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“In my dreams, I’m Alice in Wonderland”: a day in Unsuk Chin’s fantasy landscapes

On 9 April the Barbican in collaboration with the Guildhall School of Music & Drama staged a whole day of concerts, recitals and talks focusing on the Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin. The day featured at least four UK premieres, two orchestras, a choir, and the largest stage the Barbican has ever had to build – Chin’s love of percussion as a major part of the orchestral texture is expensive on concert hall real estate.

Unsuk Chin in conversation with Jonathan Cross at the Barbican Theatre
Unsuk Chin in conversation with Jonathan Cross at the Barbican Theatre

The day was helpfully launched by an interesting illustrated talk given by Oxford Professor of Music Jonathan Cross, introducing different themes in Chin’s compositions. He highlighted Chin’s interest in Time as a concept to be explored through music (evident in Alice in Wonderland and in Kālá, meaning “time”), and in the mechanistic (evident in Fantaisie Mécanique (1994)). Virtuosity is another evident trend, obvious in the concertos, in which Chin seeks to achieve a new intensity of expression. Finally, Cross mentioned Chin’s sense of playfulness (to be seen in Gugalōn and the word games of Acrostic Wordplay), and most importantly of all Chin’s unique soundworld, which notably includes an unusual amount of percussion. Drawing comparisons with the fairytale dreamworld created by Lewis Carroll, Cross littered his talk with visual metaphors of light and colour: some of Chin’s work is like “ricocheting flashes of light”; her music is “irridescent” and “glistening” or “like sparks flying around a musical machine”; Rocanā is like a “sound and colour sculpture” with “slowly changing hues”. Those familiar with the cello concerto will perhaps agree with the sculptural reference.

The first live music of the day was Double Bind? for violin and electronics. The performance was deliberately theatrical, the performer sometimes treating the instrument like a toy, shaking it, waving it, as if it were a Wii device. This was no coincidence: the work was originally performed with a fancy piece of equipment called a tri-dimensional accelerometer, to sense the violinist’s movement to trigger certain electronic effects. But the Guildhall electronic music team had the idea of substituting a cheaper alternative: yes, the innards of a Wii really were taped to the back of Jenna Sherry’s fiddle. The audience was surrounded by a web of intriguing effects which sometimes grew out of the violin sound and sometimes contrasted with it.

Unsuk Chin, on stage with Jenna Sherry, applauds the electronics team
Unsuk Chin, on stage with Jenna Sherry, applauds the electronics team

Two demanding piano studies from Chin’s set of six were then played by Clare Hammond. Chin had at one time planned to be a pianist herself, but turned to composing instead. She had a demanding time studying under Ligeti, who was also known for his technically challenging keyboard works. In Chin’s instrumental works she likes to push the boundaries of the instruments’ and performers’ abilities. “I like to see players suffering,” she joked later in the day, in conversation with Jonathan Cross.

The London Sinfonietta played a lunchtime concert of three of her smaller works, billed to last an hour but, including all the furniture-moving been the works, taking up almost an hour and a half. Each work required its own Steinway, two of them prepared with various implements damping the strings inside. Not only were the percussionists kept busy, leaping from one instrument to the next, dragging their scores with them, but even the wind players were pressed in to service: the oboist for example doubled on tambourine and triangle.

The first of the pieces, Gugalōn (2009), was the most fun. The piece harks back to Chin’s childhood experiences in the 1960s, when just about the only form of entertainment to be had were the travelling performers who toured the countryside to attract curious sightseers to the stalls of charlatans selling quack remedies. The titles of the movements such as Lament of the Bald Singer and The Grinning Fortune-Teller with the False Teeth vividly conjured up this rustic, down-to-earth world.

Yeree Suh (서예리)
Yeree Suh (서예리)

Acrostic Wordplay was Chin’s breakthrough work in 1991 (revised in 1993) – a set of seven pieces for soprano and chamber orchestra based very loosely on texts by Lewis Carroll (Through the Looking Glass) and Michael Ende (The Neverending Story). Based very loosely, because in fact none of the words make any sense: one of the songs has been reduced to a collection of letters of the alphabet, while another consists of the vocalisation of the tonic sol-fa. The soloist in this challenging work was Yeree Suh (서예리). This work again had its moments of humour, but also moments of shimmering beauty, particularly the fifth song, Domifare S. The deliberate mis-tuning of some of the instruments by a sixth- or quarter-tone added to the complexity of the texture.

