The following text originally appeared as part of an extensive portfolio dedicated to the Korean composer Unsuk Chin in Music & Literature no. 8. A full listing of contents for the number can be found on its main webpage.
Several years ago, I had an appointment with a neurologist. There an EEG was performed. With a hairnet of electrodes on your head, you sit in front of a strong lamp, keep your eyes closed, and are subjected to flashes. The reaction of your brain to the flashing light, which flickers at an increasing frequency, is recorded by software. I don’t remember at how many hertz it was that I suddenly saw a spiral of falling gingerbread men. I told this to the assistant who was conducting the test. “I think I see gingerbread men.” To which she replied: “We’ll try one level higher, then it’s enough.” With the light now flashing marginally more rapidly, I still saw the incredible image behind my closed eyelids: falling gingerbread men, millions of them, a whole cosmos full. I had to open my eyes, because the sight was making me dizzy.
“A visual hallucination of that sort is completely normal,” the assistant reassured me. “Most people experience something like that with this type of stimulation.”
“But why gingerbread men?” I asked.
“It’s something different for everyone,” she said. “The visual cortex is simply induced to do something. And in your case, it apparently produces gingerbread men.”
“Millions of them,” I said.
“Yes,” said the assistant.
I didn’t learn all that much from this experience, apart from the fact that now, when I hear certain music and try to visualize its structures, I can refer to a specific feeling to describe their effect. “Classic” examples of this sort of music are the famous polyrhythmic piano works by György Ligeti or Conlon Nancarrow, about which much has been written. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s final composition, Paradise for flute and electronic music (2007), the twenty-first hour of his Klang cycle, generates this feeling too; a strange, unsteady light fills this piece, to which you can hardly experience with a calm soul. Another, less frequently cited example that evokes in me the overpowering gingerbread men feeling is the music of Unsuk Chin, a Korean composer living in Berlin, particularly her six Piano Etudes.
They are highly virtuosic pieces, which, I assume, must not be played slowly, because then you would hear and see nothing, just as when you walk too slowly past a fence, you perceive the flashes of life from behind it not as a cohesive picture, but rather only as disparate snapshots. The first etude, “In C,” is indeed, as the title reveals, built around this fundamental note. It conveys a mysteriously contemplative and at the same time very harmonious impression. In several slow breaths, flickering structures are built up repeatedly to towering heights. In the second part, nested rhythms become so dense that they generate the gingerbread men feeling. The etude is heading for a climax, but then no explosive outburst occurs; instead, individual melodic lines break free in a high register and simply waft away.
The gingerbread men feeling sets in most clearly when listening to Etude No. 5, Toccata. The notes—played, as the title suggests, in a short, clipped manner—are assembled into a tremendous multilayered structure to which you can listen many times and always recognize new and seemingly independent patterns. The etude uses a modified version of the overtone series, which is quite familiar to the Western ear, as an alternating harmonic background for the telescoping and intertwining parts. The influence of some etudes by Unsuk Chin’s teacher György Ligeti can be heard quite clearly in this, but the piece has a lightness that Ligeti’s piano etudes lack. The impression is rather of something sparkling and round. Toward the end, the rhythmic structure becomes too complex for my ear to break it down into its component parts. Even reading along in the score is no help, because it is magic, for which the source code offers no key. With Beethoven and Schumann, indeed even Boulez, I can read along and discern a great deal. This etude, however, brings to mind the famous verse by Rilke from the eighth “Duino Elegy”:
It overfills us. We arrange it. It falls apart.
We arrange it again and fall apart ourselves.
Magnificent, when music is capable of something like this. A passage from Peter Handke’s novel A Moment of True Feeling also comes to mind; it seems to describe to some extent the truly “multistoried” experience of listening to Unsuk Chin’s etudes. The novel’s protagonist, Gregor Keuschnig, is the press attaché of the Austrian embassy in Paris and awakens one morning from a disturbing dream, in which he was a murderer, with completely altered senses. At one point, he remembers a particular impression:
Once he had crossed the whole of Paris on Line 9 of the Métro just to find out exactly what the advertisement for DUBBONET painted at regular intervals on the walls of the dark tunnels between stations represented. The train went so fast that he never saw the whole picture but always the same small segment, and could make no sense of it. He should have got out in midtown, but as it was he continued on to the PORTE DE CHARENTON on the southeast edge of Paris, where the train had to slow down because of men working, and there he finally saw that the vague blobs represented bright-colored clouds and that the sphere in front of them was a kind of sun decorated with the colors of all the countries where DUBONNET was consumed. . . In those days everything had tended to run too fast, and he had run along, because he wanted to recognize things. Since this last night something had stopped.
Especially this last, somewhat uncanny sentence describes in a very precise way the impression evoked by the brief codas in Unsuk Chin’s piano etudes. Clockwork that doesn’t simply stop but is somehow worked into consciousness, as if something alive and floundering were being dunked in thick milk. You can hardly believe that such complexity can be so quickly folded up and delivered to stillness.
My favorite etude is the sixth, “Grains.” Rapidly repeated individual notes keep ringing through the piece like alarm bells. In between there are rising and falling eruptions of notes. In my head I call them Schwälle, even though this word, which means “torrents,” doesn’t look like correct German. In any case, these torrents hang from the frequently repeated G sharps as if from a taut clothesline; each brief outburst ultimately has to submit and shrink again to the size of the individual note. Incidentally, the title alludes to a technique known as “granular synthesis” with which sounds can be electronically produced. I tried to read about it and even watched a YouTube tutorial on it, but I didn’t entirely understand it. So I will simply continue using my ear, and with time my brain will perhaps grasp on its own what granular synthesis is and how it inspired the six extraordinary etudes composed thus far.
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
Clemens J. Setz was born in Graz in 1982. His recent publications include a collection of short stories, Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes (2011), Indigo (shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2012), and Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre (winner of the Wilhelm Raabe Prize, 2015).
Ross Benjamin is a literary translator. Among other honors, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, and an NEA Fellowship. He is currently at work on Franz Kafka’s Diaries, to be published by Liveright/Norton.
Banner image: Unsuk Chin delivers a lecture in Seoul. Photograph courtesy of the composer.