In Touch With Unsuk Chin

As the 75th Aldeburgh Festival – founded by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears – gets underway, we spoke to Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin, one of the festival’s Featured Artists.

Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin © Priska Ketterer

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The most formative influences are probably those from childhood when the senses react to everything around them in a more ‘holistic’, immediate approach. Then, there was the time of my studies: immersing myself in European avant-garde music in the early 80s was vital, as I had before that known ‘Western’ musical history only until Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. Conversely, the experience of studying with Ligeti, who denounced the avant-garde, requested utterly original music of excellent craftsmanship from himself and his students, asking me to throw away my prize-winning works, was a pivotal moment. Indeed, moments of crisis and subsequent attempts to find a way out are essential moments and threshold experiences.

The excellent Danish poet Inger Christensen wrote that the major influences on her work were creative stumbling blocks, irritations that, in the long term, made her question and develop her approach. For me, such a moment was when I worked, in the late 80s, and after a writer’s block of almost three years, for a couple of years at a studio for electroacoustic music. Through this, I could re-evaluate the essential elements of my compositional approach and expand the basis of my music. Another significant experience was, in the 90s, longer stays in Bali, where I studied Gamelan music – the acquaintance of a different tradition of great refinement and quality deeply rooted in the society was a discovery.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

That was to realise my childhood dream of becoming a professional musician and fighting my way out of difficult circumstances – in the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea was a poor post-war country on the periphery, and it was not easy to start as a female Asian composer in Germany.

What are the special challenges and pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Without a commission or deadline, I would never compose a work. One needs much pressure from the external world to get through this crazy process. I don’t have any work in my drawer. Writing a new piece is a very demanding process and can take years. I wouldn’t go for it without external pressure and the adrenaline rush. At the same time, I would never accept a commission with conditions that don’t fit into the musical thoughts and goals I am working with during a specific period.

What are the special challenges and pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

I always choose very carefully which commissions I accept. One has to prioritise. It almost needs to be a compulsion: if I don’t have an idea what to write for a certain instrument or concept, I won’t do it. For example, I wrote my First Violin Concerto in 2001 and was convinced I would never write another one. But then, when there was a possibility to write for Leonidas Kavakos, I reconsidered, and the work, 20 years later, is very different from the first one.

Of which works are you most proud?

I move on and try to do something new with every piece. I have removed several earlier works from my work list as I am not content with them. As for the remaining ones, I accept them, but there are also pieces to which I feel more emotional distance than others – which is unsurprising when one revisits works from several decades ago. But I can also name a counterexample – my Piano Concerto, which is from 1995 but which wasn’t much performed before the Deutsche Grammophon recording two decades later. This is a work into which I put all the energy and frenzy of my then 34-year-old self – I wouldn’t compose in this manner anymore, but I feel emotionally close to it.

Unsuk Chin: Piano Concerto (Francesco Piemontesi, Antony Hermus, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra)

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I prefer not to, as it may make it more difficult for the listener to approach the work without prejudices. Besides, when I compose a new work, the most important thing for me is its unique shape. Of course, as a composer, you have a particular craft; you prefer certain materials and draw on compositional techniques acquired through the years. You cannot and perhaps shouldn’t avoid that. Nonetheless, it is important for me to attempt each work to be singular in character. Pablo Picasso once expressed it this way: style holds the painter captive in the same point of view, in a technique, in a formula, but he always wants to make something that is new and unknown to himself.

Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland: Puzzles and Games (Sumi Hwang, soprano; Ensemble TIMF; Soo-Yeoul Choi, cond.)

How do you work?

With pen and paper. Composing is, above all, waiting — days, sometimes weeks, before the empty staves. And then, suddenly, a door opens in the head. With age and experience, one develops trust that this door opens at some point if one tries hard enough. The music is in my head. I sometimes jot down ideas, plan harmonies, etc., but for me personally, it is an abstract process without piano or other devices. It can take several years for thoughts and concepts to mature. And when the pressure is great enough, it’s like giving birth: the thoughts have to come out, then you write.

Unsuk Chin: Piano Etude No. 3, “Scherzo ad libitum” (Clare Hammond, piano)

What advice would you give to young or aspiring composers?

To think carefully if one really wants to have a life as a professional composer. It is usually a back-breaking and lonely job, and the financial prospects are often non-existent. If one really wants to do it, one should, but one should be aware what price it takes.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

This is not easy since, nowadays, there is a tendency to think more and more in purely economic and functional categories, on top of which you have to add the quickness of modern mass media. Besides, there exists a mistaken notion that classical music would be something ‘elitist,’ which is why the notion that society should support art forms that only a small minority will engage with has lost traction. All of this does not mean that things were better during other times. However, it is concerning and a scandal that music is often no longer even considered a minor subject in schools due to very obscure claims of competitiveness and economic success – claims often made, for example, by numerous politicians. It is wrong to withhold from children the experience of art, which is one of the things that distinguishes human beings from AI, not to mention that art often provides indispensable solace and a utopia. Anyway, there are also ‘late bloomers’, audiences that can be won over with creative ideas and new approaches even if they won’t have had previous exposure to classical music; after all, the experience of great music can be a deeply emotional one. The methods and approaches used to try to develop classical music’s audiences depend on the place and context. But the main thing, I believe, is trust. Trust in quality, the hard work of serious performers and composers, the slow progress of building audiences and overcoming obstacles, an almost aggressive defence of artists’ quality and hard work, the audience’s right to hear this music, and the need for financial support of the whole musical ecosystem.

What is the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?

I doubt that such a thing exists as ‘the music industry’ – fortunately, we live in a diverse world. At the same time, of course, certain tendencies exist, but these are intertwined with societal developments. Our times are obsessed with the speed of information, packaging, and the surface, which can be problematic for developing sustainable quality standards. Also, the future of classical music institutions in many places is endangered. That leads often to market-think and occasionally to a winner-takes-it-all mentality. At the same time, fortunately, there are many niches and different initiatives. It was much more polarised in the 50 years after the Second World War: there was the established conservative music world, and then there were the rebellious circles of both the avant-garde and the early-music revival, who not infrequently fractured into warring factions. But every time has its challenges.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Playing the piano. If I need a break during an intense compositional process, I might play fugues by Bach for hours. This helps me clear my mind and persevere.

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