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    Festival d’Automne à Paris
    156 rue de Rivoli
    75001 Paris

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Portrait Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin / Donghoon Shin / Sun-young Pahg

Doppelkonzert, Graffiti, Œuvre nouvelle, Ich spreche dir nach


    • Cité de la musique – Philharmonie de Paris
      November 27

    Long-standing performers of works by Unsuk Chin, the Ensemble intercontemporain dedicates this concert to the ‘Unsuk Chin Series’. Dans Allegro ma non troppo, concrete sounds like those made by tissue paper, ticking watches and dripping water flood the work with sound. Digitally altered tones pass from one timbre to another, creating an overarching structure.

    Premiered in Los Angeles under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, Graffiti, is a kaleidoscope of styles that deals with street art, its creative potential, its critique of consumerism and cookie-cutter cities. Built up layers of primitivism and transparency demand virtuosic solo performances in the same vein as Ligeti, the Études for piano and the Double Concerto for piano and percussion. Metallic objects are jammed between the piano wires muting the mid-range and rendering the bass notes crisper. Unlike classical concerti, the two soloists and the ensemble strive to meld into a single sound that pulses and fades away. “The final sound-scape has reference points from both Western and non-European music. From there, I try to write music that is free and agile, that is colourful in sound and expression, that is sometimes entirely unpredictable.”

    Unsuk Chin, who pays close attention to the evolution of musical institutions in Korea and to their international profile, has worked in collaboration with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. For some years now, she has invited young composers to write and then rehearse their own pieces with the orchestra. Such events reveal a vibrant music scene in Korea that is reflected here at the Festival d’Automne à Paris.

    Unsuk Chin
    Doppelkonzert, for piano, percussion and ensemble ; Graffiti, for chamber orchestra
    Donghoon Shin, Œuvre nouvelle (world premiere, commissioned by Unsuk Chin and the Festival d’Automne à Paris)

    Sun-young Pahg, Ich spreche dir nach, for ensemble
    Ensemble intercontemporain // Tito Ceccherini, conductor
    Sébastien Vichard, piano
    Samuel Favre, percussion

    Jointly produced by the Ensemble intercontemporain, the Philharmonie de Paris, and the Festival d’Automne à Paris
    Performance organised as part of l’Année France-Corée 2015-2016 //

    This concert is being recorded by France Musique


    “My music is the reflection of my dreams. I attempt to compose a musical rendition of the visions of blinding light and the incredible magnificence of color scattered throughout my dreams: the play on light and color in space, simultaneously materializing as a flowing sound sculpture. This beauty is both abstract and remote, but through such grand qualities it can reach the emotions to convey joy and warmth.” These are the words of Unsuk Chin, the composer born in Seoul, South Korea, on July 14, 1961, and currently living in Berlin. The Festival d’Automne à Paris will be presenting a portrait of Unsuk Chin in five concerts, ranging from chamber music to full orchestra.
    Unsuk Chin was born into a Christian family; her father was a Presbyterian minister, but their Christianity had come from America, reaching Korea in the late 19th century, and mixed with beliefs and rites of shamanism. There were four children, all raised to respect strict religious and social rules and ranks. “No one looked after me at home. No one was the least bit interested in me. My parents didn’t even know what class I was in.” Unsuk Chin did manage to study the piano; she loved the sound of the instrument, and played for religious services. Through late-night radio and television programs, she discovered western music: Beethoven, promptly learning all the piano sonatas, Tchaikovsky, and the romantics. Korean traditions had been banned at the time of the Japanese occupation, and were dismissed as marginal. Unsuk Chin completed her secondary schooling, then twice failed the university entrance exam; the self-educated Unsuk Chin knew nothing of the rules and behavior required.

    The composer Sukhi Kang introduced Unsuk Chin to contemporary repertoire. Kang, a student of Isang Yun and Boris Blacher, encouraged her when she wrote her first compositions, and advised her to study in Germany. “In the 1970s and until the 1980s, Korea was a dictatorship, and we were so poor. And it was even more difficult for a woman than it is now. For years it was almost impossible to get a passport, and no one could afford air travel; but in the 1980s, there was an easing of the rules and regulations.”

    Unsuk Chin was in Hamburg from 1985 to 1988, studying at the Musikhochschule with György Ligeti. Here she stops to describe his complex personality: never satisfied, but charming, and the teaching, so critical or occasionally ferocious. He rarely mentioned any music composed by his contemporaries, only a few marginal figures such as Nancarrow, Partch and Vivier; he would lash out at the bloodless dogmatism of the serial composers, then show more interest in non-European repertoire. “It’s not really yours, is it?” he exclaimed when he saw Unsuk Chin’s first works. She immediately threw out

    everything she had written and stopped composing while studying. The master many have been harsh, but that did not mean there was no approval. “He told me that I had real skill, that I was brilliant at that level. Then one day he whispered very quietly, saying that I didn’t realize just how gifted I was.”

    Her work with electronic music at the studio at the Technical University of Berlin, starting in 1989, brought her back to composing and changed her experience of listening. Ligeti’s lesson had been kept at a safe distance, yet would come back, invented in a new way, transcended, with an additional and delicate touch of subtle irony: there is the fascination for the Balinese gamelan that can be heard resonating in Akrostichon-Wort-spiele, seven scenes from fairy tales, for soprano and ensemble; there is the harmony, always free and rarely devoid of consonance; and mathematical objects such as fractals and “self-parallels” that inspired the orchestral work Rocaná. “The overall impression and general structure form a whole, a sound sculpture which can still be perceived from the most diverse perspectives, for the internal structures are in a state of perpetual change.” The concerto form, whether for piano or cello (plus others composed for violin and for sheng) has provided Unsuk Chin with the opportunity to use a variety of virtuoso instrumental techniques and possibilities for soloist‑orchestra relationships, ranging from conflict to fusion, even shadow games with chiaroscuro, for light, in its physical dimension with waves, with phenomena diverging, converging and diffracting, is then expressed through sound. Other features appear: the importance given to the musician’s movements when playing and their musical impact; there may be a façade such as masks or mime, or the geometrical Beckett-like pantomime of Cosmigimmicks for ensemble, where instruments imitate one other – illusion, playfulness and parody, self-imposed constraints and surprise.

    The poetic approach of Unsuk Chin comes back to dreaming. Alice in Wonderland, the opera containing snagS&Snarls for soprano and ensemble, provides an eloquent example.  Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, with neither plot nor moral, or even, according to the composer, with no emotion, offers plays on words (and sounds), absurd situations and nonsense governed by laws from a realm beyond our ordinary everyday diurnal planet. “Lewis Carroll may have understood that a vast universe of dreams can be conjured up from a child’s mind, for it is indeed such glimpses of dreams, glimpses that are the very realm of the imagination, which I am endeavoring to express in my music.” A reflection of her dreams, as she says.                  

    Laurent Feneyrou

    Esquisse pour le Double concerto © Unsuk Chin
    © Unsuk Chin
    Unsuk Chin / Donghoon Shin / Sun-young Pahg
    © Unsuk Chin
    Esquisse pour le Double concerto © Unsuk Chin