“An Enlarged Ratchet”

By Jacob Greenberg, piano, ICE Director of Recordings and Digital Outreach

Chaya Czernowin, whose disc with ICE was released this week on the Kairos label, has received a lot of attention recently for her opera, Infinite Now, at the Flemish Opera.  Chaya was also the subject of an ICE concert in April at the New York Public Library, which included a premiere for soprano Tony Arnold, and an enlightening coaching session with the composer.

For the M.A.R.S. Festival in Los Angeles last month, a quartet of ICE players—Ross Karre on percussion, Ryan Muncy on sax, Dan Lippel on electric guitar, and myself on piano—tackled Chaya’s nine-minute chamber piece Sahaf, Hebrew for “drift.”  This is a lighter piece for Chaya, where her signature compositional devices of fragmentation and quick-cutting mood shifts achieve effects which, here, are almost comic.

We largely rehearsed the piece in Brooklyn before taking it on the road.  Each of us four was prepared for the extended techniques that Chaya requires in the piece, and I had my tools ready: a NYC ID card, ideal for scraping and plucking the piano strings; and two heavy moleskin books, to place on a group of strings to mute them.  We decided to take the piece page by page, gesture by gesture, because that’s how it was conceived—a series of intricate, intimate moments. 

Looking at the score of the piece, you can see how each of these moments is designed to be just a little unstable, and fragile.  The first measure has saxophone, guitar, and ratchet playing a forte quintuplet over a quarter beat, and then two extra quintuplets that don’t finish a complete group, which makes the time signature 1 / 4 + 2/5 / 4.  This immediately changes in the next bar to all four instruments playing normal sixteenths, quietly.  We have to make the mental shift right away, but inherent in this is also a poetic idea—a very minor shift of gears, made vivid by the ratchet’s sound.  To an extent, standard music notation can’t convey the subtlety of it; in fact, these unsettled junctures may be the exact point at which standard notation begins to fail.

Every measure of the piece means to capture a fragile moment like this rhythmic change.  The rehearsal process was spent trying to internalize each gesture, and to learn the precise character that we imagined Chaya was trying to capture.  The other way that Chaya destabilizes the music is with the extended techniques; these range from oddly tuned and multiphonic notes on the saxophone, to hitting guitar strings with the palm, to using objects inside the piano.  As in those first two measures, the character changes happen in an instant, and often we have to be ready with a new technique with no preparation.  In the third measure I play thirty-second notes as palm clusters on the keyboard, and a few measures later grab the ID card for the first time.  First I stand to pluck a few high notes with it, and then drag it along a bass C. 

“Is that the way that will sound?” Ross asks.

“Yeah, it’s a slow scrape across the string,” I say. 

“Guitar’s pretty high and loud there—maybe you should play that louder than the written piano.”

“Sounds good.  Same thing may go for your chopsticks on the snare drum.  I may also need you to cue me for the clusters in 13.” The clusters are marked “extremely decisive, mechanical.” 

Ten bars later, another problem emerges: the part for ratchet is written in measured six-groups.  “How much will we hear that?” I ask Ross.

“Probably not much.  I’m getting a bigger ratchet in L.A. which will make it more audible.  You should rely on my cue instead.”  The cue is for me to stand, put the moleskin book on the strings, and start playing sextuplets of my own, before cueing Dan to enter. 

All the while, rhythms are meant to be obscured.  “Do NOT accentuate the beat,” Chaya writes for all players.  I collect myself for a moment: When do I remove the book?  In the middle of a high tremolo, it seems, as I start using soft pedal and damper pedal together, which requires me to sit.  This is how the choreography of the piece starts forming.

Twice in the piece, at least three of the instruments play a unison loud G after we’ve been playing other material for a long while.  Both times, the G falls on a syncopated beat.  “What’s the best way to cue the note when it’s off the beat?” I ask.

“Let’s cue it as if it’s on the beat, but we can all just know that it’s a syncopation,” Ryan answers.  Sometimes, knowing is enough.  A little later, I play the fast clusters again, and Ryan enters right afterwards, always right on the money.

For the next bit of ballet, I play a passage which begins with an accelerating gesture over another odd time signature; pick up the ID card with my left hand as I play unmeasured figures low on the keyboard with my right; drag the card over several low strings at once, listening for the contour of the baritone sax’s line to time it correctly; and then switch objects as I mute strings with both books. 

At the event at the Public Library, Chaya likened her process to a photo gradually coming into focus, where a viewer slowly realizes every thing that’s being pictured, and where in the image the one is actually supposed to be looking.  Sahaf has a lot of distractions, but the ratchet emerges as a key sound and idea.  The final gestures of the piece have all four players in complex unison rhythms, under the expressive heading “an enlarged ratchet.”  The grinding, industrial sound of all the instruments playing together—with the piano muted and the sax and guitar playing with “as little pitch as possible,” does indeed enlarge the sound of the ratchet, which Ross is playing.  As we concentrate on the composite sound and the rhythms, we feel like we’ve located something essential about the piece.  “It’s a funny piece,” Dan says.  “The whole thing is like a scherzo,” I add.

Ross says, “I really want the end to feel free with the ratchet, even though the gestures will alternate between the players like they’re supposed to.”  Chaya has written “very free, very expressive” for this final section, led by the percussionist.  The notation shows free rhythmic gestures beginning in very specific places in the measure—usually as syncopations—which makes a tricky balance.  But as we’ve learned by working in this way, it’s always a balance; and when it works, the brittle, fractured moments come alive. 

Chaya’s music always defies easy answers, but rewards inquiry, and needs no less than total immersion and commitment.  The Kairos CD, Wintersongs, traces her evolving style through a cycle of ravishing ensemble pieces with solo voices.  ICE is grateful that we’ve been able to learn about a composer’s style in such detail, and have our performance skills grow as we delve deeper into the work.  Lasting collaborations are endlessly fulfilling when the learning process is mutual, as it has been with Chaya over many years.