A Cosmic Centennial: Han Chen Premieres 18 Piano Pieces in Response to Ligeti’s Etudes

When Han Chen finished his “Infinite Staircase” program at National Sawdust on Sept. 24, he had journeyed through 36 pieces nonstop over the course of two hours. Co-commissioned by Chen and Metropolis Ensemble, “Infinite Staircase” was a marathon of canonical music and new works that displayed exquisite programming, stupendous technique, and forward-thinking expansion of classical music’s best traditions.

Inspired by György Ligeti’s 18 Piano Etudes (composed between 1985 and 2001), which Chen recently recorded, 18 living composers were invited to celebrate Ligeti’s centennial by responding to a specific etude with a new piece. The range of artistic responses from Chen’s collaborators created a fascinating dialogue between modern and slightly less modern, influencer and the influenced. Sometimes the new composition was paired with its inspirational etude to highlight the immediate relationships; other times, three of the etudes were juxtaposed against three new pieces and each era had its say.

Chen is the founder and host of Migration Music, a Metropolis Ensemble interview series with immigrant composers. Building on that network, he selected an international cadre of composers for “Infinite Staircase,” representing his vision for an inclusive future for classical music. Jihyun Kim’s A leaf falls, the water ripples was beautiful and melancholic; David Fulmer’s New Work commanded virtuosic outbursts and extended techniques.

Han Chen -- Photo by Zhenwei Liu

Han Chen — Photo by Zhenwei Liu

In Meng Wang’s Shadows, trailing… the prepared piano imitated a yangqin (a hammered dulcimer) and injected a fresh dimension to the sonic landscape at the program’s halfway point. Sugar Vendil’s pag-aaral: galing na ibon expressed power in transformation with vibrant prepared piano, and Xinyang Wang’s explosive L’escalier du Parnasse barreled toward the finish line with extreme textures and ferocious dynamics.

Perhaps the most compelling sonic concept came from Jessie Cox. Responding to the Ligeti’s Etude No. 18 Canon, which features clear, jubilant, and overactive contrapuntal voices, Cox’s Black Noise Canon reversed the additive process to explore loss and decay. Sparse chords eroded as Chen released each key; any sounds permitted to linger were quickly swallowed by silence, and there was no momentum to elevate the piece before the next composition emerged. It was the reverse of the traditional canon form, almost as though Cox had written a canon with silent ghosts. Cox is known for bearing witness to the Black experience; the structure and title of Black Noise Canon brought to mind the ways that Black voices are silenced in our society. The piece was a reminder of why projects like “Infinite Staircase” are necessary, and a mesmerizing contribution to this conversation across time.

Extended silence was rare. Most of the program was embroiled in intricate rhythms and walls of sound that felt concrete: Molly Joyce’s Push and Pull was an inferno of lushness. Tom Morrison’s pointillistic no way out but through had the energy of an epic escape, and the running waterwheel of Chiayu Hsu’s Intricate rhythm on an Amis song was amplified by Dominick Chang’s light design spotlight that swirled on specific accents. Nick Bentz’s Machine #1 teased a light pop idiom before taking a hard left into dense metallic machinations.

Han Chen presents "Infinite Staircase" at National Sawdust -- Photo courtesy of Hemsing Associates

Han Chen presents “Infinite Staircase” at National Sawdust — Photo courtesy of Hemsing Associates

Despite Chen’s utter command of the chaos, the program’s pinwheel of counterpoint, boiling dissonances, and extreme mood shifts could have been exhausting. But ambient electronic music by Phong Tran, also commissioned by the Metropolis Ensemble, offered a necessary palate cleanser between each of the six sets on the program and provided a lovely contrast to the solo acoustic piano. The thrumming pulsations, soothing drone melody, and rumble of deep bass nodded to Ligeti’s broad sonic explorations and gave everyone a welcome chance to reset. And Chang’s lighting design was a crucial part of the performance, anchoring us in the full space, injecting some humor, and literally coloring different compositions with variety.

The program was impressively cohesive if a bit long, unified by the inspiration of Ligeti’s intricate rhythms, emotive landscapes, and spatial textures. Although it wasn’t possible to settle deeply into any one atmosphere, with the constant shift between pieces, Chen’s perfectly calibrated touch and transitions created an immersive and seamless musical universe, even as he backlit each composition with subtle infusions of shape and color. With “Infinite Staircase,” Chen and Metropolis Ensemble have effectively commissioned a new catalog of solo piano repertoire that will echo long after the applause.


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