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Daring to Cross Many Boundaries


US ASIANS: Who were the most influential musicians/artists/creative people in your on-going quest of seeking musical and creative excellence?

UNSUK CHIN: I am highly fascinated about non-European musical cultures. I am especially fascinated about the sound world of Balinese gamelan music. It has been an inspiration for many pieces by mine, e.g. my orchestral pieces. In my opinion, the conventional orchestral setting is a European relict of the 19th century, although there are of course great masterworks written for it. So I often call for an array of extra instruments. Through this, I always try to introduce a completely different colour into my compositions based on my experience of non-European music.

But to avoid misunderstandings: I am for diversity, for the equal existential rights of
different musical cultures but I am against the so-called "world music", which is for
the most part only a commercial banalization and exploitation of the original oral music cultures, which are in fact often facing the treath of their disappearance and extinction.

US ASIANS: You've been quoted as saying that "Music is modern in language, but lyrical and non-doctrinaire in communicative power." Were your just-mentioned beliefs provided the main motivation to mine the expressive potential of the slightest nuances of pitch/pulse in new worlds of music filled with non-traditional tonal structures and the unknown realms of sounds beyond the traditional acoustic world?

UNSUK CHIN: These are not my words but a quote from a critic. I just try to follow my aural imagination as well as I can. Nowadays, it is difficult enough to find an own voice beyond harmful extremes like the sterilizing avant-garde dogma and neo-tonal/ neo-romantic clichés.

US ASIANS: With your reputation of having an acute ear for instrumentation, sonority, orchestral color and rhythmic imagery that utilizes voice/text in a fashion not normally played for audiences as another melody - what aspect of your background, interests and/or training do you attribute to your interests and talent?

UNSUK CHIN: I can't say because I don't analyse my development like a musicologist would do it. I haven't thought much about it. I have often been asked what it means for me to be an Asian composer but background or nationality is not so important. But perhaps I could say that my aversion to the sound that is typically produced by a European orchestra results partly from my cultural background.

US ASIANS: In reviewing the entire body of your works, will scoring films (like other classically-trained film composers - some with electronic music background and blending - such as Van Dyke Parks, Jerry Goldsmith, Erich Wolfgang Komgold, John Corigliano, Elmer Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein, Lalo Schiffin, Alex North, Bernard Herrman, Aaron Copeland, Dmitri Tiomkin, Hans Zimmer, Elliot Goldenthal, Max Steiner, etc.) be something that you'll consider in the near future?


Not music for mainstream commercial films. But I have plans to write music for some avant-garde silent movies from the beginning 20th century.
US ASIANS: Could you share your beliefs on the various distinctive compositional differences between your acoustic and electronic scores?

UNSUK CHIN: Of course the procedure of writing music for different sources is a different one. But I have to point out that I have also combined both media. In an acoustic score like the "Double Concerto for prepared piano, percussion and ensemble" I tried partly to create an illusion of a single "super instrument". In this, I was inspired by the Gamelan orchestra. But this attempt also has parallels with my work with electronics. In both media I attempt to blur the differences, the boundaries between the "natural" and the "artifical".

US ASIANS: Within the process of creating music magic, how do you gauge the effectiveness of finding an effective balance between rigorous modernism and crowd-pleasing tonality?

UNSUK CHIN: I want to write music which different kinds of listeners find interesting. I don't attempt to find any balance between different styles - I just try to follow my aural imagination. I admire very different types of music: as well in rock and pop, in Western classical as in non-European-music there are good and bad pieces. The big problem today is that people don't know enough (different) kinds of music to be able to judge and make a conscious decision what they would really like to hear. And this is paradoxical because there is so much music everywhere. Sheer commercialism is very dangerous as well as dogmatism.

US ASIANS: How did you transition from being a pianist writing composition to being a composer with the great ability of utilizing the orchestra as an instrument of choice?

UNSUK CHIN: I had already decided to become a composer when I was 13. Although I performed contemporary music during my student time in Seoul, I am not a professional pianist. But playing and studying piano (which I had to interrupt for several years because of an injury) has remained a very important part of my life.

US ASIANS: Being known for the diversity of your music - that includes music for voice, tape, electronics, solo piano, ensembles of every size as well as orchestra - how are you able to maintain your high standards, recognizing the great demands of each of the above-listed genres?

