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Talking Darmstadt Ep. 04: Chaya Czernowin on Heart Chamber

The contents of this article was originally produced as a podcast on Talking Darmstadt with Madeline Roycroft, Kevin Free, Jan Topolski, and Chatori Shimizu on Aug. 10, 2023.



Episode 4 includes a personal conversation with Chaya Czernowin about her opera Heart Chamber:

An Inquiry about Love and a review of Minor Characters by Matthew Shlomowitz and Jennifer Walshe. 


Chatori Shimizu: Hello and welcome to episode 4 of Talking Darmstadt. Your daily podcast with ideas and discussions responding to the 51st edition of the Darmstadt Summer Course. My name is Chatori Shimizu, I am a composer and sound artist currently based on the Hokkaido island of Japan, joined on the microphone today by two colleagues from the Words on Music program -


Madeline Roycroft: Hello, My name is Madeline Roycroft, I'm a musicologist from Melbourne, Australia.


Jan Topolski: Hello, my name is Jan Topolski, critic and editor from Warsaw, Poland.


Chatori: - and we have our producer Kevin Free, a composer and percussionist from Dublin, Ireland, in the studio. We’re excited to join you for our second podcast as a group. We’ve had a great couple of days here at the festival, and we have a few more interesting pieces and ideas to talk through. On today’s episode, we’ll be discussing our impressions on Chaya Czernowin’s Heart Chamber and you will also hear her own insights into the work from a conversation we had with her earlier in the day today. We will also discuss our impressions of yesterday’s show Minor Characters by Matthew Shlomowitz and Jennifer Walshe later in this episode, so stay tuned for that. Okay, let’s get into it. So we’ve all seen this opera at least once, Jan?


Jan: Oh, Yes. I really loved it. Chaya Czernowin is one of the most acclaimed composers of our age, a regular tutor at the Darmstadt Summer Course, author of five operas, and dozens of orchestral and ensemble works. She gained her reputation by combining her Jewish heritage with modernist musical language and original way of orchestration as well as vocal treatment. This year at Darmstadt she presented a video screening of her most recent opera, Heart Chamber, that premiered at Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2019. It’s scored for 4 singers, double bass solo, ensemble of sax, electric guitar and percussion piano, mixed choir, large orchestra and electronics. Wow, a lot of stuff!

But when I’d like to summarize the plot of this opera, I could paraphrase Jean Luc Godards’ description of a universal formula for a film: a man meets a woman. Just like that. So it’s the story of love, but also – as Czernowin said before the screening – of trust, and its losing. Or the process of making a couple out of two individuals; blurring the distance between “I” and “we”; highlighting a difference between our conscious actions and unconscious thoughts. Therefore both singers are doubled with characters in black, emanation of their true selves. The main characters do not have names, referred to simply as “She” and “He”. As they speak, these shadows sing, creating fascinating four-part polyphony. The set design is quite simple, but powerful at the same moment: a house with windows and stairs, rotating on the scene, with a lot of video projections, and it also brings a connection with the opera and film, because there are a lot of cinematic elements, like slow or reverse motion, freeze frames, grainy images, and sound zoom.

Madeline: Thanks, Jan, for your description and those parallels to cinema. I think that's a very helpful way to explain it, especially for any of our colleagues here at Darmstadt who haven't made it to the screening yet. 

Jan, Chatori and I were able to spend some time with Chaya earlier today in the Talking Darmstadt studio and she was kind enough to answer our questions about the opera, which has screened twice now. Jan, I think you've seen it twice - that's very impressive.

Jan: Yes, I think also Chatori.

Madeline: Chatori as well? I've only seen it once! But there is one more screening on Sunday 13th at 4pm, and that one is actually followed by a Q&A - so definitely the one to go to if you haven’t made it already, and if you have more questions for Chaya after this interview.

Jan: Yes, and after our interview you will hear a brief excerpt from Heart Chamber as well.


Chaya Czernowin talking in screening of opera Heart Chamber: An Inquiry about Love. (c) IMD / Kristof Lemp

Madeline: Thank you so much, Chaya, for joining us today in our studio. It's great to have you.


Chaya Czernowin: Thank you! Lovely to be here.

Madeline: Great! Now, all of us have watched the multiple screenings of the opera. I was at the first one on Tuesday, and first of all I just want to say thank you and congratulations on a fabulous production. I was really interested in your comments at the beginning of this screening on the themes on the opera, how it's a response to people moving away from traditional relationship structures and the expectation to have children that comes with that. These are ideas that I personally think about a lot, and I wonder if you'd be willing to say a bit more about them and how they came to inspire this opera Heart Chamber.

