Hey everyone! Happy last-week-of-the-semester!
This week, I want to focus on the fresh, ethereal music of Unsuk Chin. Chin is a South Korean composer
born in 196 and currently resides in Berlin, Germany. She studied with Ligeti in Hamburg, which is quite evident in her writing style. Her musical language is uncompromisingly vivid and modern.
I decided to take a closer look at her piano etudes because I’m already familiar with and quite enjoy her piano concerto and violin concerto—two beautiful pieces of music everyone should listen to! These etudes cover a vast amount of musical territory for only six pieces. Chin even explores what granular synthesis, a digital process, might sound like at the piano.
A frequent theme of Chin’s music is the exploration of the harmonic series–and this is particularly evident in her Etude No. 1. You can hear how she outlines the partials of the C overtone series in the opening bars, and all her material for the etude is derived from those explorations. The influence of Ligeti is also quite apparent in these etudes; I notice it most in how she organizes her rhythms.
The German term “sequenzen” serves as the title for Etude No. 2. This translates to sequence of course, but Chin’s use of sequences are not limited to traditional harmonic or melodic sequences, rather they are used as a means for generating a wide variety of musical material. The initial motive is continually altered via ornamentation, diminution, and expansion. Chin creates interest by varying the registers and articulations used for each iteration of the motive. The piece unfolds as an arc; it swells to a climax then fades away through dynamics, tempo, and rhythms.
The Toccata, or Etude No. 5, is certainly my favorite of the set—the opening bars are particularly charming, and as in Etude No. 1, these measures reflect her interest in the harmonic series. Somehow this fifth etude reminds me of an inverted version of Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata. Chin centers the piece around a C major-minor 7th chord. In addition to the components of a C major-minor 7th chord (which are also the lower partials of the C overtone series), Chin uses harmony derived from the upper partials of the C overtone series quite a bit in this etude. I love her harmonic language here—it feels organic and fresh at the same time.
Etude No. 6, “Grains” confirms Chin’s fundamentally organicist approach to writing music. The piece is structured around the electronic music idea of granular synthesis–where small cells of sound are digitally manipulated, edited, and ultimately synthesized together. “Grains” is organized as a theme and variations—the “theme” states each “grain,” while the rest of the piece goes on to develop and synthesize these materials in a wide variety of ways.
To wrap things up, here’s a sketch from one of Chin’s compositions. I always love seeing inside the notebooks of other composers and gaining insight into their artistic process. You can listen to Chin’s music here on the her kind playlist!