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Unsuk Chin Unsuk Chin Unsuk Chin
Ernst von Siemens Music Prize 2024

Unsuk Chin

Essay

Down the Rabbit Hole¹

by Dirk Wieschollek

„Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely,
„and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 12

 

The Music of Unsuk Chin: Transcultural Kaleidoscopes of Sound and Orchestral Illusion Machines

Virtually every review of Unsuk Chin’s compositions immediately homes in on her music’s most impressive qualities – its immediacy, sensuality and vividness. Glistening and sparkling, gleaming and flickering, its polyphonic instrumental textures shift and metamorphose, giving rise to constellations of sound that astonish us again and again. After 300 years of orchestral music, this is a feat worthy of admiration in and of itself. But what makes Unsuk Chin’s compositions so very special cannot be broken down solely to the dazzling surfaces and seductions of her art of instrumentation. Rather, it has to do with the complexity and multidimensionality of the means she employs – their ambiguity and imaginative potential, the interplay of construction and dynamic expression, of solidity and movement, of obvious beauty and latent inscrutability. All the more so because in Chin’s concept of sound, colour and structure are two sides of the same compositional coin.

Unsuk Chin

The large orchestra is unmistakably the composer’s favourite and most effective medium. Undaunted by contemporary music’s predilection for fragments, Chin has for decades now elicited from the orchestra an energy and richness of sound that only few current composers can match. One of her music’s outstanding qualities is its ability to steer clear both of aesthetic trends and of commercial superficiality. Unsuk Chin’s speech at the 2005 Arnold Schönberg Prize award ceremony in Vienna formulates one of her key artistic premises: that “complexity and communication need not be incommensurable variables.”

For more than 30 years, Unsuk Chin has kept a noticeable distance to the music business and its institutions. The reasons for this lie in her manner of working among other things. Chin is not a prolific composer, but takes her time, scrupulously honing even the tiniest complexes of sound to translate her imaginings as precisely as possible into something that can be experienced by the senses. This is conspicuously at odds with the demands of the annual round of festivals and its commissions. But Chin’s unhurried creative process has not detracted from her international success, which first took off not in Germany, but in the United Kingdom and France and is closely associated with the conductors George Benjamin and Kent Nagano.

Unsuk Chin

When the recent graduate of Seoul National University came to Hamburg from South Korea in 1985, armed with a DAAD scholarship and determined to learn all she could about contemporary European music, success was still a long way off. For three years, Unsuk Chin was part of György Ligeti’s composition class – an experience that in retrospect was as traumatic as it was groundbreaking for the inexperienced composer, who had arrived in Germany still focused on the post-serial toolkit of her Korean teacher Sukhi Kang: “Ligeti plunged me into a creative and existential crisis because he made me understand that I needed to free myself from the traditions of the Second Viennese School, serialism and post-serialism if I wanted to find myself. It thus became important for me to study not just ‘Western’ modern music, but the traditional music of different cultures. The idea of the essence and the ‘inward part’ of sound and the search for a form that developed organically from the naturally given qualities of the sound-matter became important to me.”

Unsuk Chin
Unsuk Chin

Following a creative crisis that lasted several years, this quest for the fundamentals of sound led Unsuk Chin to the electronic studio at Berlin’s University of Technology. There, in the early 1990s, she explored the possibilities opened up by electronic music. At first, she experimented with audiotape pieces, but these works always had an instrumental or concrete foundation, never a purely synthetic one. Gradus ad infinitum (1989) was inspired by Conlon Nancarrow’s pieces for player piano and set out to surpass Nancarrow’s polyphony, which is impossible for humans to play, in its eight-part superimposition of different tempo layers; in Allegro ma non troppo (1993/94), previously recorded percussion and real-world sounds formed the basis for electronic transformations that aimed to create flowing transitions of timbre. The 1998 work Xi for ensemble marked the preliminary apex of a series of works focused on fusing electronic and instrumental soundscapes.

Even though electronic music only plays a subordinate role in Chin’s creative work as a whole, these first experiences in the electronic studio (similarly to Ligeti in the mid-1950s) were a major influence on her development of highly differentiated sonic effects in pieces written for polyphonic multi-instrument apparatus. She was able to gain an in-depth understanding of sonority, its layers, interconnections and multidimensionality. Her early experiences are also reflected in physiognomies of sound that, even in purely instrumental contexts, sometimes display an astonishing kinship with electro-acoustic music. Looking back, the 1990s represent the experimental decade in Unsuk Chin’s oeuvre, a time the composer was exploring very different technical, structural and aesthetic possibilities: audiotape pieces and hybrid electro-acoustic forms stand side by side with vocal compositions, chamber music works containing elements of improvisation (Fantaisie mécanique for five instrumentalists, 1994) and scenic performance (Allegro ma non troppo for percussion and tape, 1993/94; 1998), then, suddenly, piano etudes (from 1995 onwards) and a piano concerto (1996/97). An overcoming of her Ligeti trauma?

