Barbican, London: Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion

by 5:4

Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience.

Under Stefan Asbury’s efficient direction, the Sinfonietta first tackled Gougalōn, given its UK première on this occasion. Chin’s interest in fantasies and dreams borders on the obsessive, but it’s given a distinct twist in this piece, one that grounds it more thoroughly in real-life experiences. Chin writes in her programme note of the memory that inspired it: “a troupe of entertainers … amateur musicians and actors [who] travelled from village to village in order to foist quack medicines – which were ineffective at best – on the people. To lure the villagers, they put on a play with singing, dancing and various stunts. […] This was all extremely amateurish and kitschy, yet it aroused incredible emotions among the spectators”. This is not, though, an attempt at some kind of ersatz rusticana; far from it: “The memories described above merely provide a framework […] The piece is about an ‘imagined folk music’ that is stylised, broken within itself and only apparently primitive”. It falls into four movements, the first of which, “Prologue — Dramatic Opening of the Curtains” certainly lives up to its title; Chin demands incredible energy from the ensemble, in the process deriving a surprising amount of noise from only 13 players. In many ways, this movement sets the scene for everything to follow, percussion literally everywhere, extending to assorted members of the ensemble. This is followed by “Lament of the Bald Singer”, in which piano and strings lay down a strumming accompaniment figuration, while a grotesque melody arises, passed around various players before arriving at a wonderfully indulgent muted trombone, the melody hammed up to the rafters in highly humorous fashion. This was something of a revelation; while the notion of play is a constant, i’ve never really associated Chin with a great deal of humour, but with Gougalōn she’s showed herself to have a decidedly wicked streak; this really is music with a glint in its eye. In “The Grinning Fortune-Teller with the False Teeth” Chin sets up a moto perpetuo in the percussion that swiftly engulfs the entire ensemble; amidst the non-stop clattering there are some rip-roaring asides in the brass, muted once again and if anything, more comic than before. Things become a bit more stuck in the final movement, “Dance around the Shacks”, where the note B serves as a pivot around which the players surge, stress and slide. The titles of the movements, and indeed the memory that inspired them, might make one anticipate a music with at least some kind of allusion to Eastern sounds and forms; if it’s there at all, it’s largely subliminal, and yet Gougalōn doesn’t sound particularly occidental either. This is perhaps its strongest quality: a canvas that defies our attempts to define it, that seemingly could have come from anywhere, but sounds like it came from nowhere.

Next in the concert came Chin’s effective Opus 1, Acrostic-Wordplay, the ensemble joined by the soprano Yeree Suh. Despite the presence of a singer and no fewer than seven texts (drawn from Michael Ende and Lewis Carroll), anything but clarity of communication is on Chin’s mind. Each text has been subjected to a convoluted process of bewilderment: “sometimes the consonants and vowels have been randomly joined together, at other times the words have been read backwards so that only the symbolic meaning remains”. and this is just the start of it; some are reduced to individual letters of the alphabet, others to a cluster of sol-fa exclamations (that, deliberately, don’t quite match up correctly); in an amusing display of scrupulousness, the programme book supplied all of these bowdlerised texts, which must have been a nightmare for the proof-readers. “Hide and Seek” makes for a weird opening movement, both singer and ensemble seemingly distant, even aloof; “The Puzzle of the Three Magic Gates” is conversely overtly demonstrative, the soprano hurling out her arching lines with real aggression. Everyone’s gestures become more curt in third movement “The Rules of the Game – sdrawkcab emiT”, the soprano at her most fierce, abruptly fluctuating between lyrical moments and—more often—wild paroxysms of verbiage. All is restrained once more in “Four Seasons in Five Verses”, a movement that seems to typify Chin’s highly subtle use of percussion, the softest of rustles and scrapes often used just to colour the initial attack of a phrase. Segueing from it comes the almost shockingly tonal arpeggios with which “Domifare S” opens; it’s not just the sol-fa that’s messed up, the D major tonality becomes increasingly oblique as the ensemble’s complexity blooms beneath. One couldn’t help feeling that “The Game of Chance” (in which the text is reduced to mere isolated letters) was too much of an in-joke for its own good, exacerbated by the soprano’s rather knowing final laugh. Bringing the work to a close, “From the Old Time” opts for a bold, static atmosphere in which the small mistunings in the instruments (specified by Chin) become powerfully apparent in the slightly wobbly octave unisons that barely qualify for that description; they’re ultimately superseded by a series of top Bs on which the final, meaningless syllables are projected.

