Michael Hersch’s music

Just a few observations about a composer with whom I’ve worked a lot (I have performed eleven works by him so far):

Michael Hersch has a grippingly expressive language and sense of harmony, evident throughout his oeuvre in all genres.
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The solo violin piece he recently wrote for me, titled “the weather and landscape are on our side”, conveys serious emotional substance through particularly delicate and subtle means. There are a few loud outbursts but it is mostly very eerie and sometimes whispers on the verge of silence. In this piece, he used certain non-pitched extended techniques for the first time and, also for the first time, has me briefly sing softly while playing, rather like in the Luigi Nono piece I play. The piece also involves playing some very high pitches and very close intervals with precision and sensitivity, sometimes quietly, sometimes at more volume.

His piano music stems from his own extraordinary talent as a pianist. Michael keeps his playing mostly under wraps, but his playing is displayed on this documentary film, “The Sudden Pianist”. His piano writing exploits the inherent massive power of the instrument and makes particularly innovative use of all the pedals along with a variety of articulations. The built-in time/space (rests and phrase lengths) in his works allows for chords to shoot into the air and literally hang there for long seconds, so that we listen as the pitches within harmonies move around kaleidoscopically and slowly dissolve. The dimensions of the instrument’s sound-producing capacity and the variety he draws from within that sound suit his wish to write large-scale works that use its extremes.

He has written a lot of solo and chamber music for strings. These pieces feature frequent chordal and double-stop playing, use of the open strings, and wild, fast and furious movements analogous to those in the piano works. There is an emphasis on harmony, full sustained polyphony and the vibrating of pitches against each other. His approach to string sound is striking: he stipulates a kind of sound that is non-vibrato or uses vibrato sparingly, and often employs degrees of ponticello or tasto. With this approach, the player can quickly dissipate the core of the tone and the pieces often tend, unlike his piano music, more toward the fragile and intimate. There is only so long a resonance or loud an attack that any stringed instrument will produce, even with open strings, but the variety and range of nuances of bow friction can be infinite.

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