Discover the stories behind the imaginative music we perform this Spring.
2014 - 2015, new commission for NYO
I. Music Box - Fever Dream
II. Sandman and Child
III. Dance of the Clockwork Girl
IV. The Stolen Eyes
Meet Unsuk Chin in our short Q&A with her.
Following Unsuk Chin's excursions into street theatre (Gougalon), pantomime (cosmigimmicks), and street art (Graffiti), the orchestral work Mannequin – Tableaux vivants for orchestra is the composer's first referring to dance. It could be likened to an 'imaginary choreography', reflecting as it does a fascination for the movement potential of the human body and its expressive capabilities, with a special stress on high-energy physicality. It is highly gestural music intended to be danced, but 'without feet', as it were; a particular inspiration came from the great choreographers' and dancers' pursuit of making the impossible appear possible, of defying natural physical laws; in short: their ability to challenge perceptions of time and space. The work has no relation whatsoever to the codified structures of classical ballet; instead, it explores extreme contrasts of colour, speed and gesture with a constant tension between forces.
Mannequin tells a story, though neither in the form of a linear narrative nor in the manner of illustrative programme music: the line between dreams and reality is being crossed in a surreal manner, with the main themes of the scenario being problems of perception and of personal identity. It is freely based on the fantastical novella The Sandman, written by German writer, composer, music critic, lawyer, cabaret artist and draughtsman E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). As a writer, he was rejected by his contemporaries: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Sir Walter Scott, among many others, called Hoffmann's fiction 'sick', insinuating that he should undergo medical treatment. Posthumously, however, Hoffmann has been recognized as the master of the uncanny and the ambiguous, influencing figures as diverse as Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Edgar Allan Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch. The Sandman might well be Hoffmann's most forward-looking and daring creation: in this almost magical realist story, the author constantly leaves the reader unsure of what is actually happening and why, and it is possible to be read in a number of (mutually exclusive) ways.
Nathanael, the young protagonist in The Sandman, seems torn between delusions and reality and is not conforming to society. But whether it is him who is 'mad', or the society around him, is left open as well as so much more. This ambiguity and relativism much horrified the author's contemporaries but it is precisely these aspects, combined with Hoffmann's experimental and highly elliptical style, that explain the story's modernity and its spell. Many
contradictory interpretations have been written about this labyrinthine novella, but most of them miss the point by forcing it into a Procrustean bed of either-or by clearly distinguishing good and evil, real and unreal. Indeed, it would be senseless to attempt to find a moral or a clear-cut plot, for it is precisely his “wisdom of uncertainty” and his exploration of “the essential relativity of things human” (Milan Kundera) where Hoffmann's achievement lies: The Sandman hauntingly illuminates what a subjective affair reality is.
Mannequin consists of four movements. The first two movements, respectively titled Music Box – Fever Dream and Sandman and Child, refer to Nathanael's childhood and how his nanny used to instil terror in him by a cautionary tale about the Sandman who steals misbehaving children's eyes and feeds them to his offspring who live in the crescent moon. Nathanael associates the Sandman's figure with a half-mythical and sinister person named Coppelius, who seems in some way connected with the decline of Nathanael's family and who continues to haunt the adult Nathanael's life in the guise of a number of grotesque 'doppelgangers'. The third movement, Dance of the Clockwork Girl, refers to Olimpia, a female life-size automaton, with whom Nathanael falls in love, without realizing its true nature until it is being destroyed during a fight between its inventor Spalanzani and Coppola, a dubious seller of optical aids (both apparently being doubles of Sandman/Coppelius). The title of the last movement, The Stolen Eyes, refers to the ubiquitous 'eye leitmotif': throughout Hoffmann's tale, Sandman and his 'doppelgangers' (Spalanzani, Coppelius and Coppola) are stealing, inventing or selling eyes – a motive that, similarly to the title of Chin's work (Mannequin), might of course also be understood allegorically.
Mannequin by Unsuk Chin has been commissioned by Boston Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Southbank Centre with the generous support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.
