By Megan Westberg | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
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Cellist Alexander Hersh’s recent album, Absinthe—part of an overall project involving the album, several narrative videos, and themed merchandise—opens with Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s Pohádka, or Fairy Tale, which seems appropriate given the eponymous liquor’s colorful soubriquet: the Green Fairy. Written in 1910, Janáček’s piece for cello and piano was composed and premiered during the time in which bans of absinthe were sweeping Europe and, indeed, the world: Belgium (1905), Switzerland and the Netherlands (1910), the United States (1912), and even the heart of absintheur culture, France (1914–15), all prohibited the popular tipple—distinctive in its color, potency, and purported hallucinogenic properties—in the early 20th century. Germany and Italy were to follow suit in 1923 and 1932 respectively.
In this, Janáček’s piece is in good company: all of the repertoire on Hersh’s album was written around this time. Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, composed in 1914; Gregor Piatigorsky’s arrangement of Alexander Scriabin’s 1903 Poème No. 1, Op. 32; an arrangement of Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne of 1911; and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor (1914) make up the rest of the tracks. “I always found absinthe to be really interesting as this point in history and as an artistic muse for so many creatives,” says Hersh of his decision to use absinthe as the thread that ties together this project. He also chose music from countries with heavy absinthe consumption (France, the Czech Republic, and Russia). “The irony with the whole project is that I don’t even drink alcohol! I’ve never tried absinthe—I’m a total fraud. But I just love the historical impact it had on culture and what it inspired.”
One of the things it inspired in the here and now is the video component of Hersh’s Absinthe project, described thus in marketing material: “Here’s a premise. What if Wes Anderson and Larry David had a baby? And what if that baby played the cello? Weird right?” “I wanted to create something that had the potential to bring classical music to the mainstream but without diluting it,” he says. Though he does still post standard fare in terms of more “static” performance videos, with Absinthe, Hersh wanted to indulge his passion for comedy and storytelling.
“So often in classical music, we talk about telling a story with one’s playing, and that’s beautiful but very abstract, I realized,” he says. “That’s a hard thing for nonmusicians to grasp.” And so, with the Absinthe videos, his aim was to create an actual story a viewer could follow, set to the music that inspired it. “I just love this idea of creating access points for people. And I think these narrative videos invite in a whole new audience.”
Fortunately, coming up with a story doesn’t seem to have been much of a problem. “I’m such a nerd,” Hersh says. “In my free time, I’m a huge cello nerd, but I also love to write short stories.” And so, for the first video, set to Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, he wrote a general script, which he then took to his friends and coconspirators, Mike Grittani (a cellist turned filmmaker) and Miles Jappa, creative director at a Chicago advertising agency. “We sat around with a Google doc and a giant pizza and just cowrote this thing.”
From there, they developed a shot list and a story board, and progressed to shooting. “It’s indie filmmaking at its core,” says Hersh. “I mean, no crew: it’s craziness. It’s one of us holding a blow dryer on me to get my hair blowing. We had to make a green screen in the most DIY fashion possible, so we made a blue screen—it’s literal chaos.” That first video—featuring a persistent bottle of luminescent green liquid haunting a bewildered cellist busker—was certainly the fruit of many, many hours of labor. “We will spend an hour setting up for one little shot that lasts one second. It’s just so much work.” And yet, Hersh’s tone remains bright as he adds, “It’s exhilarating: so much fun.”
And perhaps that fun is the result of his choice of collaborators. “There’s something so organic and beautiful, I find, of just friends working together,” he says. It’s a thought to which he returns several times—how friendship and mutual growth set the tone for this project. But then, Hersh seems like a team player. In addition to his academic bona fides (a student of Laurence Lesser, Paul Katz, and Kim Kashkashian at New England Conservatory, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees) and solo accolades (2022 Pro Musicis International Award, a 2020 Salon de Virtuosi Career Grant, and top prizes at a number of competitions), Hersh is a passionate chamber musician who has made the rounds in that capacity playing festivals like Marlboro, Caramoor, Ravinia, and Music@Menlo. He is also co–artistic director of his own chamber music festival, Nexus Chamber Music, in Chicago, his hometown. The festival’s mission is to find new ways to engage an ever-widening audience, to “make chamber music culturally relevant.” Hersh, a fourth-generation string player, founded the festival in 2018 with violinist Brian Hong, another friend.
And what of the boozy thread that so captured Hersh’s imagination and pulls this project together—repertoire and media—into a pleasing whole? Absinthe, a neutral alcohol redistilled typically with wormwood, anise, and fennel for a distinctive and bitter “black licorice” flavor (these botanicals also providing the liquor’s signature color), is the distant descendent of a simpler concoction (wormwood-infused wine, in most cases) meant to remedy all sorts of ailments. Its origins are ancient—like, ancient Greeks kind of ancient.
But by the time absinthe had transformed from folk medicine to recreational potable, it had taken on some rather idiosyncratic trappings: green liquor in a glass on which a slotted spoon rested, suspending a sugar cube above. Cold water was poured over the sugar, adding sweetness to the bitter draught below and diminishing a bit of its potency, which was formidable. By the middle of the 19th century, absinthe had become so popular that absintheurs were said to take part in “the green hour” at cafes, the unmistakable scent of the Green Fairy perfuming Parisian streets in the early evening. According to Simon Difford of Difford’s Guide for Discerning Drinkers, France alone produced 36 million liters (about 9.5 million gallons) a year at the height of absinthe’s reign as the emerald queen of snifters.
