Unsuk Chin – Mannequin (World Première)

by 5:4

Last night saw the first performance of Unsuk Chin‘s new orchestral piece Mannequin, performed at Sage Gateshead by the National Youth Orchestra—who, these days, can seemingly play anything—conducted by Ilan Volkov. The work’s four movements are subtitled “tableaux vivants”, ‘living pictures’ that are rooted in several episodes from E. T. A. Hoffman’s story The Sandman. i say ‘rooted’, but in fact ‘imbued’ would be a better word; if anything has characterised Chin’s music in the last few years it is an increasing tendency towards gestural material, which is in turn formed into intricate textural fabrics. That abstract shapes and forms such as these operate to enact very concrete moods and ideas—usually, as here, directly invoking literary narratives—makes for an exciting and highly dramatic dichotomy. Chin has likened the work to what she calls an “imaginary choreography”, even going so far as to express the hope that it will be literally choreographed at some point, uniting abstract and concrete ideas of movement in another way.

Presentiment permeates all four movements of Mannequin, an unsettling omnipresence that in part emanates from Chin’s use of an extremely wide dynamic range. In hindsight it seems otherwise, but much of the work is very quiet, instruments occupied with a kind of momentum that one suspects will in no short time either run amok or be rudely interrupted. She starts every movement in this way, the most telling being the first—titled ‘Music Box – Fever Dream’—in which a network of shimmering chimes and bells creates a nightmarish atmosphere that would be at home in any horror film (it’s not a million miles away from Christopher Young’s very fine Hellraiser score). In the second movement, ‘Sandman and Child’, Chin creates a very strange slow pulsation, coloured by a flexatone and short wind cascades, while the third, ‘Dance of the Clockwork Girl’, conjures its eponymous character through disjointed, halting staccato noises, a mechanism trying to stir itself into motion. The final movement, ‘The Stolen Eyes’, rivals the first in the depths of its disquietude, beginning at the extremes of register, very high pitches floating over a burbling low marimba and aimless cellos, flecked with some rather ominous activity from the contrabassoon. Each of these four openings in one sense sets the scene, but more importantly they provide a vantage point, like gazing up at a far-off (and, at present, only imagined) summit from the base of the mountain. Out of such quiet, timorous music, Chin escorts the orchestra through utterly contrasting territory. But not immediately: a sequence of string crescendi in the first movement sound as though the players are walking on eggshells, full of boistrous intent yet also trepidation. Throughout Mannequin, it’s the brass (and, to a lesser extent, woodwind) who are key to propelling the music into its most aggrandised proportions. Initially, taking the mantle from the strings, they surge, but then they start to lunge, and in the second movement they let rip, drawing the whole orchestra into massive amounts of chatter and swell. Chin takes a different tack in the third movement, rendering the Clockwork Girl’s ‘dance’ angular and increasingly violent, peppered with pointed accents, which extend and develop in the final movement, becoming a seething, throbbing mass, like a maelstrom in the middle-distance. Each of the movements returns to moments of quietness, but there’s no hint of ‘repose’ here; perhaps they’re implications of wistful reminiscence, or mere pauses for breath—either way, they inevitably dissolve and the work’s overall conclusion makes their ephemerality very clear. High string tremolos prevail for a time (harking back to the first movement), but their swells become more and more forceful, uncomfortably so, and lead to a frantic full orchestral nervous breakdown loaded with wild brass roars, and thence to a delicious but troubling coda articulated by a contrabassoon grappling unsuccessfully with the bass drum.

Wonderful stuff, and while it seems to hold back on the kind of sonic onslaught unleashed in some of her previous orchestral works (particularly Rocanā), the dynamic breadth explored here, particularly those disturbingly restrained openings, makes Mannequin‘s roiling climaxes feel overwhelming. The National Youth Orchestra’s performance was simply marvellous, teasing out all kinds of details within Unsuk Chin’s dense and overlapping gestural layers.

