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Daring to Cross Many Boundaries


US ASIANS: Recognizing the University of Louisville H. Charles Grawemeyer Award's main purpose (to honor people who are examples of his belief that great ideas should be understandable to someone with general knowledge and not be the private treasure academics), has this award provided you with extra responsibility, passion and commitment (in light that this award has led many to consider you one of the leading composers of your generation) to communicate innovative musical ideas/dreams previously thought unreachable or unthinkable to the general public at large?

UNSUK CHIN: I have always tried to compose the music I had in my mind but of course it was a great honour (which I didn't dare to dream about) to receive this prize. It is a dream of every composer.

US ASIANS: With your prominent membership in the intellectually demanding, though not always listener-friendly, precinct of Europe's contemporary music scene and with your interest to have music that is interesting for composers and normal people, what compositional outlets and/or musical departures within Violin Concerto (and other pieces) provide the ability to effectively communicate your ideas to new legions of listeners that are not normally supporters of the contemporary music scene - as noted by its international success and the awarding of the Grawemeyer Award?

H. Charles Grawemeyer, industrialist, entrepreneur, astute investor and philanthropist, created the lucrative Grawemeyer Awards at the University of Louisville in 1984. An initial endowment of $9 million from the Grawemeyer Foundation funded the awards, which have drawn nominations from around the world.

Although the University of Louisville graduate was a chemical engineer by schooling, Grawemeyer cherished the liberal arts and chose to honor powerful ideas in five fields in performing arts, the humanities, and the social sciences.

The first award, Music Composition, was presented in 1985. The award for Ideas Improving World Order was added in 1988 and Education in 1989. In 1990, a fourth award, Religion, was added as a joint prize with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Psychology was added in 2000, with the first award to be given in 2001.

The initial awards were for $150,000 each, making them among the most lucrative in their respective fields. The Grawemeyer Awards increased to $200,000 for the year 2000 awards. Between 1985 and 2000, more than $7 million was awarded to 47 winners.

Grawemeyer distinguished the awards by honoring ideas rather than life-long or publicized personal achievement. He also insisted that the selection process for each of the five awards--though dominated by professionals-include one step involving a lay committee knowledgeable in each field. As Grawemeyer saw it, great ideas should be understandable to someone with general knowledge and not be the private treasure of academics.
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UNSUK CHIN: Listen and find out if and how I have succeeded! I don't have a prefabricated method. To be a composer means for me to be a craftsman, who tries to realise their own aural dream.

US ASIANS: Recalling your thoughts that winning classical music's greatest prize "has changed my life as a composer, completely, and is a huge encouragement for my future creative development" - what directions are you contemplating to explore that will help you in your journey to the next stage/level to find a musical language outside of the avant-garde while creating music in a new harmonic structure, not in the sense of neo-classic or neo-romantic?

UNSUK CHIN: I am happy to be able to compose what I want and of course I have certain dreams and ideas, also for more unconventional instruments. But now at the moment the "Alice"-operas (I am also going to write an opera after Lewis Carroll's second Alice-book, "Through the Looking-Glass") are very important projects for me. Also I am looking forward to write a cello concerto, which is commissioned by the London Proms, for BBC Scottish Symphony, Ilan Volkov and the German cellist, Alban Gerhardt. I have now also finished a new piece with nonsense texts - "Cantatrix sopranica" - for two coloratura sopranos, performed by the Komsi sisters, and for countertenor and ensemble. It was commissioned by several ensembles.

US ASIANS: Noting your close music consultation/collaboration in developing the challenging solo violin part with Viviane Hagner, what additional advantages do you enjoy when this type of situation presents itself - especially when you trying to "compose a piece which is suitable to the character" of the solo instrument while exploring the harmonic structure of the composition rooted in the four open strings of the violin?

UNSUK CHIN: It is naturally a good thing to be consulted by fine instrumentalists, although usually I work just myself at my writing desk - I never compose at a keyboard. In this case it was important because violin is a difficult instrument to write a concerto for: I don't play it myself and there is of course a long tradition of successful and virtuosic music for violin and orchestra, which is challenging but makes it difficult to find a own way. I was fascinated by the virtuosic talent of Viviane Hagner and this was definitely a source of inspiration for the whole piece.

US ASIANS: What would you like the listening audience to experience from one of your most distinctive work, the Violin Concerto - recognizing that others have described your most distinctive work as having blended glittering orchestration, luminous sonorities, rhythmic imageries, volatile expressions and musical turns into a highly individual contemporary soundworld-type tapestry?

UNSUK CHIN: Everybody may hear in it what they can and want.

US ASIANS: Having reviewed your exciting musical journey, as noted below, have you seen a common thread of discoveries that illustrated the many highlights and turning points in the development of your musical career? Which pieces were key and important to your music development and career?

UNSUK CHIN: When my first pieces (Gestalten and Spektra) were awarded prestigious international prizes, it was naturally a big thing for me: I was a student at that time, I hadn't studied a long time composition and I came from Korea. Yet I have crossed these works - as well as Canzone - off my work list because they indeed lack an original voice. After a compositional crisis, I began to work at the Electronic Music Studio in the Technical University in Berlin, and this was an important experience. I also revised my old acoustic piece, Troerinnen. My collaboration with the fabulous Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, which led to commission and first performance of several pieces, is very important for me as well as the collaboration with conductors like Kent Nagano and the composer/conductor George Benjamin. The "Alice"-opera project is, as I already said, at the moment very close to my heart.


What words of advice would you share to aspiring musicians?

UNSUK CHIN: I don't have any advice. Everyone is different. I could say: Do you want really to become a musician and not choose anything more comfortable? If the answer is yes, don't believe in (fast) success.


To return to the beginning of the interview, click HERE

Learn about the various aspects of Unsuk's creative life by visiting the links listed below.
Akrostichon-Wortspiel Alice in Wonderland Biography Composition Listings Developing One's Artistry
Diversity of Music Exploring New Genres Family Background Gradus ad Infinitum fur Tonband Grawemeyer Awards
Gyorgy Ligeti Kent Nagano Process of Creativity in Music Progression of Works Sukhi Kang
Unsuk's Support of Diversity Violin Concerto Winning Grawemeyer Award Words of Advice Xi

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