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Revelation (1984)

  • Composer: Chan, Ka Nin
  • Conductor: Armenian, Raffi
  • Performance Date: 1986-06-19
  • Recording courtesy of CBC Radio 2
Portrait of composer Chan, Ka Nin

Chan, Ka Nin

Dec 03, 1949 -


Revelation takes its name both from the last book of the New Testament and from the way the work unfolds, namely, events are foreshadowed and later become fully revealed. An enormous percussion section contributes to the fascinating sound world of Revelation. Learn more


Born in Hong Kong, December 3, 1949;
now living in Toronto

Ka Nin Chan was born in Hong Kong but, like a number of other prominent Canadian composers, found his way to this country early in life and is now a naturalized citizen here. He initially intended to become an electrical engineer but changed his mind while doing undergraduate studies and now enjoys a high profile as a composer.

Years of study

Chan moved with his family to Vancouver in 1965 and became a naturalized Canadian in 1971. While pursuing studies in electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia, he also took lessons in composition from Jean Coulthard. His undergraduate degree turned out to be in music, not engineering. He then went on to continue his studies in composition with Bernhard Heiden at Indiana University, where he received his Master’s degree in 1978 and his doctorate in 1983. He began teaching at the University of Toronto in 1982.

Chan’s music

Chan’s music has been described as “colorful, often Oriental-flavored, highly individual, marked by exotic textures and frequent use of non-Western instruments, particularly from the percussion family.” For his 2010 chamber composition The Consequential Web of Life (inspired by Mary Howitt’s poem The Spider and the Fly, published in1829), he built a six-foot instrument called Parlour to represent a spider’s web, a symbol of defining moments in one’s life. It consists of a wooden frame supporting two sets of amplified strings, the vertical ones tuned harmoniously, representing Yang, and the horizontal ones tuned microtonally, representing Yin. In his twenty-minute composition about temptation, Chan re-enacts the psychological journey of a predator and her prey, in this case a spider and a human represented by the percussionist and guitarist respectively.

Many of Chan’s compositions bear evocative, poetic or inspirational titles, including The Weaving Maiden, Ecstasy, The Land Beautiful, Poetry on Ice, Pearl of Asia, Crystal Blue Persuasion, Joy in Tranquility, Star of the Sea, Beautiful is the East, The Pearl of Asia and The Quiet Night


Chan’s music has been commissioned by many of Canada’s major orchestras, ensembles and soloists, including the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, the Calgary Philharmonic, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Symphony Nova Scotia, Thirteen Strings, the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), the Esprit Orchestra, pianist Antonín Kubalek, violist Rivka Golani, oboist Lawrence Cherney and soprano Rosemarie Landry.

Prizes and awards

Over a span of nearly four decades, Chan has won more than three dozen prizes and awards, from the John Philip Sousa Award at the Lord Byng Secondary School in 1968 to a Juno Nomination for Best Classical Composition in 2005. He has received two Junos for Best Classical Composition, the first in 1994 for Among Friends, the other in 2002 for his chamber opera Par-çi, par-là. He has also won the Béla Bartók International Composers’ Competition, the Barlow International Competitions, the International Horn Society Composition Contest and the $10,000 Jean Chalmers Award.

Concert Program Notes

Ka Nin Chan: Born in Hong Kong, December 2, 1949; now living in Toronto

Revelation was commissioned in 1984 by Orchestra London, it is scored for an orchestra of moderate size but with an enormous percussion section manned by three players. Many of these percussion instruments lend a sparkling, glistening timbre to the work: xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, chimes, antique cymbals, triangle, suspended cymbals and crash cymbal. In addition there are a number of unusual components to the section: Hi hat, metal wind chimes, cowbell, 3 glass jars, flexatone, claves, jawbone, lion’s roar and referee whistle. One sometimes hears the quip that a piece includes “everything but the kitchen sink.” Revelation almost does, but instead of a kitchen sink it calls for a “kitchen pot filled approximately half a cup of water.” Furthermore, there are various drums (timpani, snare drum, bass drum, 5 tom-toms), 5 temple blocks, 3 gongs, 2 tambourines and a wood block. Quite enough, certainly, to make a composition filled with fascinating sounds. Chan derives a wide variety of unusual effects from his orchestra, which at various times shivers, sparkles, rumbles, wails, roars, reels, skitters, chatters and shakes.

Throughout the twenty-minute work, nearly every instrument is used in virtuosic fashion at one time or another. The texture is often dense, the activity energetic, the mood mysterious, and instruments are pushed to extremes of their range. (Note, for example, the trombone wailing at the very top of its range in the opening pages.) Performance directions instruct the musicians to use various mutes, to bend notes and to play quarter tones (halfway between the standard pitches). Strings are asked to play harmonics (an effect that produces a thin, high sound), pizzicato (pluck the strings), glissando (slide) and col legno (using the wooden part of the bow).

“The title Revelation,” writes the composer, “is related, on the one hand, to the last book of the New Testament and, on the other hand, to the way the work unfolds. Like the apocalyptic events in the Bible, the musical events are first foreshadowed and later fully realized. The music does not follow the program of the biblical story; although the use of brass instruments in the final fanfare-like section does make a direct reference to the original source of inspiration.

“The one-movement work begins with a high trombone solo against which is a sustained string background. This sets the solemn mood of God’s prophetic disclosure to man of himself. This trombone theme returns many times in the course of the composition signifying the ever presence of the Supreme Being. From this main theme derived three sub-themes, perhaps symbolizing the Holy Trinity in the Christian theology. They also recur through out the piece, taking on different shape every time towards the end of the movement.

Robert Markow

This Year in History: 1984

History, Politics and Social Affairs

  • The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, led by Brian Mulroney, wins 211 seats in the House of Commons, forming the largest majority government in Canadian history.
  • Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announces his retirement.
  • Trudeau is awarded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize for his efforts in encouraging “North-South” dialogue and his recent personal initiatives to lower Cold War tensions.
  • Jeanne Sauvé becomes Canada’s first female Governor-General of Canada.
  • Manitoba's coat of arms officially receives its crest and supporters.
  • The year ends without the dire predictions of George Orwell's famous novel 1984 coming to pass.

Nature, Science and Technology

  • The cruise missile receives its first test over Alberta, attached to a B-52 bomber.
  • Marc Garneau becomes the first Canadian astronaut in space aboard the Challenger, launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
  • The Apple Macintosh is the first consumer computer to use a computer mouse.

The Arts, Literature and Entertainment

  • Canada wins a record 44 medals at the Summer Olympics, partially due to a boycott of the games by Communist countries.
  • Robert Cooper’s film The Terry Fox Story wins five Genie Awards, including Best Picture.
  • William Gibson writes Neuromancer and coins the word cyberspace.
  • James Cameron shoots to international fame with his film The Terminator.