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December 2019

There are no score excerpts given amongst the text below, but the score is readily available - along with a recording of the work - at this link.

This analysis will not begin at the beginning. Instead, we will start in m. 131 on page 26, observing the performance indication "an enlarged ratchet". Here Czernowin lays open a key component to her compositional approach, namely, metaphor. Moreover, metaphor is a meeting point in Czernowin's work. This performance indication isn't simply a note to herself; it is a guide to performers and others reading the score. It is left to the performers to realize of this metaphor.

The choice of metaphor isn't arbitrary. There are 3 ratchets in the work - real ratchets - and they play a central role in the composition. One needs to be a virtuoso ratchet player to perform the percussion part. Czernowin composes with the ratchet not as an effect, but as a timekeeper. Each rhythmic value in the score is an individual click. We see this on page 26, but it is evident through the piece. There is only one short instance in m. 82 where the ratchet is used in its typical fashion, with the performer turning the handle to generate its characteristic chattering. Even there it appears only briefly and decelerates toward individual clicks.

Compositionally, the enlarged ratchet that starts in m. 131 is realized with the 3 other instruments - saxophone, guitar, and piano - performing sounds with little distinct pitch. This is achieved either through muting or keyclicks and yields a thicker sound with subtle melodic contour. It is as though the composer has taken a microscope to the ratchet's sound. Additionally, it's important to note that changes in speed are linear, that is, the pulse accelerates or (in this case, mostly) slows down. This exists elsewhere, but as we will see, in most of those cases, the notation is indeterminate, achieved via feathered beaming. In places where pulse changes occur with discrete note values, there is often no sense of direction to the change. More commonly, we experience quick shifts in speed.

Hence, this enlarged ratchet includes some important dualities in this work, crucial to the design of the music. First, there are discrete as well as continuous approaches to notating rhythm (and, as we'll soon see, pitch, too). For instance, traditional rhythmic notation uses discrete time units, whereas feathered beaming uses continuous, gradational changes in the pulse. Traditional pitch notation uses discrete pitch values; while glissando theoretically glides through all possible pitches between discrete start and end values. Secondly, there are directional (predictable) versus erratic (unpredictable) shifts in the rhythmic and pitch contours. Rhythmic subdivision can accelerate or decelerate in a predictable fashion over a period of time or shift quickly, unpredictable in both pulse and number of attacks. I will try to use these terms - discrete, continuous, linear, and erratic - consistently in the analysis below. But at this point, one could ask, "Aren't there a lot of pieces that have all of these qualities?" Yes, but in this work, they are fundamental components of the musical material. What we will see is that Czernowin works with these basic components to masterfully shift the energy of the music in her effort to yield "a close examination of the strange physical laws of the world in which the gesture exists." And with that we can turn to the beginning of the piece.

The work opens with erratic, discrete activity in both pitch and rhythm. The rhythmic pulse in each of the first 3 bars is even but the shifts in speed are sudden from quintuplet sixteenths in m.1, to sixteenths in m. 2, to 32nd notes in m. 3 and they are not directional, first slowing and then speeding up. Similarly, the melody in these bars is erratic in contour. In fact, we can look at m. 2 and 3 each as a variation on the melodic contour found in saxophone and e-guitar in m. 1. In m. 2, it has been scaled to a minimum in saxophone, in m. 3 is has been scaled to oversized in the piano. Both scaling and variation of this type play a substantial role in the composition. Note that each bar is a frame, it is articulated through these shifts in melodic proportioning and pulse as well as instrumentation.

Mm. 4-5 offer some new, fundamental components in the composition as well as contrasts to the first 3 bars. In m. 4, there is an ascending melody in the saxophone, that is, a directional melody. E-guitar introduces a glissando, a continuous change in pitch in contrast to the discrete pitch changes seen until this point. Note in m. 5 in the e-guitar that the melodic contour is unpredictable in direction and discrete like in mm. 1-3, but the rhythm is continuous and directional, first slowing and then accelerating. Finally, in m. 4 note how the piano articulates the beginning of the bar. This arguably has a connection to the enlarged ratchet, which will be explored later.

Mm. 6-7 employs variation. In comparing it to mm. 4-5, we see some small changes - for instance, the piano attack in m. 6 is now an octave higher - but there is also the insertion of the saxophone melodic ascent from m. 4 into the e-guitar part in m. 7. These bars are a model of the type of variation used in the work. Additionally, the technique of insertion demonstrated here is also an essential element of the composition. Both will be explored later on in the analysis.

Following an accelerating, erratic melodic shape in m. 8 (e-guitar), we arrive at a suspension maintained by saxophone and e-guitar in mm. 9-12. Each instrument has a slight glissando from its main note, a continuous, directional, albeit diminutive, melodic contour. The e-guitar stutters rhythmically in m. 9. It is unpredictable, but more like the ratchet in mm. 5 & 7 and unlike the rhythmic unpredictability posited in the open bars.

