Le Silence des Sirènes for soprano and orchestra received its world premiere on August 23, 2014, at the Lucerne Festival, with soloist Barbara Hannigan and the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. It premiered in Germany the following summer, on June 24, 2015, with the Berlin Philharmonic, again performed by Barbara Hannigan and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. The following conversation was conducted in German and English at Unsuk Chin’s home in Berlin shortly after these debuts. Music & Literature is pleased to feature Unsuk Chin in a major portfolio dedicated to her work in our latest print edition.
Daniel Medin: I can’t help but try to situate Le Silence des Sirènes in relation to previous works of yours, and one obvious connection seems to be to the concertos. Yet writing for a human voice has to be different from writing for piano or violin or any of the instruments featured in a traditional concerto; what sort of concerns does it raise for you?
Unsuk Chin: The human voice is always something different, as you say. Naturally, differences exist between instruments; for example, when a string instrument plays a long note, it expresses certain emotions which couldn’t be expressed in the same way if the note were played by the piano. But there is a stark difference between these instruments and the voice, because you can’t use the voice without implying a particular set of underlying affects. I can’t sing at all myself, but I have a great affinity for the human voice, and I’ve written lots of vocal music. The reason, perhaps, is that I come from Korea—Koreans like to sing, and when I compose for other instruments, even when the music is multi-layered and abstract, I try to sing it with my “inner voice.”
But contemporary composition has an ambivalent relationship to the voice, because you can’t use the voice without evoking emotion. Many contemporary composers have tried to do something abstract; they want to avoid all these Romantic emotions, and that can lead to a dead end of sorts. They still want to write for voice, but first they have to invent an entirely new kind of music, a new way of using the voice. I’ve been composing for voice since the eighties, and with every new composition comes a new struggle, but a valuable one: I have to negotiate where my work falls within this modern context. At the beginning of my life as a professional composer, I tried to use the voice as an instrument, not as a means of transmitting any content or semantic message. I wanted to work with texts as a flexible material for compositional procedures; my Cantatrix Sopranica, which was inspired by the ideas and techniques of the Oulipo, is a good example of that, with its self-referential and combinatorial games. So I tried to write for the voice as a quasi-instrument—that’s where the Akrostichon-Wortspiel came from, for instance—but even there, every piece has a certain fundamental emotional mood, and you can’t get write these underlying affects out of the music, it’s not possible.
After that I wrote a few more pieces, each one with a relatively abstract use of the voice. But composing my opera Alice in Wonderland was again a completely different experience. In opera, you have to tell a story, just the way composers in the past have done. The storytelling in my Alice in Wonderland, which of course is based on Lewis Carroll, is unusual with its jump cuts, paradoxes, and dream-like states—but it is still a story. Moreover, the heroine is a child, which also affects the musical style and content to a degree. In my most recent vocal work, Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles, for choir and orchestra, the text-music problem was approached in a different manner: I deliberately set only poems which refer to cosmic or other natural phenomena. Le Silence des Sirènes, on the other hand, is a monodrama with an imminent theatrical element, so the approach was again a different one.
I know that Le Silence was a commission, that you had Barbara Hannigan in mind from the start. How did her selection, that is, her particular voice and presence, shape the composition? I would love to know more about this work’s genesis.
After my opera, Le Silence was the first piece I wrote for voice. In between I wrote instrumental things—concertos, etc.—and one day, Simon [Rattle] told me he was going to Lucerne. He and Barbara are good friends, and Barbara was going to be an artiste étoile (featured artist), and he asked me if I could imagine writing a piece for her and orchestra. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I’d always wanted to work with Simon and with Barbara Hannigan and I’d always wanted to do something in Lucerne, so I couldn’t say no. I thought, I’m sure I’ll think of something. And then began the great search—what should I do? Of course, one could write any old thing and just go along as if it’s going to work somehow. But I think a new piece needs a raison d’être; I want to try to give it something unheard-of, some justification for its existence—why does this piece have to be in the world? The reason must be clear, musically, within the piece itself. So I searched for a fairly long time for something that was somehow theatrical, otherworldly, and, at the same time, lyrical. Barbara is a very beautiful woman, and she has an elfin physiognomy and appearance, but when she sings on stage, she can sing lyrically, she can sing desperately, and she conveys all of this with incredible dramatic intensity. So I had to build the piece on several emotional levels: the dramatic, but also the lyrical. And originally I wanted something by Samuel Beckett—I had found something by him at the time which was very good, but I didn’t go very far with it—
One of the late short prose pieces?
