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Unsuk Chin interview about Cantatrix Sopranica

Unsuk Chin  discusses Cantatrix Sopranica, her new work for three voices and ensemble, premiered in London in May

You've described Cantatrix Sopranica as "an exploration of the act of singing". What do you mean by this?

I've tried to create a work that is a demonstration of the fundamental elements of singing. The first piece is based on harmonics, employing a vocal/technical process where the singers are warming up their voices and the musicians are tuning their instruments. After this warm-up the voices demonstrate different styles of singing, from the Italian operatic bel canto to contemporary music; imitate different vocal styles of non-European music, as for example the Chinese folksong; and even mimic animal sounds. In the very last part, the singers and instrumentalists exchange their roles, the singers are 'playing' on their voices whereas the musicians are 'singing' on their instruments.

But your vocal lines often avoid conventional lyricism. Why is this?

In Cantatrix Sopranica the vocal style is intrinsically linked with the nature of the work - it doesn't use a concrete text to transmit messages. However, I do view my vocal music as having a basically lyrical character. Upon this lyrical foundation I always try to build another dimension and to expand the possibility of the voice so that it also acquires an instrumental character.

Why have you avoided setting poetic texts in this work?

After having looked at more than 100 books, I decided not to use any of them. I wanted to avoid traditional word-setting. In this piece, as in Acrostic-Wordplay, the text has neither meaning nor message. However, the difference is that all 'texts' - if they can be called that - which are used in the piece have been composed simultaneously with the musical notes. They are a 'collection of words', a lexicon, which is concerned with the fundamentals of singing Ð like vowels, consonants, solfége, imitation of noises, Italian musical indications like Andante con amore or sempre piano, etc. Some of these are descriptions of what is going on in the music that is being played at any given moment. So it is a further extension of the self-referential elements that I first explored in Acrostic-Wordplay.

How do the three soprano soloists - two female, one male - interact?

The three singers embrace many aspects of the soprano voice. Sometimes they work together as if one macro-voice, at other times they separate to emphasise different individual characteristics. They are in a state of flux, moving continually between these states.

How does the work relate to the opera you are writing?

Though Cantatrix Sopranica is a concert piece, I envisage the vocalists always singing theatrically. They should communicate with each other and pretend that the work is a drama, although it is not. Compositionally it is very different to Alice in Wonderland which I'm writing, where the story and libretto dictate much of the character of the music. Cantatrix Sopranica is much more free as there is no narrative, but was also more challenging to compose because the text as well as the music had to be created at the same time.

Interviewed by David Allenby

Unsuk Chin
Cantatrix Sopranica (2004/05)
for 2 sopranos, countertenor and ensemble
Duration: 25 minutes

Commissioned by:
London Sinfonietta
Festspielhaus St Pölten
Los Angeles New Music Group(underwritten in part by David Barry)Ensemble Intercontemporain

18 May (world premiere)
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Anu Komsi/Piia Komsi/Andrew Watts/London Sinfonietta/George Benjamin

22 May (German premiere)
WDR Funkhaus Wallrafplatz, Cologne
musikFabrik/Stefan Asbury

4 June (French premiere)
Festival Agora, Centre Pompidou, Paris
Ensemble Intercontemporain/François-Xavier Roth

21 October (Austrian premiere)
Festspielhaus, St Pölten
London Sinfonietta/George Benjamin

9 May 2006 (US premiere)
Los Angeles
LA Philharmonic New Music Group/Esa-Pekka Salonen

>  Further information on Work: Cantatrix Sopranica

Photo: Eric Richmond / ArenaPAL

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