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Unsuk Chin: Violin Concerto / Rocaná (Room Of Light)
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"Rocana" really took me by surprise. With its description of it being a study of the changing effects of light I half expected a post impressionist work in the style of Kaija Saariaho but it couldn't be much different. Again this is exquisitely crafted but is more confrontational than the concerto but, nevertheless balances the spotlit sections with more subtle variations. It sounds not a little ritualist so, if you're looking for eastern mysticism, this is as near as you'll get. I'm reminded too of Messiaen's wind dominated mature works: rhythmically precise and percussive. It's difficult to choose which of these is the better work - not that it matters. Both are very fine works that reveal more with each hearing.
Both works combine technical mastery with a clear compositional voice. Here's a composer who's work I've got to explore more of; however strong her individual voice she's a major talent and this recording (live with the odd cough here and there) is outstanding.
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Unsuk Chin's music is a wash of microtonal writing with a great sense of whimsy and child-like unrestraint. The four-movement Violin Concerto (2003) displays Chin's characteristic soundworld from the very start, as the violin enters on a simple two-note slow back and forth that suddenly flies into bouncy rhythms as the orchestra joins in, led by all manner of pitched percussion. In Chin's climaxes, gestures seem to fly about randomly, but the overall harmony of her writing is never compromised. The second movement is a slow one, with a remarkable ending with the violin is played at the extreme of its register. The third movement is a brief scherzo, while the last movement refers back to the first and leads to completion. The form is classical, but the variety of sounds within is anything but predictable, and the insane virtuosity of this part matched to a warm and attractive line makes this all the more appealing.
While the Violin Concerto continues all the unique features Chin's music was known for, "Rocana" for orchestra (2008) sounds rather different. The sense of capriciousness is gone, and instead we find slow, calculated spectralist soundscapes that sound more like the music of Marc-Andre Dalbavie than anything else. However, it is an extremely beautiful piece, becoming only more captivating over its 20-minute span, and Chin's hope to musically represent a play of lights seems very successful.
This is a live recording with brief applause at the end of each piece, but as I said, it is nonetheless superb-sounding. If you've never heard Unsuk Chin's music before, I wholeheartedly recommend this disc as well as the earlier DG disc with other fine pieces. I have heard some uncertainty about the longterm greatness of Chin's music, as some think it a bit too appealing, but who cares, there's so much fun you could be having right now. Really, get this.
Unsuk Chin is having none of that. She is a modernist in the best sense of the word. While blessed with a broad-ranging lyricism and a vivid sense of orchestration, she doesn't pander. This is music that embraces our own time. The Violin Concerto places huge demands on the soloist. Viviane Hagner really gets her teeth into it, with the appropriate balance of flash and musicality. Chin doesn't shy away from the potential drama of a big concerto either--in many ways she has a classical heroic approach to the form.
The companion piece, Rocana, may be the more interesting piece of the two. It is a pure orchestral piece of about 21 minutes in duration. Beginning with aggressive jabs against a quiet background, it is quite satisfying. There's some really good brass writing in there, too.
A search on Amazon for Chin's music brings up only a single brief page of recordings. I hope that gets fixed. I'm sure there's a lot more to hear.
Although the concerto has its "yang" side contrasting with its "yin" (concepts that I wouldn't normally use, but they are very much part of Isang Yun's philosophy), it is, unlike most contemporary music, rarely aggressive, and the "yang", when it occurs, clearly appears as the contrasting element to the all-embracing and framing "yin" rather than, as usual, the other way around. And even in the more dynamic moments, Chin always displays a wonderful and subtle sense of orchestral color, a unique gift for sending the violin to its upper registers, and having it not so much compete against the orchestra as ride on top of it. It really brings to our consciousness that there is an old, overriding and overbearing tradition in western classical music, brought to its apex in the sonata form: the lyrical theme always comes second, as a relief from the first, dominant and dominating one. With Chin, it is the other way around.
