her kind: unsuk chin

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!


her kind: sky macklay

Welcome back to her kind; I hope you all had a lovely holiday break (and can manage to hang on for just a couple more weeks before the semester ends)!

This week, I want to dive into another composer I love—one who is still making waves throughout the contemporary scene today: Sky Macklay. Macklay is currently teaching at Peabody, and as a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow, she’s working to release a chamber music album that synthesizes her work as a composer as well as her “raucous, multiphonic-rich oboe practice.”

Macklay’s music is filled with unexpected and conventional textures—one can hear this in her piece ‘White/Waves’ and ‘Chopped,’ as well as her iconic string quartet, ‘Many Many Cadences.’

‘Many Many Cadences’ is one of my favorite string quartets, and one of the first string quartets I discovered by a living composer. The piece re-contextualizes traditional harmonies—repeating a series of cadences in quick succession to form phrases and motives.  The colors and textures Macklay extracts from the strings through developing the material provides an effective contrast to the bright, piercing nature of the initial motive. It’s wonderfully playful, which is something I strive for in my own writing, as well. At the end of the piece, when the initial motive returns, it’s transformed through the most delightful onslaught of slides—the motive is almost indistinguishable, but ultimately it’s just present enough for the ear to catch on.

One of Macklay’s scores, Inner Life of Song, from 2015

Another stunning piece by Macklay is her violin and piano duo, FastLowHighSlow. Immediately, one can hear her playing with textures and registers—which is implied by the title. The piece particularly direct in concept, but it kept my interest the whole way through listening because of Macklay’s unique use of textural combinations.

Aside from her music, Macklay’s outlook on music also resonates with me:

“I love weird contemporary music and sharing it with the next generation,” she explained. “I think a lot of it is sharing my own personal perspective on it—just show how much a particular sound excites me and how beautiful I think it is.  I think that’s sort of contagious, or at least let’s people perceive it as a beautiful thing, or something that some person thinks is a beautiful thing. I also think that exposure, experience, experiential education, and experiential pieces are really a great way to do outreach. … That’s something I think more composers should do: write music that has a participatory role for amateur musicians, or for just audience members.”

Finding ways to connect over the beauty of something—sounds, colors, experiences—is the primary reason I pursue art. If you want to connect over the beauty of Macklay’s music, you can listen here on the her kind playlist, or check out her scores on YouTube!


her kind: sofia gubaidulina

“The art of music is capable of touching and approaching mysteries and laws existing in the cosmos and in the world.” —Sofia Gubaidulina

This week, I had the pleasure of researching and listening to the music of Sofia Gubaidulina—a composer whose studies took place in Soviet Russia. Born in 1931, Gubaidulina is considered one of the foremost Russian composers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Piano Concerto Introitus is a one of my favorite pieces of music I’ve listened to recently. The opening unfolds from hollow, plaintive moans in the flutes and rises up in register and orchestration, building momentum to a near unison statement of one of the piece’s primary gestures. I love her choice to use the lowest registers of the flute to open the piece–it creates a beautiful, sacred ambience. Intervals of minor seconds, harmonic and melodic, evoke mysterium and tension.

The piano enters briefly after the fall of the first climactic moment, and Gubaidulina hovers again in the bass register. The strings prolong mysticism and tension with buzzing tremolos and half steps; the woodwinds create a sustained backdrop in contrast to the other textures being used. It’s surprising how little the piano is really used, considering it’s a piano concerto, but I actually love the way Gubaidulina feels no obligation to keep the pianist active for the majority of the first half of the piece. It’s unexpected, and the limited use of the piano draws more attention to it when it is playing.

She makes use of simple ascending and descending scales in layers and layers of canons with the upper voices of woodwinds. The piano’s melody returns, and strings enter in the low register, echoing chords we’d heard earlier in the piano–then echoing the scales we’d just heard in the woodwinds. This time, richer and fuller, the scalar gesture opens up to a brief bassoon/piano duet which evolves into a call-and-response between the piano and the orchestra.

Towards the end of the piece, there’s a section filled with trills layered one on top of the other which evolves in to these almost bell-like chords chiming in the piano part over a bed of trills in the string section. The strings fade away, and the piano is left alone to play meditative, scalar figures once again—this time, with harmonic seconds floating on top.

The concerto ends with a haunting trill at the top of the piano’s range that serves in opposition to the concerto’s opening. It seems as if the piece itself serves as an ascent—perhaps to the celestial, or as a metaphor in line with the “Introitus” title, ascending from the secular to the sacred at the beginning of a religious event. This idea of ascent is also apparent in smaller motives throughout the piece; particularly in the sweeping gesture of the strings that serves as a pillar Gubaidulina keeps returning to. There’s a constant rise and fall that drives forward the concerto until we arrive at the end, suspended above.

