For more than two decades Unsuk Chin has been a familiar figure on the contemporary musical scene in France, the UK, the USA, her native Korea and her adoptive city of Berlin. And yet the impact of her music goes far beyond these cultural confines: her works regularly feature in the programmes of international orchestras; they reveal an extraordinary sense of sonority with a sure grasp of developing structures and dramatic energies; and they meet with an enthusiastic response from people who are otherwise sceptical about the world of classical music.
Her oeuvre extends from solo works such as her Six Piano Studies (1995–2003) to electronic pieces, chamber music (with and without electronics), orchestral compositions (with and without a solo instrument), vocal works for solo voices and chorus and, most recently, her Cello concerto, which almost amounts to a piece of music theatre. She has been a Composer-in- Residence for both the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. She received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for her Violin Concerto. The Bavarian State Opera in Munich staged her first full-length opera, Alice in Wonderland, which was voted ‘Operatic Premiere of the Year’ 2007 by critics of the magazine Opernwelt.
Unsuk Chin began her career as many musicians ideally do, with a sense of primordial curiosity. She started to play the piano aged 3 and received her first music lessons from her father, a Protestant clergyman, but she taught herself the rudiments of music theory and gained an insight into the art of composition by copying out the scores of large-scale works.
In Seoul she studied with Kang Sukhi, whose book In Search of the Music of the World (1979) remains a standard work on the productive tension between Western and Far Eastern musical thinking. In 1985 she started to study with György Ligeti in Hamburg, at a time when Ligeti was himself studying non-European cultures. Both teachers supported Unsuk Chin in her attempts to engage with ideas from different cultural backgrounds and historical periods. In understanding and assimilating those ideas, she sought new impulses for her own creative endeavours, familiarising herself with new technologies and their musical possibilities at both IRCAM in Paris and the Electronic Studio of the Technical University in Berlin.
At the latter she wrote works for live electronics, using the possibilities opened up by computers to coax new colours from traditional instruments and orchestras. Such creative and holistic activities presuppose a powerful musical personality, and there is no denying that Unsuk Chin’s works reveal a distinctive artistic style, while at the same time reflecting a far wider range of expressive forms than is normally found in contemporary composers. ‘My music is a reflection of my dreams,’ she explains. ‘The visions of immense light and incredibly bright colours that I see in all my dreams are what I am trying to depict as the play of light and colour flowing through space and creating a three-dimensional sculpture in sound.’
Profile © Habakuk Traber, transl. Stewart Spencer