Hell Study: nature morte with hurdy-gurdy

for sextet, septet, or octet

2013; 12-15 minutes

my maserati does 185 / I lost my license, now I don’t drive

we are the vultures, the dirtiest kind

I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do / life’s been good to me so far

hold him underwater til the motherfucker drowns


Just to clarify, the translation of the title of this piece into French is Etude d’enfer: Naturaleza muerta avec vielle à roue. For an Anglophone, the discovery that the French word for “still life” (traduction directe : vie immobile) involves the word “dead” is something of a shock.

Hell Study is a reflection on the hell panel from Jerôme (Hieronymus. Hieronymus !) Bosch’s Northern Renaissance masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. You could see the basic unit of the piece, the “races”, the places where all of the performers play all at once, as explosions of the concept of the still life. You take all these disparate elements with different histories and stories and futures and mix them together in the same present, in a painting, then you retemporalize all that in music, in a messy free-for-all in which all of the subjects are talking (screaming?) at once.

What does that have to do with Bosch’s triptych, which is anything but a still life? Well, the disparate elements are still there, an instant captured, a movement, a gesture portrayed by tricks and conventions. You get into how weird a term “still life” is, in that, really, it applies to any painting. Nature morte hardly seems more apt - “dead” is overdoing it a little, and what’s natural about the traditional line-up of apples, or pheasants and skinned rabbits (yes, those are all dead), or cups? The artist created each and every one of them to fit her aesthetic needs. What is nature without human interference? If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears...

I digress. The main point is the much-discussed temporality of music and the point-in-time nature of painting, and how this piece interacts with that. And also suffering, which only happens in time. Torture. The fire and brimstone of Bosch’s painting. And what that could mean today. And also a melody that Billie Joe Armstrong stole from Joe Walsh. All that, that’s what Hell Study’s about.


  • Kurt Gottschalk in newmusicbox: "Nissim Schaul’s Hell Study for two percussionists, blocky prepared piano, bowed violin, cello, flute, and trombone came off as cinematic, but there were several movies playing at the same time. The work was actually rooted in Schaul’s impressions of Bosch and in the sound of the hurdy gurdy, although there wasn’t one present. Instead, cello and bass clarinet swapped off providing drones and the impression of keyed strings."


If you are interested in a score and parts for Hell Study, please contact Nissim. The work exists as a sextet (flute, bass clarinet, piano, percussion - with or without marimba - violin, cell), septet (flute, bass clarinet, piano, percussion, marimba, violin, cello), or octet (flute, bass clarinet, trombone, piano, percussion, marimba, violin, cello)..


  • Hell Study had its Czechpremiere in its octet version at the Janacek Conservatory in Ostrava on August 31, 2013, as part of the Ostrava Days Festival. It was conducted by Ondrej Vrabec and performed by Ostravska Banda (in this case, Bohdan Hilash, bass clarinet (quasi-solo); Malgorzata Hlawsa, flute; William Lang, trombone; Joseph Kubera, piano; Tamas Schlanger and Adam Maros, percussion; Theresa Salomon, violin; Matthias Lorenz, cello).
  • Hell Study was premiered as a sextet by Ensemble Sillages on May 21, 2013 at La Courneuve Conservatory
Contact Nissim Schaul