Immediately upon receiving this commission from the Nieuw Ensemble, the Southwest Ensemble and the Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik, I thought about composing a work related to pantomime. I was especially inspired by the unique instrumental structure of the Nieuw Ensemble - in the imaginary theatre of cosmigimmicks, plucked instruments (guitar, mandoline and harp) play the main roles, while the other instruments (prepared piano, violin, trumpet and percussion) disguise themselves in order to join in a play of masques and mimicry. Frequently, all instruments meld into a single ‘super-instrument’: both the pianist and the violinist imitate the plucked instruments, the former by means of preparation, the latter by employing unusual playing techniques; last but not least, the array of percussion instruments (which are partly also played by the trumpeter) is employed to attain the greatest possible symbiosis of sound with the other instruments. The overall timbre of the piece is metallic and highly fragile.
This unusual tonal character of the instrumentation called forth structural, harmonic and rhythmical ideas as well, all of them linked to the notion of musical pantomime. Why pantomime? What especially fascinates me is a good mime’s ability to incisively sum up archetypes and whole life stories in a few gestures without having to be concerned about linear time or plain narrative. At best, pantomime is able to embrace both the sublime and the low in an often baffling mixture of ritual and nonsense, of street and high art, of madness and contemplation, of the tragic and the roughly comical.
Pantomime stems from a time in which man did not yet speak, and has ever since appeared in a great variety of forms. There exist Asian traditions of mime which tend to be extremely formalized and highly complex. In Europe, the art of pantomime, which was often frowned upon by church and the powers that be, had been a strong undercurrent in the history of theatre since the Ancient Greeks: as Martin Esslin has pointed out, there exists a congeniality of expression between phenomena as diverse as the Commedia dell’arte, Shakespeare’s fools, the masters of the silent film and the Theatre of the Absurd.
However, in cosmigimmicks I was not at all keen to mapping the history of the pantomime. Instead, I chose to concentrate on three scenes important for me. These scenes are not narratives, but rather object-like impressions which have been expanded into musical time, and which frequently possess a feverish monotony.
The first movement, Shadow Play, is not related to pantomime at all, but to shadow puppetry. It starts with mere noise, of which tones and harmonies gradually emerge. The musical gestures are shadowlike; figures appear and disappear as quick as a flash. These gestures are enigmatic, impalpable and unpredictable like Kafka’s Odradek. Spatial and textural contrasts (between far and near and between blurry and clear) are explored. The music is frequently between the border of noise and sound, as if zooming the gestures in and out. In the course of the movement, the music gets more and more complex, the extremely fast figures becoming in turn slower and more expanded.
The second movement, Quad, was inspired by Samuel Beckett’s two homonymous TV plays (which are, in fact, ‘geometrical pantomimes’). This is a strongly rhythmical scene, simple and regular, the pace-like movement being constantly accelerated by means of a kind of metric modulation. Each instrument is transformed here into a kind of a percussion.
The last movement, titled Thall, is a homage to György Ligeti. The title is Korean and means ‘mask’. The guitar is at the centre of this movement, playing a quasi-melody consisting of a few microtones, which is repeated time and again. In accordance with the changing harmonies of the other instruments, this ‘melody’ changes, similar to a transformation of a mime’s facial expression (a little bit like Marcel Marceau’s Le Fabricant de Masques). The overall character of Thall is both slightly sentimental and macabre, describing the psyche of a torn person, the change of mental states being illustrated by means of alteration of the harmonic language.
Despite all mentioned references and stimuli, cosmigimmicks is highly abstract and subjective and certainly not literary programme music.
Unsuk Chin, 2012
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.