Chaya Czernowin – Black Flowers

by 5:4

i’m turning to music that’s more abstract, though no less powerfully evocative, for the next work in this year’s Lent Series. The title of Chaya Czernowin‘s short 2018 guitar piece Black Flowers comes from a text by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard:

In the depths of matter there grows an obscure vegetation; black flowers bloom in matter’s darkness.

Gaston Bachelard, L’eau et les rêves (Water and Dreams), p. 2 [translated by Edith R. Farrell]

Though Bachelard’s focus was on his conception of a relationship between the human psyche and the four elements, in the last couple of days i’ve been reminded of Czernowin’s piece when watching footage from Ukraine, and seeing the burned-out towns and villages that have been so mindlessly brutalised, their inhabitants butchered, their buildings and landscape blasted and blackened. Czernowin’s piece is not about war, but listening to the piece again and reflecting on its idea of black flowers blooming “in matter’s darkness” (or, in Colette Gaudin’s translation, “in the night of matter”), i can’t help hearing in it both a miniature testament to this unfathomable darkness and, more importantly, a faint whiff of new growth improbably emerging in the void.

The material in Black Flowers is initially halting and indistinct, a collection of slip-sliding, burbling notes, blips, clicks and creaks. Bachelard spoke of a “germ of being” in this darkness, and that’s what i hear in Czernowin’s music. A tiny spark of life that for two minutes seems not only impossibly disoriented but also absurdly small in the midst of such a seemingly infinite black space all around. But in the latter half of the piece the guitar finds its way to rudimentary arpeggios that become the start of something new, something important. They falter, lose their pitch focus, dry up completely – yet they also seem to be the catalyst for a more emphatic subsequent push through the instrument’s ongoing croaks and hesitations, arriving at big sliding tones. The makings of a tendril, perhaps, one that finally manages to grow and multiply, becoming the genuine beginning of “an obscure vegetation”, a strange piece of avant-foliage crowned, in the work’s tiny final dyad, with an infinitesimal blossom.

To quote Bachelard again, “Art is grafted nature”; at times like this, even a tiny sliver of triumph, as at the close of Black Flowers, is enough to serve as a reminder of the importance and indefatigability of hope, even in the midst of such impossible darkness.

This performance of Black Flowers was given by Yaron Deutsch in April 2019.

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