Alain Chiu’s Solo for Cello

Brian Patrick Bromberg
20 January, 2022

I came across Alain Chiu’s Solo for cello in a google search for “Hong Kong Solo Cello Music” and was surprised to only find this singular piece written for solo cello.  After further and rather extensive digging, I came across the website of THE INTERNATIONAL MUSIC PRIZE FOR EXCELLENCE IN COMPOSITION 2009 where Chiu’s piece was chosen as a finalist in 2009.  I dug deeper and found Alain Chiu’s website and two recordings of Solo for cello and was really taken with the wonderful writing for cello as well as the freedom of interpretation that the piece offers.  After visiting Alainchiu.com and Alain’s experimental performance collective Trilateral Lab, I was hopeful that I might be able to establish communication with the composer, but alas they remain elusive.  Luckily, the music speaks for itself.

Solo for cello is a piece with attitude.  It is based on two motivic gestures and a pitch sequence that permeates all of the music.  The first, which is presented in the opening two bars, is a chromatically ascending double-stop line in perfect fifths.  These give way in the third measure to the composer’s second musical material which brings to mind short melodic outbursts that one might hear on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.  Indeed, if we look closer at the score, there is an indication at the bottom of the first page that reads “Dotted slurs indicate passage to be played in a freer tempo, like a solo break in jazz music.”  These freer jazz breaks, melodically would be quite tonal in nature, almost like a line a scat singer would produce, but they retain a spiky distance from resolving into any one key by emphasising tri-tones and occasionally jumping large intervals.  When I play the piece I try to keep the double stop material metronomically in time to give contrast to these rubato solo lines.   

This opening section takes us to approximately 1:00 where the character of the piece changes.  The composer explores some extended techniques including overbowing, a technique that involves extremely high bow pressure so as to create an immaterial noise similar to static.  The tempo in this section is marked Recitativo, free tempo and dynamically this is the first time we encounter piano.  This quieter dynamic doesn’t last for long as an accelerando and crescendo take us to the extreme high register of the instrument in a furious climax.  From here we have a brief lyrical section that ends with a harmonic gliss up the A-string and finally we return to a similar texture as in the beginning. 

The pitch sequence that acts as a glue holding the piece together, and from which most of the harmonic material is drawn, is brought back in the final bars in big four-note chords.  The composer also draws our attention to this pitch set by notating a dotted line between each of these notes within the chords. 

Solo for cello clocks in at just over four minutes and is often in-your-face, intense music for the most part.  It would work great as an attention-getting opener to a recital, or as a stark contrast to a quieter, more tender work.  The piece is not easy, but if you approach it knowing how each line was carefully crafted to guide the listener’s attention into and out of Chiu’s varying sound worlds, then the piece is totally doable. 

Alain Chiu remains shrouded in mystery.