Debussy updated for the modern age: Unsuk Chin’s Six Piano Etudes

A guest post by Daniel Harding

Hearing Unsuk Chin’s concerto for sheng, Šu broadcast from the BBC Proms recently has sent me back to my listening library, and to her Six Piano Etudes, composed between 1993-2003.

Chin’s set of studies lifts the veil on her evocative and magical vision in a series of shimmering soundscapes, captured in the opening gesture of the very first piece, which is followed by nervous, skittish upper-register writing over sustained pedal notes. The registral layout is typical of Chin’s handling of the piano – skeletal, spidery upper-register, sonorous lower range pedal-points – and is both clear and effective.

The second revels in a Debussy-esque exploration of the instrument’s lower register, with constant chiming building a repetitive upper voice, becoming progressively stormier. Parallel octaves leap beneath a fizzing, sparking right-hand (again, Debussy’s Feu d’artifice springs to mind) before the piece gradually subsides.

The third movement, Scherzo ad libitum, comprises fragmented gestures, exploring contrary and similar motion across several octaves, supported by dabbed piano chords.  The music eventually walks carefully away in tentative steps towards the ends of the instrument’s range. Similarly, the fourth piece darts and scurries up and down the keyboard in shifting, fleeting gestures. The fifth scintillates, with a turning figure hovering between whole-tonality and a dominant seventh (the latter sonority also a feature of the opening of Chin’s opera, Alice in Wonderland);  a slow-stepping melody unfurls in the lower voice beneath.  As so often in this set as a whole, the textures gradually expand across the keyboard; spiky staccato chords punctuate the constantly turning figure, creating (as elsewhere) the miraculous aural effect of more than one piano playing. A fierce rumble endeavours to effect change, but eventually trickles out, exhausted, in contrary motion and evaporates at extreme ranges of the instrument.

As if in response to this, there is a hesitant opening to the final movement, Grains. The piece is anchored by a repeated Ab; even as the work becomes more fragmentary, the Ab persists sporadically . The piece cannot escape from its relentless pull; it tries to do so as shapes tremble and pop around the stubborn Ab, but is ultimately unsuccessful.

Chin’s set of studies belongs firmly in the tradition begun by Chopin, continued  Debussy and Ligeti, lifting what would otherwise be a technical exercise into another realm. Others have remarked on the ghost of Conlon Nancarrow’s dizzying works for player-piano hovering over them. For me, the set also stands as something of a modernist updating of Rachmaninov’s studies, turning explorations of technique into dazzling virtuosic displays which leave no aspect of the instrument uncharted. The six pieces are unified both by their registral and textural explorations, as well as by their lack of anything approaching a regular metre; the pieces revel in their liberation from a constant time-signature.

The set demands a fearsome technical accomplishment and pianistic virtuosity from the player. I heard it performed live by the remarkable Clare Hammond at the Total Immersion concert devoted to Chin’s work which was broadcast on Radio 3 in 2011; the set has since been recorded by Malaysian pianist,  Mei Yi Foo (who also performs them at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) with the composer’s approval, on a disc together with Gubaidulina’s wonderful Musical Toys. But that’s for another blogpost…

Here’s Mei Foo in the scintillating fifth study.


A former Music Scholar at Lancing College, Daniel Harding read Music at York University, specialising in French piano repertoire. He was awarded a Major Research Fellowship in Conducting, after conducting Britten’s first operetta, Paul Bunyan, working with Donald Mitchell, and Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, as well as works by Mahler and Dvorak, as an undergraduate.

During his post-graduate studies, he went on to conduct the University Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, the University Choir and Chamber Choir, as well as various New Music ensembles. He also founded the Early Classical Orchestra, focusing on historically-informed performances from the period. He also conducted Steve Reich’sTehillim on the Contemporary Music Studies course at Bretton Hall College, Wakefield. Other roles have included Director of the Senior and Junior Choirs at York Minster Songschool, and a Lecturer in Music for ten years in Further Education.

Daniel is an experienced accompanist and repetiteur. He is also a keen jazz pianist, and has performed at various venues including the Water Rats, King’s Cross, Pizza on the Park, Knightsbridge and at the Poco Loco club in Sardinia as part of the Jazz Festival. Since arriving at Kent, he instigated the Watch This Space series on the foyer-stage of the Colyer-Fergusson Building. Daniel conducts the University Chamber Choir, and founded the University Cecilian Choir, the Sirocco Ensemble and the String Sinfonia, and accompanies the University Music Scholars in lunchtime concerts in the Canterbury Festival. Recent compositions include a choral piece for the inaugural concert of the opening of the University’s new Colyer-Fergusson music building, which was performed in December, and a work for choir and percussion performed in 2013.

He also writes and edits the department blog, Music Matters and blogs about choral music at the University on Cantus Firmus.

Away from the University, Daniel is an advisor on the Artistic Board for the Sounds New Festival of Contemporary Music and a member of the Advisory Board for the Wise Words Festival.