This is not a love story: Chaya Czernowin’s Heart Chamber

Chaya Czernowin’s fourth opera, Heart Chamber, will receive its premiere at Deutsche Oper Berlin on 15 November, and subsequent performances on 21, 26 and 30 November, and 6 December. Tickets and other information can be found here. The following essay is a longer version of the text that is published (in German, translated by Wieland Hoban) in the programme book.

This is not a love story. The history of opera already has plenty of those: Orpheus and Eurydice, Dido and Aeneas, Tristan and Isolde, Pelléas and Mélisande, Porgy and Bess. Two lovers meet and become bound together by the forces of fate or the rules of society. Whether their story is tragic or comic they must fall in love, and love is an irresistible force.

Or is it? Heart Chamber, by the Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, confronts that convention. This is a romantic opera for the twenty-first century. At its core are questions that could not have been asked seriously before. Is it inevitable that two people should be joined in a physical, emotional, social and familial bond? Do we want to be alone, or do we want to live in a couple or in a family? Must we sanctify love above all else?

The two characters in Heart Chamber are nameless. We are told almost nothing about their pasts. Although sung by a woman (soprano, Patrizia Ciofi) and a man (baritone, Dietrich Henschel), they are almost without gender. Their desires and fears are the same. Their story is minimal and we are shown only a few tiny moments: their first encounter and an accidental touch of skin; a phonecall and an invitation to talk a walk; a conversation and a revelation. They are not star-crossed lovers, doomed to a tragic fate. Nor are they romantic hero and heroine, bound to live happily ever after. They are figures slowly opening themselves up to each other, their minds and bodies hyper-sensitised to all the excitement, potential and danger that that involves. They are universal.

Falling in love is a huge risk. To share your life and your self with someone is to risk pain and suffering – and in extreme circumstances even torture and death. This is very rare, of course, although movements like #MeToo have made us all more aware of the amount of physical abuse that does take place. And even in a kind and caring relationship in which each partner is able to grow, to love is to lose something – other lives, other loves. It means giving up our autonomy and independence in order to become part of something larger. It is an opening up that is both physical and psychological. In Czernowin’s words: ‘In all this process of falling in love or opening your life to somebody else there are so many emotions, and they are all very focused, all very concentrated. It is almost like the whole body – and the whole body of the personality – know that they are going to undergo a huge change. And that change is described to us by society as something so idyllic: not many people talk about the risk, of opening an organism into another organism.’ Insofar as it tells a story – or describes a series of scenes – Heart Chamber does so in ways that engage us listeners aesthetically, psychologically and physically. As far as is possible, we are drawn into the same adventure into the unknown as the lovers themselves.

The libretto for Heart Chamber was written by the composer herself: it is ‘An inquiry about love’, according to its subtitle. The opera is dedicated to Czernowin’s husband, the composer Steven Kazuo Takasugi. The two voices are each partnered with another who sings their unspoken thoughts (additional text is added by a chorus and, near the start of the opera, recorded voices). The vocal pairings – the woman with a contralto (Noa Frenkel), the man with a countertenor (Terry Wey) – ensure that the separated ranges of the soprano and baritone mingle and overlap. (Again, Czernowin has deliberately blurred the gender divisions.) The libretto was originally written like a musical score: four lines, one for each voice, with all four lines to be read simultaneously. In the opera, this counterpoint comes out in the way in which the characters’ internal and external worlds continually interact with each other. ‘Take care when you pick it up’, sings the woman at their first encounter. ‘Don’t look at me like that, your eyes your gaze is burning’ adds her internal voice. The man is no more confident. ‘It looks solid enough to me – here you go!’ he replies to her, but inside he is anxious: ‘I didn’t mean to touch her hand like that it was by chance’. This push and pull of inner and outer continues throughout the opera, right up until its very last moment. Even as the sixth and final scene begins with the chorus noting that ‘Love is approaching’, the characters lay bare their fears of what that entails: ‘You erase me you consume my space you need so much of me’ (soprano); ‘You can’t suddenly cut away like that, why? I have to cry but I can’t turn away you opened me’ (baritone).