Rocaná - the title is Sanskrit and means "room of light" - is a 20 minute orchestral piece, completed in 2008. It is a fine piece, though not as uniquely original as the Violin Concerto. There Chin alternates the aggressive and assertive "yang" outbursts against "yin" passages of stasis and expectancy in a more traditional way, although those moments of stasis are more extended that they might have been in someone else's composition. Stylistically, Chin sounds to me as she is writing in the "contemporary music" style of Everyman (or woman) - I mean, Everyman or woman who doesn't satisfy himself with writing neo-romantic rehash or minimalist-repetitive music, but one who has developed upon the lessons of Ligeti's explorations in orchestral color or Lutoslawski's integration of color, drama and symphonic form in the 1970s. If you find me here less enthusiastic than I might have, don't get me wrong: Rocaná displays Chin's fine sense of color and drama, and it would have called for unrestricted praise in any collection of contemporary music - I'm also listening to and about to review two such collections, which happen to be also by female composers, Joan Tower, Tower: Sequoia; Island Prelude; Silver Ladders; Music for Cello & Orchestra and Augusta Read Thomas/Tania Leon, Augusta Read Thomas: Triple Concerto; Wind Dance/ Tania León: Batá/Carabali. But the Violin Concerto takes you in such another dimension that Rocaná, as good as it is, sounds only average heard after.
The two pieces were recorded live, in January and March 2008. Until the final applause, I had no suspicion of it whatsoever. TT is a shortish 48-minutes, but given how exceptional the Violin Concerto is, this is no deterrent to giving the disc five stars.
I had been eagerly awaiting for a recording of Chin's violin concerto, after the announcement of the 2004 Grawemeyer Award. It finally appeared in 2009 and it did not disappoint. (Actually, I have yet to hear a Grawemeyer Award winning piece which is not a great delight.) What struck me first was Chin's ability to create new kinds of colors and soundworlds while keeping the orchestration and especially musical forms in the very traditional settings. (See notes below.) In a way it's "new wine in old bottles" and resembles Arnold Schoenberg's third string quartet in this respect. Another thing which immediately caught my ears was how lyrical, communicative and emotionally immediate Chin's Concerto is, in contrast to her own (Ligeti-inspired) Akrostichon-Wortspiel. In this respect, it reminds me of George Tsontakis's Violin Concerto No. 2. Of course, Chin's sound is decidedly more "revolutionary". - Not really a surprise since we are talking about Tsontakis!
As for the recorded performance, I really can not imagine a better one, but who says I am musically imaginative anyway?
The following are B&H's official notes. As always, for personal use only.
note by Habakuk Traber
Not only is the orchestration primarily classical, but the structure as well - with the opening movement followed by a slow one, then a scherzo and finale, which contains references to the first movement. The solo violin part is extremely demanding, with extraordinary technical challenges and yet the soloist forms more of a partnership with the orchestra, rather than being in opposition.
The work commences softly, but soon the significance of the variety of percussion instruments becomes apparent - with the marimba contributing a special atmosphere. Gradually more and more instruments join in, and eventually the virtuoso violin becomes more subdued as the orchestra displays its virtuosity.
The second movement starts on open strings, with delicate and colourful plucking. Primarily a slow and quiet movement, there are however brief fast sections reminiscent of the first movement. Fleeting passages in the strings highlight the virtuoso solo part, and the effect of the percussion is further enhanced by clusters in harp and celeste parts,
The third movement immediately makes references to the second movement - this time using percussive, short notes - and the strings play extensive pizzicato passages. The shortest of the four movements, it is close to being a traditional 'scherzo' movement,
The four open strings and their tonal relationship form the basis of the first three movements, and the fourth provides a contrast. The solo part starts very high, then gradually expands towards the lower register. Reminders of the previous movements keep re-surfacing and culminate in an ending distinctly reminiscent of the opening of the work. The circle closes, and with it a concert form in which tonal colour and the flow of time have created an individual type and mode of expression. Unsuk Chin's composition, through her soundworld, opens windows to different periods of music history - both younger and older - than those within the classic tradition. The ear is not provoked, but at the same time it cannot depend on what is familiar. The fact that time must be filled with a flurry of events has become such standard practice that a work of art which resists the temptation to be over-inflated deserves highest praise.
Rocaná (Room of Light)
note by Maris Gothoni (translation by Howard Weiner)
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.