i’ve been a fan of Unsuk Chin‘s music ever since she returned to instrumental writing in the early ’90s with Akrostichon-Wortspiel. At the end of last month, Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ featured Chin’s more recent music. The Violin Concerto is awash with invention; all the talk of open strings is simply an opening gambit, from where it departs into vivid and distinctly unfamiliar territory. Often, the use of open strings is redolent of Berg’s concerto, but it’s unfair to latch onto that association, as Chin really does operate in a world apart. It’s much more akin to Ligeti’s concerto, and Chin acknowledges this in her interview during the programme, where she refers to her piece as an ‘answer’ to Ligeti’s. She also speaks of a desire to avoid a conventional orchestral sound through the introduction of ununusal instruments; the final movement of the concerto features steel drums, which inject a fittingly exotic and unconventional twist to the work as a whole. Miroirs des temps, with dense multi-part crab canons, is a compositional tour-de-force, but also rather strange. It doesn’t begin in the most auspicious way, the singers sounding, frankly, drab against the gentle interest of the orchestra; and when it then lurches into pastiche, i admit i had to restrain myself from stopping listening. It broadens into more interesting areas, though, as it approaches its middle; the fourth movement, dark and indistinct, is especially exciting. But, of course, this is a “mirror of time”, and so the less interesting faux Machaut and drabness return as the work progresses; not her finest work, by any means, but equally not without some very special moments—it’s just a shame that they are only moments.
i would not describe myself as a fan of British/Australian Chris Dench, however, whose solo piano work Passing bells: night concluded the programme. Dench once memorably said of his compositional approach, “There is a terrible tendency on my part, when I don’t mechanise some part of the music, to write Puccini” (“Four Facets of the ‘New Complexity'”, Contact, No. 32), a highly revealing comment. Much of Dench’s music has featured the worst kind of complexity, wrapped up in mere rhythmic verbiage, under the guise of invention (it’s surprising Richard Toop felt sufficiently impressed to include Dench alongside Finnissy, James Dillon and Richard Barrett in his seminal essay; time, bless her, has certainly told). It’s encouraging, therefore, that his biography includes the sentence, “Since early 1996 he has been engaged on a review of his notational systems with the intent of simplifying the means by which musical ideas are presented to the player without compromise of the compositional substance”, although it’s a shame he wasn’t doing this already; i haven’t seen any scores since the late ’90s, so i’ve no idea if this has been realised. Passing bells: night is a work to be filed under “Post 9/11”, albeit through the eyes of those who faced the Black Death. It’s an interesting (if slightly over-dramatic) parallel, that of the invisible terror “out to get us”; with its gentle connotation of the viral aspect of the terror’s source, there’s even a hint of polemic here. But none of that seems to come across in the music. It seems, alongside Puccini, Debussy is present in Dench’s interior, and much of Passing bells: night sounds like Debussy wrapped in black velvet. Attractive to some, maybe, but it leaves me shrugging with disinterest. Dench clearly has earnest intentions; they just never seems to amount to anything of real substance. Incidentally, Chris Dench has written a very engaging piano work titled Esperance; if i can find my recording, i’ll post on here just to show i’m not entirely opposed to his music….