In what, for want of a better term, we still regularly refer to as “western” music, the work of composers from further afield is becoming increasingly prominent. Often their music is tinged unmistakably with otherness, with melodic shapes, colors, harmonies, and instrumental usages that come from the emphatically non-western traditions they encountered in growing up, so that a piece by a Chinese or Japanese composer is instantly recognizable as such.
That is not so with Unsuk Chin. Any local color, in the work of one born in Seoul in 1961, is much harder to find – nor, one might add, does Chin’s music proclaim a specifically female sensibility. We seem to be, rather, in a world between worlds: between Asian and Euro-American, between female and male, between present and past – a world in which opposites can flip over, and in which supreme technique can draw an essence from almost any source. This is not music as autobiography or self-expression. Indeed, we may learn rather little about Chin as a person through listening to a day of her compositions. We will, however, learn a lot about music, and about the projection of feeling, fantasy, and wit through gorgeous, reeling, iridescent sound.
Chin studied composition at the National University in her home city with Sukhi Kang, the most distinguished Korean composer of the preceding generation. In 1984 she had a piece played at the ISCM World Music Days, and the following year a grant from the German state took her to Hamburg to study with Ligeti for three years. The experience was crucial. Ligeti was impressed not so much by what she had achieved as by her potential, which she proved in learning to live up to his standards of technical virtuosity, wide awareness of the world’s musical traditions, curiosity, and independence. For a while, finished compositions were not the object; just one, a 1986 setting of extracts from the Trojan Women of Euripides for soloists, choir, and orchestra, survives from this period. It was performed in 1990 in Oslo, again under ISCM auspices.
Remaining in Germany after her time with Ligeti, Chin settled in Berlin, and returned to active composition early in 1991, with the beginnings of her Akrostichon-Wortspiel for soprano and ensemble, a work she finished in 1993. This was her breakthrough.
Akrostichon-Wortspiel was first performed complete in London under George Benjamin’s direction, and was rapidly taken up by the leading new-music ensembles of Europe, among which the Ensemble InterContemporain commissioned Fantaisie mécanique for five players on brass, percussion, and piano (1994) and Xi for ensemble and electronic sound (1998). During this period of growing renown, Chin also wrote ParaMetaString for the Kronos Quartet, began a continuing sequence of piano études, and produced three contrasting large-scale works in quick succession: her Piano Concerto (1996-7), Miroirs des temps (1999), and Kāla (2000).
The second of these was introduced in London by Kent Nagano, who became a persuasive advocate of her work, and who was responsible for three major commissions over the next few years: her Violin Concerto, her opera Alice in Wonderland, and her symphonic piece Rocanā. First performed in January 2002, the concerto brought another lift to her reputation and has been played around the world by its original soloist, Viviane Hagner, besides being taken up by other leading performers. It was followed by a third score for the Ensemble InterContemporain (the Double Concerto with solo piano and percussion) and then by a period when Chin concentrated on Alice – though she took time to write two sets of nonsense songs: snagS&Snarls and Cantatrix Sopranica.
Since the première of Alice, in 2007 at the Bavarian State Opera, her works have included concertos for cello and sheng as well as pieces for the Ensemble Modern (Gougalōn, 2009) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Graffiti, 2012-13).
Gradus ad infinitum (1989)
This is one of seven pieces Chin produced during a year (1988-9) she spent working at the electronic music studio of the Technical University in Berlin. She went back there in the mid-1990s to create a couple more pieces, and since then has been an occasional visitor to IRCAM, always using electronic resources to expand instrumental virtuosity.
So it is here. The piece is entirely made from piano sounds, retuned electronically to a scale of twenty intervals to the octave. At the start, the “steps to infinity,” to quote the title, seem to be going on upwards or downwards forever, like the stairways in a drawing by M.C. Escher. But then the notes begin to discover other antics they can play, in what develops as a fitting homage to Conlon Nancarrow, lasting a little over eleven minutes.
Piano Etudes (2000-03)
The piano is Chin’s own instrument, and she has written more solo music for it than for any other. Piano music, which is all about wresting subtlety and shape from machinery, suits the nature of Chin’s art, as does the étude form, which is of course all about exactitude and virtuosity. Of the six she has produced so far, she wrote the last in 2000, for Pierre Boulez’s seventy-fifth birthday, and the fifth in 2003.
Anyone writing piano études in the last three decades has had to face the challenge of Ligeti’s, and it says much for Chin’s creative sureness and bravery that she accepted such a challenge, especially when it derived from her teacher, at a time when he was still adding to his own store. One might recognize Ligetian features here: the setting up of fractal-style rules having to do with repetition and growth, rules leading to a complexity that overwhelms them, and the invention of ideas that are almost animated in their will to live and prosper. Yet the pieces are decidedly Chinesque, too, in their rainbow modal colors, their multiple allusions (not only to Ligeti but also to twentieth-century French music and jazz, sometimes in the same bar) and their flash.
No. 5 “Toccata”
An elementary simplicity opens No. 5 of the set – a little flurry of semiquavers across intervals of a fifth and a minor third – to give rise to a rampage of self-similarity in which the original idea is everywhere and nowhere. The semiquavers soon become persistent, as befits a toccata, but the rhythmic and harmonic accents wobble all over the place.