Composing Heart Chamber also left Czernowin exposed and on the brink of something unknown. This is the first time she has written her own libretto, for example, and it is – in her own words – ‘not a shy text’. Heart Chamber is, she freely admits, her most personal work, the completion of a twenty-year arc within her own artistic development, and also potentially the beginning of a new phase. It is her fourth composition for the stage, after Pnima … ins Innere (1998–9), a study in the consequences across generations of the trauma of the Holocaust, based on the novella See under: Love by David Grossmann; Adama (2004–5), a companion to the unfinished fragments of Mozart’s Zaide; and Infinite Now (2015–16), a meditation on entrapment and existence based on the short story Homecoming by the celebrated Chinese writer Can Xue, and the play FRONT by Luk Perceval (itself based on Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front).

Czernowin’s first opera, Pnima, had been a point of arrival, not only for her career – it established her among the leading composers of our time, winning the Bayerische Theater Preis 2000 and being named the most best premiere of the year by Opernwelt – but also for her music, as it drew together many of the themes of construction and deconstruction, and multiple and singular identities that she had begun to explore throughout the 1990s. There are two characters: an old man and a boy. The man is a Holocaust survivor; the boy is trying to understand the trauma that his grandfather will not discuss. Like the boy, and Grossmann, Czernowin is of a generation born and brought up in Israel, a generation who had grown up knowing something terrible had happened in their parents’ past but who were only ever shown glimpses of it; it was something concealed and rarely spoken about. The profound discontinuity between two generations’ experience is expressed in a musical language of friction and disruption: the sounds of winds and strings being stopped, distorted, split. Sometimes the sounds are smooth; but like memories they just as easily catch and break as air pushes against dilating lips, bow hairs scrape across strings, fingertips pluck and slide. The musical space is articulated not by continuities of melody, rhythm or harmony, but by relative degrees of resistance and obstruction.

These discontinuities carry through into Pnima’s dramaturgy. Although the work is an opera, neither the boy nor the man sing or speak on stage to each other or to the audience. Instead they are represented by two separate groups of voices and instruments, which express not only the space between the characters but also their conflicted, complex, and fragmented internal states rather than their external voices. Unlike Heart Chamber, in which external and internal voices are in constant dialogue and frequent conflict with one another, the dramatic tension in Pnima arises from the fact that the boy and the man cannot speak to each other, and can therefore never reach a resolution.

Pnima marked a significant point in Czernowin’s artistic development. ‘But then I really wanted to change’, she has said. ‘And I had to fight very, very hard.’ One way out for her was to introduce a visceral physicality that was not only imagined or metaphorical, but also present in the music itself. Pnima had already opened this door, yet subsequent works went further in this direction, drawing direct equivalents between sound and its physical production. A key example is Sahaf, written in 2008 for Ensemble Nikel, which prominently features a ratchet, an instrument whose sound is very closely matched to how you play it. Heart Chamber features moments like these on almost every page, but they are most vividly heard through the electronics, which are all derived from ‘concrete’ or recorded sounds, all of them the sounds of things in motion: swirling marbles, a spinning record, leaves blowing in the wind. The principle of kinetic energy is carried through to the innovative use of a sound ‘beamer’. This is essentially a loudspeaker attached to a long tube that can direct sound like a beam of light to a single point. In Heart Chamber it scans the auditorium, adding a layer of sound that is in continuous motion over those of the orchestra and voices, and the enveloping surround-sound electronics.

Czernowin takes the connection between the sonic and physical dimensions of sound still further in Heart Chamber, through her use of the recently identified phenomenon of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). This is a physical sensation of tingling skin that usually begins on the scalp and passes down the spine. It may be triggered by many things including certain auditory stimuli, particularly quiet, granular sounds such as crumpling paper, crushing eggshells, brushing hair, or writing – all of which also come with intimate physical associations. Examples of such sounds used in Heart Chamber include breathing and the plucking of comb teeth. Although your own sensory response to these sounds will be personal to you, Czernowin’s use of them indicates her desire to extend the physical metaphor of her music as far as the sphere of listening.

As Czernowin peeled away the layers of her own practice through the 2000s, she also opened up new spaces. This is a central conceit not only of individual works but also her whole way of working: that you can keep on simplifying sounds or experiences, but each time you do you reveal something new inside. ‘When you are going down the layers’, she has explained, ‘I also slow down everything so that it can be followed. Externally, you will initially think it will be much simpler because it is slowed down – you can follow it. But what it shows you is that when you slow down and you come close, you suddenly see all the amoebas, all the germs, and you suddenly see that it’s far more complicated than you thought.’

