Experimentation & Discovery
Our 22nd installation features an unscheduled pop-up interview where we are joined by one of the leading voices of contemporary music in the 21st century – Chaya Czernowin. Czernowin, hosted by Ensmeble Nikel in their annual contemporary music festival, Tzlil Meudcan, presented us at Halas Radio with a rare opportunity to confront a true trendsetter of contemporary music with thoughts regarding experimentalism.
Our short interview starts most tellingly with Czernowin’s reaction to my promotional Facebook post, and my claim that her music is not necessarily identified with experimentalism. Czernowin in turn claims that in the United States, her home for many years now, audiences and colleagues alike regard her music as experimental. It is not entirely clear from our short exchange regarding this matter whether Czernowin feels this is a localized sentiment, or whether it carries objective truth regarding her music.
Regardless, Czernowin soon takes us to a recent lecture she had given at the Orpheus Institute in Belgium, where she created for her listeners a clear dichotomy between experimentation and discovery. Whereas the former implies a reshaping of known paradigms, the latter relates to the discovery of new possibilities as a result of research with specific materials. The immediate example given by Czernowin is of Feldman’s 1981 piece for cello and piano – Patterns in a Chromatic Field. Whereas the paradigm shift exemplified in the Feldman piece can be traced back to his first forays into this style 20 or 30 years earlier, the discovery here is with the new possibilities presented with these same known materials – possibilities that could have been unknown to the composer until their fashioning into this particular piece. This idea immediately resonates with me when I muse on other late Feldman pieces such as Rothko Chapel and Coptic Light, where it indeed seems that there is a discovery emanating from what acts as Feldman’s pretty standard language by then. With this thought in mind, Czernowin also mentions the late music of Beethoven as music disclosing discovery. Indeed here too I tend to immediately recognize that which Czernowin tries to point towards, as one cannot disregard the spirit of experimentation present in Beethoven’s work from the onset, however it truly is only with his final works where one confronts a feeling of having transcended the genre set through a lengthy and arduous process by Beethoven himself.
One of the most interesting claims made by Czernowin is her insistence at not pinning concrete meaning to the idea of experimentation. “If there is a sense of definition behind this term, or a schema, then whatever it was ceases to be experimentation”. As much as I agree with this sentiment, I interject with a notion of my own, claiming that had we worked in a scientific academic field our entire conversation would be nullified, as we are discussing a term that even us two cannot agree upon. The prime example of this can be seen in my perception of Czernowin’s music vis-à-vis her own perception of the same music. Whereas I recognize no inherent experimentation there (and I must clarify – I refer to the paradigm shift mentioned earlier), Czernowin sees experimentation as integral to her work. As an example, she discusses a drone inserted into one of her recent pieces as a means to present a formal break – a supposedly unannounced structural moment that does not indicate to the listener its potential dimension. I respond with a quote from Lachenmann, who in 2010, during his 75th birthday residency at the Southbank Centre in London, was quoted saying that the music he feels most relation to these days is that which gives him the feeling that “this can be music too”. Indeed, this sounds like the paradigm shift we were discussing earlier, where a new expression suddenly widens the prism from within which we think about music or art at large. With this idea in mind, Czernowin and I discuss whether her former example indeed constitutes such a paradigm shift, but our time soon comes to an end, and so for now – an unanswered question still.