After ParaMetaString for string quartet and electronics (1996) and Allegro ma non troppo, an electronic composition with added percussion part, Xi is Unsuk Chin’s third and simultaneously also largest-scale piece in which instrumental and electronic sounds enter into a dialogue with one another. In all three works, a complete amalgamation of the electronic and the acoustic worlds of sound is aspired to.
Xi (pronounced like the English “C”) means core, origin, or the smallest unit of things. The title refers to one of the technical aspects of the composition, the use of granular synthesis in the preparation of the audio tape. (It is a variant of the manner of digital sound production developed in the 1970s by Curtis Roads at the University of California, San Diego, and later at MIT in which minute “grains,” acoustical quanta, so to speak, are taken from digitally stored sounds, and whose characteristics can be modified according to the composer’s specification.) The title additionally implies the thought of metamorphosis in the formal as well as in the basic aesthetic sense: the piece emerges almost organically out of several sonic ur-cells (piano, violoncello, and double bass sounds produced in the traditional manner). Their “identity,” however, is just as indistinguishable within the musical form as that of a single atom on the skin of a human being. That the breathing sounds, with which the piece “comes to life,” have their origin in an instrumental sound will not be apparent to the listener. For the course of the piece, however, the “fate” of these sonic germ cells is of decisive importance. The traditional concept of material sees itself extended by the “atomic” layer; the “tendency of the material” is explored already in the raw sonic material.
The piece is in five sections that flow without pause into, but are clearly distinct from one another, and whose character is determined by the nature of the “grains” and their manipulation. The sonic development describes an arch: more and more real tones are filtered out of the original material (breathing sounds); after reaching chromatic totality in the fourth section, and increasing densification of the texture to utmost complexity, the development leads back to the initial state. The overall form acquires a cyclical character as a result of the reprise-like final section.
First section: introduction of the noise-like original material. Extrapolation of the latent harmonic tendencies in the overtone spectra (microtonal differentiation in the instrumental parts). The noise character is reflected in the ensemble by specific playing techniques (multiphonics).
Second section: sharply accentuated initial tones over which harmonies “unfold.”
Third section: superimposition of distinct pulsation layers (grains of varying durations). Each layer has its own harmonic structure.
Fourth section: maximum density of action. Figurations, scales, and arpeggiations that circle around diverse harmonic centers. Grains of the shortest duration collide with one another. In a quasi stretta, the texture of seventeen distinct rhythmic and metric ostinato figurations condenses into a thickly woven, gradually thinning continuum.
Fifth section: return to the initial stage. Analogous to the first section, increasing complexity of the tonal aggregates, continuous acceleration of the grains up to the bounds of the perceptual capacity for rhythm. The music fades away to nothing.
© Frank Harders-Wuthenow (translation: Howard Weiner)
This programme note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to Frank Harders-Wuthenow