Chaya: Yes, you know, when I set out to write Heart Chamber, I was thinking about, at first, I was thinking that I really wanted to get into that amazing, ecstatic feeling when falling in love. And I started to kind of figure it out and take things apart, and a lot of things came up. So this euphoria feeling when we really fall in love in a very serious way. It is not only happiness, it is not only pure pink and blue. There is actually an element of risk in it, and that element of risk is making it extremely intense. So I started to think about the risk, what is - 

Madeline: When you say "pink and blue", do these symbolize emotions or?

Chaya: Oh just happiness, eternal happiness without any... the rose without its' thorns. A kind of clean euphoria without any under-resonance. So that's where I thought I was starting. I mean, of course, I'm not naive. I started pulling things apart and reaching the place where I thought about the risk - Why, I mean, part of the euphoria and part of the short breath, and part of this... besides also the sexual stuff that is connected to it, but there is also a huge element of risk - of chance and of risk - when you really fall in love. So it was really important for me to look at what is the risk. And I realized that when you really fall in love in a deep way, you are about to change because you are putting another person in the ecology of your life, and you are taking that person in a way as a tool to change, and is a resonance to your problems, wishes, subconscious structures and so on. So all those things are playing a role, and then when I went further and further and further... You know, I was thinking about the discrepancy of all of what we are talking about, thinking and seeing love, is really like the utmost experience, which is to some extent also true, but it's not the only thing that exist. The same time when I was thinking about all these story that I was reading the paper that really shook me... about this Russian couple where the man took the woman after, I don't know how many years of marriage, to a forest and cut her arms. It is a real story. It happened. And there was a court case against that man. The woman is still alive without arms, and clearly, they started from falling in love in some way.

Madeline: And this story was quite close to you when you composed the work, wasn't it?

Chaya: Yes, yes, exactly.

Madeline: Was it already in progress when you saw this story? 

Chaya: I don't exactly remember the exact dates, but I think it might have been a bit before when I still maintained it in my head. 

Madeline: It's quite a disturbing story.

Chaya: It's very disturbing. And then you think about all the books of Thomas... the name escapes me... Thomas, the Austrian writer...

Jan: Bernhard?

Chaya: Bernhard. Thank you, I knew it was with a "B", but it's too early in the morning! Anyways, so writing about his relationship with his sister. The closer you get, the bigger the gamble is. Because the closer you get, the deeper you get into the structure of another person, it's always a question what beauty or what devils we come out, out of those structures. So, that was part of what I was thinking about love, and then as a result of this, I thought about these kinds of societal conditioning that we give - "oh no, love is this perfect thing!" Nobody talks to us about the dangers. It's just like with parenting, you know? "You have to have children" - nobody actually teaches us about parenting, and a lot of people destroy the lives of their children. 

Madeline: You re-enact what you experienced without really thinking about it.

Chaya: Exactly. For example, that would be one of the biggest problem. And so, thinking about it, I also thought about a lot of my friends who are living alone, and when I talk to them and I ask if they have any wish to be with somebody, they say "no, no, no, I'm actually really content". And I was thinking about it, watching my beloved British series of the last Century - it's impossible to live alone, you know, for a woman. It's degrading, she doesn't have a source of income, and so on. Times have changed. And so, our perception of what is to be a couple, of what is love, of the necessity of having a family, is changing with that as well. But of course, the change is not immediate, clear-cut. It's very very difficult to make a transition from something so engrained - and we see it everywhere, you know... I live in America, and we see a whole story - I don't know if you know about it, but in Florida, we have a governor whose name is Ron DeSantis, who is burning books basically. He is not really physically burning, but not allowing any book which has any possibility of a not really family values to be there. So, books even about... I'm not even talking about the racial things that is not allowing to show anything about the past of slavery et cetra - of the Afro-American people - that's not allowed. But also, you know, any reminder of gay culture or... you are not allowed to say the word "homosexual" or "gay", and if it's in a book, the book is out. So, this is the 21st Century, and we have people, to my opinion, that's designed for transition. For some people, they must scream because they are so anxious about the transition, because it's really scary. But we are on a way to a totally different culture, and my feeling is that, it's coming! Ron DeSantis, you can make commotion as much as you want, it's going there, and nobody is going to stop it. Just like when people ask me about women composers, I'm saying, "just wait three generations - they are going to be the main composers around". It's unstoppable, and there are some processes, natural processes, that are happening, and they are taking us to some place. But the resistors are very, very loud, because they are the last ones of the other side.