Despite its centuries-old psychedelic reputation, absinthe is not actually hallucinogenic. Which, for anyone who watched the absinthe sequence in Moulin Rouge with rapt attention, may seem mildly disappointing. Take a shot or two, and Kylie Minogue will not appear before you as a trilling shamrock pixie. But then, it isn’t so much the reality of absinthe that provides its fascination. It is its perpetual glamor, much of which it owes to artists and writers who paid it homage in their work and conferred a bit of their own perpetual glamor upon it. Édouard Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker of 1859, Pablo Picasso’s The Absinthe Glass (1914), and Edgar Degas’ L’Absinthe (1875–76) reinforced its mystique. Vincent van Gogh, Paul Verlaine, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway: absinthe aficionados all. Jane Ciabattari, writing for the BBC in “Absinthe: How the Green Fairy Became Literature’s Drink,” goes so far as to say that absinthe “shaped Symbolism, Surrealism, Modernism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism.” Not only did absinthe hold a place in western European culture, it held sway at the very center of that culture. That is, until its effective abandonment in much of that territory at around the turn of the 20th century.
There were a number of reasons absinthe lost official favor, including a rise in support for temperance in general, dubious science that misrepresented the dangers of the trace amounts of wormwood present (wormwood contains thujone, which is toxic at certain levels), and (possibly) the political power of a wine industry first decimated by a phylloxera epidemic and then threatened by the popularity of the far more potent sea-green charmer (absinthe ranges from 90 to 148 proof to wine’s approximate 24). There was a narrative afoot that absinthe drove its consumers to madness and violence. And when a Swiss farm laborer named Jean Lanfray, who had consumed absinthe along with quite a lot of wine and brandy, killed his pregnant wife and two daughters in 1905, that seemed enough to tip the scales in favor of absinthe prohibition. It was sensationalized as an “absinthe murder” and inflamed the public against its magnetic Green Fairy.
And all of this occurred just as the world was being drawn inexorably into the First World War.
Meanwhile, Janáček and the Boulanger sisters and Scriabin and Ravel were all diligently writing the music that appears on Alexander Hersh’s album, released more than 100 years later. “It would be total conjecture to assume that these composers were consuming absinthe when they wrote these pieces,” Hersh says. “That is not the intention at all with this project. It’s more just a thematic connection, and it’s an interesting topic, interesting time period. And I thought it had cohesion.”
Some of that cohesion comes from the music itself. “I think each composer has their own voice, but there definitely is this similarity in—I feel wrong saying this word—but there’s an impressionistic quality, I find, in the music that connects all of them.” Of course, Janáček’s Fairy Tale sounds thematically related to absinthe’s Green Fairy, but there’s another connection to be found. Janáček’s Czech homeland never banned absinthe, continued producing it in small amounts, and is even, today, seeing something of a revival in its production.
The Janáček was also one of the most satisfying for Hersh to record. Absinthe includes not only the traditional three movements, but also the fourth, which got lost somewhere between its second performance in 1912 and its publication in 1923. But not one to stop there, Hersh also included another supplemental movement. “One of them, there’s only one other recording of, and the other one is also rarely done. These are sketches and movements that were discovered much, much later and only recently published,” he says.
Nadia and Lili Boulanger weren’t only tied to the time period but also inescapably to each other. “I think it’s really cool to see two sisters’ work from a very similar time period,” Hersh says. “The pieces are written three years apart, and Nadia lived a very long time [Lili died at just 24] and is known as a pedagogue and taught so many wonderful composers who came after, but there’s something cool about the family connection and the two of them writing that I just really liked.”
He describes the Scriabin as “hallucinatory,” perhaps providing the best bridge to the album’s namesake via mood alone. “It’s very dreamlike,” he says, “like a lot of Scriabin.” It was also the most challenging to record. Scriabin’s Poème No. 1 is in the key of F sharp major—which makes it a bear to play in tune. “It’s the kind of thing that you don’t think is hard—there shouldn’t be an excuse for it—and then you start listening back to takes and you just realize, ‘Oh my goodness.’” After trying to rerecord, Hersh decided his first attempts were best and is now “quite happy with the end result.”
Last, Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor. Written just before the French ban of absinthe, this may have represented Hersh’s most difficult mental challenge. “Ravel’s piano trio is a massive work, and one of the challenges in recording something like that is that it’s been recorded so many times by virtually all of my heroes and legends—that’s a daunting task to walk up to the plate and take a swing,” he says.
Though the pieces feel like a cohesive grouping, Hersh emphasizes that he doesn’t mean they sound the same. “Each still wonderfully has their distinct character and their distinct flavors. And I try not to treat every composer exactly the same,” he says. “Every piece is judged on a case-by-case basis.”
Beyond describing the voices of each of the composers, distinct is an apt adjective that could also be applied to the entire project. From music to video production to marketing to merchandising, the Absinthe project has been a personal, local affair. “One of the goals of Absinthe is that I hope it will inspire other classical musicians to maybe think outside the box, take risks, do something creative that maybe you’re thinking of doing. It’s OK to combine interests. It doesn’t dilute you as a player in any fashion, I think,” Hersh says.
It all circles back to the music and the people that surround him. “I didn’t realize how stimulating this whole thing would be and what that would mean for me when I sat back down to play the cello,” he says. “I want to encourage people to work with their friends. Tap into the resources you have at your disposal. And grow together. A great story can be told regardless of the gear used. And I think there’s something so beautiful about friends working together and getting better together.”
Cheers to that.
Absinthe Video Release Schedule
Absinthe I: August 31, 2023
Absinthe II: October 27, 2023
Absinthe III: December 1, 2023
What Alexander Hersh Plays
Instrument 1695 G.B. Rogeri
Bow “ex-Parisot” Dodd
Strings Thomastik-Infeld Rondo