Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion Day

Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion Day: Soloists, London Sinfonietta, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Centre, London, 9.4.2011 (GDn)

My first thought when I heard about this day dedicated to the music of Unsuk Chin was that it is about time British audiences got a chance to hear the music of a composer that the Germans have been raving about for years. But on consulting the programme, it seems I am out of the loop; every piece bar one had been played in the UK before. There was one London première and one ‘London public première’ suggesting that I have just been mixing in the wrong circles and if you know the right people, Chin’s music is easily accessible.

For those less privileged, Unsuk Chin is a name that only really relates to Proms programmes, but from those it is clear that she is a major talent with impressive contacts with top class players. The other fact about Chin that rarely goes unstated is that she studied with Ligeti. Apparently their personal relationship was stormy, but all relationships with Ligeti were stormy so that’s not necessarily significant. It is tempting to define her music purely through comparison with the great Hungarian master. That would do her a disservice, but his unique soundworld clearly haunts her musical psyche. Like Ligeti, she is drawn to nonsense lyrics and (not coincidentally) also to Lewis Carroll. Her piano etudes (of which we heard two) are a direct continuation of her teacher’s. More significantly, textures and effects that are clearly Ligeti trademarks keep turning up in her scores. So, for example, the conclusion of Kala is made up of unsynchronised descending scales in the choir over a sustained pedal in the woodwind – just like the Kyrie from Ligeti’s Requiem, Acrostic Wordplay combines phonetic sounds from the vocal soloist with erratic ensemble textures (Aventures), in the Violin Concerto, the harpsichord suddenly bursts in with what sounds like a quotation from Continuum, and in Su (the sheng concerto) there is a point where all the percussionists put down their sticks and start playing harmonicas, just like in Sippal, Dobbel…

But with the exception of these alarming calls from beyond the grave, Chin has a distinctive voice. She is not as regimented as Ligeti, and prefers messy textures – more clouds than clocks. Like Ligeti she writes acoustic music that is informed by prior experiences in the electronic studio, but unlike Ligeti, those experiences also produced electronic works worth listening to. It is difficult to categorise Chin’s work in terms of ethnicity or gender, except to say that there is an intrinsic sense of outsideness that prevents her from taking anything in Western Classical culture too seriously.

The day began at the Guildhall School, with a talk from Jonathan Cross and performances by pianist Claire Hammond and violinist Jenna Sherry. Hammond had planned to perform all six of the Études, but illness last week prevented here from preparing more than two. So we got a double performance of Double Bind for violin and electronics instead. It is a fascinating work, which in this interpretation involves the guts from the remote control of a Wii strapped to the bottom of the violin so that the electronic devices can track its movement. Listening to it twice demonstrated how every performance is different in terms of the dynamic and synchronisation of the live electronics. Sadly, it turned out in the talk later on that the composer gets very distressed by that variability and it is one of the reasons she does not work with live electronics on a regular basis.

The London Sinfonietta gave a lunchtime concert that consisted of Gougalon, Acrostic Wordplay and the Double Concerto (only the name borrowed from Ligeti in this case). Gougalon relates to Chin’s first and recent visit to China and is almost narrative in its structure and tone painting. Acrostic Wordplay is the piece that made her famous, a song cycle for soprano and ensemble. I think the comparison with Ligeti’s Aventures is fair, but this is much gentler music, and perhaps the composer’s oriental background shows through in her reluctance to push contrasts or extremes. The Double Concerto for piano and percussion shows this even more clearly. Chin said in the talk later on that she is not very interested in the standard orchestra (when she was asked what standard orchestration was she replied ‘Brahms’) which was why she always adds so much percussion. Yet she is commissioned to write orchestral music so that is what happens. Similarly, I think, with her many concertos, written at the behest of willing and able collaborators and not out of any loyalty to the genre. So the relationship between the soloists and the ensemble is not her starting point when it comes to concertos, basically they are all in it together. In the Double Concerto, there is a percussion soloist and a percussionist in the ensemble, but both seem to do about the same amount. All excellently played under Unsuk Chin specialist Stefan Asbury, and with competent soloists. I couldn’t help wondering, though, what is in it for them, all of whom are expected to play exceptionally difficult solo parts, but without any bravura or show.

The screening of Alice in Wonderland was one of the most insightful aspects of the day, and while it is (as yet) the composer’s only opera, it is clearly a statement of intent. The score is powerful and seems energised by the sheer absurdity of the text. Chin sets the story in a surprisingly literal way. The surrealism of the staging is at odds with the basically narrative structure of the music, a disparity explained by the fact that this first production was designed and directed by the Brecht protégé Achim Freyer. Unsuk Chin said that she had initially been shocked by the liberties taken by the director, but now that she has seen a second, more literal, production, she has realised how good the original is. Perhaps the most radical aspect of the show was the filming for video by Ellen Fellman. Freyer positions Alice at the centre of a large square tableau and leaves her there for the entire opera. Obviously, just locking off a camera at the back of the stalls would make for uninteresting viewing, so instead Fellman introduces a range of camera techniques – handheld, moving in and out of focus, splitscreen…It’s all very effective and fully in keeping with the spirit of the production. The film is available on DVD (Unitel A0501647) and is well worth a look.

Like the lunchtime concert, the evening event by the BBC SO succeeded largely because of the excellent choice of conductor, the incomparable Ilan Volkov. I had despaired of every seeing him on the London stage again after the news broke of his move to Iceland. But he too is a Chin specialist and a conductor who really cares about new music, ensuring that any performance under his command is well rehearsed and coordinated.

The event must have been a logistical nightmare for the BBC. Chin’s scores require so much percussion that the stage had to be extended forward about six metres. This blocked the fire escapes in the stalls and meant that a large proportion of the audience had to sit upstairs. And two twenty minute intervals were needed to move the percussion instruments around between works. Each time it was worth the wait, but it meant the concert went on until almost 11.

The first piece, Kala is essentially a cantata. The music is interesting and never overly complicated. As much as anything else, the score shows the composer’s facility not only with writing for large orchestra, but also choir and soloists. It was a good performance, although neither of the solo singers excelled, probably because the bass was a last minute stand in (sorry, didn’t catch the name) and the soprano, Sarah Tynan, is pregnant.

The next piece was Chin’s Violin Concerto, for which she won the Grawemeyer Prize. To be honest, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. It is slightly closer to the traditional concerto model than most of her other works in the genre –  it is in movements, for example. But it is yet another example of a concertante work where the soloist sweats buckets but to no appreciable effect. There are some interesting orchestral effects, but that’s not what a violin concerto should be about.

Rocana is Chin’s first work for orchestra without soloist, giving a much better excuse for her to explore the potential of the large orchestra. She gave herself (or perhaps her commission gave her) a good twenty minutes to explore all her various ideas around, in this case, the idea of light. The expansive format really works for Chin’s music, and it also avoids the frustration of watching a soloist whom you can’t really hear.

By rights, the final work, Su, a sheng concerto, ought to have been the worst culprit for inaudible solo playing. But no. The orchestration is done very sensitively, and as Chin explained, she wanted the orchestra to act like another sheng. (A sheng, by the way, is a kind of Chinese mouth organ with bamboo pipes arranged vertically.) The soloist was Wu Wei, who played an instrument of his own design, with complex keywork around the pipes to make it fully chromatic. The piece is a triumph, and was the ideal conclusion to the day, genuinely new and interesting, and suggesting all sorts of allegories of East-meets-West by which to neatly summarise the work of this unique composer.

Gavin Dixon