By Laura Battle
Published: July 31 2009 23:17 | Last updated: July 31 2009 23:17
Were Unsuk Chin in any other arts profession, her name would be familiar – already a brand, perhaps – but as a composer, even as one of the foremost composers in the world, she remains an elusive figure.
Within this rarefied field – that of contemporary classical music – Chin is admired and celebrated, but this was not always the case. In her early life in South Korea, and for much of her later development in Berlin, where she has lived since 1988, her search for recognition proved arduous and protracted. Each piece of music has required a significant investment of time and labour – not that you’d guess: many are characterised by glassy, delicate and often lyrical sequences that unravel in a stream-of-consciousness style – and premieres of Chin’s music are few and far between. This year, however, three new works have come to fruition.
When I arrive at her elegant Charlottenburg apartment Chin admits that life has been “a bit hyper” recently. Today is no exception: not so much because of work, more to do with the fact that it’s her 48th birthday. I’ve caught her between family lunch with her husband, the Finnish pianist Maris Gothoni, and their young son, and a soirée she is throwing later that evening. We seat ourselves rather awkwardly at the dining table and Chin prepares herself as if for interrogation: her career has largely developed without media interference, and one senses she prefers it that way. But this season the glare of the public eye will be hard to avoid.
A recording of her Violin Concerto, which scooped the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2004, has just been released, and this month sees the premiere of her new Cello Concerto at the Proms in London. That Chin is one of five female composers to have new work presented during the festival is happy coincidence: the piece was originally scheduled for 2007, although it was hatched, like so many of the best ideas, at a party a number of years earlier. The cellist Alban Gerhardt and violinist Lisa Batiashvili “came round to this flat with Brahms’s Double Concerto, I think. It was the first time I’d heard [Gerhardt] play and I promised immediately, ‘I will write a cello concerto for you!’ But then he had to wait another seven years!” Chin adds, with a nervous volley of laughter.
Unlike her two previous concertos, where the solo part floats and flirts with its accompaniment, she describes the cello here as being “in conflict” with the orchestra: “I’ve put much more personal energy into this work, the cello has to hold the whole piece the whole time, and the soloist has a very strong psychological role,” Chin explains. It is clearly a highly developed work and, judging from Gerhardt’s rehearsal blog, fiendishly difficult to play: “Many passages are incredibly fast,” he wrote on July 10. “If I get lost in them, I will be lost. Arghhhh!”
This emphasis on speed and complexity seems to reflect Chin’s interest in musical virtuosity. As a young girl in South Korea she dreamt of becoming a concert pianist, learning western-style harmony by accompanying services at Presbyterian churches where her father ministered. But the family was poor and tuition funds were not available to the second daughter. “It was also very difficult to get records at that time but we had a small transistor radio and I listened to music every day, I was crazy for it.” This was the 1970s, under Park Chung-hee’s repressive regime, and Chin’s perception of western culture was shaped by her obsession with the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky symphonies.
Once at Seoul National University, and now determined to compose, Chin was in thrall to the new wave of European composers: Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono et al. “It was quite strange, a Korean composer learning this Darmstadt avant-garde style in Korea, and I always felt that this was not my music.” Still, it was this interest that inspired her self-exile to Hamburg, where she sought the tutelage of Hungarian composer György Ligeti. It was her first trip abroad, and a “culture shock” initially, but the hard work had only just begun. “I think everyone knows, [Ligeti] was extremely difficult,” Chin begins, before detailing how he dismissed her work as derivative and “destroyed” her self-esteem – to the extent that she felt unable to compose for three years.
In spite of Ligeti’s disciplinarian approach, his influence would, in the end, prove valuable and long-lasting. Alice in Wonderland, Chin’s first full-blown opera, explored a theme that Ligeti suggested before his death. But although the great master haunts the piece, Chin’s soundscape is very much her own. There were boos from the first-night audience in Munich in 2007 – “They came in evening dresses and diamonds and I think they were expecting Aida or something” – but her score received favourable reviews, even if Achim Freyer’s po-faced, expressionist production did not. In any case, she was undeterred by the experience and plans to start work on Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Chin seems to have an omnivorous taste for styles and genres, and I notice that the room is dominated by two massive floor-mounted speakers, some sophisticated hi-fi equipment and piles of CDs. “There are so many composers who are almost autistic and have no communication with the outside world, and I think that’s problematic,” she explains, “I seldom have time to go to concerts but I have a very good connection with publishers and I always have recordings sent of new works.” Gérard Grisey, George Benjamin and Jukka Tiensuu are cited as composers she admires but they sit alongside a range of other artists.
“I like pop music from the 1980s very much. I was always impressed by Michael Jackson, for example, that he could compose a melody for just two bars, with two harmonies, and could win millions of people through this small act. It’s fantastic and we can’t do that,” she says, speaking for classical composers. However, although there are chord sequences and melodic hooks in her own music that speak directly to the layman, Chin denies that popular music has influenced her work. Her next work, the Sheng Concerto, pays its respects to a tradition of Asian folk music.
“This is my first piece for a non-western instrument but I use the sheng very carefully; I’ve limited the sheng’s role and I wrap the orchestra around it.”
Chin first heard the sheng, a wind instrument capable of organ-like clarity and sustain, as a young girl, but had overlooked its potential until a chance encounter with the specialist Wu Wei. As with Gerhardt, Chin was so bowled over that she promised a concerto on the spot, and Wu is to perform the work at premieres in Tokyo and Los Angeles in the autumn.
This season will conclude with a new piece for the Ensemble Modern and further engagements with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, where Chin is composer in residence. Since her appointment in 2006, she has quietly achieved great things there, not least the performance of more than 50 Korean premieres, including Boulez’s Notations and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. I wonder aloud if the role has explored her own connection to both eastern and western cultures but her reply is evasive, and even a little disapproving: “For me, there is no border between western or Asian or Korean music. For me, music is music.”
Cello Concerto premieres at Prom 38, Royal Albert Hall, London, on August 13; www.bbc.co.uk/proms