Among my plans, activities and resolutions for the New Year, I have decided that every day I will listen to a new piece that I had never heard before by a living composer. This blog brings my impressions of my favorite ones.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Taking Risks and Travelling Far - Unsuk Chin's Šu

Upon finishing their mandatory army service, many young Israelis embark on a new journey as the country’s border gates reopen before them. And a journey it really is. 20-year old women who served for two years and 21-year old men who served for three, pack a large travel satchel with camping equipment, grab a travel book, and fly away as far as they can for what will commonly last about a year. Popular destinations include India, the Far East, and South America. Most frequently, it is an impromptu kind of trip, meaning that lodging is not booked in advance and neither is a return ticket. They will figure everything out as they go.

The “post-army-service-trip” is a phenomenon that has become a core part of Israeli culture. Why do young Israelis feel compelled to take such a journey? Perhaps because after devoting several years to the military without being able to leave Israel, they feel the need to turn to the opposite extreme and visit as many countries and cities as possible. Or, perhaps the years of having to report to others and adhere to a strict schedule have made them eager to do whatever they want, not plan anything, and just be. There might be yet another motivation—one that almost anyone can relate to: the desire to have a life-changing experience that will make you a different person.

I served in the Israeli army as a musician, and as such was allowed to travel abroad to perform concerts during my service. This experience—along with the fact that I have been living outside of Israel for more than 8 years now, which has been a journey of its own—may be part of why I don't typically feel the need to travel to exotic places for indefinite periods of time.

But it is also a matter of character. Backpacking is not really for me. I love being in nature and seeing the world from the top of a mountain, as long as I can take a funicular up there and back. I love lying on the sand in the middle of the desert and watching the stars glowing at night, as long as I can go to sleep in a nearby hotel afterwards. I’m not really keen about random encounters with wild animals either.

Nevertheless, when you perform music, you have to be able to take risks. You have to have conviction (even if you have doubts), and go all the way with your musical vision. You have to forget about yourself, about possibly embarrassing yourself, and devote yourself to the music that is in front of you. There is something tempting about purchasing a one-way ticket to a far-off land without committing to any further plans, but perhaps it is the aspiration to take risks in music that has left me with a need for more certainty and stability in my extra-musical life.

However, pieces like Šu revive my appetite to travel far and leave everything behind. Written for orchestra and sheng, a traditional Chinese instrument, this piece makes you think about things that are far from you; that are not a part of your everyday life; that you only read about in books and newspapers, see in movies and photos. Listening to this music is another step out of your comfort zone. It makes you forget about here, and think about somewhere else.

The sheng is an old mouth-blown Chinese instrument that is made out of a collection of pipes.
Resembling a small fracture of an organ, or a bagpipe without the bag, the instrument sounds like a combination of an accordion and a harmonica. More than 3000 years old, the sheng often serves as an accompaniment for singing. South Korean Composer Unsuk Chin brings it to the front of the stage, making it the soloist in a western concerto.

Pronounced “Shu,” the title of the piece is derived from Egyptian mythology and represents the symbol for air. And indeed, the coda of the piece sounds as if a tranquil wind is blowing through the ancient instruments of the orchestra, caressing the bells and gongs.

The piece is divided into two sections, like two eras. In the first, the old era, the sheng plays high, prolonged chords. The special technique of playing the sheng, combining both blowing and sucking air, allows the player to hold the notes for a long time, creating a sense of infinity. The chords are hypnotizing, taking you to another place, remote and foreign. In the second section, the new era, the sheng becomes a virtuosic instrument in the spirit of the European solo concerto. The orchestral score calls for four percussion players, each of whom also plays the harmonica—a distant relative of the sheng from a parallel world.

The charm of Šu is in its cryptic character. Listening to it is like living through a suspenseful process of evolution. You are constantly eager to know what’s going to happen next, and the strange sonority of the piece fills you with a sense of wonder. You just sit there, taking it all in, without exactly knowing what it means. And there is no need to.

There is a special feeling to returning home after a journey. You’re driving again on the same roads that lead to your house, the furniture in your apartment is exactly as you left it (hopefully), and hearing your language again is, perhaps most of all, a comforting reassurance that you are really back. But despite the fact that everything is so familiar, it also feels different, strange even. Because you are different. The trip and the experiences that you had have changed you.

Šu has the same impact. After listening to it, I came out a somewhat different person. I was back to where I was before, but with an evasive longing for a place that is far away from here. And who knows, perhaps a few more listenings will prompt me to leave everything and fulfill the post-army-service-trip that I never had.

To listen to Unsuk Chin's Šu click here

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