Mar 6, 2014

Album Review: "Images from a Closed Ward" by Michael Hersch

By Rron Karahoda

The time has come to bust out the wine as we delve into Images from a Closed Ward, the latest from contemporary classical label Innova Records. Michael Hersch, an american composer who now serves as chair of the composition department at the Peabody Institute started out with a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth and has never looked back. With a healthy body of work under his belt, including “The Vanishing Pavilions”, a work for piano that spans for over two hours, his music tends to exude anguish, and Images is almost no different. Built on the etchings and lithographs of inmates in a Rhode Island mental asylum by American artist Michael Mazur, Hersch’s quartet is home to the unraveling strings of insanity and madness as musical ideas are built up and left open-ended, only to be replaced rather than confronted.

Images is not the usual monstrosity birthed of program notes upon program notes (one of the more common signs that a piece has been written in the recent past) coupled with a new-age approach to math where FFTs find a way to charge one’s aura as an entire wave of exactitude and precision dissolves into chaos and imposed emotion. On the contrary, it has the effect of reading Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, a complete tale of insanity caught up in the most unending of human concerns. How alone are we really? Beckett’s Murphy is a self-proclaimed solipsist and is dangerous to us, even as readers, because of our ability to poke through the barriers of our worlds and find ourselves caught up in the trappings of this deluded environment. So it is with Images, which finds ways of using a sparse texture to open up an extremely dissonant aural vocabulary as a means to let us inhabit this space in a meaningful way. Even melodies exist in this world, like small bits of coherent thought wedged between paranoid repetitions of the base material. It’s music for people and I find myself being drawn into its language more and more after every listening. Perhaps one of the greatest conceits of the work is that there only appear to be moments of clarity. What we might confuse as moments of tonality in a generally atonal framework are actually phrases, ideas, and progressions we’ve been hearing all along simply without all of the conflicting material keeping us from accepting them.

Which is the sane thought amidst this broken mirror of identities? I can’t really say but I’m very happy to not know, instead of having an essay to inform me of every minute detail that my absorption of the material hinges upon. This music stands very much on its own and I hope that Mr. Hersch can provide us with more human experience moving forward.

Grade: B+

Image via Innova

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