Chaya Czernowin was composer in residence this summer at the Lucerne Festival, one of Europe’s elite music gatherings. There she heard performances of her chamber opera “Pnima . . . ins Innere,” two new orchestral works, and a large swath of her chamber music. It was, she says, “very touching and very humbling.”
She even became a bit of a celebrity in the festival’s rarefied artistic atmosphere, and that experience she found somewhat unsettling. “People would come to me on the street — in the bakery, in the department store — and tell me about my music, which was for me quite inconceivable,” said Czernowin, 55, by phone from her Newton home. “I would want to pay in the bakery and the woman next to me would say, ‘By the way, I really loved your piece!’ It was great but very unnerving.”
That is not the way things go for her here in Boston, even though Czernowin, who was born in Israel, has been one of the area’s most prominent composers since she arrived at Harvard University in 2009. (She is the Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music there.) She seems almost to prize her low profile. “That’s why we are in this kind of music,” she said. “Otherwise we would have written something else — all of us who do new music. [Fame] is not what we are looking for.”
Her music certainly has its champions, though. One of them is pianist Stephen Drury, who has included four of her compositions on next Thursday’s program by the Callithumpian Consort, his crusading new-music band, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. “Her music is this mysterious activity that only gets more mysterious as it unfolds,” Drury told the Globe in 2010. “But at the same time it’s incredibly elegant and incredibly dramatic.”
Czernowin’s music bristles with alien sounds and patterns, and a first listen can prove almost disorienting. That sense of foreignness is intentional. She told a writer from Harvard that in her chamber and orchestral works she strives to create “islands of alternative life.”
Asked to elaborate on that statement, Czernowin said she strives to create works that are not just objects to listen to but are almost-physical life forms. “What I try to do is to create a strong experience which is almost kinesthetic,” she explained. “So, through your ears, you can actually smell, you can see, you can really come into touch with something that is not a melody or a harmony or a counterpoint. More than that, it is almost like a living organism.”
Part of what ensures that visceral effect, she continued, is making the encounter something bracingly unfamiliar. “It’s not an organism that we already know — it’s not something that you already have a drawer for. It is something that is a holistic entity, it has its own kind of way of existing in the universe. It is completely new.”
Some of that newness comes in the unconventional instrumental sounds she marshals. But even more important to her compositional gestalt, Czernowin said, are her pieces’ atypical and complex structures.
Take “Slow Summer Stay III: Upstream,” which the Callithumpian will premiere at its Oct. 31 concert. The music for the new piece comes from two previous works: “Slow Summer Stay I: Streams” and “Slow Summer Stay II: Lakes.” Each of them is written for a mixed octet of winds, strings, and percussion. Those two pieces themselves share some of the same musical material, though they sound different because of the ordering of the material. In “Slow Summer Stay III,” the first two are brought together and played simultaneously, with some time manipulation and a few changes.
The resulting piece contains all sorts of intricate relationships between individual parts and the structure of the whole. “It’s like two wide knitted strips made from somewhat similar wool but differing patterns,” Czernowin explained. “These are then braided into a third strip.”
Unsurprisingly, Czernowin doesn’t put a lot of value on accessibility for its own sake. “I’m not expecting that anyone will ‘get it’ — to say, ‘Oh, that was so much fun, I got what she wants to say and it’s so clear and wonderful.’ ” Instead, she wants the listening process to be akin to any other very strong experience a person undergoes. “When you’re in the midst of a very strong experience, what happens to you? It’s not like you can say, ‘Oh, I understand what’s happening.’ No, it takes a long time to figure out. You actually stay engaged with it long after it has ended, and this is my wish.”
Asked what was behind the title of those three interlinked works, she answered that there was no story behind the phrase “Slow Summer Stay.” It was, instead, “a state in which I wrote the pieces.” In that state is encoded not the quest for the unknown, but the security and warmth of home.
“They were written in the summer. The summers here are so beautiful and so lush. I travel so much, and my favorite times are in my home, when I’m allowed to be in my studio, look down on my garden, and compose. It came from this process: the beauty of the nature around me and the way these pieces emerged.”
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.