Though i don’t (any longer) have a religious bone in my body, i’m nonetheless drawn to the paintings of John Martin, particularly his vast, frenzied depictions of some of the more apocalyptic events described in the Bible. i find myself thinking of Martin’s paintings while listening to On the Face of the Deep, a work for large ensemble composed in 2017 by Chaya Czernowin (whose 65th birthday is today). The piece has its origins in a joint project by Ensemble intercontemporain and the Philharmonie de Paris, commissioning seven composers to create a musical interpretation of a single day of creation, with Czernowin being assigned the first day, corresponding to the mythical moment when void and darkness are wiped away following the command, “Let there be light”.
Part of what makes On the Face of the Deep (subtitled, “BERESHIT (Genesis): Day One”) so effective is the relative simple palette of sounds Czernowin draws upon: small chitterings, low rumbles, rapid tremolos, busy textures of wailing or sliding pitches, sharp, isolated accents. Everything primordial, not so much ideas as the potential for ideas, nascent sonic possibilities, all heard from what appear to be multiple vantage points, from far in the distance to right in our faces, from great heights to abyssal depths.
Yet arguably of greater importance than what happens is the way that it happens. For a start, Czernowin’s act of creation is not some conventional instantaneous burst but a prolonged, intricate process. One of the most beguiling aspects of this is the way Czernowin allows certain parts of this process to continue for a surprising length. The first instance occurs a few minutes in, after a dramatically convoluted episode where a loud snare drum yields to a network of high strings, becoming polarised with the addition of a deep intoning drone. Onto this drone is heaped layers of dry percussive clatter, persisting as a huge slab of prolonged gravitas.
The aftermath of this is a wonderful menagerie of elemental forces appearing within the ongoing polarised music: floating streaks, weird wails, wild brass calls, the shivering emergence of a xylophone, a ferocious piano tremolo, distant brass accents. It’s one of a number of sequences in On the Face of the Deep that give the impression (or suggest the possibility) of a gradual intensification but which in fact is simply in a state of flux, its details evolving. It culminates in the unexpected eruption of a trio of ratchets. Again, though, Czernowin is not concerned with creating conventional climaxes, instead making everything vague in another prolonged tremulous episode.
The creative act concludes in an atmosphere of quiet, moving through a granular texture into a coda of faint pitch smears and glissandos, ending with something like a long exhalation: perhaps a sigh of relief, satisfaction or even exhaustion.
The UK première of On the Face of the Deep took place during the 2018 London Contemporary Music Festival, performed by the LCMF Orchestra conducted by Jack Sheen.