Unsuk Chin was born in Seoul, 14 July 1961. After studies in Korea she was awarded a German government scholarship, and moved to Europe in 1985. She had lessons in Hamburg with Ligeti, an important influence on her music, after which she settled in Berlin. She has won numerous awards and prizes, among them the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition in 2004 for her Violin Concerto.
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.