Jenny Lin Partners with ICEBERG New Music on The Etudes Project, Volume One

The Etudes Project, Volume One: ICEBERG, pianist Jenny Lin’s new album on the art music label Sono Luminus, sees her working with the New York-based composer collective, ICEBERG New Music. The unique project is Lin’s presentation of twenty solo piano etudes, ten of which were written by each member of ICEBERG in 2018, and the remaining ten written by canonic or established composers. Lin presents these etudes in pairs and has thoughtfully coupled each etude written by an ICEBERG composer with an etude written by composers like Unsuk Chin, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Alexander Scriabin. The pairings highlight each piece’s pedagogical or virtuosic focus, some contrasting, and some in parallel styles.

Jenny Lin

Jenny Lin

Lin plays with a mastery that encompasses the wide scope of styles represented by the pieces on the album. She seems to train her attention on melody and is particularly adept at coaxing out beautiful and musical phrasing, even when melodies are disjointed or abstract. Without an underlying narrative, the tracks on the album might not be understood to relate to an overarching structure. However, the record begins with etudes that occupy an atonal, fragmented space, then become more melodic as the album progresses.

In each pairing of etudes, one piece complements the other. For example, the first pair of pieces, Accretion (2018) by Max Grafe (b. 1988) and Quatre Etudes de rhythme I “Ile de feu” (1949) by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), tests the limits of tonality and expands the notion of motivic progression. Accretion begins with a slow, four-pitch motive that quickly develops into sweeping scalar gestures that are both registrally stratified yet interlocked. The development halts with an elided repeat of the original motive that initiates another similar gesture, but one that is interrupted by an upper register motive trying to establish itself as also important. As the piece progresses, each motive expands and transforms, and ultimately, both coexist. Similarly, the Messiaen etude is a play on contrasting musical motives. The piece exhibits an interaction between two almost argumentative gestures, again registrally stratified. In both pieces, Lin captures the conversational quality of musical ideas that at first seem too disjointed to connect with each other, unifying the new etude with the old.

Stephanie Ann Boyd--Photo courtesy

Stephanie Ann Boyd–Photo courtesy

Another fascinating set of etudes on The Etudes Project, Volume One: ICEBERG is Lin’s performances of “Lilac” (from Flower Catalogue) (2018) by Stephanie Ann Boyd (b. 1990) and Etude No. 11 “Pour les arpeges composes” (1915) by Debussy (1862-1918). Here, Boyd’s etude embodies an impressionistic style that contains traces of minimalism. The piece alternates between a sequential arpeggiated accompaniment with a plaintive melody, and the melody against accompaniment an emphasis on repetition. In “Lilac,” Lin expertly camouflages or illuminates the piece’s unexpected chromaticism. In the Debussy etude, Lin makes the arpeggiated chords almost an extension of the melodic material. The negative space in the Charlie Chaplin character of the melodic motive is emphasized by the accuracy with which she plays the faster, florid accompaniment. In both pieces, tempo, dynamics, and consistency across a wide registral range seem to be the technical focus, but to each, Lin also brings warmth, sensitivity, and subtlety in her playing.

At its foundation, The Etudes Project, Volume One: ICEBERG is an exploration of the many different forms that a piano etude can take, requiring virtuosic musicianship and skill across a breadth of compositional languages. Lin delivers on those requirements while also illuminating the thoughtful works of the ten exciting, up-and-coming composers of ICEBERG New Music. While the styles on the album are extremely varied, Lin demonstrates strong technical and artistic command of each of them. If upcoming albums are like this one, with hope, Lin will continue her venture and add many additional volumes to the Etudes Project.