Making Audiences’ ‘Ears Think’


It takes a steely will and a ferocious intelligence to write serious avant-garde music. But it never hurts to combine those traits with personal charm and, above all, a sense of humor. In evidence, we offer Chaya Czernowin, the Israeli composer whose works are being showcased at the Miller Theater on April 15.

Czernowin, 53, has no illusions about audience response to her music.

“I’m not expecting anybody to come up to me after a concert and say, ‘Oh, I was blown away by your music,” she says. “I don’t expect that on one hearing. But I do hope that people can say, ‘I don’t completely understand or know what’s going on, but I’m interested to hear it again. I need to get to know it.’”

That, she says, “is what I wish the reaction would be.”

Perhaps 100 years of Western art music that eschews tonality has educated audiences a bit. Czernowin describes a recent experience during a 2004 performance of a string quartet of hers in Berlin.

“It is an extremely difficult piece,” she readily admits. “And it received such a warm reception; I was sitting there and thinking, how can they understand this? I couldn’t accept the fact that this was a success.”

Perhaps the answer to that surprise was embedded in Czernowin’s working methods. The Tel Aviv-born composer acknowledges that there are highly cerebral elements in the creation process behind her music, but there is something else.

“I have a strong analytical mind and ear, but the music is always extremely emotional, even psychological,” she says. “In that sense, it is the classical dichotomy, cerebral vs. intuitive.”

Jewish thought, it has often been said, is intensely dialectical, and many of Czernowin’s compositions have an underlying dialectical structure. She offers as an example her “Anea Crystal” cycle, part of which will be performed Friday.

“The Anea cycle is comprised of three pieces; there are two string quartets that are of such different character from each other that it is difficult to imagine them belonging to the same world,” she explains. “But in the third section they are played simultaneously [as an octet] with very few changes, and you see how they actually fit together.”

The result is certainly dialectical, a synthesis of two seemingly opposed musical statements.

On the other hand, Czernowin says, she likes working in other structures equally well. Her “Winter Songs” pieces, of which there are three completed so far, differ from one another in, well, a different way.

“In all of these pieces there is a septet of very low instruments that remains the same in each,” she says. “In the first piece there are also recorded noises. In the second piece, I added three percussionists and there are no recorded noises; in the third I take the electronics and the percussionists, and everything is done together.”

When the two final pieces are composed, they will “have an even more radical relationship to the original septet,” Czernowin says.

“The final product will be a very additive process, talking about memory and how it changes with time. It’s like a painting on top of a painting, a palimpsest. It will have a physical quality, like layers of paint five inches thick that you can peel away in places to expose the earlier painting.”

In other interviews, Czernowin has said that random moments of nature often find their way into her work. She will occasionally stop writing to watch a squirrel working its way around her lawn or the wind whipping tree branches in playful rhythms. She also draws on Israeli and Jewish writers for inspiration. Her opera “Pnima … ins Innere” is drawn from a short story by David Grossman, and “Die Kreuzung,” which will be performed at the Miller Theater show, was inspired by a Kafka short story.

She is not oblivious to real-world events either. Her musical theater piece “Zaide/Adama” takes an unfinished Mozart songspiel as the jumping-off point for a rumination on an Israeli-Palestinian affair with tragic possibilities.

Czernowin grew up in a household that her father filled with music. He was, she recalls, a very talented amateur musician, an accordionist of real skill.

“Had he not lived in Europe during the time of the Second World War,” she says, “he would have been a professional musician.”

He passed his musical gift on to his daughter, who began playing piano at age 6. She was even part of a progressive rock band as a teen in Tel Aviv, playing the piano, singing and writing songs.

“We admired Gentle Giant and John McLaughlin and King Crimson,” she recalls. “We didn’t sound like them, we sounded like ourselves, but that’s who we were listening to.”

Given that both Czernowin and her husband Steven Takasugi are composers, it comes as no surprise that their son is in a band. “He plays indie alternative rock,” she says with a little hesitation. “I wouldn’t want to call it something he wouldn’t approve of.”

Czernowin’s own rock and roll career was fairly brief. As her songs became more abstract and more atonal, her departure from the group was inevitable. Happily, she has found a secure niche in the academic and concert worlds. She is currently teaching composition at Harvard and working on commissions that will keep her busy into 2018.

Despite her success, Czernowin has no illusions about the accessibility of her oeuvre.

“I think that this is not music that will entice a conservative public,” she says. “The basis of the music is the relationship to sound as a kind of discovery. Every piece is precisely that for me, a discovery of something I have not known before.”

And the audience?

“I want to make their ears think,” she says emphatically. “And that’s a very sensual thing. It’s not just about the brain.”

Chaya Czernowin will be the subject of the latest “Composer Portraits” program at the Miller Theater, Columbia University (116th St. and Broadway), on Friday, April 15 at 8 p.m. For information, call 212- 854-7799, or go to