Unsuk Chin, Total Immersion (Barbican, 9th April)

I was lucky enough to get hold of the Unsuk Chin Total Immersion day before it disappeared from BBC iPlayer this weekend.  Four of her pieces from the event were broadcast: her breakthrough work Acrostic-Wordplay (1991), for soprano and ensemble; Double Concerto (2002), for piano, percussion and ensemble; Gougalon (2009), for ensemble and Rocaná (2008), for orchestra.

The first piece was written after a three-year compositional silence following a traumatic year of study with Ligeti. It was enormously fascinating to hear of Ligeti’s scathing criticism of himself and others and his brusque dismissal of Chin’s already well-received early works. Despite the difficulties of her time with the Hungarian master it was clear that she retains some warmth towards him, a feeling that was clearly reflected in the music, though, as Jonathan Cross pointed out in his illuminating conversations with Sara Mohr-Pietsch, we shouldn’t, perhaps, take these observations too far.

Despite this I couldn’t help falling into this temptation as I listened. The seven-movement Acrostic Wordplay takes texts from Michael Ende’s Endless Story and, a favourite of Ligeti too, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The piece uses the texts very freely and with great humour, evoking not necessarily the sound world, but the playfulness of Ligeti’s Aventures. Ligeti was also fond, even in works of apparently enormous surface complexity, of underpinning his music with easily comprehensible pitch structures. This too was everywhere evident throughout the programme. In each movement of Acrostic Wordplay, for example, there is a very obvious controlling pitch. But Chin’s writing is so dazzling, so colourful, so perfectly judged, that the listener is hardly aware of it, except in the positive sense that it binds the whole together. In a similar vein the Double Concerto felt like an enormous elaboration of a tonic that never entirely disappears and instead provides a welcome foundation for the virtuosic writing throughout the ensemble. Gougalon (Scenes from a Street Theatre) is a reflection of Chin’s Korean roots in that it evokes the street entertainers she remembers when growing up in Seoul. Playfulness is everywhere in evidence in this music too. Take the second movement, Lament of a Bald Singer, for example. Again constructed over one controlling pitch, this is not mushy romantic lamentation; in its crazy downward glissandi, circling woodwind and brass ‘wah-wahs’ this is a wittily sardonic parody of self-pity. The effect is hilarious and wonderful.

The last work, Rocaná (Room of Light) was inspired by ‘beams of light – their distortion, refraction, reflections, and undulations’. A magnificent twenty-minute orchestral tour-de-force, the point of inspiration becomes dazzling rays of sound that distort, reflect and refract around the orchestra. To me, its sudden shifts of state, from ethereal, hypnotic and other-worldly to brash, violent and terrifying, also evoked another acknowledged influence on Chin’s music: the world dreams. To a greater or lesser extent this was also in evidence in the other works I’ve described; as Chin herself says: "My music is a reflection of my dreams. I try to render into music the visions of immense light and of an incredible magnificence of colours that I see in all my dreams, a play of light and colours floating through the room and at the same time forming a fluid sound sculpture.’

The next Total Immersion day will feature the music of Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös at the Barbican on Saturday 14 May.

Cheltenham Festival Preview

If you want two weeks of great music with some extremely thoughtful programming, the Cheltenham Music Festival (29th June-10th July) could be just the ticket. Aficionados of new music will find plenty to attract them.

Top billing, given that it comes hot-on-the-heels of the critical and popular success of Anna Nicole, goes to a welcome revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s first opera Greek. The piece, a translation of the Oedipus myth into Thatcherite East London, will be given by Music Theatre Wales as part of their wider tour of the work. There are also premières aplenty.

Some of these fit nicely into the festival’s ‘Music and Maths’ theme. The world première of Charlotte Bray’s Replay (June 30th), for example, was inspired by spherical geometry and will be played alongside an established work by Robert Saxton, A Yardstick to the Stars. The two composers will also give one of a number of talks during the festival exploring the ‘Maths and Music’ theme.  The mathematics of metre permeates much of the surface of another well-represented composer at the festival: Steve Reich. Cheltenham provides the opportunity to hear his seminal work Drumming (3rd July) as well as UK premières of new arrangements of Electric Counterpoint, Six Marimbas Counterpoint and Vermont Counterpoint (also 3rd July). Celebrated percussionist Evelyn Glennie performs in a concert that contains two, as yet unnamed, world premières from Joseph Phibbs and Hannah Kendall (1st July) whilst Arlene Sierra’s new work inspired by scientific studies of insect behaviour, Insects in Amber, will receive its European première by the Carducci Quartet (8th July).

Other premières fall less obviously into the festival’s overall themes, but are no less to be recommended. These include Ian Venables’ Remember This, based upon Andrew Motion’s elegy on the death of the Queen Mother (29th June); Edward Rushton’s Pandora, Organic Machine (10th July); Michael Berkeley’s Ode–In Memoriam (1st July) and, in a special event that will take place on September 11th, Richard Blackford’s substantial new work Not in our Time will mark 10 years since the 9/11 attacks in New York.

My source inside the festival tells me that tickets for the new music events are going quickly. Get yours soon…

For more details about these and other festival concerts visit: http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music.

UK Arts Council cuts.


More evidence that the UK is living in artistically straitened times emerged yesterday from the Arts Council of England. A £100m budget cut in October has led to a reduction in the number of groups receiving funding from 849 to 695. Many of those that have been successful have also experienced large budget reductions, though the picture is not consistent since, instead of ‘uniform cuts to all’, the Arts Council has adopted a policy of ‘strategic cuts’. This means that some organisations, such as the Young Vic, have experienced large budget increases, whilst others are new to the list. So what about the purely musical picture, and what might it mean for composers?

Within the organisations that the Arts Council will continue to fund, 86 are classed as purely musical. Of these, 14 appear to be new to the list. Of the rest, 48 have experienced budget cuts, 24 budget increases. Within these figures are causes of concern and a few crumbs of comfort. Aldeburgh Music and Birmingham Contemporary Music group, for example, have received cuts of 9.3% and 11% respectively (all figures adjusted for inflation). Most worryingly, Sound and Music, the organisation that is a mainstay of support to living composers, has received a whopping cut of 48%. Crumbs include budget increases for the Psappha ensemble (up 40.8%) and Oxford Contemporary Music (up 16.5%). It is less clear from navigating the Arts Council website just which organisations have lost their funding completely. Perhaps members will have more information about this?

In another related piece of news the government has pledged an extra £80m of lottery funding for the Arts Council from 2013. Is it uncharitable to wonder whether this might have something to do with the ending of the London Olympics?