramophone Magazine
"... It is the sound of a string quartet playing with rage and
"... aurally stunning ... Hersch utilizes a refreshing, bracing, and innovative admixture of dissonance and consonance ... Hersch’s music
is not “easy listening.” Indeed, it is difficult listening, difficult
in the sense that one cannot listen to this work as background music
if one’s desire is to tune in to what the composer is attempting to
communicate. It is, I assure you, worth the effort for those whose
ears are acclimated to the music of our time, and find rewards in
music that does not yield all of its secrets in a single audition ...
The Blair String Quartet plays with commendable intonation and flair,
and produces an amazing array of colors ... Highly recommended for the
— Fanfare Magazine
"This is important music ... it is hard to imagine adding anything
more around it. It is dissonant, but not abstract by any means. It
makes me want to get those people out of there and communicate with
them. People need to open their minds to the world. The Blair Quartet
plays with conviction and offers such solace as they can. That goes
for the music as well. This is sad stuff, but Hersch tries to make it
an open door to the rest of life."
— American Record Guide
"...the journey left you in a figurative blindfold taken off
momentarily to glimpse another previously unimaginable terrain."
— The Philadelphia Inquirer
"... not a note is wasted. Every note or phrase has its purpose. One of his (Hersch’s) markings is 'haunted, stricken.' If anyone knows the
trick of expressing agony in music, he does. And his command of craft,
overall, is something rare. Often at his premieres, we say, 'We have
heard something important. We have heard music that will last,' I felt
just this way about Images from a Closed Ward."
— City Arts