The interaction and consideration between all the voices and textures in this concerto is stunning. The textures and gestures are reminiscent of Debussy and Messiaen perhaps, but Gubaidulina’s voice is strong. Her music was thought of as troublesome during her studies in Soviet Russia, but she was supported by Shostakovich, who in evaluating her final examination encouraged her to continue down her path despite others calling it “mistaken.” I’m grateful he encouraged her, because this piece is quite lovely. If you’d like to take a listen, you can follow this link to the her kind playlist.


her kind: ghost of

ghost of: diana khoi-nguyen

“There is no ecologically safe way to mourn.”

Diana Khoi Nguyen begins her poetry collection, Ghost Of. The book, a finalist for the National Book Award, explores the weight of grief through the loss of her brother. Nguyen captures the cyclic nature of life and grief with grace. Terrance Hayes describes it as “steeped in the poetics of exile and elegy.”

This is one of my favorite poetry collections of all time. It’s a brilliant book with visceral imagery, imaginative poetic structures, and threads that tie the whole collection together beautifully.

The way Nguyen’s titles her poems  this: Overture, Reprise, and Coda illustrate the collection’s ties to music and sound on a fundamental level. In the foreground, imagery like “pattering rain,” “neighbors upstairs spilling rice across the floor,” and “an alarm goes off” create an aural awareness in the reader. Ideas of music are pursued further in lines such as:

“What may exist between appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence, as something that is nearly nothing—slow music, quiet music, spare music— of sound and form I fell asleep tonight” (Triptych)

“Harps strung with gut still make music after 2,000 years.” (Future Self)

And perhaps a core line of the whole collection, as well as one of my favorites:

“There is nothing that is not music, the pouring of water from one receptacle into another” (Triptych)

Nguyen uses the poems titled Triptych and Gyotaku to experiment with form—there are three of each. Gyotaku is a traditional Japanese method of printing fish that dates back to the mid-1800s. The Gyotaku poems vary widely in how they’re arranged, but I chose the one below because I love its simple elegance—and again, there are themes of sound and music present. Nguyen’s poems sound and feel like music themselves; in this collection, each poem is its own brief elegy. You can see an example of it off to the side, and a sample of her take on the art form below.




The Triptych poems take up three pages: one is a family photograph where her brother has been cut out, the second fills the negative space of her brother with a poem, and the third fills out the positive space a poem, almost like a frame. Her use of form paints negative space so vividly, along with the sensation of absence. You can see how the poems are laid out below:



I hope these poems brought a bit of inspiration into your week, regardless of your artistic medium; Nguyen so deftly shows us how closely intertwined artistic disciplines can be. I encourage you to view her poems on Poetry Foundation if you’ve enjoyed this brief look at her work. As always, thanks for reading!

her kind: bright dead things

Most of you are likely no stranger to Ada Limón. She was named 24th poet laureate of the United States back in July, becoming the first Latina to do so. I decided to talk about her here (despite her popularity) because her poems provide a respite from the cold weather we’ll be facing soon—critics have often described them so:

“Limón’s poems are like fires: charring the page, but leaving a smoke that remains past the close of the book.” (The Millions)

“A poet whose verse exudes warmth and compassion” (Los Angeles Review of Books)

The intensity and directness of Limón’s poetry resonates with me. There’s no shortage of rich imagery in her work, yet I never lose sight of her poem’s core message.

As I begin a new chapter here in Ann Arbor, identity and relationships have been on my mind a lot. The poems I’ve felt closest to recently are the ones handling those subjects.

Her poems are best digested in the larger context of their collection, so do check them out if you feel inspired to do so. All the poems featured in this post come from her book “Bright Dead Things”, a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The collection centers around Limón’s move from New York City to Kentucky for her love of a man—and the rewilding that came along with it. The racehorses, open fields, metal, and the moon to make us feel like we’re out there with her, all while exploring themes of death, identity, and how we carry on through loss.



Despite the wide Kentucky acreage, some part of Limón feels trapped. She drowns her “happily unaccounted for” self along with the joys of a bustling life in Brooklyn:

After that, when the water would act weird,
spurt, or gurgle, I’d imagine a body, a woman, a me
just years ago, freely single, happily unaccounted for,
at the lowest curve of the water tower.

Yes, and over and over,
I’d press her limbs down with a long pole
until she was still.

These lines (from The Last Move) so accurately illustrate the sacrifices we make for love and how opposing desires exist at the same time. In a world where so much is shoehorned into binary categories, Ada Limón allows all of her feelings, thoughts, and ideas to coexist at once.