1913 – 1916
Some say classical music is out of touch. That its protagonists could never capture the mass imagination the way pop stars do. But let’s take a moment to consider Percy Grainger who, unlikely as it sounds, was practically the Kanye West of his day. A popular artist who performed globally and whose music extensively sampled others (in his case, folk songs). A fashionista who designed his own clothes. A braggart who thought himself better than Mozart. A maverick who favoured performing at a New York cinema to any concert hall as he felt the audience was fresher. He even got married before an audience of 20,000 at the Hollywood Bowl: how very Kardashian.
Like some of Kanye’s albums, his mammoth orchestral melange The Warriors is a brazen folly, half brilliant, half overblown. The idea was to write a new piece for the Ballet Russes, not that a formal commission ever came. Grainger didn’t have much faith he could compose with choreography in mind, but conductor Thomas Beecham told him not to worry: ‘just write danceable music’ he said.
Try dancing to this: with sudden war-drums and a rocketing piano glissando, the piece literally erupts, and rarely settles for almost twenty minutes. A vast orchestra is gilded by an extraordinary barrage of tuned percussion – xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells, marimba, celeste plus three pianos – serving as a musical outboard motor, propelling the piece along with clanging, jangling animation. A roving refrain redolent of ‘Six a song of sixpence’ pinballs back and forth across the orchestra, sounding almost like Elgar on speed. The historian Wilfrid Mellers aptly called it ‘an audible comic strip.’
Three minutes in, the rising chromatic momentum and muted trumpets seem straight out of The Rite of Spring, famously written for the Ballet Russes. It’s natural that Grainger would have been inspired when attending the London premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet in July 1913, but he later denied any such influence, pretending he didn’t hear The Rite till 1958.
The refrain suddenly slows, woozily passed from trumpets to flutes to a solo violin. It’s like the music that Erich Wolfgang Korngold would write for countless Hollywood melodramas in the years to come. But the pace quickly lifts and the clockwork cluttering of the tuned percussion now sounds like Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Elsewhere, ardent strings sound like the work’s dedicatee Delius, offstage brass echoes Mahler and, for one brief moment, one of the pianos becomes foggily evocative of Rachmaninov. The piece is like a kaleidoscope of its times, full of coloured fragments of other voices.
But what does it all represent? Grainger said ‘No definite programme or plot underlines the music... the ghosts of male and female warrior types of all times and places are spirited together for an orgy of war-like dances, processions and merry-makings broken, or accompanied, by amorous interludes.’
Characteristically verbose, he went on to say ‘At times the lovemakers close at hand hear from afar the proud passages of harnessed fighting men, and for the final picture I like to think of them all lining up together in brotherly fellowship and wholesale animal glee… savage men and women of all the ages… the old Greek heroes… shining black Zulus… flaxen-haired Vikings clad in scarlet and sky-blue… lithe bright Amazons…’
(…and on he goes, referring to Red Indians, Fijians, Polynesians and others. It sounds like the cast list for a Cecil B DeMille picture.)
Nonetheless, as a very real and present conflict began to unfold across Europe, he hastily took pains to correct any suggestion that all this might be some glorification of war. ‘It has nothing whatsoever to do with this war or any other war,’ he said, distinguishing his warriors from actual soldiers.
But maybe the work had more to say than its composer let on. Grainger was a conscientious objector who fled to America to escape the Great War in 1914, the half-started manuscript for The Warriors in his suitcase. The work’s rousing climactic march (a dead ringer for Holst’s Jupiter, written at the very same time) suggests jubilation – but how does that square with Grainger’s ambivalence about war? To express anti-war sentiments in Britain at that time would have been tantamount to treason, so is it possible that Grainger was actually masking his feelings musically?
Listen on and the gaiety finally runs aground: with one last mocking remark from the muted trumpet, it is terminally extinguished. What if the whole work isn’t the comic strip we thought, but more an indictment of the hubris and pageantry of war? Grainger’s biographer Stewart Manville calls it a musical equivalent to Picasso’s famous mural Guernica wherein what appears to be a headlong parade is in fact the horrific aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Listen again with that in mind, and The Warriors attacks in a very different way. Maybe its apparent excesses are acutely its point. Danceable music it is then, after all, keeping us on our toes as to its true nature.