Space and electronics started to become components in her musical language. Maim (2001–7), for five soloists, orchestra and electronics, and perhaps Czernowin’s most important work of the 2000s, featured a system that would project the sound of the orchestra from the back of the hall, behind the audience. HIDDEN (2014), her forty-five-minute piece for string quartet and electronics, written for the JACK Quartet and first performed by them at IRCAM, goes further, using a surround-sound system to compose an ever-shifting virtual architecture that surrounds the live musicians. It was with this piece that Czernowin first worked with one of IRCAM’s computer music designers, Carlo Laurenzi – ‘an ideal collaborator’ who became essential to the creation of Infinite Now’s electronic parts and who also worked with her on Heart Chamber (along with Lukas Nowak and Joachim Haas at the Freiburg Experimentalstudio). ‘He understands my work completely,’ Czernowin has said of Laurenzi. ‘We find the thing that we don’t yet know, but we do it as two people. It doesn’t feel like collaborating with a foreign person, it’s very close to home.’ Nowak and Haas have also been close collaborators on earlier pieces: Haas worked with Czernowin in 1997 on Shu Hai practices javelin, her first piece to combine voice and electronics; and Nowak worked with her last year on Habekhi, a chamber piece for ensemble, voice and electronics that anticipated some of the ideas used in Heart Chamber.

Infinite Now was written as a series of six tableaux, each one developing the structure and the material of the last, continually stripping layers away and uncovering new things. The effect was rather like looking at a photograph at increasing levels of magnification: zooming in on a single, repeated moment. The process of ‘zooming in’ is central too to Heart Chamber, and is epitomised at the opera’s start. Subtitled ‘Tunnel, distant light’, the work’s first section is a long solo for double bass, played by Uli Fussenegger and gradually joined by the solo instruments of Ensemble Nikel (Patrick Stadler, saxophones, Yaron Deutsch, electric and acoustic guitars, Antoine Françoise, keyboards and piano, and Brian Archinal, percussion) and the vocalist Frauke Aulbert. ‘I didn’t know very much about the piece when I started it’, Czernowin tells me when I ask her about why she started the piece from this point. ‘This contrabass solo was for me like walking into a tunnel and opening something to look through.’

The solo itself begins from the widest possible space, covering the whole range of the instrument from high to low, as well as a large number of playing techniques. Soon it focuses on a very narrow point in its range – two notes, B and C above the treble clef. It is a strange place to begin a ninety-minute grand opera. Against the great overtures of Mozart or Wagner it seems almost perverse that the music should close itself down so quickly almost to nothing. But this is precisely Czernowin’s model of the tunnel – as a space that does not enclose and restrict, but that draws one closer to hidden worlds of detail. (It is telling that the opera’s title refers not only to the biological organ with which love is traditionally associated, but also to a confined space, a chamber.) As the pitches reduce down to just two the bass is instructed to play fast and on the bridge (sul ponticello); despite the narrow pitch band the actual sound heard is unstable and constantly changing. ‘When you come close to something you don’t only notice the outlines of the most important things in the room’, Czernowin has said. ‘You suddenly notice the air, you suddenly notice the heat from the radiator. When you get into an internal space you actually notice everything in the room. That also happens when you experience something very, very strong, when you have a strong emotional experience. You see how light works, how the dust is in the air, because everything slows down, and the room becomes audible, visible, and it brings itself into existence.’

In her works of the 1990s and 2000s, Czernowin would notate her music in almost obsessive detail, adding layers of information to even the tiniest particles of sound. Maim, for example compresses multiple intersecting processes into its first few notes alone, and maintains this intense level of detail throughout its fifty-minute duration. Over time, however, she has been able to relinquish some of that control and to allow her writing to become more generalised. She has said that a lot of what it means to be an artist is ‘giving what is unique to you in the best and the cleanest way that you can’. Although her sonic language has remained as characteristic as ever, she has found ways of expressing it without having to control every moment of the work. Slowness has brought hidden details of the sound into the foreground. Earlier pieces hinted at this new direction, particularly White Wind Waiting for guitar and orchestra (2013) – which might be considered a guitar concerto were the orchestra not whittled down to a stark textural underlay, and the guitar to a handful of enigmatic interjections – and they came to the fore in HIDDEN and then Infinite Now, both works that feature sonic tableaux that are static in many respects but full of unpredictable detail as you allow your ear to be drawn into them. The same quality is true of Heart Chamber. One set of instructions taken from the double bass introduction is indicative: ‘heavier pressure, slow bow / discontinuity in the sound as grain of sound appears when bow is extremely slow/ very little horizontal bow’.