In review, we can say that there are discrete expressions of pitch and rhythmic motion as well as continuous ones. There are directional expressions of pitch and rhythm shape as well as erratic ones. We also see that these can be combined, that is, the melodic contour can be discrete and erratic in direction while the rhythmic shape is directional and continuous. That is found, for instance, in m. 5 in the e-guitar, while mm. 1-3 demonstrate discrete and erratic shape in both pitch and rhythm.

These elements are used very consistently in the work. Additionally, they articulate the driving metaphors of the composition, that is, beyond the ratchet metaphor, there are a few others that derive from the title of the work. The Hebrew word Sahaf has been translated into English as drift and into German as Gestöber. However, Gestöber doesn't mean drift; instead, it means flurries. Was Czernowin avoiding the word flurries, which might seem a little kitschy as a title to some composers? Or was she using both words intentionally to articulate these two dimensions of the music? Whether intentional or not, both drift and flurries serve as appropriate metaphors to dimensions of this compositional materials. A drift suggests a force that pushes in one direction with consistency. This is how snowdrifts and sanddunes are created: small particles are pushed by the wind, accumulating at a particular place where the wind shifts or is blocked. But flurries are an unpredictable force that change in both direction and power. I would argue that what I'm labeling drift and flurries metaphors are components that help Czernowin project the "strange physical laws" of the world she is crafting. They are articulated through the use of discrete and continuous as well as directional and erratic changes in pitch and rhythm, examples of which have already been illustrated. Continuous and directional are largely drift qualities, while discrete and erratic are largely Gestöber qualities. Therefore, mm. 1-3 demonstrate both pitch and rhythmic Gestöber, while m. 5 in e-guitar demonstrates pitch Gestöber and rhythmic drift. In m. 4, the saxophone's ascending melody is discrete but also directional. I would describe this as drift, although the characteristic of discrete is associated more with Gestöber. Ultimately, the push that comes from this ascending line is what matters most. Applying this analytical approach further in the composition, we find in m. 18 pitch drift in saxophone, e-guitar, and timpani as well as Gestöber arising in the piano in m. 21. In mm. 23-25, the ratchet shifts slightly between sextuplets and septuplets yielding a very slight rhythmic Gestöber, similar to the proportioning in found with the melodic Gestöber in saxophone in m. 2. In m. 26-28, particularly in the saxophone, there is drift accelerating into suspension. Hence, in addition to the ratchet as a metaphor in the work, we also have drift and Gestöber metaphors that are applied extensively in the work. To be clear, I can't say that Czernowin herself is thinking in these metaphors when she's writing, but I do think they are useful and appropriate tools for an analysis of this work, particularly because metaphor is an important part of Czernowin's compositional thinking.

Let us return to the ratchet to trace the rise of its enlarged variant. The first application of metaphor to this instrument starts in m. 11. There is a sound like a ratchet, created by hitting a ruler against the tuning rods on the timpani. Czernowin indicates that this is "like a plastic ratchet". The iterations are already quite slow compared to previous instances of the (real) ratchet, but as this passage continues, Czernowin slows the pulse further. She does this to give space for additional sounds. First, in m. 13 the piano enters with material similar to its melodic Gestöber from m. 3. It alternates with the ratchet clicks. Then, in m. 14-17, the saxophone enters with multiphonics. Note that each bar now is a single ratchet click. The click defines only the start of the bar - we saw a vague relation to this bar "trigger" in m. 3 and 5 in the piano. These bars successively lengthen as though we are again viewing the sound microscopically, going into its interior. It is a caught in a drift; its bar-length pulse being discrete but consistently slowing. This ratchet disappears suddenly in m. 18, replaced with new material. (These sudden shifts in material that happen as the piece continues are further articulations of Gestöber at the formal level.) It is only in m. 88 that the metaphoric ratchet reappears. This time it is with a real ratchet. It is again marking the start of bars and it is accompanied by other instruments - piano in m. 88-91, piano and e-guitar in m. 92-93, saxophone in m. 97-101, etc. Note that the accompaniment descends chromatically, although octaves shift when the descending line is passed between instruments. In m. 88-93, the piano plays A6-D5 chromatically, in m. 97 saxophone picks up with C#3 down to A2. Here there is a break in the chromatic line. In m. 102-105 piano plays an E-C# chromatically, in m. 106 saxophone plays the C, which is then quickly passed to e-guitar, which plays B3 down to F3 - in some instances via quarter tones - in mm. 107-115. Saxophone takes over in m. 116-120 with E2 down to C2. (Note that piano also accompanies with C#2-A1 simultaneously.) Finally, from m. 121-129, e-guitar play the descending chromatic steps from B2-E2. In retrospect, these are very clear references to the enlarged ratchet. We even have a partial, unnamed appearance of the enlarged ratchet in mm. 94-96 where piano accompanies the ratchet with a chromatic passage on muted strings, the same technique used when the enlarged ratchet appears in m. 131.