Madeline: And we all agree that your opera was, in many ways, a successful challenge to these traditional structures.

Chaya: How nice, thank you.


Chaya Czernowin on Talking Darmstadt. (c) IMD / Kristof Lemp

Chatori: Chaya, you mentioned that initially you have described the opera as the "inquiry of love". However, you have also said that if you could rephrase it now, you would call it as the "inquiry about trust". Can you please define what "love" and "trust" means to you in this context?

Chaya: Do we have five days for this podcast? I will try to streamline my answers, but it's difficult because your questions are very good and very provocative. It's a beautiful question. You know, I think that "trust" is "real love", to say it very shortly. "Real love" is "complete trust". "Trust" is "real love". But "love" doesn't always have "trust". And when love does not have trust, it is, for me, a questionable place. Two minutes instead. How about two minutes instead of five days?

Chatori: One question - a visually oriented question. I have noticed that the opera uses numerous visual effects using video projections and projection mappings onto the set. So I have observed that this opera displays swarms of things such as ants, people, birds in the video. Can you please talk about the symbolism behind the swarms?


Chaya: Yes, you know, it is really not so much symbolism. Actually, the truth is that the whole... Let me just take ten meters away and just speak for a moment in general and say that the whole visual part came from the director Claus Guth. And I knew to begin with about a few things that I wanted to have in the opera. And one of them was very, very.... A very high degree of video projections. The other things, some images that they had in the swarms - all the swarms - came from my imagination. I was the one who asked for them to be part of that opera, and Claus Guth being the amazing collaborator that he is and the people who do the film, they all jumped on that idea and bought the swarms into the picture. Now why did they want to have swarms in Heart Chamber? Musically, the piece really thinks in swarms many, many times. So you have the voices, and even the voices are, to some extent, a mini-swarm of two, because you have the external voice and you have the internal voice. And the way that they relate to the external and internal are not set in a not categorical but they move like a like a very flexible shadow and source. So there is already in the movement, one is receding, one comes forward, they shape each other. There is already in the movement the gesture of sharing a space in a non-hierarchical way which is the way of the swarm, that a few components get together and move in a gesture that make them into one, even though they are thousand particles. And it's not exactly one because that one has, at some point, some of it is dispersed, some of it is almost solid because it's so black, because there are many birds, for example. So the one is not one. There are many are not many because they are not disparate. And there is a movement that connects everything into a choreography where you are constantly oscillating between the one to the many. And that's what they do sonically a lot in the opera, creating a huge texture which are very tactile and which are moving in to some extent in tandem, but not completely. And so I should think why did I choose that way of working in the opera? It's not like this in all my pieces at all. It's very much, I wanted to create a universe. I really wanted to create a universe, and I wanted this universe to be so alive that nothing in the universe is just background. Everything, which is background has a potential to become foreground. And there is actually a constant oscillation between background and foreground in the written of this oscillation, the breathing of it, create the physicality. So I wanted to actually create a breathing body in what is more, a breathing body with many different individual than a swarm.


Jan: Could I maybe a little bit come back to the to the swarm idea? Because it's also interesting. It's interesting that it reflects in the in the in the orchestral and vocal writing because you have this chorus which is repeating also some some words stories and the like "family, family, family" or something like that. But also with the orchestration, yes? So the swarm is reflected in many ways, yes?


Chaya: Exactly. That's what I said. Exactly. It's musically. Exactly. A very strong principle. That is all the time at work. Yes.


Madeline: And just the fact that the opera was shown by a screen here at Darmstadt, how did you feel about these layers? So we have screens as a part of the opera, I mean, the viewing is taking place on a screen. Inevitably, of course, it's difficult to have the opera staged.


Chaya: You know, I think that, you know, it was great to be in the hall, of course, but I'm really not religious about those things because I am a person who... I like evocations. I sometimes need very little from something in order to get the effect. And I think that with Heart Chamber, it can be like that, that there is something very clear that comes out, even though you can't say it in words, but it can come also with screen in a small room. I must just say that the first screening where we had actually a lot of people in terms of the technical... how the sound was. It was far from the way that it sounded in the second one, because we found that there was a mistake on the Blu-ray and I was, to tell the truth, very disappointed that the sound did not integrate. But in the second time, we found the solution. The people who did the sound are really fantastic, and they really worked very hard and they found the solution and it sounded as it should be. Not, you know, is it could be everything was okay, but already excellent.