Having reached this point of extreme focus, the opera follows a unique formal design that echoes Czernowin’s presentation of love that is not determined by social requirements or conventional narrative, but by the realities of physical and psychological change. Unlike HIDDEN or Infinite Now, Heart Chamber shifts its emphasis away from frozen moments of almost bottomless depth, and towards a continual forward motion: it is a constantly changing organism. Yet unusually, the piece does not grow outwards from a single point or idea – a common procedure that can be found in musical history from Josquin to Gérard Grisey – but proceeds towards a point. Moreover, that single point is unpredictable from the outset. Neither the man nor the woman know where the different moments in their journey will take them. As listeners we cannot discern how the opera will unfold from the extremely minimal beginning of two notes played repeatedly by a double bass. Even the composer herself was uncertain. At each step along the opera’s path something is added that changes its course, alters its endpoint. Following it is like tracing your finger through a maze, but in reverse. As elements combine, they open, they gain something, they lose something, they move forward. Where we end up is not encoded in where we began. There are moments in the opera – such as when the woman telephones the man to invite him to join her on a walk, or the man’s revelation about a previous lover. But each of these marks a point of departure; they are openings rather than arrivals. They are not ‘scenes’ in the conventional theatrical sense. They are revelations that set things in motion rather than bring them to rest.

The morning after the premiere of Infinite Now, in April 2017, I interviewed Czernowin in the luxurious breakfast room of her hotel in Ghent. The spring sunshine was glowing behind the leaves of a vine growing across the window. The composer could not have been happier, or more relieved. ‘I feel such a huge liberation right now’, she told me when I asked her how she felt. ‘Because I have no idea where it is going. I know, though, that it is almost like I now have wings and that I can fly!’ Yet perhaps the seeds of Heart Chamber were already in her mind. As she described to me the structure of Infinite Now, with its overlapping layers that go deeper and deeper into the truth of a situation, she used the analogy of falling in love. ‘It’s like when you see a person for the first time’, she said. ‘You know nothing about them. But you think, after I have lived with them for half a year I will know. But it’s exactly the opposite. You see them for the first time and you know everything there is to know. You live with them for half a year and you know nothing!’

One month before the premiere of Heart Chamber, in October 2019, I spoke to Czernowin again. This time we connected via Skype, from the more ordinary surroundings of my home. It was fascinating to compare the two conversations, one conducted just after a major premiere, the other a few weeks before. Extending over a total duration of two and half hours, Infinite Now was Czernowin’s largest work to date – at the time she called it her ‘most extensive, wide and I hope deep and far-reaching statement’. Along with HIDDEN it remains one of the works that she is most proud of, breaking new ground in terms of how large she could make the internal space of the music. It continues to be special to her because in it she accepted her own artistic tendency – which she also describes as a vulnerability – to dive deep into the interior of sounds, and was able to render that internal space as infinite. Yet just two years later, she already regards it as a transitional step of its own, this time on the path that has brought her to Heart Chamber. ‘With this opera I am really going all the way back to Pnima with everything I have learned’, she tells me over Skype. She feels many parallels between tonight’s opera and her first. ‘I feel like Heart Chamber takes all the knowledge of psychology [from Pnima] and puts it inside the body. I am now inside the body. I am sensitive to the neurons, the muscles, the kinetic energy. I am sensitive to the quality of the voice and what it sends into the muscles and the nerves.’ Pnima, she says, closed a chapter in her life in which she completed her debt to her parents, and rebelled against them too. It was the moment she was able to come into her own as an artist. I put it to her that she told me something similar about Infinite Now, two years ago: that that opera was the summation of everything she had done since the beginning of her career. ‘Always in love with the last one!’ she laughs. The ending is not an ending. It is a beginning. This is love.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2019

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press). He is married and has two children.

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