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A Forest of Attics (2009)

Duration: ca. 32'
1 Bb Cl. dbl. Bs.Cl./1 Hrn./1 Perc./1 Vln./1 Vla./1 Vc./1 Cb.
Commissioned by the Network for New Music

A Forest of Attics was written not long after I completed The Vanishing Pavilions. The latter work, for solo piano, occupied me for almost four years. It is a piece where approximately half of its fifty movements are in a kind of conversation with the poetry of Christopher Middleton (1926-2015), though the words remain silent in performance. Middleton’s poetry has had a strong impact on me, and does still today. In his words I found a kind of expressive concision and power that remains for me a model. In the case of The Vanishing Pavilions, the words served more as companions during the journey of writing the work. I did not try to render his poetical texts into sound. The text fragments that resonated with me I placed in the score alongside the music.

Like Middleton’s words did, the writings of Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) have had a profound impact on my thinking. They have continued to stay with me since I first encountered them over two decades ago. In the case of A Forest of Attics however, the texts performed a different role than those in The Vanishing Pavilions. Like that work, I placed fragments of text before movements of music. Unlike The Vanishing Pavilions, I was drawn directly into the specific, often shocking images Schulz presents, and found myself attempting to construct a kind of musical framework around them. It is difficult to forget an image such as that of “beech trees around the church” which “stood with their arms upraised and screamed and screamed.” Like Middleton and other specific writers and poets, there seems to be something deeply musical within Schulz’s expressive impulses.

— Michael Hersch

A FOREST OF ATTICS - Texts by Bruno Schulz (1892-1942)

  1. The enormous beech trees around the church stood with their arms upraised and screamed and screamed.
  2. That delicate and whitish layer related the vegetation to the atmosphere, gave it silvery grayish tint of the air, of shadowy silences between two glimpses of the sun …
  3. The air over that midden, wild with the heat, cut through by lightning of shiny horseflies, driven mad by the sun …
  4. I stopped at the edge of the burs,
    not daring to advance into the abyss …
  5. There, in those charred, many-raftered forests of attics, darkness began to degenerate and ferment wildly …
  6. … that night the sky laid bare its internal construction in many sections …
    …spirals and whorls of light, the pale-green solid of darkness,
    the plasma of space, the tissue of dreams …
  7. The bitter smell of illness settled like a rug in the room
    and the arabesques on the wallpaper loomed darker …
  8. The rust-colored earth was covered with a threadbare, meager tablecloth of snow full of holes … The chimney sweeps could not get rid of the crows which in the evening covered the branches of trees around the church with living black leaves, then took off, fluttering, and came back, each clinging to its own place on its own branch, only to fly away at dawn in large flocks, like gusts of soot, flakes of dirt, undulating and fantastic, blackening with their insistent crowing the musty yellow streaks of light.
  9. … wandering silently through the rooms filled with the sing-song of sleep. Sometimes he opened the door of the flue and looked into its dark abyss, where a smiling homunculus slept forever its luminous sleep, enclosed in a glass capsule, bathed in fluorescent light, already adjudged, erased, filed away, another record card in the immense archives of the sky.

All text fragments drawn from Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles
Translation by Celina Wieniewska
Published by Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, New York, 1977
Originally published in Poland with the title Cinnamon Shops, 1934