Chin congratulates percussionist Owen Gunnell after the Double Concerto
Chin congratulates percussionist Owen Gunnell after the Double Concerto, with conductor Stefan Asbury and pianist Andrew Zolinsky

The final item in the London Sinfonietta concert was her Double Concerto (2002), in which tuned and untuned percussion blended with prepared piano almost to create a single solo instrument. Chin confessed that of the three works in the concert, this was the most serious, and had me looking at my watch to see if we were going to get time for anything to eat before the next event, which was an afternoon screening of her opera.

The Queen in the Bavarian production of Alice in Wonderland
The Queen in the Bavarian production of Alice in Wonderland

The film of the opera Alice in Wonderland was shot at the 2007 Bavarian State Opera premiere production, conducted by Kent Nagano with Sally Matthew as Alice. Alice in Wonderland is Chin’s first operatic work. She found the text, which is full of word games and jokes, translated naturally into music. And she saw in Lewis Carroll’s work some of the things she had seen in her own childhood dreams. “In my dreams, I’m Alice” she confessed, in a talk with Jonathan Cross.

Unsuk Chin with her alter ego Alice
Unsuk Chin with her alter ego Alice

There were moments of pure pleasure – the clarinet-playing caterpillar who seemed to be wanting to play the opening bars of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the nonsense passage playing with the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (which opens the below video clip) and the energetic tick-tock rhythms in the Mad Hatter’s tea party followed by a harpsichord-accompanied recitative that could have come straight from an 18th century opera.

In general though the screening felt over-long, partly because of the camera-work, which was constantly gyrating to make up with the rather static staging, and partly because perhaps the Alice story itself does not have enough dramatic tension to sustain a two hour stage work. Full marks to the singers for the excellent diction, and to the Bavarian State Opera for staging such a richly orchestrated piece.

Barbican Stage
Everything in front of the two-manual harpsichord, including the entire string section, is on a temporary stage extension required to accommodate the huge percussion section

Chin confesses to not being particularly fond of the traditional western orchestra. For a Korean, percussion is a big part of the musical heritage, and thus in Chin’s orchestra we see large percussion sections which radically extend the available colour palette. For the big evening concert the Barbican stage had to be extended by a full 6 metres to accommodate all the necessary percussion – the biggest the stage has ever been.

The concert opened with Kālá (2000) (a Sanskrit word meaning “Time”), the work which required the biggest forces – the BBC Singers as well as massed percussion and two vocal soloists. Bass Martin Snell had some impressively resonant bottom notes, while soprano Sarah Tynan was radiant at the top of her register. With the wide range of sounds available to the composer, this was probably the most enthralling of all the pieces performed during the day.

Jennifer Koh
Jennifer Koh

The second piece of the evening was the work which won Chin the Grawemeyer prize – the four movement Violin Concerto (2001), played by Korean American Jennifer Koh. For such a virtuoso piece there seemed to be no really overtly bravura passages. Maybe Koh was just making it sound easy: the ultimate achievement of a skilled player. But the work was certainly taking its toll on her bow – at every pause Koh had to pluck off more broken horse-hair strands.

Conductor Ilan Volkos and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Ilan Volkos and the BBC Symphony Orchestra acknowledge the applause after their performance of Rocanā

The third piece, after the first interval, was possibly the least interesting of the day: Rocanā (2008) – Sanskrit for “Room of Light”. With no soloists or chorus, we were left with just the orchestra. And although there was plenty of orchestral colour, we had already been spoiled by the kaleidoscopic effects in the works already performed. Or maybe it was just that we were getting to the end of a very long day.

Wu Wei with his sheng
Wu Wei with his sheng

It was a questionable decision of the Barbican programmers to start a 3 hour long concert at 8pm. Having started the day at 11am, I didn’t have the stamina to stay until 11pm and headed home after the second interval to hear the final work, the UK premiere of Šu (2009), for orchestra with solo Sheng, on the radio – for the BBC were broadcasting highlights of the day from 10:30pm, and promised to include Šu in the schedule. But in the end the recording of the final piece could not be made ready in time for the broadcast and the radio listeners were disappointed. Jonathan Cross had promised us a treat, with the other-wordly sounds of the Sheng being echoed and elaborated by the orchestra, while Chin herself had promised some samulnori rhythms in the sheng’s cadenza.1

In all, a tiring but very rewarding day, ambitiously put together by the Barbican and the BBC, which left us with a deep appreciation of the talents of one of the world’s leading composers.



Edinburgh Concert Diary:

  1. There will be another chance to hear a live performance of Šu at the Edinburgh Festival with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra under Chung Myung-whun on 24 August. []

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