Ancient and modern: Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto, Miroirs des temps; Chris Dench – Passing bells: night

by 5:4

i’ve been a fan of Unsuk Chin‘s music ever since she returned to instrumental writing in the early ’90s with Akrostichon-Wortspiel. Her 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 has acknowledged this, referring to her piece as an ‘answer’ to Ligeti’s. She’s also spoken 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. Composed for four solo voices (ATTB) and orchestra, 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.

These performances of the Violin Concerto and Miroirs des temps were given by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by James MacMillan, with Hae-Sun Kang as soloist in the former, and the Hilliard Ensemble in the latter.

i would not describe myself as a fan of British/Australian Chris Dench. 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.

This performance of Passing bells: night took place at the 2007 Spitalfields Festival, by Philip Mead.

Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.

Unsuk Chin – Miroirs des temps

Chris Dench – Passing bells: night

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Hi Stuart – i suspect my cassette of 'Esperance' is lurking in the roof somewhere. You should be able to get a copy from United Music Publishers – it was they who supplied my cassette, some years ago. Let me know if i can provide any further info for your thesis; i studied composition privately with Richard Barrett over a 6-year period, & so have a fairly intimate understanding of so-called 'New Complexity' (ugh). Furthermore, it seems to be applied to my own work (grr)…


Many thanks… I was worried that I’d missed some important document! Since I am writing my thesis on “new complexity” I wouldn’t want to miss something! BTW do you have a recording of Esperance – I’ve listened to the amazon preview and it does indeed sound very different to his general approach during the 80’s (i.e. topologies or tilt)


Hi Stuart; you've mis-read what i wrote; it's a semicolon after the word "essay", not a colon! The essay & source were referred to a sentence or two earlier: "Four Facets of the 'New Complexity'", Contact, No. 32. i believe time has told whether it was worth including Dench in among those other luminaries…


Where would it be possible to find the article you refer to as “time, bless her, has certainly told” – I’ve searched through the academic journals and can’t find it there.

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