Yes, Worstward Ho. Everyone advised me against it, warned me that we would have trouble with rights—I remember Simon saying: “Samuel Beckett?! Be careful, be careful!” For heaven’s sake, composing a piece of music is difficult enough without adding more problems on top of it! So I distanced myself from it a bit, and my search continued, and eventually I thought: sirens would be interesting, but so many people have already written about them, so if I do that, I’d have to do it differently. So I started to look beyond the classical sirens, and I found Kafka, and then Joyce, Adorno also wrote about sirens—I found a lot. I’m a very intuitive person, and the sirens made me smile, somehow. I felt there was something there.
And in Barbara’s face, too!
That too! Exactly—her, and sirens, and these texts—I thought, this is a direction worth pursuing. I had a lot of texts and ideas from many different sources, I did a lot of research and eventually worked through all of this material, and finally I came to the title, which comes from Kafka and his idea that the silence of the sirens was a far more dangerous weapon than their song. Of course I couldn’t express this idea musically—although, in the original version, which was done in Lucerne, at the end, Barbara pretends to sing, and I deliberately wrote notes that were completely unsingable; it was impossible, they were so high—but in fact, she isn’t singing. Those notes are played by the instruments, and she just acts as though she’s singing. I wanted to use a deceptive bit of stagecraft, so to speak, so that in the end you don’t know who is producing the sounds. This didn’t work perfectly at either premiere, because the instrumentalists were sitting too far behind her and the effect as wasn’t immediate as I’d intended it to be. But the conceit of deception—this came from Kafka. Barbara is actually silent at that moment, but her movements are so despairing and distraught—she did a wonderful job. After the premiere, though, I went back to the music and made some revisions, and the modified version was performed in Berlin, where she actually sings until the end. And then the title: the sound of Kafka’s title itself is deeply compelling, which is why I chose it.
Interesting, too, to select its French translation. I wanted to ask about that—
Because it’s beautiful! Kafka’s original German title is Das Schweigen der Sirenen, but it sounds less mystical, for whatever odd reason it reminds me a bit of Das Schweigen der Lämmer (The Silence of the Lambs).
So it was a sonic, not a semantic, decision.
Yes. For a composer, the title is the face of the piece, and that is very important. My decisions are often based on the sonic aspect. Just because of this, in Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles, I had poems by Edith Södergran and Eeva-Liisa Manner translated into English. And for one movement of Cantatrix Sopranica, I did my own spoof version of a poem Arno Holz, and I had it translated into Italian, and this fake Italian poem turned into a parody of aria clichés. (I felt myself confirmed when, at the premiere of the piece in Paris, an Italian couple sitting behind me burst into irrepressible laughter.) But back to Le Silence des Sirènes: for the content of the work, I narrowed it down to a classical source—Homer, in this case—and James Joyce. And I wanted to show these different facets on several temporal levels: sirens in antiquity were mystical creatures, and in James Joyce they’ve become barmaids. I wanted to put all these different roles together into one piece. The work consists of numerous tiny fragments which are connected to each other in a manner that resembles a musical labyrinth.
Does Barbara sing the entire Greek passage about the sirens?
No, no, not the whole section, only some lines. At the beginning, she sings just a little—two lines or so. Very little. The rest comes at the end. She enters as a classical siren, and at the end, she’s a modern siren, a barmaid. And I tried to do this musically with the echo-like rhythm, with this psychedelic atmosphere and a “maelstrom effect” of sorts. It’s a kind of leitmotiv that runs throughout the whole piece, appearing in completely different characters and disguises at different moments. When the classical siren sings this, it sounds mysterious; with the modern one, it’s jazzier, less pure, and the instrumentation, the vocal devices, and the textures are totally different. It’s exactly the same rhythm and the same tones, but it sounds so different. James Joyce was very interesting to me, because every chapter of Ulysses is like an abridgment, a compression, of an entire age. So I read the siren chapter, but even if you don’t read it, even if you don’t understand it at all, you still have direct musical access to—
It’s formulated musically, but also linguistically.