Madeline: Close to the experience of being in the hall, as you could expect from a screening.


Chaya: The truth is, when they heard the DVD with the 5.1, in some ways, it was even stronger because in terms of the sound, because when you are in the hall, it really depends where you are sitting. Let's see if you are very high or in the side, you might be missing some stuff. But with the recording, with the 5.1 and with the really, really good speakers, it's an amazing recording because you are always in the gold, you know, the gold seats where the sound is. Best seating in the house in terms of the audible information.


Jan: So we could invite all the people to come also to the screening on the Sunday the 13th, and would be even better.


Chaya: Let's just say it very clearly - please all come on the 13th at 16:00. We will have the full experience by then.


Madeline: Great. Well, thanks so much for your time. It's been great to have you on the podcast. I know you're very busy at the festival, so we really appreciate you taking the time.


Chaya: Thank you.


Chatori: Thank you very much.


(from left) Chatori Shimizu, Jan Topolski, Chaya Czernowin, Madeline Roycroft, and Kevin Free. (c) IMD / Kristof Lemp

Chatori: We’ve been listening to a fragment of Heart Chamber played by Deutsche Opera. I’m very happy that we had this interview with Chaya. As a composer myself, it’s always, always interesting to pick the brains of a composer after listening to a piece. Peeking through some composer’s minds, some are very cluttered and all over the place, which of course isn’t a bad thing at all, but what I noticed about Chaya, talking with her, was her eloquence, her well thought out responses. I will definitely have different perspectives on many points when I watch this opera again for the third time on Sunday.


Madeline: A third time! Can't keep him away! I also feel I need to watch this again because I was actually in that first session where there were a few sound issues, and I loved it nonetheless, but I think maybe I need to see it one more time to have the full experience.


Chatori: Yes, watching it again... that’s definitely a good idea. I had a very different impression on my second session without sound issues too. The perceptions on the visual projections changed too with the semi-full experience of music.


Jan: Yes, it’s worth to mention that spatial projection of the sound enabled us to be in middle in the action and to listen to the tiny, smallest details. Do you remember the incredible introduction by solo bass played by Uli Fussenegger, with all of the overtones and noises? It also reminded me of the technique of cinema zoom. You know, as we could say the same about opera plot, it is a series of close shots on intimate moments: first encounter, first kiss, first embrace and so on. So it's like a story of a relationship in 90 minutes.

Madeline: Well, certainly the highlight of my last few days here at Darmstadt was last night’s concert Minor Characters. This was a premiere of the full version of a new work by Matthew Shlomowitz and Jennifer Walshe, and it was performed by Jennifer Walshe herself with Ensemble Nickel. This is a small ensemble of keyboard, electric guitar, saxophone and drums... and as well as having Jennifer the vocal soloist, we had sound by Alfred Reiter and live cues by Ragnar Árni Ólafsson. This was a commission... quite a large, all hands-on deck commission by Radio France, Klangspuren Schwaz, La Muse en Circuit, and the Darmstadt Summer Course. For those of you who, perhaps, haven't spent a lot of time with the music of either of these two composers - this would surprise me given our listenership but, we will go through it anyway. Shlomowitz is an Australian composer based in London, and I have actually enjoyed his music for many years but never had the opportunity to meet him, which is perhaps surprising as an Australian myself. But I was thrilled and I know we were all thrilled that we were able to spend some time with him yesterday and of course hear the premiere of this exciting new work.

Jan: Yes, it was great, Madeline. Especially his visit at our course and an interview with Kate Molleson - actually a double interview; they were talking with each other - it was really nice, and it was a good introduction to his temperament and his charismatic way of thinking.

Madeline: Yes, he is also an expert podcaster and an expert interviewer, so it was funny watching him with Kate; unclear who was interviewing. That was really a lovely experience for us in the room. So this work, Minor Characters; it's described as a song cycle for the 21st Century. That's what we read in the program notes. Actually it was quite funny - I was sitting with you Jan, last night, and you said, "have you read the program notes?". "No, but I don't think I need to". I'm not opposed to program notes at all, I'm normally do read them, but I think I just knew I was going to love this. What did you think, Chatori? What were your expectations going in?

