Music Monday: Chin: Piano Concerto

Close readers of my tumblr will know that at the end of February, I caught the West Coast (possibly American?) première of Unsuk Chin and David Henry Hwang's Alice in Wonderland and had rather mixed feelings about it. Most of the negative ones were associated with the words, however, so I tracked down some of Chin's non-operatic writing and I am so glad I did, because she is a fantastic composer when not dealing with a deliberately nonsensical libretto. (I am also very late to this party; she has been positively showered with awards, up to and including the Grawemeyer in 2004, and her works are performed regularly by top ensembles around the world.) 

Her musical education is somewhat unusual in that she was almost entirely self-taught until entering university — her father was a Presbyterian minister in her native Seoul and he taught her the fundamentals of Western musical notation, but she had no further private lessons. Still, by the age of 13, she had decided she wanted to be a composer, and strove to learn as much as she could on her own, including doing things like copying out the scores to Chaikovskii's symphonies by hand.

It was at the Seoul National University in the early 1980s that Chin was first exposed to the European avant-garde, and she was much enamored of the style. After winning several international prizes as a university student, she went to Hamburg to study with Ligeti György at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater from 1985 - 88. She describes these years as something of a rude awakening, in that Ligeti essentially told her there was nothing original in her work to that point and she'd have to re-create her compositional voice from the ground up. Many composers would simply fold in the face of criticism like that, but Chin stuck with it, and wrote her first real breakout piece, Acrostic Wordplay, in 1991. She currently lives in Berlin, and is working on a Through the Looking Glass operatic sequel to Alice in Wonderland, currently slated to be premièred in the 2018 - 19 operatic season. Her works are published exclusively with Boosey & Hawkes.

Normally, I'd dive into a brief description of the music at this point, but before I do, I want to say a few words for those of you who may be less familiar with this style of composition. Unlike most of the other works that I've featured in these Music Monday posts, Unsuk Chin's piano concerto (written in 1997 for Rolf Hind and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) isn't concerned with thematic (or motivic) presentation and development. Instead, hers is a language that is concerned with textures, with the density and co-ordination of sound itself. This isn't to say there aren't motives at work — there definitely are! — but her music is less concerned with making them clearly audible as such then it is weaving them together in intricate patterns to create a densely layered tapestry.

Unlike the norm that developed in Europe in the late 1800s, too, is her treatment of the relationship between the solo piano and the orchestral ensemble. She does not pit the two against each other in dialogue or confrontation, but rather melds them into one fantastic, Seussical hyperinstrument containing all the colors and sonic possibilities available. The mallet percussion instruments are crucial to this blending; at times it can be difficult to tell where the piano ends and the orchestra begins, and this is entirely deliberate.

Now for the music! The first movement launches with a bright wash of sound, an energetic, pulsating shimmer. Altho its accents are irregular, one gets the sense of a perky, well-oiled machine twittering away with a thousand glittering pieces all working precisely in concert. This gradually boils away, and about a minute in, the texture has thinned to something much more pensive. Dissonant held tones build up and break off, leading to an attempt to re-launch the machine, but there are pedal points lurking in the background, and it can't quite re-capture the opening shine. This sense of crisis and breakdown builds in waves, and by the end almost seems to have succeeded in returning to the beginning, but disquiet swirls from the lower registers puncture this moment and deflate it at the very end.

Soft chimings begin the second movement, offering a respite from the energy of the first. These build and build inexorably, slowly accruing timbral ornaments from more and more instruments until the music spills over into a ghostly, fluid passage, as tho presenting a distant memory of the first movement's machine glimpsed thru a dense, disorienting fog. The piano peters out into an extended trill, which triggers a considerably more rhythmic and decisive interlude. After going somewhat off the rails, this section has a sudden re-start, but it is even less stable than before, and quickly decays into a floating cloud of aimless sounds that thins into silence with a final echo of the chimes that set this movement in motion.

Unexpectedly, the third movement seems to start out with the same chiming effect as the second, but it can't quite cohere into a continuous tapestry as before. Indeed, this whole movement seems to be a study in fragmentation, as tho the machine has been smashed to pieces and we are surveying its wreckage strewn across a cold, hard ground. There are repeated violent outbursts, but all seemingly to no avail. Nothing sustains, and the music seems to have great difficulty in holding together. A few low groanings usher the movement out after a towering climax. The finale brings all this to a head. Beginning with a few phantasmal string shudderings over an ominous low note, the music seems determined to re-capture the pieces initial moments at any cost. The piano bursts into an exuberant attempt about a minute in, and the music soon returns to what sounds like the first movement's breakdown section, but now with a sense of hope and expectation instead of anxiety and distrust. This descends gradually into chaos before the piano latches on to a constant stream of sixteenth notes again. A solo trumpet patters out a very first-movement-sounding figure indeed, but this trajectory is interrupted by wheezing woodwinds and strings. A brief coda ensues, comprising four ascending waves from the depths of the piano to its top, culminating in a final, emotionless clink.