Michael Hersch’s sew me into a shroud of leaves is the longest piece of music I have ever listened to. A chamber work in the form of a trilogy ‒ for solo piano, then cello-horn duo, then solo piano again ‒ it is 11 hours long. The Wien Modern concert took an entire day, beginning before dawn at five in the morning, and ending well after sunset, at eight.
“It took a long time to find the right space for such a piece,” said Bernhard Günther, the music director of Wien Modern. “Above all, it needed to be a place where people could come and go.” Yes, not even true believers (aka new music fanatics) sit still that long. A concert hall wouldn’t do; no matter how you redefine the rules, someone walking around such a hall is irritating at best and disrespectful at worst. Günther came up with the perfect solution: a library. People know how to behave in libraries – tread quietly, whisper. And he did not choose just any library ‒ he rented the Nationalbibliothek’s Prunksaal.
I admit, I only went to this marathon out of curiosity. Also because the Prunksaal, with its glorious baroque splendor, 29-meter-high frescoed cupola and 200,000 leather-bound books on row after row of massive and ornate shelves is one of my favorite rooms “in the whole world,” as they say.
But it was a phenomenal concert. At the end, I had new hope for the entire future of music. Someone is still using it as a means for expressing profound emotions.
Hersch is from Washington, DC, and Saturday’s little band also consisted of exceptional American players ‒ pianists Jacob Rhodebeck and Jason Hardink, cellist Mariel Roberts and hornist Jamie Hersch (the composer’s brother). That also left me hopeful about music and musicians in the US. Such dedicated endurance and invested time is surely not motivated solely by capital gain.
Sew me into a shroud of leaves is intensely private, despite its vastness. In three movements made up of seven “books,” each of these divided into some twenty “chapters,” the work seems to mirror the vastness of life and its own chapters, whether measured in years or days or minutes. In the score these sections are headed by fragments of poems by Christopher Middleton, W.G. Sebald and Marius Kociejowski, a sub-text giving clues not only to Hersch’s inspiration, but also to the veiled and intimate story he is perhaps telling.
Technically speaking, Hersch uses a consistent musical language here: expressive intervals such as minor tenths or falling seconds, repeated motives, snatches of tonal progressions twisting away into atonality, melodies unwinding in clear, slow steps interrupted by sudden violent high-speed outbursts of cascading clusters. Many passages abruptly halt before reaching the final note, as if cut off in mid-flight, indeed, as if imitating life itself, with its losses and unresolved passions, the important words unsaid, the relationships left incomplete.
It was an exceptional, long journey, this concert that began in the night and ended in the same. As the huge room darkened, a weary yet tender poignancy emerged, an effect that one might call spiritual. When leaving, the profanity of the city streets hit me hard.