“One day, if I ever get the feeling: ‘this is my absolute masterpiece’, then I will stop composing.” Unsuk Chin does not feel that she’s arrived, artistically or professionally – anyone who knows her music will recognise this restless, crackling sense of excitement and possibility. A strange thing for her to think, perhaps: any composer who had Chin’s career right now would be hard pushed not to feel like they’d made it. In October she won the Sibelius Wihuri prize, which was far from her first: in 2004 she won the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize and the Arnold Schönberg Prize a year later. And this is on top of her music being championed by luminaries like Simon Rattle, Kent Nagano and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Unsuk Chin © Priska Ketterer
Unsuk Chin
© Priska Ketterer

The Sibelius prize has an outstanding pedigree: previous recipients have included Stravinsky, Britten, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Hindemith, and Chin’s own former mentor Ligeti. How does it feel, I ask, to see your name included in a list like that? “I couldn’t believe it”, she says. “All the previous award winners were not only innovators but felt connected to a great musical tradition… This is what is very important for me – to try and do something new with each piece, but without losing the connection to the tradition.”

Sibelius himself is an apt representative of this, and symbolises something important about her experience of composing: “He achieved something innovative and universally important which was very different from what was expected in the big musical centres such as France or Germany, where his music was not initially accepted.” Does she sense what kind of impact winning a prize like that has on her attitude or approach to composing music? “I will need more time to understand that... But I don’t judge the success of my career by prizes.” So what does she judge it by? “If I compose a good piece.”

It’s an oblique response congruent with her musical style, which stimulates in listeners experiences of the spontaneous and the unforeseen, and is highly immediate, yet also slippery and constantly shifting. She describes her piece cosmigimmicks as having “no melody”, while the work itself appears “like a cloud… coming and going very suddenly.” There’s something fundamentally evasive about this music: little wonder she produced an opera based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for Covent Garden in 2015.

© Priska Ketterer
© Priska Ketterer

It seems a perfect textual counterpart for her music: the characters in Carroll’s novels dangle mysteries and riddles in front of readers through gestures and games whose meanings are withheld from us in a heady cocktail of ritual and nonsense. Those last two words have been used to describe Chin’s cosmigimmicks, a 24-minute work receiving its London première in May this year with the London Sinfonietta. Londoners will also be treated in April to the European première of Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles (“The Song of the Children of the Stars”), receiving its first European performance under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, with whom Chin has been working since 2011.

There’s lots of humour in her music: one senses the influence of Ligeti’s anarchic, cartoonish tomfoolery, the like of which we find in his Violin Concerto or madcap operatic adventure Le Grand Macabre. I think of John Cage too, whose surreal sense of humour and playfulness finds its way into cosmigimmicks through Chin’s use of prepared piano. It’s a humour that throws the audience off guard. There’s something quite disarming, I suggest to her, about the prepared piano, a great source of modernist bathos: that most grand, dramatic and Romantic of instruments repurposed to make strange tapping noises, or the sound of bells, or little metallic thuds: “I like the distorted sound, a very metallic sound, like Balinese Gamelan.” The prepared piano is at the centre of the ensemble in cosmigimmicks, which is scored for trumpet, a whole battery of percussion, harp, violin, guitar and mandolin, and the overall effect of the piece is one of delicate, flickering textures: a necessarily spare ensemble, Chin notes, because otherwise you can’t hear the prepared piano.

Interviews with Chin often discuss her musical influences, but I wondered about the manifestly literary influences foregrounded in her work, particularly those from the 20th century. She’s set the writing of James Joyce and Franz Kafka in her extraordinary Homeric adventure for soprano and orchestra Le Silence des Sirènes, a blazing setting for Barbara Hannigan of the prose fugue at the heart of Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses. Cosmigimmicks returns to Kafka and also has a movement based on Samuel Beckett’s Quad. Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles, meanwhile, sets a dizzying array of texts by Octavio Paz, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Fernando Pessoa, as well as William Blake and Percy Shelley.

I asked about how her interest in these writers shaped her approach to writing music. “I am interested in the structure, sound and form of language”, she tells me, and the “musicality of the lines” one finds in 20th-century literature. The writers of OULIPO – the 1960s experimental literature collective Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, led by Italo Calvino and Georges Perec – as well as Beckett, Kafka, and Joyce, embody an attitude of fearless experimentalism mixed with absurdist fun and linguistic virtuosity that reflects Chin’s attitude as a composer.

The joyfully proliferating wordplay you find in their works is reflected in her own interest in palindromes, puns, and anagrams, often in the titles of her works, such as in Cantatrix Sopranica, a piece of wordplay that wouldn’t be out of place in Joyce’s riotous Finnegans Wake. And the piece itself draws on the experimental approaches to textual creation found in Gertrude Stein and Perec. Joyce and Beckett, despite their reputations as arch-Modernists, combined the sublime and the lowly, the serious and the ridiculous, and this feeds into cosmigimmicks, which takes its inspiration from various forms of pantomime. “I like contrasts, and music is an art that can embrace different aspects of life, from the most profound to the banal, at the same time… I like it when something seems simple on the surface but when you dig deeper there are many different layers”.

Her music is one that channels an amazing range of geographical and cultural references, whether she is composing for the Chinese mouth-organ (in Šu, her concerto for sheng virtuoso Wu Wei) or setting Homer in Le Silence des Sirènes. I ask her how this cosmopolitan mood shapes her sense of herself, an émigré who came to Europe from South Korea to study in the 1980s. “Even when I was growing up in Korea, I never felt Korean… I’ve always felt myself to be a cosmopolitan.”

What effect does this have on her sense of her own music? “We live in a global world… It’s very important to try to think outside of the box as much as possible, to have the openness to let something new influence you… This approach has led to me writing music that is more gestural and playful.” There’s an openness she sees in her approach to writing music that means it has “many different levels that can attract different audiences in very different ways.” She’s resolutely committed to being “an individual… It’s much harder to be seen as an individual composer than a Korean or German composer.” And in this respect, we can see her music diverging radically from the more parochial, nationalistically-imagined musical cultures of 19th-century Europe, such as Russia or Germany.   

© Priska Ketterer
© Priska Ketterer
It’s clear that Chin’s music lives in the tradition of the musical and cultural avant-garde, itself highly internationalist and cosmopolitan. But the avant-garde has always had an ambivalent attitude towards institutions: the iconoclastic Pierre Boulez, for instance, calling for the demolition of the opera houses and the overturning of the musical establishment while at the same time founding schools and institutes cultivating followers and reaffirming their expectations. So I’m curious as to how she sees her own relationship to the institutions of contemporary music. Chin’s career is not defined (or paid for, as she proudly describes herself as “freelance”) by teaching composition in a conservatoire or university, and I ask her whether having a more oblique relationship to institutions was a deliberate or necessary choice: “It was a very important decision for me. I never wanted to be a professor”, she responds. “I need solitude, I need time and space to be alone. When you work in academic institutions you usually have to be in touch with people regularly.” Indeed, she sees the composer as a figure who necessarily stands apart, withdrawing slightly from the world.

She tells me that she has “very strict rules” about her material, which is organised stringently into groups of five, six, or seven minutes. But it’s exactly this discipline that manufactures the dazzling spontaneity her music evokes for her audiences. All this rigour might sound a bit lofty and austere, but Chin sees an everyday analogy for the work of composition in cooking. “Composing is just like cooking, it’s really the same thing. For example, if I hear a new piece by another composer, I hear a particular orchestration or colour and I can understand what combination of things that comes from… If I go to a restaurant, I go home and try to recreate the dish. Mostly I’m successful!”