No. 6 “Grains”
One note in the high treble, in No. 6, then a second even higher, and the stage is set for a fantasy of extreme registers – except that a G sharp in the middle of the piano keeps making its presence felt. What can be done? Many efforts are attempted, but nothing works to silence this insistently repeating note that sounds through, even when the music goes in for a cannonade of two-part counterpoint. And the thing is there at the end.
snagS&Snarls for soprano and orchestra (2003-4)
Chin was introduced to Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books by Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. Having decided to write an Alice opera, she began with a set of five brief Alice songs, grouped under a title taken from the first section of another Hofstadter book, Metamagical Themas. The work was introduced at Ojai in 2004, with Kent Nagano conducting and Margaret Thompson as soloist.
I. Alice – Acrostic
Four of the songs found their way into the opera, but not the first, whose text comes, in a paradoxical move typical of the composer, from the very end of the second Alice book, Through the Looking Glass, where Carroll appends to his story an acrostic on the name of his model for the title character: Alice Pleasance Liddell. Over a middle A (presumably for “Alice”), a pair of oboes wafts in, creating a harmonic world consonant but unsettled, adrift in a delicate treble world where the only instruments in play are high woodwinds, solo violins and violas, harp, mandolin, and celesta. The singer joins this world with melody that is entirely diatonic and mostly in conjoint intervals, but homeless, as if dreaming of a D major that was long ago. When the acrostic has been completed, there comes a foretaste of the next song, followed by a return as the soprano ponders conundra.
II. Who in the world am I?
Enigmas of time and identity are then the subject of the second song, whose words are Alice’s early in the first book, after she has shrunk and grown. The music shares her doubts in its jumpiness, now with the whole orchestra engaged. A quick upward crescendo is always the same and always different, at once one thing and many. Alice’s mixed-up multiplication table lifts the music to a new level of confusion, within which she sings a nonsense song, and the perpetual motion continues as she returns to her existential questions, to end on the dilemma of a tritone.
III. The Tale-Tail of the Mouse
A little further into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland we meet the mouse with a long tail and a long tale. The third song sets the latter, with imagery of the former – as in the book, where the tale is a calligram, wriggling down the page. Instrumental gestures tail off in trills or tremolos; meanwhile, the tale is delivered in sprechgesang.
IV. Speak roughly to your little boy
Next comes the Duchess’s grotesque lullaby, which she sings to the baby she rocks in her arms and violently shakes. In complete contrast with the first song, the orchestra is all low and relentless, until the middle section where the Duchess is filling her soup with pepper. There is a huge climax on the lullaby’s “Wow! wow! wow!” refrain, and then the lullaby is repeated, with full forces.
V. Twinkle, twinkle, little star
The final song, going back a little to the Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party, is the Hatter’s absurd distortion of a popular children’s rhyme, which Chin amplifies not only with a lot more wordplay but also, of course, with music that spins away from simplicity into its own wonderland.
Double Concerto for piano, percussion and ensemble (2002)
Composed for the Ensemble InterContemporain, this concerto for solo piano and percussion with an orchestra of nineteen plays continuously for about twenty minutes. The idea of such a concerto came to the composer, she has said, through the experience she had gained in writing for piano and percussion in her piano études, concertos for piano and violin, Allegro ma non troppo for percussion and recorded sound, and Fantaisie mécanique.
“In this new piece,” Chin’s note from the time goes, “I try to effect a totally homogeneous fusion of the two instrumental components (soloists and ensemble), so that there emerges just one, new sounding body. The piano is prepared with metal shelf pins in two middle regions, rendering the sound slightly muted and metallic, and with small hooks for four notes in the far bass, which become percussive, these prepared sonorities creating a contrast with the normal sound of other notes. The ensemble represents in a way the shadow of the soloists, who send out impulses as they develop the germinal material, impulses that may prompt one of the ensemble instruments to tell its own story. There is a second percussionist within the ensemble, giving a supplementary coloration to the solo parts by means of very particular effects. The sound world that results has its reference points as much in western as in extra-European music. From there I tried to create music that would be highly colored in its appeal and its expression, agile and free, sometimes completely unpredictable in how it unfolds.”
Some of the basic principles, which have to do with similarity and difference, are set out in the opening passage, where not only are the pianist’s two hands locked together, worrying at each other as they play alternate notes in the same middle register at speed, but piano and percussion are also yoked together in productive discord. The orchestral percussionist is involved here as well, and soon woodwinds are entering. At the center of the trouble is the piano’s E, standing out from a fog of prepared notes and forming the point of departure for the work’s large-scale harmonic narrative.
As the composer’s description suggests, other stories unwind from this continuing thread: short repeating ideas (such as the sparkling flourishes that are a Chin trademark) or longer melodies that will never be heard again. At the halfway point comes a new condensation, on a high A and the E a fifth above that, with the soloists joined by harp and strings. Much of the piece features this airy space, above all the piano’s prepared notes, though the music can be as light and playful in the bass. Toward the end, the middle-register turbidity of the opening returns, this time to signal an extraordinary coda in which the notes of piano and vibraphone seem to be bent by the other instruments.