Born in Haifa, Israel, Chaya Czernowin received her BA degree (1982) in composition from the Rubin Academy of Music, Tel-Aviv University, where her main teachers were Abel Ehrlich and Yitzhak Sadai. From 1983 to 1985 she studied with Dieter Schnebel in Berlin under the aegis of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). She continued her studies with Eli Yarden and Joan Tower at Bard College (MFA 1987), New York. In 1993 she completed her PhD at the University of California, San Diego, under Brian Ferneyhough and Roger Reynolds as her dissertation advisor.
Czernowin has taught composition at the Yoshiro Irino Institute, JML, Tokyo, Japan, at the University of California, San Diego (1997-2006), at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music (1990-1998, 2004, 2010), at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna (2006-2009) and, since 2003, at the bi-yearly course for composers at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. Since 2009, she has been the Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music at Harvard University.
Her numerous honours and awards include the Kranichstein Music Award (1992), an Asahi Shimbun Fellowship for a year residency in Tokyo (1993-1994), and several fellowships from the Heinrich Strobel Stiftung (1997, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005), advancement prize of the Siemens Music Foundation (2003), and the Rockefeller Foundation Award for two portrait concerts in New York (2004). In 2004 she was appointed composer-in-residence at the European Center for the Arts Hellerau in Dresden and later on at the Salzburg Festival (2005/2006) and Basel Stadttheater. In 2007 she received the support of Resou Varese and in 2008 was nominated a fellow of Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin (postponed). In 2009 she received the Fromm Foundation Award.
Czernowin's music has been performed at over fifty festivals worldwide by some of the best soloists and performing groups of modern music, including Ensemble Modern, Klangforum Wien, Intercontemporain IRCAM, ELISION, Recherche, San Francisco Contemporary Players, ORF Orchestra, Vienna, SWR Baden-Baden Orchestra, and Munich Philharmonic. Her discography includes recordings by Mode, Deutsche Grammophon, Col Legno, Neos, ORF, Einstein Records and, recently, Wergo.
Czernowin's compositional output includes orchestral music as well as chamber works and two operas. Her vocal pieces are written, for the most part, to Hebrew texts and many of her instrumental works bear Hebrew titles. Her literary sources include present-day Hebrew poetry and literature.
Czernowin's first Opera Pnima...ins innere was premiered at the Munich Biennale in 2000. It was chosen best première of the year by the magazine Opernwelt and won the Bavarian Theatre Award. The opera, which is based on a novel by Israeli author David Grossman (Momik, the first part of See Under: Love), deals with the Jewish Holocaust as a symbol for the universal experience of trauma and its incommunicable nature. The opera is the first musical work to address this sensitive issue from the viewpoint of the second generation, namely the sons and daughters of the Holocaust survivors. Czernowin, both of whose parents survived the Holocaust, told an interviewer that the memory of the Holocaust played a central, if not always fully cognized, role in her life as well as in her musical work.
Her second opera, Zaide/Adama, is an elaborated and unique arrangement of Mozart's unfinished Zaide. Czernowin supplements Mozart's music with new layers of musical and textual commentary that endow Mozart's singspiel Opera with meanings pertinent to the present day. The love story of Zaide and Gomatz, a harem Christian slave, is interspersed by a love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian. The musical parts written by Czernowin proceed in dialogue with those of Mozart, highlighting the radically different yet curiously overlapping cultural and political realities of the two operas.
Czernowin's musical language draws on elements from various musical traditions, including the Russian, Jewish and Arab music to which she was exposed in an early age as well as the ancient Japanese music which attracted her later on. Contemporary composers who influenced her work include Scelsi and Feldman as well as Ferneyhough and Lachenmann. Aesthetically, Czernowin's music continues the uncompromising line of twentieth-century international avant-garde in deconstructing preconceived forms and exploring unfamiliar territories of musical experience.
Based on Cezrnowin's own statements, the guiding concept of her work, and indeed her personal life, is the fluidity and mutability of identity as a self-conscious response to notions of nationalism and other forms of collectivism in music. This is evident, for example, in her treatment of themes (most visibly in the two music theatre pieces) that emerge from her personal experiences and background while seeking, at the same time, to convey their latent universal human message. On the stylistic level, Czernowin's preoccupation with identity accounts for the juxtaposition of highly differentiated musical materials in her works and her unique way of elaboration these by playing them against one another.