Yes, linguistically, musically, and it’s so lively, with so many twists and turns, so many emotions, references, and associations—it’s incredible. When I used this James Joyce text, I approached it the same way I’d approached Akrostichon-Wortspiel. It was wordplay—words supplied the emotional basis, but at the same time they just were abstract tools. This whole James Joyce part—the text composed it, not me, I felt that I just translated it into music. There were incredibly compressed fragments, and I did that musically too, and so it seemed, to the people who first heard it, too fast. It makes one a bit dizzy. That’s the first two thirds; after that comes a quieter part with the classical sirens, and for that I used the Homeric text, which runs until the end. There’s a continuing intensification, right until the end. Barbara provided a very interesting interpretation by way of Joyce—the siren is putting on a show of her strength and allure, but at the point when the music becomes quieter, she confronts the realization that this is all a performance, that she is bound to fall short.
Exactly, and that’s where its modernism is evident. It’s the same in Kafka—who re-writes the Homeric myth—or in Joyce, where it becomes quotidian, and the old, heroic aspect that we found in the Greeks is gone. We don’t have it anymore.
No, it’s gone, and that abyss is what I wanted to express musically. Barbara did this so well—you feel the emotions yourself, you get sad—I’d never written this kind of tragic music before. This kind of sentimental or tragic, melancholic atmosphere had never appeared in my music before.
To what degree does the input of a collaborator like Barbara Hannigan or Simon Rattle actually influence the writing? I’m curious as to how the work changed in the process of rehearsing it. You kept making changes until the last moment, no? If you were to record Le Silence, would this be your final version?
Yes, it is, this is the final version. I only revised the ending, so that she’d continue singing, and when you collaborate with singers, you have to revise certain things, because singing is different than playing an instrument. For example, a particular note doesn’t work so well for the singer because she needs to breathe then—you just have to make compromises. And there are so many different types of voices. Generally speaking, I don’t collaborate closely with the artists during the gestation of the work. I write the piece, they learn it, and at some point we have a rehearsal, and then it’s like a wonderful gift if the performer discovers something new in the work, if they put their own stamp on it. I think this mutual trust is very important.
But what was crucial during this composition process was Barbara’s artistic personality. For instance, the theatrical effects—when I was composing the piece in my head, I already had these components in mind. The piece would begin in an unusual way, but I wasn’t sure exactly how. What I didn’t want was for the singer to enter with the conductor, take a bow, and start singing. She had to make a different kind of entrance. Actually, I wanted to start with James Joyce, so that she would charge onto the stage from the back, screaming. But then I saw the stage in Lucerne and realized this was impossible—there was no room for that, she would have tripped on something. (In the Berlin Philharmonic, it would have worked.) So when I compose, I have lots of ideas, and then I throw them away and get new ones, and keep thinking, so finally I decided to start it quietly. I started with the classical sirens, and Barbara starts singing offstage. Of course every time it’s played, the location where she starts is different, but the idea is always that it starts in the darkness, that she’s not visible at first. And then she slowly moves toward the stage and transforms into a barmaid; that’s the idea. And then, especially in the James Joyce part, the fragments change very quickly, and I thought, Barbara is so experienced, she always has a lot of good ideas, so when she sings this, she can definitely invent these facial expressions and movements. I didn’t say anything to her, though, and until the last rehearsal, she didn’t do anything, she only sang, and we didn’t know how she was going to enter or what kind of expressions she was going to make. And then at the concert, her performance was so compelling, her complete understanding of the music and its content so evident. I hadn’t seen her dress beforehand either—and her hair—wow! There was a real siren on the stage! Incredible!
—Translated and edited by Madeleine LaRue
Banner image: (from left to right) Sir Simon Rattle, Unsuk Chin, and Barbara Hannigan take a bow after the premiere of Le Silence des Sirènes for soprano and orchestra, August 23, 2014. Photograph courtesy of the Lucerne Festival. Copyright Priska Ketterer/Lucerne Festival.