Limón’s poems always feel as if they’re approaching the brink, like there’s tension hovering above the surface. She so effortlessly captures what is, to me, the essence of the human experience.

her kind: welcome & introduction

Welcome to her kind!

Welcome to her kind—a new column at arts, ink. that takes a closer look at women in the arts: their works, their influence, and their history. This column will feature a different artist each week, and we’ll be covering a wide variety of disciplines, from poetry to visual arts to composition. The title of this column comes from Anne Sexton’s poem of the same name.

My name is Nicole Knorr; I’m a composer/pianist pursuing my Master’s degree here at the University of Michigan. I wanted to start a column on women in the arts for two reasons: I get to research and find wonderful work to feature, and I get to host a platform where women’s art is celebrated and brought to readers’ attention. To go along with the blog, I’ve created a Spotify playlist (here) so you all can listen to the work featured, and those of you who perform might find some repertoire to take on someday.

I’m looking forward to sharing some of my favorite art with you all, and I’m excited to host a space where we can celebrate fantastic art together, so cheers! As artist and professor Joan Semmel put it:

 ‘…if there are no great celebrated women artists, that’s because the powers that be have not been celebrating them, but not because they are not there.’

Germaine Tailleferre

This week, I want to start with one of my favorite composers: Germaine Tailleferre. I discovered Tailleferre a few years ago while looking for piano repertoire for the semester. I chose her Pastorale, and for the first time, I studied a piece that wasn’t written by a guy. Yes—after studying piano for over ten years, I hadn’t played a single piece of music by a woman—so Tailleferre holds a special place in my heart.

Tailleferre lived from 1892-1983 and grew up in fin-de-siecle Paris. She was the only female member of Les Six, a group of French composers who rejected both Wagner’s dramaticism and Debussy’s impressionism. They were interested in composing music for everyday—music the average listener could enjoy—while still maintaining technical rigor and prowess.

Her pre-war period was her most prolific—her catalogue of this era boasts a comic opera, a violin concerto, several songs, and the scores for seven films. When Tailleferre fled to the Pennsylvania during the 1940’s due to WWII, she married artist Ralph Barton, who disapproved of her composing career, so her musical output steeply declined. It wasn’t until she decided to divorce Barton and return to France in 1946 that she began composing again, but once she did, she built up her catalogue significantly.

Still life by Pablo Picasso, one of Tailleferre’s contemporaries.

The piece I’d like to highlight is Tailleferre’s piano concerto. It’s a highly effective piece, and I’m excited to share it with you, so let’s dive in!

The work premiered in December 1924 to a highly positive critical response. Tailleferre was hailed as a progressive; Stravinsky himself said of the concerto, “It is virtuous music!” The piece blends Tailleferre’s French roots with Baroque figurations and perhaps even some American influence. While she does follow Les Six’s ideology of composing “everyday music,” or music for the working class (no more Wagnerian drama or elaborate Debussian orchestrations), no one can deny the pristine clarity and rigor of the work—despite being accessible to the average audience.

The piece opens with a lively first movement—the strings and piano in conversation, then upper winds join, and finally Tailleferre turns our ear to the brass. One can hear the influence of Bach here, the motive is passed seamlessly between voices, and there is hardly a moment of reprieve. I was struck by the cadence capping the first movement; it’s Coplandesque–reminiscent of what one might hear in his Rodeo suite.


Of the slow movement, pianist Alfred Cortot says “Voilà qui n’est pas moins beau que Bach” (Here’s

Another piece by an artist who influenced Les Six: Matisse’s “goldfish with cat”

something no less beautiful than Bach). Similar to the first, the music presses onward with little space provided for rest. This maintains a steady sense of momentum, in true baroque fashion. The orchestration fills out over time. Tailleferre begins with the stark upper register of the solo piano,sparsely harmonized—the upper winds slowly filter in, then the strings add warmth as the piano’s lower register is introduced. There is an insistent pedal point occurring in the piano part for much of the piece to build tension. The piece unfolds into a densely orchestrated climax and falls away into the same register it began—this time supported by a few more members of the orchestra.

The third movement is a jubilant celebration. The rhythmic motor returns, accompanied by modal mixture, a staple in the Les Six vocabulary. This movement display’s Tailleferre’s affection for contrapuntal rigor—an effective closing for the work.


I hope you get a chance to listen and enjoy Tailleferre’s music as much as I do. You can listen to my favorite selections of Tailleferre’s music in this playlist, or you can scan her Spotify barcode below and explore for yourself. In the future, I’ll be adding a bit more of a reactive element in my blog posts—sketches inspired by the art discussed. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me next week!