Cancer Haunts a Composer’s Life and Work

Michael Hersch’s latest work, “I hope we get a chance to visit soon,” uses texts from emails he exchanged with a friend who died of cancer.

“Bleak” is the predominant adjective in writing about Michael Hersch’s music. “Dark,” “somber” and “anguished” are also omnipresent. Little wonder, given that his subjects have included the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Dante’s “Inferno,” the Holocaust and conditions found in a 1960s psychiatric ward.

But the quality the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja most associates with Mr. Hersch’s music? Necessity.

“The despair in the music makes it a necessary experience, to play and to listen to,” she said in a phone interview recently. “There is nothing you can compare it to.”

Ms. Kopatchinskaja is the music director of this year’s Ojai Music Festival in California, which runs from June 7 to 10 and gives pride of place to Mr. Hersch’s work, including a new piece of music theater, “I hope we get a chance to visit soon.” Ms. Kopatchinskaja, who has commissioned several works from him, could have asked for another for violin, but said she preferred to give him free rein.

“I thought the best is to ask the composer, what is his earthquake?” she said. “The center of his interest.”

For Mr. Hersch, 46, that earthquake is cancer. The disease has haunted both his life and his work. In his 30s, he had a brush with the disease and underwent radiation and surgery. His friend Mary O’Reilly, a historian, was suffering from it at the same time; she died in 2009, at 45.

In response to her death, he wrote the monodrama “On the Threshold of Winter,” which rendered the terror and indignities of terminal illness so viscerally that at its premiere in Brooklyn in 2014, it left the audience shellshocked and the soloist, the soprano Ah Young Hong, in tears.

Mr. Hersch is not the first composer to repeatedly deal with death. But he treats it not with sentimentality or exaggeration, but with uncompromising lucidity; hence its, well, bleakness. While there is great beauty in the chiaroscuro interplay between his expressionistic dissonances and Renaissance-style harmonies, his works never build toward resolution or transfiguration. A listener is unlikely to experience catharsis or find consolation.

Ms. Kopatchinskaja likened Mr. Hersch’s music to a wound. Listening to it, she said, “you face this dark side, this shadow and blood. It’s so incredibly direct, it goes into your bones.” That visceral impact can be uncanny, with powerful cluster chords spewing toxic resonance trails, and the occasional hopeful motif replicating like a faulty cell, its harmonic health uncertain.

He was determined to return to the subject of “On the Threshold of Winter,” and the commission from Ojai and several other organizations offered him the chance to write a companion piece. Where the earlier work drew on the poetry that the Romanian writer Marin Sorescu (1936-96) wrote when he was dying of liver cancer, the new work uses Ms. O’Reilly’s own words, from her email correspondence with Mr. Hersch.

Then, just as he was getting to work on “I hope we get a chance to visit soon,” Mr. Hersch’s wife, Karen Klaiber Hersch, a classicist at Temple University, was diagnosed with breast cancer. That meant that life and art mixed in dizzying ways during the composition process. During a recent interview at the American Academy in Rome, where he and his wife met as Rome Prize fellows in 2000, he pointed to a heavily marked-up printout of Ms. O’Reilly’s emails.

“Everything I’m reading here is happening at the exact same time in my household,” Mr. Hersch said. “When I’m setting a text, it’s literally the same thing that I’m hearing yelled up to me from downstairs.” (His wife completed treatment as Mr. Hersch finished the score, and she is now cancer-free.)

The conversational tone of the emails creates its own form of pathos. (The libretto also uses poetry by the astronomer and writer Rebecca Elson, who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1999, at 39.) While Sorescu’s language, in “On the Threshold of Winter,” was rich in metaphor, Ms. O’Reilly expressed her fears, hopes and frustrations with quotidian directness.

“One more round getting pumped with poisons,” goes one passage set by Mr. Hersch. “I’m getting used to the rhythm now. Life sure has changed.”

Mr. Hersch is sensitive to the fact that his music is publicizing words originally meant for his eyes only. “Composers are used to getting permission to use text,” he said. “But as much as I would like, I am unable to ask Mary her feelings about the inclusion of our correspondence in this work. I feel strongly she would support this. But that is an assumption I struggle with.”

Ms. Hong, who will sing in the new work alongside the soprano Kiera Duffy, said the directness of the text was daunting. “We sing poetry all the time and we never say, ‘Well, if only I knew Emily Dickinson well enough,’” she said in a phone interview. “These words are different, they are so straightforward. I told Michael I’m scared that I’m going to use the wrong tone, the wrong dialect.”

Mr. Hersch’s vocal writing presents its own challenges. In “On the Threshold of Winter,” Ms. Hong learned to trust its requirements for a very clean, focused sound with minimal vibrato, creating lines simultaneously incisive and vulnerable.

She said she sometimes felt a delayed “enlightenment” after a performance of Mr. Hersch’s music. “Long after the piece is over, I could be walking down the street and see strangers who are upset, or arguing, or people having a bad day,” she said. “And you feel so much for them because of the experience you had with his music.”

It is a feeling that can verge on the spiritual. But Mr. Hersch said, “I’m not religious. The difficulty for me is that Mary is not still ‘out there.’”

While he added that there were aspects of setting her emails to music that were “joy-inducing,” because they pulled him back into a shared conversation, he said “it’s also disorienting because the conversation never changes.” Instead, he has been caught in a loop of current and remembered diseases that has blurred the boundaries between work and life.

“Everything is all mixed up,” he said. “It’s like a wave and you’re a child caught in an undercurrent. You’re trying to get out of it and you keep being pulled back.”

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