Programme Note

I. Music Box – Fever Dream
II. Sandman and Child
III. Dance of the Clockwork Girl
IV. The Stolen Eyes

Following Unsuk Chin’s excursions into street theatre (Gougalōn), pantomime (cosmigimmicks), and street art (Graffiti), the orchestral work Mannequin – Tableaux vivants for orchestra is the composer’s first referring to dance. It could be likened to an ‘imaginary choreography’, reflecting as it does a fascination for the movement potential of the human body and its expressive capabilities, with a special stress on high-energy physicality. It is highly gestural music intended to be danced, but ‘without feet’, as it were; a particular inspiration came from the great choreographers’ and dancers’ pursuit of making the impossible appear possible, of defying natural physical laws; in short: their ability to challenge perceptions of time and space. The work has no relation whatsoever to the codified structures of classical ballet; instead, it explores extreme contrasts of colour, speed and gesture with a constant tension between forces.

Mannequin tells a story, though neither in the form of a linear narrative nor in the manner of illustrative programme music: the line between dreams and reality is being crossed in a surreal manner, with the main themes of the scenario being problems of perception and of personal identity. It is freely based on the fantastical novella The Sandman, written by German writer, composer, music critic, lawyer, cabaret artist and draughtsman E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). As a writer, he was rejected by his contemporaries: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Sir Walter Scott, among many others, called Hoffmann’s fiction ‘sick’, insinuating that he should undergo medical treatment. Posthumously, however, Hoffmann has been recognized as the master of the uncanny and the ambiguous, influencing figures as diverse as Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Edgar Allan Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch. The Sandman might well be Hoffmann’s most forward-looking and daring creation: in this almost magical realist story, the author constantly leaves the reader unsure of what is actually happening and why, and it is possible to be read in a number of (mutually exclusive) ways.

Nathanael, the young protagonist in The Sandman, seems torn between delusions and reality and is not conforming to society. But whether it is him who is ‘mad’, or the society around him, is left open as well as so much more. This ambiguity and relativism much horrified the author’s contemporaries but it is precisely these aspects, combined with Hoffmann’s experimental and highly elliptical style, that explain the story’s modernity and its spell. Many contradictory interpretations have been written about this labyrinthine novella, but most of them miss the point by forcing it into a Procrustean bed of either-or by clearly distinguishing good and evil, real and unreal. Indeed, it would be senseless to attempt to find a moral or a clear-cut plot, for it is precisely his “wisdom of uncertainty” and his exploration of “the essential relativity of things human” (Milan Kundera) where Hoffmann’s achievement lies: The Sandman hauntingly illuminates what a subjective affair reality is.

Mannequin consists of four movements. The first two movements, respectively titled Music Box – Fever Dream and Sandman and Child, refer to Nathanael’s childhood and how his nanny used to instil terror in him by a cautionary tale about the Sandman who steals misbehaving children’s eyes and feeds them to his offspring who live in the crescent moon. Nathanael associates the Sandman’s figure with a half-mythical and sinister person named Coppelius, who seems in some way connected with the decline of Nathanael’s family and who continues to haunt the adult Nathanael’s life in the guise of a number of grotesque ‘doppelgangers’. The third movement, Dance of the Clockwork Girl, refers to Olimpia, a female life-size automaton, with whom Nathanael falls in love, without realizing its true nature until it is being destroyed during a fight between its inventor Spalanzani and Coppola, a dubious seller of optical aids (both apparently being doubles of Sandman/Coppelius). The title of the last movement, The Stolen Eyes, refers to the ubiquitous ‘eye leitmotif’: throughout Hoffmann’s tale, Sandman and his ‘doppelgangers’ (Spalanzani, Coppelius and Coppola) are stealing, inventing or selling eyes – a motive that, similarly to the title of Chin’s work (Mannequin), might of course also be understood allegorically.

Mannequin was jointly commissioned by the Southbank Centre, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The work was given first performances by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Ilan Volkov’s direction at Sage Gateshead and at the Southbank Centre in London.

—Maris Gothóni, 2015

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