UNSUK CHIN: Composers lead a relatively hard life. With the average fees it is usually absolutely not possible to live solely by composing. This is a fact sadly often forgotten in the classical music business. I myself never wanted to teach, for instance, and to work inside something - an institution i.e. - which has nothing to do with me. I want to be free and I consider myself happy to be able to live from composing. I don't compose too many pieces and this is a way to try to maintain the quality.

György Ligeti

In 1985, Unsuk Chin received a DAAD stipend to study composition with György Ligeti (the contemporary composer known for his popular, emotionally charged symphonies and won the Grawerneyer Award in 1986) in Hamburg Germany until 1988.

One of the world’s best known living composers, György Ligeti is widely acknowledged as a musical pioneer of the late twentieth century. In response to a general stylistic crisis in the mid-century avant-garde, Ligeti forged his own musical alternative, based on texture and sound density, that has become one of the major influences on contemporary music. His varied output, which he began in pre-communist Hungary and continued in western Europe after the Hungarian communist revolution, is searingly intense at times and full of vivacity, humor and irony at others.

Born in 1923 to Hungarian parents in Dicsöszentmárton (now Târnarveni) in Transylvania, Romania, Ligeti and his family moved to Cluj (Kolozsvár, Klausenburg) when he was still a child. He began studying composition with Ferenc Farkas at the Cluj conservatory in 1941 and continued his studies in Budapest with Pál Kadosa. In 1943 his education was interrupted when he was sent into forced labor as a Jew for the remainder of World War II.

The composer was awarded the German decoration "Pour le mérit" and the Bach Prize of the City of Hamburg in 1975. In 1986 he received the Grawemeyer Prize, and in 1996 he was awarded the Music Prize of the International Music Council.

Click HERE for more ino>>>>

US ASIANS: What role did your studies in atonal/12 Tone music played in your creative development?

UNSUK CHIN: Well, at my time as a student in Seoul this was an important thing to learn. Generally speaking, I don't think at all it is twelve-tone-music that has been crucial to my development - at least not the twelve-tone-music by Schönberg. No, but it is important to be aware of the grammar of the music of different periods. In the beginning of the 20th century, there was a great diversity. After World War II, the best composers wrote for a long while serial music - yet we never should forget that there were great composers who wrote in a different idiom, like Benjamin Britten or Conlon Nancarrow or Harry Partch. Now everything has become more global and that has good and bad sides in it. Of course music of different times and cultures are inspiring and one should always be careful not to become ideological.

US ASIANS: Did the ability to develop one's craft, explore various music possibilities and developing a personal creative vision underneath the general public's eye during the 1970s & 1980s (though known in electronic music circles while working/composing in Technical University Berlin's electronic studio) provide you with the needed freedom till the 1990s when you were signed to Boosey & Hawkes (1994) and your works being acclaim internationally (via Acrostic-Worldplay being played in 15+ countries, appointment as "composer-in-residence with Deutsches Symphonie Orchester and commissioning of your Violin Concerto)?

UNSUK CHIN: Yes, I think so. It is dangerous for a young composer to have great success in very early years. Then you might be tempted - especially because this is such an unsecure job - to compose at an early age a lot, without continuously searching and studying and some day your musical imagination might be drained. So in fact I think that my crisis in the late 80s was natural and important, though it was not an easy time.

US ASIANS: Recognizing elements of your ethnic heritage are integrated with Western musical traditions as the foundation of your acoustical score of "The Violin Concerto" - what recommendations would you give to first time listeners to help them recognize these elements within your synthesis of glittering orchestration, rarefied sonorities, volatility of expression, musical puzzles and unexpected turns?

UNSUK CHIN: I don't know whether my music in general has anything specifically Asian, let alone Korean. Nowadays, we do live in an international, global musical culture. But people are allowed to find in my musical works anything what they want - I can't give any recommendations, my task is just to compose. There is only one thing I expect from listeners or critics and that's (self) critical openness.

Kent Nagano

US ASIANS: How did the support of a bold visionary and meticulously elegant musician such as Kent Nagano provide the opportunities to stretch your creative wings - especially since he is seeking "voices of the next generation . . . . and to discover where the next currents of change are coming from . . . who are up to things he (Kent) has never seen before - along with being her most important champion and having her pieces played at every festival where he is the music director?


During the few years of our working together, Kent has indeed commissioned and helped many pieces of mine to see the light of day, like my Violin Concerto and Miroirs de Temps. I am impressed by his openness and (uni)versa(ti)lity.


To continue 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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