It’s been quite a while since my articles on the Barbican’s 2011 Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin, but here’s an omission from that account, which was only broadcast recently. The day began with a piano recital given by Clare Hammond, featuring Chin’s Six Piano Études. It’s perhaps not surprising, considering Chin studied for several years with György Ligeti, that she should be drawn to the étude form, yet hers are very different both stylistically & collectively from those of her former teacher.
There’s a strong sense of unity running through the six pieces, even of continuity. Chin is drawn to filigree piano writing, which is present right from the start of ‘In C’; the diatonic progressions in the bass guide the étude rather than grounding it, the right hand sounding like streams of water magically cascading upwards. ‘Sequenzen’ begins at the other end of the keyboard, in a lugubrious preamble that swiftly gains momentum, a single pitch lingering within. Hectic passagework breaks out—the upper part filled with embellishment—only hesitating briefly in a moment of repose before launching into a torrential climax. One realises how closely-related these two études seem when the third begins; the tempo of ‘Scherzo ad libitum’ is all over the place, charging off unpredictably only to slow down again immediately afterwards, a juddering sense of motion that brings to mind the inscrutable mannerisms of Nancarrow’s player-piano studies. The étude ends in similar fashion, but its centre is a lengthy episode of unstoppable material, like a burning juggernaut, notes flying everywhere like sparks & flares.
One senses Ligeti’s proximity in a title like ‘Scalen’, & there is a kind of exercise-like quality to the music at first; in no time, though, it falls into the behaviour of its predecessor, transcending procedure in favour of intense whirling flourishes. Considering the level of unchecked mayhem Chin has entertained in these pieces, the fifth étude’s title, ‘Toccata’, invites a certain amount of bogglement even before it’s begun. Perhaps mindful of that, Chin initially takes a teasing approach, the music pottering around within a fairly narrow register. But expectations are far from dashed; a meandering melodic counterpoint emerges, becomes feisty, becomes chordal, combining with the relentless upper part to leap wildly around the keyboard, before fizzling into the extremities right at the end. The final étude, ‘Grains’, exhibits a similar demeanour to the ‘Scherzo’; its material is at the cusp of stability, notes are pinched, squeezed, struck & tickled, phrases begin but are curtailed moments later. The music cannot sit still, & even through its weird closing moments remains indefinite & fleeting.
Chin’s Six Piano Études are strange, to be sure, but they’re superbly pianistic & Clare Hammond’s performance of them is just fantastic.