Portrait Unsuk Chin

“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