II. Game of pairs
IV. Interrupted intermezzo
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a concerto as ‘a musical composition for a solo instrument accompanied by an orchestra’. A concerto for orchestra is surely then a paradox: something that cannot actually be. Bartók himself gave something of an explanation: ‘the title of this work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertant or soloistic manner’. Yes, what we hear is a parade of instrumental virtuosity, but no moreso than most symphonies. As with Grainger then, perhaps we should look beyond the composer’s own words for deeper significance.
As the work opens, it’s unmistakably night-time with trembling violins and whispering flutes emitting tiny shivers. More instruments begin to emerge, each trying to draw a sustained melody out of the obscurity yet even the most jaunty efforts crumble quickly into the dark. If this feels like an identity crisis recast in music, perhaps it is. Bartók was at the very end of his life when he wrote the piece. He’d seen his beloved Hungary torn apart by the Nazis and now found himself lost, neglected and artistically shattered in America. In addition, doctors failed to diagnose his health problems: they thought he had tuberculosis, it was in fact leukemia. Imagine that: everything familiar till now – both in the world and within you - suddenly unknown. Nothing is what it was. This is the essence of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.
Believing there was still some magic left in him, Bartók’s friends had persuaded Serge Koussevitsky, director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to commission a new piece from him. Though its opening maps the composer’s state of mind at the time, the very process of being creative brought some kind of cohesion to his nightmare. Duly, about six minutes in, the first movement finds its footing with a spectacular upsurge of strings, brass and wind. It’s like a giant firework bursting into the sky and from here on the darkness is persistently punctuated with explosions and ricochets. Bartók himself said the work was a winding journey from darkness to light. It’s a reminder that artists don’t just make art to occupy themselves; they do it to reinforce their place in the world and know who they are.
As the second movement begins, the old Bartók is firmly back in business. A playful circus drum ushers in pairs of instruments – first bassoons, then oboes, then clarinets – who chatteringly zig-zag around one another. The old man hasn’t lost his wits yet. It could even be that Bartók was here portraying that dubious duo Don Quixote and Sancho Panza whose adventures he was reading at the time. If you detect a folkish, peasant-like jollity to this movement, it’s because all Bartók’s works are riddled with echoes of folk tunes that he recorded on an old
wax cylinder when travelling around Eastern Europe. They add to the heady psychological brew of the piece, capturing his nostalgia and homesickness for a world to which he would never return.
Night falls once more in the third movement. It was partly conceived as an elegy for Koussevitsky’s wife but side-steps sentimentality on its pathway to more mystic terrain. Throughout his life, Bartók wrote ‘night music’ like this which seems to twitch and stir with dreams, longings and the furtive rustlings of nocturnal animals and lonely birdsong. Nothing is consoled – neither the strident string and trumpet pangs that shout out in the orchestra’s sleep, nor the major-key chorale that softly awakens in the last bars – everything collapses in on itself. A sense of complete futility, as the Second World War drew more forces into its seemingly endless maelstrom.
Bartók tries to cast us back to happier times with the fourth movement’s wistful folk dances, but these are bluntly interrupted by the arrival of a clarinet, swaggering in like a one-man-band laden with garish cymbals and trills. If you think this sounds like something from a completely different piece, you’d be right. Bartók swiped the march from Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 and dressed it up in comedy uniform. Premiered a year earlier, Shostakovich’s work was meant to be a stirring, patriotic response to Hitler’s attack on Russia, but Bartók found it cheap and vulgar, hence his parody here. He was perhaps dismayed at the way in which world events had imposed themselves on music, tainting whatever purity it once had.
Whatever his cynicism, he shrugs it off for the final movement which sets off at breakneck momentum. In it, Bartók evokes another composer, adopting J. S. Bach’s talent for fugues to propel a cheerful folk melody from one instrument to another, uniting the orchestra for its race home. One of the most exciting finales ever written, it’s a spectacular rallying cry for all artists to break free of whatever constrains them, to keep faith in their heritage however remote it may seem, to remember who they are, and never slip quietly into the night.