Classical Notes

Composer has way with and without words

Lera Auerbach excels at creating poetry and music

Lera Auerbach says she learned to write music at the same time she was learning to write words. Lera Auerbach says she learned to write music at the same time she was learning to write words. (F. Reinhold)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / July 16, 2010

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Composer Lera Auerbach has a resume and a poise that seem beyond her 36 years. An increasingly visible and lauded composer — her fourth quartet is being played by the Borromeo String Quartet tomorrow at Monadnock Music — she is also a skilled pianist who performs regularly in a duo with cellist Alisa Weilerstein. On top of that, she is a highly regarded poet, especially in her native Russia.

That poise was evident during a recent phone interview. Auerbach had only recently returned to her New York apartment, where most of the contents had been destroyed in an electrical fire in October — on her birthday, no less. “I was in the middle of a concert tour when it happened,’’ she says in a serious, even slightly detached, voice. “My approach to the whole thing was just to go on with the tour as if nothing happened.’’

Among her losses was a full-size Steinway piano, which she has yet to replace, even though she can neither practice nor compose without access to one. Still, she says evenly, “I don’t want to rush into getting an instrument, because I want it to be something that can inspire me and stay with me for many years.’’

Auerbach seems to wear her achievements lightly; she’s been composing since she was 4 years old, after all. “I learned to write and read music at the same time I learned to write and read words. So to me it was the most natural thing to improvise a story on the piano and then write it down.’’

Among the composer’s increasing number of champions is the Borromeo, which premiered her “Fragile Solitudes,’’ a concerto for string quartet and orchestra, with the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus in 2008. The Borromeo has now added all four of her quartets to its repertoire and is planning to record them for release.

“There’s a little bit of an uncanny feeling with Lera that she is uncommonly communicative in what she writes,’’ says Nicholas Kitchen, the quartet’s first violinist. “And I don’t mean in a way that has anything to do with the way people use the word ‘accessible,’ whatever that means . . . There’s something where she establishes a connection that’s genuinely emotional in the way her music unfolds and what it means to the players and to the audience. It’s very powerful.’’

“That’s the power of music,’’ says Auerbach when this aspect of her music is mentioned. “It can communicate without the limitations that language has, without the limitations of the definitions of words. Music can access that inner being of the listener directly without those conscious barriers. It can be a very powerful communicative device without us understanding fully why we react in such a way.’’

Part of that emotional directness may stem from Auerbach’s unabashed use of tonal elements. In fact, she says, “I think all music is tonal — even the one that strives not to be.’’ She points out that tonality is rooted in the physics of sound frequencies, from which follow major and minor triads and scales. “There is an almost physiological reason why [music] has developed in such a way, and why not all tones are equal,’’ she says, taking what seems to be a swipe at atonality and 12-tone music. “They shouldn’t be. In a way, the attempt to make them all equal is not consistent with the whole nature of sound, of how we relate to music.’’

Many of Auerbach’s pieces have especially lyrical titles, including “Fragile Solitudes’’ and the orchestral work “Dialogues With Time.’’ So does the fourth string quartet, titled “Inventions: 16 Findings.’’ She created a fictional back story for the piece, one in which Auerbach was staying in a house in Hamburg under mysterious circumstances and was shown a collection of musical manuscripts collected by the deceased father of the house’s owner. The piece — supposedly created from those manuscripts — is made up of 16 movements that flow together to create an aura of nostalgic remembrance.

“There are a lot of emotions — a little bit of melancholy, a lot of humor, some very sweet writing,’’ says Kitchen of the quartet. “It has this somewhat gentle [feel], a little bit like peering into something curious from the past.’’ Auerbach created this elaborate fiction because, she wrote in an e-mail, “I liked the idea of exploring a decompositional fragmentation approach and in doing so creating a collection of memories which never existed to start with.’’

The creative origin of a piece like “Inventions’’ makes one wonder how the literary and musical sides of Auerbach’s personality interact. “I would be very frustrated to do just one of those things,’’ she answers when asked about the interrelationship. “In a way, it’s a salvation for me. I think it allows me somehow to stay fresh and focused whenever I switch from one to the other. But at the same time it is difficult, and they all compete for my time. They all require full concentration and there are no shortcuts.’’

Tomorrow at Peterborough Town House, Peterborough, N.H.; 603-924-7610,

David Weininger can be reached at