A passage from a conversation between
Chaya Czernowin and Pia Palme.


This conversation took place online on 11 May 2020, during the Corona crisis lockdown. The two composers were seated at their private working places, in their respective home studios in Boston, USA and Vienna, Austria. As they spoke in front of their computers, both had a view through their windows onto the trees in their backyards. Bird sightings repeatedly attracted their attention; they frequently interrupted their conversation to comment on the specific rare birds they observed outside in the trees. After an initial exchange about their current situation, the composers turn to a discourse on fragility and vulnerability – a discourse that was originally planned for the research symposium at the Kunstuniversität Graz, in May. The dialogue has been only lightly edited to preserve its original character. Both composers follow their unfolding flow of thoughts while ambiguities emerge. They search and question without veiling their uncertainties – they find their common rhythm in the process of talking. Their discourse is punctuated by gaps of silence and contemplation. These gaps mirror both the lockdown situation at the time, as well as the very content of the conversation itself.

Transcription: Lena Hengl
Editing: Irene Lehmann and Molly McDolan

Missing Stones

Palme: What are you doing at the moment? Can you work at home? 

Czernowin: I work a lot… For me, I mean it is a tragedy what is happening now, but it is also an opportunity to rethink. That saves me, because I was supposed to be travelling so much and I have so much music to write… How about you?

Palme: It keeps changing… Sometimes I feel I can work well, but at other times the uncertainty of the future… Not to know whether the things will actually be performed or not… It’s like I’m missing the second step in the future or… You step on something and then there is nothing…

Czernowin: The second stone. You are in the river and if there is no second stone, you cannot jump.

Palme: Yes, exactly. I find it not so easy.

Czernowin: It will all fall into place and I think that the pieces that probably were important for you and that were already planned, that they will be simply postponed. I hope so.

Palme: Yes,… the whole schedule of the festivals seems to be falling apart. Probably there is something planned for next year also, and that will also… Everything changes all the time. And some things…

Czernowin: (interruption) Yes, it’s very, very strange… We will see how it all falls into place. I mean, especially performers are very, very depressed right now and some of them are really losing hope for the future and I do not agree to this. I think that it will all return, it’s just a matter of time.

Palme: I wonder… do you continue in the same way or do you find your way of composing changing, now, or do you keep just in the same way as before?

Czernowin: No, I’m always changing, I’m always changing… I mean there is a lot that stays the same, that you can see from the outside, but from the inside I don’t ever feel like I’m doing the same thing… I mean of course it’s like I have my body of my creation and the métier – but it is constantly changing, hopefully and growing. So you know, I just heard Heart Chamber and I think that hearing that piece and being in it changed me completely. Then I wrote a big piece for Musikfabrik which I still haven’t heard… and I’m very unsure about. It was very hard to write and it is an hour and four minutes. It’s really long. I hope it holds its time.


Fragility of Sounds pulsating within Heart Chamber

Czernowin: (laughing) That was very surprising to see. All the themes of the conference [i.e. the conference Fragility of Sound at the Kunstuniversität Graz that had to be postponed to 2021] and you read about Heart Chamber, that is really…

Palme: (interruption) Yes, what made you interested in these topics? 

Czernowin: For me they are not exactly like topics. For me they belong to and are connected to, the essence of my work. They can be elements of feminist theory which I don’t know much about, or they can be connected to all kinds of alternative ways of thinking. Vulnerability is so important to me because, you know, when you compose something and it is not vulnerable… it would really take away from the depth of it.

I believe that depth is very connected to the notion of vulnerability and risk because it’s not the old depth, the romantic depth, which is connected to showing the history and the roots and expressing emotion. That is one type of depth, but there are different types of depths. I think of depth which is revealed when a material is fragile and you see then all the fine, internal connections that create the possibility of its existence: there are so many parameters on deeper and deeper levels, which, in their interconnectedness, depend on each other in unexpected ways. They are all interconnected – meaning that if you change one detail it would affect something else which is hard to predict. And you see then the question that is motivating its existence – that is, once you understand this interconnectedness you can understand the motivation for the existence of the fragile material. You can see what is at stake. That is another kind of depth, which has to do with the layers of connections.

Palme: Is it, like, you would say that the things that are more deeply embedded need to be more deeply embedded, because it is the fragile element? Fragile and hidden and less visible?

Czernowin: Exactly… And not really an element, we are talking about the connections and parameters which do not see the light very easily. So, the deeper you go the more fragility you could probably find. And it has an effect on time and on memory especially because, you know, it is connected to your experiences, to how you sorted them out. But then, it is also completely connected to the present and how you feel the moment of the present, with all its complexities. Not the moment as you can see it immediately, but the moment that you can see after two seconds and after two hours and after some more time. So it’s the experience of the moment and the feeling of how you can understand the force and the power… the impact of the moment. Impact is not a word that I like. How can you understand the texture of the moment? The rarity of the moment?

Palme: Is it because the things that are deeper, that are found more in the depths are more sensual? Is the depth also the core, the centre, or what is it?