Last in the concert was the Double Concerto, composed in 2002, with solo roles for prepared piano and percussion. That title is something of a misnomer however; almost from the outset Chin melds the soloists into the ensemble: “I try to effect a totally homogenous fusion of the two instrumental components (soloists and ensemble), so that there emerges just one, new sounding body. […] The ensemble represents in a way the shadow of the soloists, who send out impulses as they develop the germinal material, impulses that may prompt one of the ensemble instruments to tell its own story”. Obviously, though, there’s a limit to how much they can be truly absorbed into the ensemble; the piano’s rough metallic clatter bears little resemblance to anything else (not even the percussion), while the solo percussion part contains such a dazzling array of instruments that it can’t fail to be heard as an entity, despite the presence in the ensemble of a second percussionist. This was even more the case witnessing soloist Owen Gunnell’s wondrously unflappable execution, almost skipping between no fewer than four separate percussion stations. As a piece, at first it failed to impress—structurally it felt clear, materially less so (perhaps due to being deliberately “germinal”)—but ultimately it proved itself weighty and absorbing. One can’t help feeling that the piano part is somewhat restricted in contrast to the percussionist’s extensive resources, which may account for it being underused in a soloistic capacity. But it’s in the taut interactions between all the players, soloist or not, that the Double Concerto succeeds most, never letting up for a moment, brief episodes of apparent introspection serving merely as a foil to the unceasing momentum that drives it on.

After a short pause for lunch, the day continued with a showing of the film of Chin’s 2007 opera Alice in Wonderland. This was my first encounter with the piece, and i have to confess it proved a gruelling listen, and not merely due to its two hour duration in a single act. The style of presentation—both the staging and also the way it was filmed—didn’t seem to aid the piece in any meaningful way; the ‘acting’, such as it was, often required proxy singing, a character (in costume) gesticulating high on a tilted platform while below, the notes were sung by a singer in more neutral (legalistic) garb. This seemed to bestow on the work a level of stylistic complexity that it didn’t need, and perhaps in part due to this, the narrative unfolding of the work felt arbitrary and, at times, confusing. Add to that cameras that were preoccupied with blurred close-ups and weird abrupt movements, and it all became a little hard to concentrate on the actual drama and the music. There did appear to be distinct differences in this area too, however; Chin’s instrumentational delicacy and her gift for finding unique timbres and sound colours seemed more or less absent, and all of the music felt, both figuratively and literally, distant. i’ve no doubt it’s worth further listenings, but not, i think, in that particular production, which is available on DVD.

A brief early evening interview—in which Chin made some mildly interesting but superficial remarks about her approach to composition, and was therefore a bit of a wasted opportunity to get inside her thinking—brought the day to its denouement, and one of the most sensational concerts i’ve ever had the good fortune to witness. It contained no fewer than five major pieces—interspersed with two intervals(!)—performed by the BBC SO with the BBC Singers under the beautifully precise and highly expressive direction of Ilan Volkov. The concert opened with Kālá, receiving its ‘London public première’, a work that immediately plunges us back to the region, if not the world, of Acrostic-Wordplay. There are now two solo singers, the soprano joined by a bass, backed up by a chorus, exploring seven more texts, and while the manner of their expression is somewhat less ‘processed’, it is still far from straightforward; drawing on such diverse sources as Unica Zürn and Arthur Rimbaud, Chin reduces the opening poem to mere vowels, the next one is stuttered out, while the remaining five texts are left to be recondite without alterations. The singers are sent in opposite directions, the bass to profondo depths, the soprano soaring out of sight, octaves above; both parts were delivered with relish by Martin Snell and a heavily pregnant Sarah Tynan. The soloists appear in each of the odd-numbered movements, and the interaction between them and the chorus is often polarised, the men partnered to the bass, the women to the soprano, in no small part backing up the strenuous demands made on each. Despite some similarities, the scope of the music in Kālá is far wider than that of Acrostic-Wordplay, but doesn’t always convince. The third movement, for example, is deliciously impressionistic, lush and lyrical, but doesn’t sound entirely authentic; likewise, the sixth movement displays some similarities to the kind of textures we hear all too often in the UK, bearing the strongest resemblance to George Benjamin’s Three Inventions. Despite these dips in conviction, the cycle is an engaging catalogue of moods and mannerisms; the final movement is particularly striking, a sonic version of the ‘Barberpole illusion‘ (or an inverted Shepard tone) paradoxially static yet always descending.

