Unsuk Chin – SPIRA – Concerto for Orchestra (UK Première)

by 5:4

In The Thin Tree (discussed in my last post), Klaus Lang abstracts ideas, patterns and concepts from nature, and creates a soundworld that develops and grows from an opening 4-note idea. Korean composer Unsuk Chin‘s 2019 orchestral work SPIRA – Concerto for Orchestra does something similar, also being concerned with “the biological process of growth and metamorphosis, with complex material evolving from simple germ motives in unexpected ways”. Like Lang, this partially has roots in the way the Fibonacci sequence manifests in the natural world:

SPIRA, the title of the work, is derived from the concept of the self-similar spiral curve (also called ‘growth spiral’), which was nicknamed Spira mirabilis (‘the marvellous spiral’) by the 17th century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli.

Chin originates this “growth spiral” in material given to a pair of vibraphones, which together create what she calls a

“sonic ‘ur-cell’, calling forth manifold colours and intricate textures, as if zooming in with a microscope to research the inner life of sound, on the molecular level, and uncover previously invisible structures.

The words “calling forth” are all-important: for what Chin is not doing in SPIRA is using this ‘ur-cell’ as the material or behavioural basis for what follows; if anything, it’s the opposite. Whether these are the best terms for this opposition i’m not sure, but i’ve come to think of the vibraphones as akin to the source of life and the orchestra as the spark of life. In this context, the spark depends on the source to come into existence, but the spark doesn’t depend on the source to define what it is or how it operates.

As such, what the vibraphones convey – each of them performed by two players, one bowing the keys, the other alternating the speed of the vibrations – is something both primordial and everlasting: a still, calm centre of things, the coolth out of which springs the warmth. Except it’s not so much warmth as fire, and it doesn’t so much spring as erupt and explode. These two elements could hardly be more polarised. From the delicacy of the vibes comes a sudden loud rush, and more and more the sense that the orchestra is itching to launch into action. The first few minutes of SPIRA are filled with a tension caused by the music existing between these poles, the orchestra repeatedly disrupting the placid environment with bursts of energy and turbulence, while the vibraphones quietly continue, ostensibly endlessly, unperturbed by any of it.

Around a third of the way through, the orchestra arrives at a huge, undulating, climactic plateau, but even its impressive weight isn’t enough to prevent things from petering and diminishing back to little more than quiet, jittery energy, before dying back completely. It suggests an interesting relationship between what i’m calling the source and the spark. Spirals don’t “look back”; they don’t cross their earlier path and they certainly don’t return to or reference their starting point. Yet throughout SPIRA the source from which Chin’s sonic spiral unfolds remains a recurring aspect of the music, like an undercurrent or a thread running through it. Or perhaps (without wanting to wax too metaphysical) it’s simpler to say that everything the spark generates carries the imprint of the source, like the relationship between a tree and its seed.

Thus, while the nature of the orchestral material is forthright and constantly reinventing itself, it never escapes from something altogether more fundamental and endless, and this fact is integral to the volatile contrasts of Chin’s musical material. When the source makes its presence felt, the orchestra becomes becalmed into beautiful moments of quiet coalescence, or dissipates into shimmering sheets of gossamer. More often, though, Chin gives the orchestra a volcanic demeanour, bubbling up and spewing out matter with almost reckless spontaneity and élan, ever concerned with just a single directive: create.

It’s worth noting that, in following such a simple prime directive as that, a great deal of this fiery sonic stuff is not especially memorable in terms of the specifics of its details. Yet while it’s not, in this sense, memorable, the scale and intensity of its ferocity – all the more so in this context of such enormous contrasts – make it nonetheless unforgettable.

Every time i’ve listened to SPIRA i’m entranced by the way Chin resolves its polarised nature, managing to arrive at a point where energy and stillness, somehow, seem to be articulated simultaneously, as if they had assimilated each other into a complex tremulous quietude. During this mesmerising epilogue, the work’s invocation of a spiral is altered into the suggestion of another curved phenomenon, the Shepard tone, seeming to rise indefinitely while remaining stationary. SPIRA ends up a long, long way from where it began, but one senses that something elemental was never left behind.

The first UK performance of SPIRA – Concerto for Orchestra was given in February 2020 by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mirga Gražinytė‐Tyla.


Programme Note

Among the musical institutions I have worked with frequently, the decade-long working relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been among the most inspiring ones.

These wonderful experiences inspired me to write SPIRA, a concerto for orchestra. What fascinates me about this chameleonic ‘genre’ is not only that it challenges musicians to peaks of virtuosity but especially that it can coax unprecedented textures, sonorities, and forms from the symphony orchestra.

The orchestra can be presented as one entity, a ‘super-orchestra’, but also in various chamber-like combinations, and one can also highlight a certain section or even single musicians as soloists.

Another major influence was the biological process of growth and metamorphosis, with complex material evolving from simple germ motives in unexpected ways. SPIRA, the title of the work, is derived from the concept of the self-similar spiral curve (also called ‘growth spiral’), which was nicknamed Spira mirabilis (‘the marvellous spiral’) by the 17th century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli. In this case, the resonance of the vibraphone constituted the sonic ‘ur-cell’, calling forth manifold colours and intricate textures, as if zooming in with a microscope to research the inner life of sound, on the molecular level, and uncover previously invisible structures.

Two vibraphones are being placed spatially apart, each one with an additional musician being in charge of the controller and regulating the instruments’ resonance up from zero to the maximum. The resonance of the two vibraphones runs through the whole work as a kind of ‘halo’, but it constantly varies in detail, which results in complex interferences and changing rhythmic patterns. At some point, this concept is taken over by the string section in a magnified guise, fluctuating between consonant harmony and extreme tone clusters. This simple idea forms the basis of the work whose structure grows from the conflict and interaction between the underlying ‘ur-cell’ and the reactions of other groups of instruments, with the music constantly changing in terms of density, colour, character, and pulse, shifting between chaos and order, activity and repose. The work can be perceived in a multitude of ways from different angles: while it may seem volatile on the level of details, it is highly goal-directed and linear in terms of the grand structure.

—Unsuk Chin


Leave a Comment

Anti-Spam Quiz:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.