As i know i’ve remarked previously about compositions, size isn’t everything. Apropos: i’ve been spending time recently with a short work by Chaya Czernowin which, though it was premièred four years ago, only received its first UK performance last month. Once I blinked nothing was the same has a duration of little more than three minutes, but the enormity of what happens in that time span is considerable, hinted at in Czernowin’s enigmatic subtitle for the piece: “A large scale miniature for orchestra”.
Unsurprisingly, this is not music that takes its time. Quite the opposite, progressing from pin-prick staccato notes that rapidly spread throughout the orchestra, in the process developing a granular/textural underlay, formed in part by the players talking quietly (either “about something exciting” or “about your day”). Soon there are signs of some sustained notes in the strings, which as soon as they appear in the brass trigger a huge climax achieved more through a combination of being looming and imposing than anything else. Flattening out into a sustained plateau, it subsequently fizzles via a long tremolando on three tam-tams into a becalmed epilogue of united in- and out-breaths, the strings achieving a similar sound by bowing the wood of their instruments. And that’s it.
Easy enough to describe, but what i find so fascinating in Once I blinked nothing was the same is the paradox in how it’s perceived, the very same paradox that’s encapsulated in its description as a “large scale miniature”. Sometimes i hear it as a lot of activity sped up and compressed into an extremely small space; yet sometimes i hear it as an incredibly small event – perhaps, considering the title, something happening in the blink of an eye – that’s been greatly slowed down and stretched out. Furthermore, on one listening it suggests great size and weight, and on the next, it’s as if we’re hearing microscopic sounds greatly magnified. Either way, it leaves me somewhat disoriented, which is surely something Czernowin has anticipated: the final indication in the score is that the audience should join in with the breathing, thereby becoming a quiet opportunity for us to try and make sense of exactly what just happened.
The UK première of Chaya Czernowin’s Once I blinked nothing was the same was given last month at Glasgow’s City Halls by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alpesh Chauhan.
This is my shortest piece ever: around three minutes. Yet in this short time the piece covers huge transformational shifts especially in its dimensionality. Can you imagine making your ear into a huge microphone listening to an amalgam of noises like the noises inside one’s body, then at once listening to a huge crowd of thousands of people then perhaps shifting to ones own breathing … and so on: vast changes in what one is listening to and how the attitude of listening shifts and reshapes itself.
Imagine you are home. Something strange and ungraspable happens outside but by the time you registered it, it’s already passed. You are alone with your uncanny feeling and you are listening to your own breath…