Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many composers this month as part of its focus on contemporary music. Here’s what Unsuk Chin had to say.

Unsuk Chin © Eric Richmond
Unsuk Chin
© Eric Richmond

1. What influences are important to you and your music? Do you choose them, or do they choose you?

When I was a student I used to be influenced of various kinds of music. Nowadays, I don’t think I’m influenced by anything specific. But I constantly listen and study to very different kinds of music, of course: firstly, out of curiosity, but also because I want to make sure not to copy anything unintentionally.

2. What (if anything) do you want listeners to take away from your music?

I don’t wish to impose a certain “mode of listening” to anyone... Jukka Tiensuu, a contemporary composer from Finland whom I respect highly, even goes so far as never to speak or to write about his own music, as he is convinced that music should be able to speak for itself. In a way, I can well see his point.

3. Is there a composition of yours which you are most satisfied with? What makes it successful?

I am afraid it is impossible for me to tell as I can’t compare an opera to a piece for a specialized contemporary music ensemble or an electroacoustic work to a set of piano etudes...

4. How important is new technology to you as a composer?

On one hand, I must be old-fashioned, as my favourite composing accessories are paper, pen, ruler and eraser. Using a musical instrument (let alone a computer) during the composition process would only distract me.

However, computers and new technology have been important for my development in another ways. 20 years ago, I used to compose several works at the Electronic Music Studio of the Technical University in Berlin, and I have also been commissioned electronic music by IRCAM and WDR. That all has been a valuable and interesting experience for me. At an electronic music studio, one can look inside the sound as if with a microscope and discover many interesting new things. These findings have given me some worthwhile ideas for the use of harmony, timbre, form (or other musical parameters) in several of my non-electronic works. But the main thing is that this experience has helped me to expand my notion about music.

5. What music do you enjoy listening to?

There are constants, of course, but most of my interests change constantly. In any case, there are too many names to mention here. In principle, I am basically interested in anything that is genuinely creative – after all, there is no reason in putting up fences.

6. How is composing changing, and where do you want new music to go in the future?

Obviously, it is a very good thing that even if someone wants new music to go somewhere no one can order such a thing by decree... Today, there exists no universally valid musical grammar, of course, but within the Western musical tradition from 1650 to ca. 1900, major-minor-tonality came close to such an grammar. It was not imposed by anyone, but rather emerged logically, by “self-organisation”. Schönberg, on the contrast, was someone who changed musical paradigm by his will. His brainchild (dodecaphony) and its rebellious successor (serialism) were interesting and important innovations, but they were valid for a very short time and in a rather narrow way. Cage’s concept of chance composition was probably likewise important, but it was valid only for one piece, as it were, as a thought experiment... As regards Schönberg, I feel that he was – despite his unquestionable qualities – in many ways a surprisingly old-fashioned and insular composer. The problem with his music, as I feel it, was his inability to bridge successfully between the tradition and his radical invention. I feel that the greatest modern revolutionaries around 1910 were Debussy, Stravinsky and the early Webern (rather than Schönberg). They have really had lasting impact. As for the last decades, I think that Gérard Grisey has been someone who has really done something radically different. My notion of musical time – and of composition in general – is very different than his, but I enjoy and respect works like Vortex temporum or Les espaces acoustiques a lot.

I don’t like artistic “dogmas” in general and I don’t think music should be composed according to edifices of ideas. I much prefer if someone is in doubt and changes their style well before it freezes into mannerism, even if that means exposing onself to the risk of failure. That’s exactly what the late Debussy did – he turned his back to all dead conventions and fads likewise, and permanently ventured into new territory. But that is also why I admire unconventional creative minds such as the hobo composer Harry Partch (though many people might argue that he wasn’t a composer at all). Well, he wasn't a “serious” composer from a merely academic point of view, but what he did was something wonderful and inspiring: he invented and built 20 new fascinating instruments in order to explore new tunings and sounds, and wrote unique works of music theatre, which he all directed, wrote, designed and conducted himself. An ingenious “dilettante”, who, in Ligeti’s words, wrote “the folk music of the people which consists of a single individual – Harry Partch”. We need such creative minds more than ever.

Unsuk Chin was born in 1961 in Seoul, South Korea, and has lived in Berlin since 1988. Her music has attracted international conductors including Simon Rattle, Gustavo Dudamel, Kent Nagano, Esa-Pekka Salonen, David Robertson, Peter Eötvös, Neeme Järvi, Markus Stenz, Myung-Whun Chung, George Benjamin, Susanna Mälkki, François-Xavier Roth, Leif Segerstam and Ilan Volkov, among others. It is modern in language, but lyrical and non-doctrinaire in communicative power. Chin has received many honours, including the 2004 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for her Violin Concerto, the 2005 Arnold Schoenberg Prize, the 2010 Prince Pierre Foundation Music Award, and the 2012 Ho-Am Prize.

She has been commissioned by leading performing organisations and her music has been performed in major festivals and concert series in Europe, the Far East, and North America by orchestras and ensembles such as the Berlin Philharmonic, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble Modern, Kronos Quartet and Arditti Quartet. In addition, Unsuk Chin has been active in writing electronic music, receiving commissions from IRCAM and other electronic music studios.

In 2007, Chin’s first opera Alice in Wonderland was given its world première at the Bavarian State Opera as the opening of the Munich Opera Festival and released on DVD by Unitel Classica. Her second opera Alice Through the Looking Glass is commissioned by The Royal Opera in London for première in the 2018/19 season. Since 2006, Chin has overseen the contemporary music series of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, a series which she founded herself. Since 2011, she has served as Artistic Director of the “Music of Today” series of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Portrait CDs of her music have appeared on Deutsche Grammophon, Kairos and Analekta.

Unsuk Chin’s works are published exclusively by Boosey & Hawkes.

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