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Daring to Cross Many Boundaries


US ASIANS: Could you share who were your "Life" and "Music" role models, along with sharing what values you've learn that serves as an important foundation of your lifestyle/career?

UNSUK CHIN: As far as music is concerned - I discovered it during my early childhood, in the middle of great poorness and at a very difficult time in Korea. From the first moment on, I was immensely fascinated by it (music) and I knew it will become the content of my life. Besides that, I would say that during my time as a student I had role models for my compositions, but it's important early to leave that behind and to search for one's own voice.

US ASIANS: Recognizing that your parents in Seoul Korea started (born in 1961) your music career by early in your life with courses of piano and musical theory, what are the backgrounds of your parents and what prompted them to give you this schooling and support?

Year Title Description
  1984 Gestalten (Figures) Selected for the ISCM World Music Days in Canada and for UNESCO's Rostrum for Composers
  1985 Spektra (3 Cello Piece) Final student work won the International Gaudeamus Composition Prize in Amsterdam
  1986 Canzone II In 1988, a reversed and enlarged version was completed) – 2nd in a series of compositions for solo instruments
  1986 Die Troerinnen (Trojan Women) Piece for 3 female singers, women's choir and orchestra on texts from Euripides' play
  1989 Gradus Ad Infinitum Music for magnetic tape
  1991 Acrostic Wordplay Piece is for Soprano & Ensemble/Eleven Instruments with some microtonal tunings. Commissioned by Gaudeamus Foundation and composed for the 1980 Gaudeamus Prizewinner's Concert. Its first performance, in incomplete form, was given by the Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam conducted by David Porcelijn. The completed version was completed and performed on September 8, 1993 by George Benjamin/Premiere Ensemble.
  1992 El Aliento de la Sombra Music for magnetic tape
  1993 Santika Ekatala First purely orchestral work, won first prize in a Japanese competition
  1993 Allegro Ma Non Troppo Music for magnetic tape
  1994 Fantaisie Mecanique Piece for chamber ensemble was commissioned by Ensemble InterContemporain in 1993 and performed on December 2, 1994 in Paris - revised in 1997
  1994 Allegro Ma Non Troppo 1994/1998 Version for solo percussion and magnetic tape
  1995 A.O. Piano Etudes – first performance by Shiao-Li Ding on June 12, 1995; first performance of the revised versions in 2004 by Hiroaki Ooi
  1995 Piano Etude No. 2 (Sequenzen) Piece was revised in 2003 for solo piano
  1995 Piano Etude No. 3 (Scherzo ad Libitum) Piece was revised in 2003 for solo piano
  1995 Piano Etude No. 4 (Scalen) Piece was revised in 2003 for solo piano
  1996 Piano Concerto First performance by pianist Rolf Hind and the National BBC Orchestrated of Wales
  1997 Para Meta String Piece wascommissioned by the Kronos Quartet
  1998 XI Composition for ensemble and electronics was commissioned by Ensemble Intercontemporain and won the Bourges Electroacoustic Music Prize

Ma fin est mon commencement

For ATTB soloists and ensemble - third movement of Miroirs des temps.
  1999 Miroirs des Temps jPiece was commissioned by the BBC for The Hilliard Ensemble and the London Philharmonic. for soloists, chorus and orchestra was co-commissioned by the Danish Radio Symphony, the Gothenburg Symphony and the Oslo Philharmonic orchestras. Piece was revised in 2001
  1999 Piano Etude No. 1 (in C) The piece for solo piano was comissioned by the Hannover Biennale
  2000 Kala Piece for soprano and bass soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra (premiered on 3/9/2001 in Gothenburg)
  2000 Piano Etude No. 6 (Grains) This piece for "piano solo" was comissioned by the South Bank Center on the occasion of Pierre Boulez's 75th birthday, dedicated to Pierre Boulez
  2000 Spectres Speculaires This piece for solo violin and live electronics was comissioned by the Witten New Music Festival
  2001 Violin Concerto This piece for with four movement score for violin and orchestra premiered in January 2002 w/Viviane Hagner as soloist and conducted by Kent Nagano – the piece won the prestigious $200,000 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2004)
  2002 Double Concerto This piece for piano, percussion and ensembe was commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain and Radio France and premiered in February 2003
  2003 Piano Etude No. 5 (Toccata) Piece for solo piano

Snags & Snarls

This piece for soporano and orchestra was commissioned by Los Angeles Opera for premiere under Kent Nagano in June 2004. The first performance of an enlarged version was in 2005.
  2005 Alice in Wonderland The premiere was moved to the 2007/2008 season

Cantatrix Sopranica


This piece for 2 sopranos – Komsi sisters, counter tenor and ensemble was (co-commissioned by the London Sinfonietta, Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, St. St Pölten Festival (Austria), Ensemble Intercontemporain and Musikfabrik
  2005 Continuing Series of Etudes Piece for solo piano
  2005 Portrait CD Recording Project
UNSUK CHIN: Actually I didn't get formal lessons in piano and musical theory at all. My father taught me the basics of reading music and we had a piano at home. Since my father was a Presbyterian minister, as child I had to play hymns at church and accompany my sister - who studied singing. I also earned money by playing piano at weddings and other similar occasions. But besides this I was entirely autodidactic until I won at third attempt a place to study composition at the Seoul National University. While a teenager, I taught myself composing through copying musical scores such as Tchaikovsky's symphonies.