Much has been said of the next piece, the Violin Concerto that won Chin the Grawemeyer Award in 2004. Jennifer Koh rose to the challenge on this occasion, and a challenge it certainly proved to be, not so much by the music as by the performance space; many times, in the work’s louder passages, Koh’s furious bowing was more or less drowned out by the orchestra. Regardless, she negotiated the work with surprising ease, with perhaps her most exquisite playing in the soft open string material at the start of the first movement. She practically glowed with intensity during the second movement, spinning over and around its claustrophobic trills and decorations, and her playing was nothing short of gorgeous at its end, glistening on high harmonics. i’ve never felt the latter two movements live up to the first two, striking a somewhat equivocal tone (the brevity of the third movement may be a factor, all activity and little achievement); once again that was how things came across, but the conclusion of the work, from soloist and orchestra alike, was undeniably impressive.

The concert’s second installment contained a single work, Rocanā. Composed as a single-span 20-minute tone poem, the elemental power of its opening material brings Varèse to mind, particularly in the sharp outbursts from the brass. Eruptions of this kind are frequent throughout the piece, making its exploration of light and its “distortion, refraction, reflections and undulations” a dazzling one. The softer episodes, though, are among the most wondrous; warm, unwavering, overlapping chords proffered by the cellos are later diminished into an amazing series of pianissimo chord progressions in all the strings, which was perhaps the most entrancing sound to be heard all day. A single span it may be, but Chin has clearly structured Rocanā as a number of what one might call ‘behaviours’, carefully spliced together with the joins, such as they are, barely detectible. Describing the piece in detail is a bit pointless, but there are moments later, towards the end, that are suggestive of Anders Hillborg (if you’ve heard his Liquid Marble, you’ll know what i mean); and the ending, deafening but utterly radiant, needs to be heard to be believed – in the hall it literally took my breath away.

The concert, and this Total Immersion day, ended with a real oddity: the UK première of Chin’s Šu, a concerto for sheng and orchestra. Wu Wei, the soloist, has made a name for himself in recent times with a remodelled version of the traditional instrument making it suitable for use in new compositional contexts. No doubt due to the nature of the sheng, much of Šu is soft and delicate, and Wu Wei’s realisation of the mellifluous opening material (for the sheng alone), was delicious, one chord sliding into another into another, sounding more electronic than anything else. All the same, Chin takes risks in the piece, at times writing for the sheng aggressive surges and accents that trigger off similar behaviour in the orchestra. Surprisingly, given the problems experienced in the Violin Concerto, at no point did the sheng become inaudible, testifying to Chin’s care and skill in matching the orchestra to this most unusual of solo instruments. Beyond that, it’s a genuinely strange piece, and i’ll admit i don’t quite know what to make of it; it was certainly an unusual choice to bring the day to an end (Rocanā would have been a better, if predictable, finale). Maybe it simply underlines that Unsuk Chin is, compositionally, something of a curiosity herself, difficult to pigeon-hole, geographically ambiguous, serious and mischeivous in equal measure. She confuses, to be sure, but more than that, she thrills; and above all else, yesterday’s Total Immersion day was thrilling.

Programme Note

I. Prologue – Dramatic Opening of the Curtain
II. Lament of the Bald Singer
III. The Grinning Fortune Teller with the False Teeth
IV. Episode between Bottles and Cans
V. Circulus vitiosos – Dance around the shacks
VI. The Hunt for the Quack’s Plait

The title derives from Old High German. Inherent in it are the following meanings: to hoodwink; to make ridiculous movements; to fool someone by means of feigned magic; to practice fortune-telling.

The title refers to a Proustian moment I experienced – entirely unexpectedly – during my first sojourn in China: in 2008 and 2009 I visited Hong Kong and Guangzhou, among other places. The atmosphere of the old and poor residential neighbourhoods with their narrow, winding alleys, ambulatory food vendors, and market places – all this not far from supersized video screens, ultramodern buildings, and glittering shopping centres – brought to mind long forgotten childhood experiences. It reminded me very much of Seoul of the 1960s, of the period after the Korean War and before the radical modernisation. Of conditions that no longer exist in today’s (South) Korea.

I was particularly reminded of a troupe of entertainers I saw a number of times as a child in a suburb of Seoul. These amateur musicians and actors travelled from village to village in order to foist self-made medicines – which were ineffective at best – on the people. To lure the villagers, they put on a play with singing, dancing, and various stunts. (I still recall that the plots almost always had to do with unrequited love, and that the performance inevitably ended with the heroine’s suicide.) This was all extremely amateurish and kitschy, yet it aroused incredible emotions among the spectators: this is hardly surprising, considering that it was practically the only entertainment in an everyday life marked by poverty and repressive structures. Entertainment electronics and toys (not to mention art) were of course unknown. Therefore, the whole village was present at this “big event”, a circumstance from which others also desired to profit: fortune-tellers, mountebanks, and travelling hawkers. Among these were also wig dealers from whom young girls could earn some money for their families by sacrificing their pigtails.

