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BEAUTY, TERROR, AND STILLNESS:
THE VANISHING PAVILIONS SUITE

by Jason Eckardt

Upon hearing The Vanishing Pavilions Suite, it would be convenient to compare Michael Hersch to other composers of 20th-and 21st-century piano cycles (Messiaen, Sorabji, Finnissy), but this is a disservice to him and his work. Hersch is certainly worthy of joining the ranks of such esteemed composers, but simple comparisons diminish the originality and depth of Hersch’s music. For this is music of extremes: quiet and loud, high and low, dense and sparse. Hersch refuses to take the middle road, forcing the listener to confront a series of expectations that are thwarted. The Vanishing Pavilions Suite is never comfortable or settled. Even in the work’s darkest moment of stillness, there is an underlying tension seeking resolution. Every passage keeps pushing forward, each movement urges toward the next.

The Vanishing Pavilions was initially conceived in the autumn of 2001 when Hersch met poet Christopher Middleton (b. 1926) while they were both fellows at the American Academy in Berlin. Middleton’s work was an electrifying inspiration: “In much of his poetry I saw something of myself — especially in relation to the outside world (my hopes, fears, sense of beauty, terror, helplessness...) but conveyed in a manner (through words) which I was incapable of expressing; in my case requiring music.” Hersch collected several fragments of Middleton’s poetry and then began to compose responses to them. For musical completeness and structural cohesion, several “intermezzi” were composed and strategically interspersed throughout the piece.

The original composition, completed in 2005 and lasting two and a half hours, was premiered by the composer in Philadelphia the following year. After repeated requests for a smaller version of The Vanishing Pavilions, Hersch contemplated several possibilities for a distilled form before finally arriving at a viable solution. Instead of simply extrapolating a subset of movements, he recomposed some (occasionally with modified repetitions at other points in the Suite), and reordered all but the first and last movements. These revisions create a new set of relationships among the materials as well as an independent large-scale architecture. As Hersch says, the Suite “consequently lead[s] down paths unexplored in the original, while still sharing terrain.”

Some movements clearly word paint their accompanying texts (movement 2, “So the flashing knife will split/Memory down the middle …” sounds like a blade clefting a skull) while others are more abstract (movement 3, “Here the huge root spread/A willow hit by lightning, long/Before we came” perhaps might suggest lightning strikes with its stabbing chords but offers no further musical analog other than the feeling that we are surrounded by the imaginary landscape described). Though so much of the text is suggestive, Hersch seems to have selected passages that deny him an “easy image,” instead using the text as a departure point for deeper musical exploration. In this regard, The Vanishing Pavilions Suite is like the song cycles of Schubert and Schumann, where the music is often more illustrative of the emotional thrust of work than the words.

The subtext and imagery supplied by the accompanying texts provides interest and aesthetic insight, but they are not necessary to understand the work musically. The success of the Suite depends not only on the fashioning of independent, memorable musical miniatures, but also on the meaningful continuation, transformation, or cessation of harmony, register, texture, and dramatic momentum throughout the piece. Therefore, while each of these movements could stand alone, they coalesce into a more powerful whole when heard successively.

One consistent feature of the Suite is repetition. There is the aforementioned repetition of materials among movements that allows for recontextualization and structural connections, but there is also sequential repetition in musical passages. Typically, this type of progression is used to build texture or add tension. While the Suite certainly uses repetition in this way, Hersch also creates another more subtle and curious effect: that of something progressing slowly, deliberately, but also at times being frustrated, either by interpolations of disparate material or by the temporary inability to move forward. This yields a deeper connection with some of the texts (“Thousands of heaped stones absorbed the twilight” or “… pushing through slow centuries:/The space is branching out, blown back.”) and a sense of timelessness — sometimes bleak — that pervades the entire cycle.

There is also a physicality to the music. The sounds that Hersch conjures from the piano are tactile, often weighty; they loom and haunt. In no small measure is this a result of Hersch’s muscular, commanding performance. There is the tangible presence of the composer moving through the music’s emotional worlds not just as pilot and navigator but also as sympathetic companion.

Ultimately, the most appealing aspect of the Vanishing Pavilions Suite is its expression of Hersch’s humanity. One senses the composer deeply embedded in this work, unafraid to starkly bear his emotions. In our increasingly self-satisfied culture, obsessed with irony and cool, it is rare to find an artwork of such unflinching sincerity. While the music is highly refined, the emotional rawness found in this recording may make some listeners uncomfortable. But with any significant artistic achievement there is uneasiness, even danger. The simultaneously exhilarating and profound music here, and Hersch’s performance of it, more than reward the risk.

© 2013 Jason Eckardt

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