Exploring the inner workings of the mind and the soul with her compositions is familiar ground for Czernowin. Her last opera, “Infinite Now,” similarly places the listener “inside of a head/heart/body,” notes its online description. Based on a play about World War I chaos and a Chinese story about a woman trapped in a house, the piece examines “how we continue to live even if we feel we don’t have control of our life,” she said. As she labored over that earlier score, the thought of capturing in music and song something as unsettling and complicated as falling in love was never far from her mind.
“Through that time and even before I had the idea of something, which is much more fragile, about the risk, not about the assurance, of our continued existence,” said Czernowin. “‘Infinite Now’ is about getting there. [With ‘Heart Chamber’] I wanted to do something that is much more fragile, much more vulnerable,” where the outcome is much less clear.
Listeners and critics have embraced her approach. A capacity crowd responded with a series of ovations at the final curtain on opening night — the first time in its history the Berlin opera house has sold out for the premiere of a contemporary piece. Reviewers have praised the production, with one calling it “overwhelming and touching in an unfamiliar way.” In an online post, Anne Shreffler, Harvard’s James Edward Ditson Professor of Music, wrote: “If Czernowin’s aim is to let us feel and sense what it’s like to be ‘under the skin’ of the protagonists, then her music also allows us access to our own inner emotional states, if we are ready to take it on.”
Leading her audiences into foreign musical territory is a driving force for Czernowin, who uses her compositions to push boundaries, ask questions, and challenge listeners to delve a little deeper into something unexpected. Still, she knows the topic of accessibility in contemporary music is unavoidable.
“From my point of view it is kind of sad because for a lot of people who write new music, which is more inquisitive or speculative, we are actually enabling a totally different avenue than the very accessible, chewable, use-and-throw away-thing that we all engage in 24/7.
“I am actually very proud if people tell me, ‘It took me four times of listening to your piece but then I actually got something that I didn’t experience before.’ For me, that continued curiosity is a compliment.”
During her Radcliffe fellowship Czernowin plans more experiments with form and using nature as a creative spark. She is currently working on a one-hour piece for chamber orchestra titled “The Fabrication of Light,” inspired by the sun that streams through the windows of her Newton home.
“I love the idea of light, and how light changes every place it touches, and what it means to have blinding light, or to have only very little light, or colored light that filters through leaves so that it is almost green,” said Czernowin. “All these forms of light and how they come out of each other or change in their environment inspire me.”