Interview with David Hertzberg

David Hertzberg’s Spectre of the Spheres will be given its west coast premiere on April 28th and 29th. I had the pleasure of corresponding with the Los Angeles native about his eclectic musical background, his haunting work, and bugs.

Irene Kim: Hello, David! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts on music and your background as well as your mesmerizing piece. Let’s begin with how you got started in music!

David Hertzberg: Happy to chat, and to be working with KCO this spring. I started studying music at Colburn when I was about eight, playing piano and violin, and composing. Most of the first concerts I heard were at the Dorothy Chandler: a “Nozze” that had a profound effect on me, a show of suave Salonen Debussy, and a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony. While I loved playing the piano, I always felt writing was my primary vocation. In middle school, I played guitar, keys, drums, etc. in various jazz and indie bands, and later went to the L.A. County High School for the Arts as a cellist.

IK: Wow! How and when did you get so proficient at playing cello in between the piano, violin, composing, and jazz and indie bands?

DH: I was frustrated by the lack of music at my high school, and had some friends at LACHSA, who were some of the most interesting and creative people I knew at the time. So I called them (LACHSA) up and asked if I could transfer mid semester. They said they only had spots in cello and horn. I replied I was a cellist and they sent me an audition time. I then rented an instrument, locked myself in a room for a few weeks, and somehow managed to squeak my way through the D minor suite (of Bach) and Saint-Saëns concerto in a manner they found sufficient. It was all very stressful. Unfortunately, I never got terribly deep with the cello, though I enjoyed playing those delectably frivolous Rossini quartets (badly). I finished high school at Walnut Hill, an arts boarding school in Natick, Massachusetts, and went to college at Juilliard and Curtis, and now am a hungry, peripatetic composer living mostly in New York.

IK: That’s quite a diverse musical background! As a native from Los Angeles, what was it like to grow up in the musical community and what is like to see it now?

DH: Growing up, I had no sense of the music community in Los Angeles. When I was sixteen, I had a transformative summer at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute and felt that I needed to move to the east coast where all the music was. Now, all I hear about is L.A. It’s thrilling. I remember reading that Werner Herzog said something about L.A. being a potent place for creative work because of its comparative lack of baggage, that there is a freshness about it that fosters sexy, edgy, experimental work. I feel like as a native (of the valley), it’s hard for me to have perspective, but it certainly seems to be the case these days.

IK: What are you up to now? Where are you? What are you working on?

DH: I am writing this from my dear friends’ art gallery (Moskowitz Bayse) in Los Angeles. These days I’m living in Brooklyn, though I spend a considerable amount of time in L.A. Since graduating from Curtis, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about opera, in connection with a residency I’ve had with Opera Philadelphia. Last year I wrote a show called The Wake World, which was premiered on Opera Philadelphia’s inaugural O17 festival last fall at the Barnes Foundation. And there’s something else coming up very soon that I can’t tell you quite yet. In terms of my writing, I’m in the early stages of formulating another opera project that I’m very excited about. I have been reading a lot about bugs and am totally mesmerized by the limpid beauty of entomological prose.

IK: Are the bugs related to a current project? And do you have any favorites?

DH: The bugs are related to my current project, which also explores a different way of thinking about dramatic time. My favorite larva is presently that of the Megalopyge opercularis, or Woolly Slug. Not that I want to find one on my pillow.

IK: Before I ask you to tell me about your piece, can I include the notes you included in the score here for our readers? That way, you don’t have to repeat yourself!

DH: [Notes from the score for Spectre of the Spheres]:

This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless.

His head is air. Beneath his tip at night,

Eyes open and fix on us in every sky.


Or is this another wriggling out of the egg,

Another image at the end of the cave,

Another bodiless for the body’s slough?


This is where the serpent lives. This is his nest,

These fields, these hills, these tinted distances,

And the pines above and along and beside the sea.


This is form gulping after formlessness,

Skin flashing to wished-for disappearances

And the serpent body flashing without the skin.


-Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn, 1948


In the opening stanzas of The Auroras of Autumn (from which my work’s title is drawn), Stevens uses the image of a serpent thrashing after having shed its skin, glimmering and flashing as if possessed, as a metaphor for the majestic beauty of the Northern Lights. I found this idea, of something primordial, that is at once terrifying and arrestingly beautiful, to be a very poignant one, and one ripe for musical expression.

With Spectre of the Spheres I sought to create something that moves and breathes like the mystical, unfettered Aurora, with a reckless vitality, inexorably, and of its own accord.

IK: Did the work come into being for a specific purpose?

DH: It was commissioned in 2013 by the magnificent Jefferey Meyer for the Colorado All-State Orchestra. It was thrilling to hear those kids play this music, which is quite different from what they normally do. They had a super fabulous attitude and really tore it up. Since then, it’s been taken up by a few groups, and I’m ecstatically stoked that it will be performed in Los Angeles by Kaleidoscope. Particularly curious to see how it unfolds without a conductor. I feel like the mysterious welling of sound from a conductorless orchestra is sort of a fab metaphor for the metaphor that I pilfered from Stevens to describe the metaphor that is music.


IK: Is there anything in particular you would like us to listen for in the piece?


DH: I hope you like the sounds, and maybe the specific way they are configured talks to you in a manner not dissimilar to this sentence (though hopefully more interesting).


IK: When you write, for whom or what do you write for?


DH: I’m assuming this is the who is your “audience” question. My audience is the person I see in the mirror. This is not such an easy task, as he’s difficult to please and nigh impossible to understand. This doesn't mean I don’t want others to enjoy my music—I certainly do. But I think it would be quite disingenuous for me to pretend that I knew what other people wanted to hear, or to pretend that I could possibly understand how anyone else thinks or feels. If I have an aim in writing at all, I think it would be to contrive a world, as manifold and sufficient as ours, richly figured in bright tones, that can be inhabited and revisited and fiercely loved.


IK: What are some of your hobbies or other passions outside of music?


DH: There are lots of things that I love, but I find them all working their way into my art. So I don’t know if I would call them hobbies. I love books, and words and language more generally. I love theater, and lately I love 1930s Hollywood. I am also passionate about smoked fish, which probably falls more into the hobby category.


IK: Yes, food can definitely be a passion, hobby or not! Thank you so much, David, for your time. I’m excited to see you in L.A. and to be playing your Spectre of the Spheres soon! 


Irene Kim