Godlike Recompense?: (Re)actions in the Piano Studies and Etudes of Hans Abrahamsen, Unsuk Chin, and Pascal Dusapin

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This dissertation examines three sets of piano etudes from the late twentieth century: those by Hans Abrahamsen (b. 1952), Unsuk Chin (b. 1961), and Pascal Dusapin (b. 1955). Each composer conceives of the etude as a complex of accrued meanings: a study for self-betterment and, by association, childhood nostalgia, a virtuosic, transcendental conceit in the post-Lisztian and Ligetian tradition, a study in the artistic tradition of the fragment or sketch, and a storehouse for a Proustian “apprenticeship of signs.” The introduction presents a genealogy for the etude, emphasizing the difficulties of early attempts to define the genre. As the etude gained self-consciousness, starting with Debussy, its definition broadened through a series of cultural enactments and confrontations. In Chapter 1, I focus on Abrahamsen’s Ten Studies (1984–98), which have become the basis of several chamber and orchestral works, and invoke the work of Gérard Genette to trace an intensely personal network of meanings and references centered on Mahler and Schoenberg. In Chapter 2, I outline the history of Chin’s six etudes (1995–2003), discussing the edits to etudes 1–4 between their 1995 and 2003 versions, as well as the issuing of a new typeset version by Boosey & Hawkes. Drawing on a series of interviews with performers, I argue that discussions surrounding the legendary difficulty of the etudes relate to the frustrations of daily work. Furthermore, they form a rhetoric of shame, as defined by the psychologist Silvan Tomkins, wrapped up with the uncanny, a failure to and desire to make contact, seeing and being seen, physicality and spectacle. In Chin’s etudes, “inter-actionality,” what I define as intertextuality transposed onto bodily acts, exists in tension with cues from the visual score. I explore these moments of tension in the original and revised versions of "Sequenzen" and "Toccata." In Chapter 3, I turn to Pascal Dusapin’s Etudes for piano (1998–2001), offering a reading based on his poetic application of ideas by René Thom and Gilles Deleuze. I argue for the centrality of Thom’s catastrophe theory, understood rigorously, in Dusapin’s compositional thinking, in parallel with personal biography.

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Music; 20th- and 21st-century music; Genre theory; Intertextuality; Performance Practice; Piano etudes; Virtuosity and Embodiment


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Bjerken, Xak

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Pond, Steven F.
Moseley, Roger S.

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D.M.A., Music

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Doctor of Musical Arts

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dissertation or thesis

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