Stories » On: Rocana & Con. for Violin, Kent Nagano and the OSM explore Korean composer Unsuk Chin's artistic landscape

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On: Rocana & Con. for Violin, Kent Nagano and the OSM explore Korean composer Unsuk Chin's artistic landscape

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Kent Nagano and the OSM explore Korean composer Unsuk Chin's artistic landscape. Chin's music is modern in language, but lyrical in communicative power. The colour of her music might be explained by Chin's affinity for non-European music and by her occupation with electronic music. This recording principal work, the prestigious Grawemeyer award-winning Violin Concerto, Viviane Hagner shows an almost hauntingly masterful display of technique and artistry. Also on this recording, the iridescent Rocana, an orchestral work commissioned by Maestro Kent Nagano.

Rocana (2008)
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 Rocana she was concerned with the behavior 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" (Cezanne). 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 space depth and space density, spatial perceptions and illusions of various sorts were important associations in the composition process. Olafur Eliasson's installations The Weather Project and Notion Motion provided additional extra-musical inspiration.

The music in Rocana 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. Pointilistic structures transform into cloudlike aggregates of sound and vice versa.

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 color into my compositions based on my experience of non-European music." In Rocana, 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 color phenomena playfully alternate with one another.

Violin Concerto
The instrumentation is definitely classic: a soloist and her violin are facing the orchestra. But in this case, the latter has been expanded by adding numerous percussion instruments. And within the group, they seem to form a distinct section of their own, conferring to the work a peculiar colour and intensity. They will not only be used to heighten the increasingly powerful sounds but will also be used to show all the richness in tone. The sensitivity to the rich possibilities offered by such "new" sounds grew out of the European musical framework: one has to remember the strong impression left by Javanese gamalan orchestras who performed at world fairs at the end of the 19th century, as well as by the discovery of Indian and African music. All this came late but started seeping into the creative process of European composers. With her Violin Concerto, Unsuk Chin does not only refer herself to a certain tradition but places it within a much wider cultural horizon. The work also refers to the different means and models taken by music in the last century.

The work is made up of four movements. While listening to its sequence, one will clearly recognize the outline of the old symphonic form: an overture, a slower movement, a scherzo and to crown it all, a finale that harks back to material heard at the beginning of the work, thus closing the cycle. But in spite of the contradictions between the numerous layers and sections, the conflicts and dramatic aggravations do not by themselves determine the course of events. It is rather the large lines in the development, the dialogue and the interweaving of the fine transitions which will link the different levels, which thus become the center of action of the musical process.

As far as virtuosity and technical challenge are concerned, the solo part leaves nothing to be desired. The player should see himself much more as a partner of the orchestra and its diverse sections than an adversary. Only in the first movement do we find something similar to a cadenza, in which the soloist can deliver a performance on his own. And even there, the solo offers half tones which change over long intervals, which then pick up on the previously played melody. In Unsuk Chin's Violin concerto, one often finds such "zooming" effects in the tonality and structure of the work.

Ever since dissonance made its appearance on the musical scene, each contemporary composer must ask himself the question of how music can be sustained in a tri-dimentional continuum of time and space. In her concerto's first movement, Unsuk Chin applied numerous methods such as the contrast between the different movements, variations in the layering of events, varied changes in the course of the development and made use of strains between the static surfaces and the directed movements. Thus the first movement forms, in the strict sense of the compositional technique, a basis on which all other movements, which are shorter, will emanate.

On the other hand, the second movement, which is made up of four sections of almost equal length, begins as an interval play by the open strings. Eventhough it is accompanied by percussion and plucked string instruments, it produces fine and checkered sounds. This part forms a serene contrast to the violin solo. It attempts to respond to it, just as in the first movement where the solo violin resonates and responds to the orchestra. All this occurs at a low level, even coming from the barely-heard sounds of the harmonics played by the string and woodwinds. The sounds surround the silence just like they would a blackdrop and allow for the deployment of the infinite musical possibilities. As a counterpoint, short and rapid passages are inserted and interrupt the quiet flow: it recalls the more rapid sections found in the first movement. The music heard at the beginning returns at the end, unchanged and more concise. It surrounds two middle sections. The first holds its basic quiet tempo; however it is able to expose certain elements in another light. The sustained notes are displaced by the tremolos of unease, the rapid entry of the strings is reflected in the extreme virtuosity of the solo parts, the drum effects seem to multiply the clusters of harps and celesta.

If the first movement had started accompanied with the sounds of the marimba and the second with that of the percussion and plucked string instruments, similar to those of the glockenspiel, the third, in turn, is dedicated to the short percussive sounds. This movement, a scherzo and an intermezzo, is the shortest of the concerto and is laid out like a miniature musical scene.

The four open strings and the interval gap between them, form the starting point of the first three movements. Here, the fourth offers somewhat of a contrast. It begins within a very high position, set in a form which the spectrum will intensify, then take it to lower levels. The recollections of the preceeding movements will culminate in the end with clear references to the work's beginning. The cycle is thus complete. In it was fulfilled a musical process in which the tone colours, the quiet flow of time, the relation to different cultures and a non linear logic of musical development, all contribute to create an individual form of expression.

By her musical disposition, Unsuk Chin's work opens perspectives on the different historical and musical levels and reconnects with the diverse cultural traditions. To describe the Violin Concerto as a synthesis between European and Far-Eastern music, would remain too abstract and would not bring anything new to the subject. To qualify it as an attempt to intermediate between her ancestral (Korean) culture and her adopted (European) culture would miss the point. Unsuk Chin grew up with European music; it became as natural for her as it is to the old continent's native. The Violin Concerto is an individual performance of a highly sensitive artistry, created from a rich collection of personal experiences and bound with curiosity, experimentation and method. When hearing it, it does not wish to provoke, neither does it retrench into comfortable habits. We know that today, time is filled with a variety of pulsating events, this is now part of our daily expectations. And thus, an artistic work must pass the test of time by proving itself...