Important for me was a music teacher at my primary school. He had noticed that I have musical talent and he advised me to become a composer. As a result, at age thirteen, I decided on a career as composer, as my parents couldn't finance training to be a concert pianist - which was actually my dream at that time.

US ASIANS: How did your studies at Seoul National University, which included studying composition with Sukhi Kang, help confirm your focus as a composer?

UNSUK CHIN: Through Sukhi Kang, who had studied and worked in Europe, I was introduced to the techniques and trends of the Western post-war avant-garde, which was not so well-known in Korea at that time. Until then, my knowledge of modern music extended only to Stravinsky.

US ASIANS: Were there many obstacles and/or issues (family, culture, music, etc.) that you had to address to move from Seoul (South Korea) to Europe in 1985 when you received the DAAD stipend to study composition with György Ligeti (well-known contemporary composer and won the Grawerneyer Award in 1986) in Hamburg Germany until 1988?

UNSUK CHIN: Of course it was a big change in my life, but I definitely wanted it. South Korea was a dictatorship at that time and I wanted to life in an open society.

As far as my studies with Ligeti are concerned: of course it was a great shock. At that time I already had had success in two important international competitions. But when I showed him these prize-winning pieces, he would only shake his head and say: "Throw all this away. There is nothing original in these pieces." This was very hard, though I somehow knew myself that I hadn't found my own voice in these works. I had a compositional crisis, which lasted for three years: I couldn't compose anything.

At that time Ligeti was changing his compositional style. Until then he had been at the forefront of the Western avant-garde (though always in a unique, original way) but now he abandoned his old faith and - after a period of not writing any music - changed, and in my opinion, broadened his style. He was influenced e.g. from subsaharian music and in the 80s and 90s he wrote so many masterworks.

His way to teach was very unorthodox. He demanded from us to work hard and write completely original music, which was not at all possible. He could be extremely sarcastic and critical, but he was very self-critical, too.

When I moved to Berlin in 1988, I slowly began to compose. I was working at an Electronic Music Studio and I only had some small commissions during that difficult period.

US ASIANS: Was there a tradition of electronic music in South Korea and/or within Korean culture that prompted your initial interest?

UNSUK CHIN: No, not really. But my former teacher, Sukhi Kang, had written pieces for electronics and he had also worked at the Electronic Music Studio of the Technical University in Berlin.

I consider composing electronic music to be a vital experience for a composer - although it is often very nerve-racking to work with computers.

Unsuk Chin was born in 1961 in Seoul, Korea. Following lessons in piano and music theory from a very early age, her studies continued at the National University Seoul, including composition with Sukhi Kang. She appeared as pianist at the Pan Music Festivals and in 1984 her composition Gestalten (Figures) was selected for the ISCM World Music Days in Canada and for the UNESCO 'Rostrum for Composers.' In 1985 she moved to Europe when she received the DAAD stipend for study in Germany, and took composition lessons with György Ligeti in Hamburg until 1988. Since then, Unsuk Chin has lived in Berlin, composing and working in the electronic studio of the Technical University Berlin. In 2004 Unsuk Chin won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for her Violin Concerto.

Unsuk Chin's compositions have been performed at numerous festivals and concert series in Europe, the Far East and the USA. Her most widely performed work is Akrostichon-Wortspiel for solo soprano and ensemble, programmed in 15 countries to date by such leading ensembles as Ensemble Modern conducted by George Benjamin, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Simon Rattle, the Nieuw Ensemble of Amsterdam, Asko Ensemble, Ictus Ensemble, and the new music groups of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestra. Other works include Fantaisie mécanique and Xi, both commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the prize-winning orchestral work santika Ekatala, which was premiered by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, ParaMetaString commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, a Piano Concerto written for Rolf Hind, and Miroirs des temps, commissioned by the BBC for The Hilliard Ensemble and the London Philharmonic. Kala for soloists, chorus and orchestra was co-commissioned by the Danish Radio Symphony, the Gothenburg Symphony and the Oslo Philharmonic orchestras and premiered under the baton of Peter Eötvös in March 2001.

Chin's appointment as Composer in Residence with the German Symphony Orchestra in 2001/02 culminated in the commission of a Violin Concerto, premiered in January 2002 with Viviane Hagner as soloist and Kent Nagano as conductor. The work has already been performed in South Korea and Finland and the UK premiere is scheduled in February 2004. Her most recent works are a Double Concerto for piano, percussion and ensemble, commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain and Radio France and premiered in February 2003, and snagS & Snarls for soprano and orchestra commissioned by Los Angeles Opera for premiere under Kent Nagano in June 2004.

Future commissions include a stagework based on Alice in Wonderland, and Cantatrix Sopranica for two sopranos, countertenor and ensemble co-commissioned by the London Sinfonietta, Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, St Pölten Festival (Austria), Ensemble Intercontemporain and Musikfabrik for premiere in May 2005. She is also composing an ongoing series of piano Etudes, five of which have been completed to date.

Unsuk Chin is published exclusively by Boosey & Hawkes.

Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes


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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