While the ratchet often acts as an initiator for an event, there is also a terminator of activity. We see this first modeled in m. 4 and 6 in the percussion, but in m. 33 this component appears very clearly on a G in the final beat as well as in m. 40, 45, and then in 151, as the striking final event in the work.

Also introduced around the same time as the terminators is the glissando material in e-guitar, marimba, and piano. This first occurs in m. 34, and reappears in varied forms in m. 41, 47, 49, 51, & 52. It has substantially varied projects in m. 73-79, with the incorporation of saxophone multiphonics and the application of marimba material in the piano. The entries of the instrumental components are also considerably individualized in comparison to the original.

In fact, the approach toward variation seen with the glissando material demonstrates Czernowin general application of variation in the work. Utilizing the metaphors and descriptors already offered in this analysis helps us analyze a substantial part of the work starting in m. 53:

  • mm. 53-58: Gestöber as modeled in m. 1-3;

  • m. 59: Suspension as modeled in mm. 26-28;

  • m. 60: Gestöber as modeled in piano, m. 3;

  • m. 61: Drift as modeled in m. 18;

  • m. 62-63: Gestöber (saxophone and e-guitar) and drift as modeled in saxophone, m. 4;

  • m. 64: roughly a repetition of m. 4;

  • m. 65: taken from m. 3 in the percussion;

  • m. 66-68: melodic Gestöber but with accelerating (drift-like) rhythmic pulse;

  • m. 69-70: Drift as modeled in m. 9;

  • m. 71: Drift as modeled by saxophone in m. 4;

  • m. 72: Gestöber;

  • m. 73: Suspension as modeled in m. 43-45.


We see instances of repetition as well as variation. We see the extraction of components from earlier materials used in combination with other materials from different parts of the work. Additionally, as demonstrated here, this section is defined by rapid shifts between these different models of energy. Note that this section is ended with an instance of the Terminator. This continues within the section that leads up to the enlarged ratchet.

  • m. 102: Gestöber (piano), ascending melodic run (e-guitar), and drift (saxophone);

  • m. 103: Gestöber in reference to the diminutive version that occurs in m. 23-25;

  • m. 104: Gestöber in the first beat and then enlarged ratchet in the remaining part of the bar;

  • m. 105: Drift as well as reference to the saxophone multiphonic from the first enlarged ratchet instance in m. 14-17;

  • m. 106: Suspension;

  • m. 107: Enlarged ratchet;

  • m. 115: Gestöber, referenced from piano, m. 3;

  • m. 121: Glissando material in e-guitar, Directional Drift in saxophone and piano;

  • m. 122: Glissando material;

  • m. 123: Drift in the saxophone and e-guitar, Gestöber in piano referencing material from m. 21;

  • m. 124-129: A complex combination of Gestöber, Drift, and Glissando components.


In these last sections (m. 53-73 and m. 102-129) Czernowin's work demonstrates a key aspect of musical material, namely, material can beget more material. Having firmly established her materials in the beginning of the work, she is free to call them up again, recombine them, vary them, stretch them, distort them in order to yield a desired musical shape. In essence, this work is about the movement of energy. The compositional components in this work are used to regulate the flow of energy. Note that each one has a different function in relationship to energy. The ratchet triggers activity, while the terminator cuts it off. Drift pushes in a consistent direction, while Gestöber shifts direction unpredictably. Finally, suspension acts to counter any sense of motion. What we see is a composer utilizing the most basic musical materials to project motion and, in turn, these projections are used as material as well. She establishes these models of trigger, terminator, drift, Gestöber, and suspension and then releases her vibrant imagination on them to craft her work.

We end where we began: the ratchet. In retrospect, one could analyze the section from m. 131 until the end as a coda. But it has too much function in the composition to be a coda. It is instead a conclusion, and as such it is also a revelation. It reveals the ratchet to be not just an instrument in the work but a primary instrument and a functional metaphor for the composition's genesis - the microscopic exploration of sound and arguably the source for accelerating and decelerating iteration found throughout the work. This section also shows what occurs when the ratchet slows. Things fall apart. We are left with sporadic bursts, which arise in percussion with the ratchet in m. 144 but spread to all instruments by m. 147. But these sporadic bursts are also a revelation. We see here the source of similar activity, yet to be addressed in this analysis. The sporadic burst makes its debut in m. 5 with the ratchet, but it is also found in m. 7 in the ratchet, m. 9 in the e-guitar, m. 19 in the piano, m. 22 in the ratchet, as well as m. 70 in the piano. While these bursts are not form-building in the way that other components like Gestöber and drift are, they nonetheless play a relevant role in the composition. Yet, I feel we understand this role only in retrospect, and without the last section of the composition this role, or at least the genesis of the sporadic burst material, would remain unexplained. Hence, this last section offers a paradigm shift. Beyond its energy and shape - elements that are so vital for all that comes before it - this section is expository on the composition itself.

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