26. May 2023

“an attempt to not look away”

The sorceress Medea comes from Greek mythology and is an important subject throughout cultural and musical history.
Now the American composer Michael Hersch (born in 1971 in Washington) has devoted himself to the material – in a large-scale work for the soprano Sarah Maria Sun, Schola Heidelberg and the Ensemble Musikfabrik.

Egbert Hiller spoke with Michael Hersch about MEDEA.

The world premiere takes place on June, 3rd at “Musikfabrik im WDR” .

Egbert Hiller: Medea is an archaic and mythical figure. I think you have a special interest in this figure and a great fascination too?

Michael Hersch: I have always been deeply interested in human beings who find themselves in situations facing threat, whether externally or internally, and how they – individually and/or collectively – react to these situations. Medea’s story is one where threat and its consequences are present from all directions, in almost every dimension. Much of my work over the past several decades has focused on threats and consequences from within, in the form of illness. However, in recent years I have shifted increasingly to subjects where threats and consequences of violence from without, loom large.

EH: MEDEA is a large piece for Sarah Maria Sun, Musikfabrik and Schola Heidelberg. Please can you explain your compositional keynotes or basic ideas for this piece?

MH: The musical framework for MEDEA shifted multiple times throughout the compositional process and took several years to complete. I originally conceived of it as a work for a single voice and ensemble, but as I went further into the compositional process it became clear that the sound world was expanding and pushing out onto larger canvasses. Stephanie Fleischmann and I determined that the vocal ensemble would serve as a manifold character comprising the multitude of figures in Medea’s life, as well as the tangle of shattered elements within her own nature. It was a challenge to find a way into capturing these stratifications of brutalities, both subtle and overt.

EH: Is your composition close to the text, or will the music be more free? And do the instrumental passages reflect the text and the story perhaps from other sides? Have you taken part on the development of Stephanie Fleischmann´s libretto? The libretto is concentrated on Medea, so you have done this also in the music? Or have you found other ways?

MH: Stephanie Fleischmann and I have worked together before. She and I share certain sensibilities, with a tendency toward starkness and a sincere hope to have achieved this through the score, disallowing any excess. The world of the piece was broadly shaped for us through the writings of Seneca and Euripides, as well as that of Christa Wolf, and our reactions to these. The elements of Medea allowed for a continual intersection of retrospect and impending crisis. The horror of the story also provides for a kind of structural disequilibrium, which lends itself well both to musical integration and decoupling from the text, sometimes simultaneously. Stephanie Fleischmann has spoken to this further, noting that: „… the text is a meditation on the events that have accrued to manifest the myth of Medea, as well as an exploration of the fallout of this story, which continues to reverberate into the future. A looking back in order to move forward in whatever way may be humanly possible. A rumination on what it is to be haunted by, indeed, imprisoned by, the weight of a despicable, broken past … an investigation of the confrontation of self; of individual and community; of remorse and the impossibility of undoing the unthinkable.”

EH: For the musical details was there an intensively exchange with the performer of the piece? How does this collaboration work for you, especially with the members of Musikfabrik?

MH: It is a tremendous gift to have the opportunity to compose for the musicians of Ensemble Musikfabrik. Writing for the ensemble allows a composer to push their imagination to its limits, knowing that most any sound, any gesture … any mode of musical communication will be explored with absolute commitment and conscientiousness. The group and its members’ mastery of instrument and imagination provides endless inspiration. The music-making of the ensemble was known to me long before I had this wonderful opportunity to write for them. In many respects, I feel I have been preparing for the writing of this work for this group for many years through having heard them in varying circumstances, in varying repertoire. I am exceedingly grateful to Sarah Maria Sun, Thomas Fichter, and the entire ensemble for entrusting me with this project.

EH: I think Sarah Maria Suns part will be written explicity for her. What do you think about the special qualities of her voice? Is she representing a very unique Medea?

MH: This is the first time I am working with Sarah Maria Sun, and also with Ensemble Musikfabrik and Schola Heidelberg. The music is composed very specifically for the almost limitless capabilities of each. Sarah Maria Sun is both a remarkable musician and one of the most compelling stage presences working today, so the part is written with these characteristics in mind. In my opinion her voice is inextricably linked to her powerful stage presence and acting capabilities, and the work attempts to reflect this.

EH: Do you create also ideas for a scenic – or half-senic – realization? Are these ideas abstract visions for the musical interpretation or will they perhaps be concertely realized at the performance of the piece? Are these ideas close connected to the music?

MH: While the piece could be described as a work of musictheater, it may be presented in a staged or unstaged manner. In the case of the 2023 June premiere, it will be a concert version. The graphic nature of much of the text along with musical elements does not, however, require an openly visual corollary. We attempt to convey both abstract elements and those confronting various realities through the music and text so they might allow for equal clarity or opacity in varied staging scenarios.

EH: „Look at me”, these are the first words of the libretto, and „Towards the sun” the last words. How do these words influence the music? How do you compose that „sun”?

MH: The piece begins with an extended instrumental overture, though we are already in the center of a cataclysm. Its purpose is to provide reflections of the human voice, not necessarily vocalizations, throughout the ensemble through instrumental means before the vocalists commence. Again, I think Stephanie Fleischmann’s thoughts on the text are of note: „Medea was the granddaughter of Helios, the sun god. In both the Euripides and the Seneca, she absconds from the scene of the crime in a chariot that traverses the sky. In the Euripides she says, in two short sentences, that she is sorry for what she has done. But how does she carry the burden of her horrific crime with her past that moment? It is her escape ‘towards the sun’, her embrace of the part-god in her, freeing herself of the laws of gravity that encumber us humans, and leaving the bodies of her children behind, that is the regret which pursues her to the end of time. Might she ever be absolved? From her first directive, Medea asks, and we ask, that the Chorus, that Medea herself, as well as the audience, not look away from what has happened. This work is an attempt to not look away.”