Gougalon does not refer directly to the dilettante and shabby music of that street theatre. The memories described above merely provide a framework, just as the movement headings are not intended to be illustrative.

This piece is about an “imaginary folk music” that is stylized, broken within itself, and only apparently primitive.

—Unsuk Chin (translation: Howard Weiner)

Programme Note

I. Hide and Seek
II. The Puzzle of the Three Magic Gates
III. The Rules of the Game – sdrawkcab emiT
IV. Four Seasons in Five Verses
V. Domifare S
VI. The Game of Chance
VII. From the Old Time

Akrostichon-Wortspiel (Akrostic-Wordplay), Commissioned by the Gaudeamus Foundation, was composed in 1991 for the occasion of the 1991 Gaudeamus Prizewinner’s Concert and its first performance, in incomplete form, was given by the Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam conducted by David Porcelijn. The piece was completed two years later and this definitive version received its premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 8 September 1993 with George Benjamin conducting the Premiere Ensemble.

Akrostichon-Wortspiel consists of seven scenes from the fairytales The Endless Story by Michael Ende and Alice through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. The selected texts have been worked upon in different ways: sometimes the consonants and vowels have been randomly joined together, other times the words have been read backwards so that the symbolic meaning alone remains.

Each of the seven pieces is constructed around a controlling pitch centre but in their means of expression they are fully differentiated from one another. Seven different situations of emotional states, as described in the fairytales, ranging from the bright to the grotesque are brought to expression.

The tunings of some of the ensemble instruments are adapted from one quarter to one sixth of a tone to achieve a fine microtonality. The solo soprano fluctuates between these two tuning systems, depending upon which she perceives at any time.

—Unsuk Chin

Programme Note

The title is Sanskrit and means “room of light”. For Unsuk Chin, the title does not have any specific religious or mythological meaning. Instead, it refers in many respects to the character of the work as well as to the composition techniques employed. The composer tells that in Rocaná she was concerned with the behaviour of beams of light – their distortion, refraction, reflections, and undulations. This was not a matter of mere illustration, but of their depiction by musical means: “Art as harmony parallel to nature” (Cézanne). Since sound waves – as the physical phenomenon of a bodiless oscillation – are similar to light waves, music seems the appropriate medium for a “translation” of light phenomena. Furthermore, physical phenomena like depth and density, spatial perceptions and illusions of various sorts were important associations in the composition process. Ólafur Elíasson’s installations The Weather Project and Notion Motion provided additional extra-musical inspiration.

The music in Rocaná flows uninterruptedly. The overall picture and the overall structure are one entity, one “tonal sculpture”. However, one can look at it from various angles, since the inner structures are constantly changing. Even if the music at times gives the impression of stasis, subtle impulses, interactions, and reactions are continually present. Certain elements appear time and again, yet always in varied form. They are not developed: they instead lead seamlessly into one another and blend, forming new interactions and processes. Orderly structures suddenly turn into turbulence and vice versa. Pointillist structures transform into cloudlike aggregates of sound and vice versa. These processes are often distinguished by self-similarity.

The composer once pointed out that because of her cultural background she has “a certain aversion to the sound world produced by traditional symphony orchestras rooted in 19th-century aesthetics, and I feel a great deal of affinity for non-European musical cultures. That is why I always try to introduce a completely different colour into my compositions based on my experience of non-European music.” In Rocaná, the instrumentation is more or less standard, but an attempt has been made to treat the orchestra like a “super-instrument” as well as like a virtuoso “illusion machine” that creates something new out of that which is familiar.

Primarily through the combination of various instrumental techniques, through rhythmic development and the interplay of overtone structures and microtones, shifts and changes of timbre are achieved; light and colour phenomena playfully alternate with one another.

—Maris Gothoni (translation by Howard Weiner)

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Hi, I greatly appreciate you upping these broadcasts. Chin's music is great and it is a real privilege to hear this. All the best, bill


Thanks so much for this thorough and thoughtful report. If they broadcast the rest of the evening concert, I'd love to hear it! -joee


Hey Tim, i wonder which pieces of Chin's left you unimpressed before? But yes, do give them a go – if Rocana doesn't get you breathing a bit faster, then nothing will 🙂


Wow. I've never been terribly impressed by what I've heard of Chin's music, but reports like this suggest I need to give it another go. (Which I will, thanks to your H&N recordings!)

[…] be interpreted in different ways, and this is particularly interesting in Rocaná. This is a piece i briefly explored back in 2011, following the Barbican’s Total Immersion day devoted to her music. On that occasion the […]

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