In 2004, Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin pulled off what might seem impossible -- she won the prestigious Grauemeyer Award for her Violin Concerto with no more representation in terms of commercial recordings than a single electro-acoustic piece included on an obscure compilation more than 10 years old. Commonly, to be awarded such a grand distinction, at least some presence in terms of recording is necessary, but the inherent qualities of Chin's music prevailed. If Chin felt somewhat slighted before about the lack of availability of her music on disc, Deutsche Grammophon's Unsuk Chin: Akrostichon-Wortspiel more than makes up for it. Here are four of her works, Akrostichon-Wortspiel (1991-1993), Fantaisie mécanique (1994-1997), Xi (1997-1998), and the Double Concerto for piano, percussion and ensemble (2002), in splendiferous performances by the Ensemble InterContemporain under Kazushi Ono, Patrick Davin, David Robertson, and Stefan Asbury.
Chin speaks the language of European avant-garde as to the manner born, but does something with it that sets her apart from her peers, demonstrating absorption of pertinent musical ideas long forgotten or abandoned by most of them. Akrostichon-Wortspiel, sung with uncanny virtuosity by Finnish soprano Piia Komsi, features a vocal line that combines a quirky approach to melody with the verbal concretism associated with Dada and sets it to an appropriately wacky instrumental complement. Chin stated, "my music is a reflection of my dreams," and indeed, Fantaisie mécanique is like a dream about a complex gadget made of innumerable gears and cogs taking itself apart, as in a Quay Brothers animation. Xi is scored for chamber ensemble and electronics, and is scored so lightly that it is impossible to tell where one starts and the other ends. The opening of the Double Concerto contains no electronics, but one would swear that they are there, so diaphanous and elusive is the texture. The tonal language of the Double Concerto is reminiscent of impressionism, and the sound of it, like that of Akrostichon-Wortspiel, is strangely "sexy" in a way that defies explanation.
Unsuk Chin: Akrostichon-Wortspiel is not for those who turn to music to seek repose and relaxation. Yet for those who like a challenge and intellectual stimulation, this is like a seven-course meal. Let us hope this is not the last we will hear from Unsuk Chin. (Uncle Dave Lewis)