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Zwischen Leben und Tod: twenty-two pieces after images by Peter Weiss for violin and piano (2013)

Duration: ca. 80'
Commissioned by Mark Wait, Carolyn Huebl and Vanderbilt University

I first learned of Peter Weiss’s (1916-1982) artwork almost a decade ago while reading W.G. Sebald’s (1944-2001) On the Natural History of Destruction. Sebald’s writing -- as it has on many others -- made a deep impression on me, so much so that fragments from his poem After Nature form a framework for my horn and cello work, Last Autumn (2008). Isolated lines, or groups of lines, from the poem came to mind as I was writing the piece. Particular verbal images captured in shape or texture much of what I felt. When Last Autumn is performed, however, Sebald’s texts are not sung or recited; it is purely instrumental music. I placed the texts at designated junctures in the written score before various movements of music. The texts’ presence was in fact more for me than the audience. The texts did, and still do, represent a kind of private communication between me and Sebald’s words. This kind of dialog between composers and poets is nothing new, of course. There are many examples across the centuries of composers writing music with outside texts in quiet co-existence.

Some five years later, the artwork of Peter Weiss had a similar effect on me, but Weiss’s paintings and drawings had a more direct impact on the music. Weiss’s spectrum of color and motion, of proportion and spacing, struck me as particularly musical, and I found this both provocative and inspiring. While Sebald’s texts had acted as companions which reinforced and heightened my own state of mind, Weiss’s environments included both familiar and alien worlds that I wanted to capture directly in sound. In either case, I felt at home. For the first time, I felt compelled to engage directly with images through music.

I had only known of Peter Weiss as a playwright before reading Sebald’s essay about him. While I was familiar with some of his searing stage dramas, I did not know that from the time he was a young man he was a serious visual artist as well. One of his earliest works, Selbsportrait zwsichen Tod und Schwester (Self-portrait between Death and Sister), was completed in 1935 after the death of his sister in an accident. The drawing has many of the hallmarks of his later writing and artwork: pronounced disquiet, looming threat, longing. I find compelling that Weiss, from one work to the next, takes an active or more participatory, or more passive and detached, stance toward his subjects - especially in the paintings expressing what appears to be terror or grief, or both of these states simultaneously. Throughout his work there are also recurring images that seem deeply meditative; for example, animate and even inanimate subjects lost in thought.

In his essay on the artist, subtitled On Memory and Cruelty in the Work of Peter Weiss, Sebald discusses several of the paintings, including Das grosse Welttheater (The Great World Theater), which he describes as

“... a pandemonium of transgression in front of a background of capsizing ships and lit by the reflection of a conflagration ... it denotes a now permanent state of destruction. What is seen, here and now, is already an underworld beyond anything natural, a surreal region of industrial complexes and machines, chimneys, silos, viaducts, walls, labyrinths, leafless trees, and cheap fairground attractions ...”

In Weiss’ Gartenkonzert (Concert in the Garden) Sebald sees

“... figures with lowered eyelids ... including the young harpsichordist with his blind gaze, are among the harbingers of a life surviving at best only in the sensation of pain, in unreserved identification with the despised, scorned, crippled, and fading, with those who sit weeping in their concealment ...”

Though each of these paintings is quite different, below the surface similar tensions roil.

Zwischen Leben und Tod is a program-length work for violin and piano. The work is structured in twenty-two movements, each movement corresponding to a particular image by Weiss. This is my third work that has had a relationship with visual art; the others are Images From a Closed Ward (after etchings by Michael Mazur) and Black Untitled (after a painting of the same name by Willem de Kooning). Of the three pieces, Zwischen Leben und Tod is most closely intertwined with the artwork, while my approach in Images From a Closed Ward and Black Untitled was closer to that of Last Autumn.

While I did not know him personally, W.G. Sebald gave me two great gifts: his writing itself which has been, and continues to be, a source of solace and inspiration, and an introduction to Peter Weiss’s artwork. I am neither an art historian nor literary critic. But I hope, as Sebald did, that more people may discover the artwork of this extraordinary figure.

At the conclusion of his essay, Sebald quotes a passage from Weiss’s Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance):

“O Herakles. The light is dim, my pencil blunt. I would have wished to write it all differently. But the time is too short. And I have run out of paper.”

— Michael Hersch

Translations of W.G. Sebald into English from the original German by Anthea Bell

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