Chatori: Well, the show, at least for me personally, was a sort of a compass showing me the potential of where the so-called “contemporary music” is headed towards in the future. The songs were very well composed and performed by exceptional musicians, so I think the execution was just perfect - at the pinnacle of craftspersonship but at the same time, deeply personal and poetic. I must say, I was extremely uneasy though throughout the performance, musically because this was something way out of my expectations, and conceptually, where it is a highly sensitive issue about sexual abuse, certainly important to be in the conversation, but I will definitely need time to digest. What do you think?

Madeline: So you didn't go in with any expectation of the theme or content?

Chatori: Yes, I'm also the same with you, Madeline. I didn't read the program notes on purpose.

Madeline: It's interesting because I didn't know it was going to contain such strong themes. Let's briefly recap what these were: obviously, as you have said, themes of assault, abuse of power, exorcism...


Jan: Also, the society of the silence. It is important to notice that everyone knew but nobody talked, nobody prevented or stopped it. So it is like quite an essential to our meeting.

Madeline: Yes. These themes were communicated in an implied way - we never saw an implicit depiction of the violence. They were also conveyed in a humorous way for much of the piece, actually. And I think from my discussions after the show, that was not sitting well with some people. Chatori?

Chatori: Yes, I was actually comparing it with Chaya Czernowin's opera too, because I watched it side by side, or, one after the other.

Madeline: You went straight there, didn't you?


Chatori: Yes, I didn't even have 30-minutes in between. It was two extremely substantial works to experience one after another. It is really not possible for me to address the differences in depth between these two in this short amount of time we have right here, but one stark difference I felt was the strategic holding back of narrative explanation in Chernowin’s Heart Chamber, whereas in Minor Characters by Shlomowitz and Walshe, the strategic usage of words both spoken and projected really molded the atmosphere of the space and kind of violently hijacked and abducted the audiences' brains.

Madeline: Abducted the audiences' brains. Wow.


Minor Characters by Jennifer Walshe and Matthew Shlomowitz. (c) IMD / Kristof Lemp

Jan: Yes, for me, I agree with Chatori that it was a very intensive afternoon/evening in Darmstadt. It was like a two substantial works, and it really struck me, especially in the row. Then I could find some similar themes, topics between both of them. Like we said, Czernowin spoke about how she’d like to change the title from "An Inquiry about Love" into "An Inquiry about Trust". And do you remember that Walshe, also in the Minor Characters, she also says in the beginning it will be the story of trust. But actually there’s an abuse of trust, so for me, this whole work is of course a commentary on "Me Too". But maybe not even a commentary, but some kind of an exorcism of this topic, circling around some blindspot, not naming it directly, not addressing it literally. 


Madeline:  Yes, exactly. And it was actually interesting in our conversation in our Words on Music program this morning; some people were deeply uncomfortable with the fact that there was no trigger warning for these themes. I completely understand that point of view, but for me personally, I was okay with it because, as I said, they were not depicted directly. And some people were coming away from the performance laughing and not even being aware that there were these themes implied under the surface because there were so many jokes on the video projections. There were emojis, hilarious fonts - something resembling Comic Sans, there were animation, and we were laughing on the surface, but there was a sinister undertone as well, if yoou want to acknowledge it, but you didn't really have to. I think that was the genius of the work - there were so many layers that said a lot, and also made us laugh.

Jan: Yes, yes. So I think that's an artistic strategy of Jennifer Walshe and Matthew Shlomowitz to have the work, which we have to digest the work, like Chatori says, days after.

Madeline: Absolutely. We will be doing that for the next few days. And also, I thought it was fantastic how much fun  it was. We've touched on some heavy subjects, but the performance was just a joy to watch in many ways, especially watching the performers on the stage.  The keyboard player Antoine Françoise and drummer Brian Archinal in particular - they just looked like they were having the time of their lives, and that was just a delight for me to watch.

Chatori: Yes, I agree. Professionalism to the max. And yes, I also enjoyed it in so many different levels, and of course, enjoyment comes with uncomfortability at some point in the arts, but yes, I am very happy that I was in the space last night. Well regrettably, we have come to the end of this podcast. Thank you for joining us for episode 4. We have been Chatori, Jan and Madeline. I’d also like to extend our heartful thanks to Chaya Czernowin who has accepted our interview in her very busy schedule, our producer Kevin and our sound engineer Julius. Join us again tomorrow for another edition of Talking Darmstadt.

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