The composer Chaya Czernowin has been writing music for 52 years. That deep experience has taught her what to expect when composing, a process she describes as a dialogue between herself and the piece that emerges from her efforts.
All of those expectations were knocked askew when she composed “The Fabrication of Light,” a work for an ensemble of 17 musicians. Czernowin wrote much of the piece late in 2019, while preparing the premiere of her opera “Heart Chamber.” She would return from rehearsals to her rented apartment in Berlin, elated at the way the opera was taking shape. Then she would sit down to work on her new piece, a task she described as “torture.”
“Usually I write with some joy,” Czernowin said via Zoom from Vienna, where the contemporary music ensemble Klangforum Wien was rehearsing “The Fabrication of Light” for a Feb. 10 performance at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. “It’s always like going on a journey. But the problem was that that journey didn’t allow me to control [the piece]. It just had its own inertia. It was commanding me.”
Czernowin, who has been on the Harvard music faculty since 2009, is someone who chooses her words with care, so if you wonder whether she really meant that the created object, not the creator, was in charge — it is. For example, she became frustrated that the work was growing much longer than she had intended.
“I wanted to cut it,” she recalled. “I wanted to control the energy. And it would say I could not cut it. It kept telling me what to do.”
This was not the only unusual aspect of the origin story of “The Fabrication of Light.” The pandemic prevented Czernowin from traveling to Cologne for the rehearsals by Ensemble Musikfabrik, the group that had commissioned the piece, and streaming wasn’t yet the ubiquitous option it would become.
So on the day of the premiere in October 2020, she sat in her Newton home and waited as the sounds that had had such a difficult birth were heard thousands of miles away.
Eventually the response came in. The composer Enno Poppe, who conducted the performance, told her, “Chaya, this is not a piece. It’s a monster. But it’s so amazing.” (Poppe’s own “Prozesion,” itself a highly regarded recent work, will also be on the Sanders program.)
Still, she didn’t quite believe what she’d accomplished until she heard a recording of the premiere. “I was kind of bracing myself, because I’m such a harsh critic of my own music. I must say that my jaw fell on the ground,” she said. “It was like the piece really taught me something that I did not know. And this is the most rewarding thing that can happen.”
Nature is one of the great touchstones in Czernowin’s composing, and one of the things that makes “The Fabrication of Light” so mesmerizing is that it embraces two senses of what is “natural.” On the one hand, it contains a raft of extended techniques — microtones, unusual placement of string bows, blowing through wind instruments — that are meant to evoke the tactile, sometimes disorienting sense of the physical world. But, perhaps unusually for her work, the piece also has the feel of a single organic process. A few touchpoints, such as particular intervals or instrumental timbres, are scattered throughout, heightening the sense that the work’s unbroken 65-minute stretch is all one gigantic unfolding.
This complex affinity with nature led Czernowin to insert some extraordinary performance directions in the score. In one note to the winds early in the piece, she describes the sound of a particular glissando as “Searching blindly, like a drop of water slowly and restlessly sliding down the windowpane.” Uncannily, that is exactly what the resulting sound calls to mind.
“If I have to point out some principle of my work,” the composer said, “I would say that my work is not music in the sense of intervals, dynamics, rhythms. I’m attempting to create universes, and those universes are not musical in the narrow sense. They are organic.” In “The Fabrication of Light,” she explained, “the idea of highs and lows is so strong. It is more than the frequencies. It’s about a place — high in terms of the lightness of air, the endless horizon and brilliance of light, and low in terms of weight, density, gravity.
“I think that in all my pieces, it is the fact that I want to explode music so that it becomes a world,” she continued. “I hear and I see everything like music. I am using all the physical laws of the world to create something and to witness something very accurately. But that something doesn’t exist. I want to make it so that it really emerges in front of our ears, and through our ears we can smell it or taste it.”
Presented by Fromm Players at Harvard
At Sanders Theatre, Feb. 10, 8 p.m. Free, tickets required. www.boxoffice.harvard.edu/Online/article/fromm-players