And so he remembers exactly when his composition "Tears in Your Hand" was written.
"Exactly a year ago. I remember this because it's when Stanford closes for three weeks and the students go home. It's quiet enough to write," Berger says in his office, speaking with the good humor of an indulgent parent.
That peace may be welcome to the music itself. "Tears in Your Hand" has its roots in a song written during World War II. Abraham Sutsever penned the Yiddish song, "Unter Dyne Vyse Shetern (Under the White Stars)," in 1943 in the Vilna Ghetto (now in Lithuania).
"This is one of the only love songs that came out of the Holocaust," Berger says. "It's a lovely, 'I wish you were here' kind of song. But you can't be here, and you shouldn't be here -- in the ghetto."
Berger says people who know the original song likely won't recognize it in his composition; he says he has woven "ghostly and distorted fragments" of it throughout.
Listeners can decide for themselves on Jan. 10, when "Tears in Your Hand" has its U.S. premiere in Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford, played by the Gryphon Trio. The members of the chamber-music trio have performed the piece before in Canada, where they're based, but this will be the first time in the States. Even Berger hasn't heard it played yet.
The piece, he says, begins with a piano solo more angular than melodic. Then the other instruments begin playing longer versions of the notes found in the introduction, making them more lyrical. This give-and-take reflects what Berger finds magical about chamber music: a small knot of musicians working closely together, creating a conversation in which the leadership is perpetually shifting.
"There's sort of a great contrast between divergence and convergence of the instruments (in this piece)," Gryphon pianist Jamie Parker says in a phone interview. "There are times when we do our own thing and times of great energy when we come together."
Over the phone, he plays part of the introduction on his piano. It jumps jaggedly, a poignant feeling evident throughout.
Berger's collaboration with the Gryphon Trio began when he met them the summer before last, at a music festival in Ontario. The St. Lawrence String Quartet, with whom Berger has a long relationship, was playing a piece of his, and the Gryphon Trio was performing Mozart trios.
"We got to know each other backstage," Berger recalled. "You sort of know when things click musically."
Gryphon cellist Roman Borys said it also helped that both parties knew the St. Lawrence musicians. As in other worlds, it's all who you know.
When Berger is not composing, much of his work involves studying how computers analyze music. For example, one of his first computer studies was a simulation of the telephone game: a signal was sent to different modules, and each interpreted it in a different way.
Composers, too, can inadvertently play the telephone game, Berger said. You can find a fragment of melody floating through your head -- perhaps from another composer -- and then twist it into a different shape that may or may not retain some of the original elements.
But Berger would not be content working simply with computers. While there is risk involved in handing a new composition to a group of musicians to interpret, that's also part of the joy. He recalls traveling with the St. Lawrence Quartet, watching his works evolve in their hands. Each performance is different, too, bringing out new aspects and angles.
"At a certain point, I lose possession of the piece. It becomes theirs. A musical score is dots on a page. It's a road map," he said. But one night you look up at the musicians, he said, and "They've done something that's so sparkling and different."
Berger's composition that has probably been played the most is his arrangement of the popular Jewish song "Eli, Eli (My God, My God)." The haunting song comes from a poem by Hannah Szenes, a Hungarian Jew who was a parachutist for the British Army in World War II and executed after her capture.
Berger wrote the piece to honor journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. It was part of the first annual Daniel Pearl Music Days concert at Stanford, and the St. Lawrence quartet has played it many times. One striking element is that the end of each musical sentence is removed, stopping swiftly, "so it never becomes final," Berger said.
While Berger did not know Pearl, the journalist's death made a deep impression on him. Sitting in a quiet recording studio deep inside The Knoll, he pauses while thinking about Pearl, then shakes his head and says: "The utter senselessness of it. It just seemed to be emblematic of everything that was verging on catastrophe in this world."
Berger has written often on world events. One composition inspired by both darkness and heroism is a piano piece called "My Lai" after the Vietnam War massacre. He was in high school when the massacre happened, and Berger remembers it as a moment of political awakening to the horrors of war.
Years later, though, Berger was uplifted by hearing the story of Hugh Thompson, an American helicopter pilot who reportedly came upon the killing of Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers, and landed his helicopter in the middle of the massacre to try to stop it.
"My piece is about how he tried to stop the massacre, and couldn't stop it, but he saved one wounded child in his helicopter," Berger said.
Later, the author of a book on Thompson heard Berger's composition, and through the author Berger was able to talk with Thompson, who had also heard the piece. (Thompson, who was shunned by fellow soldiers for years, received the U.S. Soldier's Medal in 1998. He died recently.)
Berger is clearly still moved by what he calls Thompson's rare instance of personal heroism, and well recalls what Thompson said after hearing "My Lai."
"He said, 'I don't know much about music, but it's like having a sculpture done about you.'"
What: The Gryphon Trio plays Jonathan Berger's "Tears in Your Hand" along with works by Haydn and Schubert, presented by Stanford Lively Arts.
Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 10
Cost: $40/$36 for adults, with discounts available for students, young people and groups
Info: Call 650-725-ARTS or go to livelyarts.stanford.edu.
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