Czernowin: So there are two. There are two kinds of… That is very nice. So there are two kinds of depths that I’m thinking about. Let’s think about one of them as going down, and this is the one you are talking about – and the one you are talking about has to do with a kind of archaeology of the soul. A kind of archaeology, where things can be found that were buried deeper. There is also, though, the depth that is going up, and this one has to do with the moment right now and with the feeling that the moment will not return, and what is happening right now, and how it comes to be. I really do think that when you look, for example, at a flower in a… time lapse video, and when you see how the flower comes out… Every flower is very individual. It has the depth of the moment where, when it comes out, you don’t only see that moment right now as it grows, because it’s connected to what was a second ago, before the past became the present, and it’s connected to what it will become a second later… both becomings are unpredictable. If you do not create with the depth of perception of the now that perception can immediately disappear. It is the connector to the future and the past… And on the other hand, if you only see it as a ‘now’ you lose the depth of its connection to the future and the past, and this connection also includes in it the notion of the risk that something might suddenly be interrupted, or cut.

Palme: Yes, very interesting.

Czernowin: The danger, the risk… what in this moment will create the next moment. I think that those two depths are very related, the fragility of the connection to the past and future in the current moment, and the interconnectedness, and a myriad of parameters which must relate to each other in explicit or implicit ways. And this is how I create perspective and dimensionality in my work.

Humans, Instruments, and Wild Things

Palme: When you write a piece of music theatre do you have a sense of the space, when you compose, the space of the performance?

Czernowin: Yes, I mean in Heart Chamber, I spent a long time, like a few days, in the Deutsche Oper [Berlin] and I did have the sense of the place. But in other pieces not so much. Also because I spatialised the electronics and I have a lot of speakers. I try to make it so that I… I force the place, it is a kind of a forcing… Maybe I persuade the place to become the place of my imagination. That’s always a kind of a dialogue, because Heart Chamber – I hope will be performed at some other places and I hope we will get the same quality of sound, you know. 

Palme: Is there a difference… Like, in electronics you can do all kinds of spatialisations. And when you write for an instrument it’s… an instrument… is there a difference for you in using electronics, as a kind of ambient, and the instrument,…in a sense of space?

Czernowin: Yes, yes, absolutely. Well, I would say this, that I have realised that… during the last year I really created a small universe and I’m realising now, I am going to break it. Because I want to get out of it. The universe that I have created is such that the [Internet interruption] electronics, they give me a horizon, they give me a field, they give me like many of the same, a scene, you know, like a kind of a very alive background. In Heart Chamber, there is a whole storm with a lot of bees and all kinds of noises of nature and they surround you. So that’s, you know, it’s actually a recording of real storms. I use a lot of recordings of nature. So it’s really like an environment, almost an… ecology. Instruments are really like carriers of much more human spirit that live in this ecology.

But you know, in the past I used to record instruments also multiple times, and the instrument could become its own ecology or its own solo… definitely those categories are very active in my mind in all my last pieces and I’m now beginning to question them. You know, why does it have to be always an enveloping ecology. Why can’t it be an ecology that comes, unwraps, and goes, and another ecology comes. So… not so immersive, in a way, to some extent. Yes, it’s holistic, but it’s more… gradual. It’s not rational, but it makes sense in some physical way. I’m going to start questioning now, that’s what I’m doing in my current piece Fast Darkness.

Palme: It’s like you are thinking of… When you have this ecology of electronics, it’s a certain role that you… assigned to the electronics. As you said, it’s more the background, part of the scenery, but not the… soloist performer or not the human performer…

The Leaf’s Solo

Czernowin: (interruption) not the human, yes. There is for example in Heart Chamber, there is a solo of one leaf. It’s a small leaf and it’s a solo of a leaf breaking. (laughing) That’s how the piece finishes. One leaf and we worked on it very long to record it right… Actually, I was not able to record it, it was Lukas Nowok from Experimentalstudio who is able to do almost anything, and I stood near the microphone and almost did not move anything, and this was exactly the right noise we needed for this solo. (laughing)… you know, holding the leaf and pressing it so little and that is what we needed. Anyway, so… that was the kind of solo that I would take from nature, but it is not a human solo and I think that all those things are going to change now.

Palme: Yes, and now… to kind of change these roles… you want to…

Czernowin: I want to get them out of the fixation, I don’t like the fixation.

Palme: Yes, interesting. And you see the instruments as more on the human side, so the performer, the musician is… They really have a kind of…

Czernowin: (interruption)… agency. This is… I mean, these are beautiful questions that you ask and… clearly you are a composer, I must say. These are really questions from inside of the work process…

Palme: (laughing) these are the things that I also think about… 

Czernowin: So let me say that, the instruments are double agents or multiple agents… but also the voices, because there are always points where you can get to a place where a performer doesn’t have control of what comes out from the instruments. When you write a lot of bow pressure (shows noise) but what if you wanted to exactly control all the parameters, you would have to write a book for one measure. And in the moment that something is not controlled, it starts touching on the quality of nature, which I am looking for, which is outside of control. It’s really like against Beethoven (laughing)… like voices and the control have to have something of a will and something of an identity – which is very connected to the Beethovenian way of thinking, and nature is everything which is not connected to that and we don’t have control over.

But the truth is that it is not a dichotomy (laughing) and that’s what I am discovering – what we are discovering now. It is not a dichotomy, it is a continuum and that continuum is not linear. In the moment of a great solo with a great expression, suddenly you can ask for the voice to break and suddenly it becomes a voice of an animal and it’s not human anymore, but the human quality does not exactly stop in the moment that you want it to, you know.