Unsuk Chin
Unsuk Chin Notizen

Given that Unsuk Chin moved to Germany from Korea in the 1980s, it seems obvious to ask what role her Korean origins played in her search for artistic identity. Surprisingly, only a subordinate one. Unsuk Chin has never set out to integrate the sounds and concepts of the Asian musical traditions into her compositions: “I don’t see myself as a Korean composer, but as a composer who is part of an international music culture (...)”.2 Not wanting her compositions to give off the impression of musical exoticism, Chin has also avoided using Asian instruments as far as possible. There is one major exception: Šu (2009), a concerto for sheng and orchestra. But here, too, the Chinese mouth organ is used not to create a kind of Asian aura, but rather to quite literally sound out its particular sonic capacities.

Even though Chin has distanced herself from a supposedly Korean musical language, her works naturally contain numerous references to various Asian musical traditions. However, like all other cultural points of reference in Chin’s works, these Asian references take effect as allusions and illusions; no claim to synthesis is made. Even the composition that is most obviously close to Korean music, whose six suggestive episodes are based on the composer’s musical childhood memories, only appears to allude to original, traditional matter. With its decidedly quirky instrumentation and narrator-like percussion apparatus, Gougalon (2009/12) evokes the performances of travelling amateur theatre companies in Chin’s homeland. Nevertheless, this ensemble composition (despite its narrative movement titles) is not an attempt to fuse authentic Korean material with European techniques: “Gougalon does not refer directly to the amateurish and shabby music of street theatre (...) This piece is concerned with an ‘imaginary folk music’ that is stylized, fractured and only seemingly primitive.” Chin’s remarks about Gougalon can be seen as exemplary of her aesthetics: the material of her music is not found but invented, not “authentic” but imaginary.

Unsuk Chin

The fascination exuded by Chin’s instrumental compositions and their richness of sound makes it easy to forget that her oeuvre also includes an important vocal work. Indeed, Chin’s international career began with the world premiere of a vocal composition, an event in which last year’s Ernst von Siemens Music Prize winner George Benjamin had a hand. Akrostichon-Wortspiel for soprano and ensemble caused a considerable stir in London in 1993 (at the premiere of its final version), the lively newspaper coverage making Chin an instant celebrity. Seven musical scenes based on motifs from Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story and Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass for the first time revealed Chin’s fascination with fairytales and the grotesque on a larger scale. Above all, however, Akrostichon-Wortspiel revealed a compositional conception of language that relegated semantics to the background and was not afraid to completely reorganize its components. Kalá for soprano and bass solo, choir and orchestra (2000) sets assorted poems by Gerhard Rühm, Inger Christensen, Unica Zürn, Gunnar Ekelöf, Arthur Rimbaud and Paavo Haavikko that explore and experiment with language. Chin then deliberately broke the poems down even further into fragments that become the foundation of structural equivalents of sound. Chin’s selection of texts and her fundamentally asemantic approach to them speaks volumes: “I’m not particularly comfortable setting poems to music that convey specific content or feelings. Music and literature are 'languages‘ that each follow their own rules and that often get in each other’s way when combined. In my eyes (and ears), the advantage of experimental poetry’s combinatorics is not only that it lacks concrete meaning and ‘messages’, but above all that it approximates compositional approaches.” The self-referentiality and irony of experimental poetry attracted Chin particularly and inspired her to use some of her own writings alongside texts from different eras in Cantatrix Sopranica (2004/05). The eight movements for two sopranos, countertenor and ensemble revolve around singing and the clichés in which it portrays itself, between baroque opera, Italian bel canto and avant-garde sound experiments. Musical “role-playing” with languages of the past, juggling with idiomatic ways of speaking, stereotypes and stylistic parodies are particularly pronounced here. This can take the form of comically exaggerated operatic arias, as in the fifth movement Con tutti i Fantasmi, or even of a “chinoiserie” persiflage in Yue Guang – Clair de Lune. While the idea of a polystylistic “music about music” plays a more subordinate role in Chin’s instrumental compositions, the notion comes to the fore in this vocal work in its audible delight in musical jokes and pranks.

Unsuk Chin

In the noughties, all of this led via the “test run” of Snags & Snarls for soprano and orchestra (2003/04) to Chin’s first major opera Alice in Wonderland (2007). The “world premiere of the year” (Opernwelt) at the Bavarian State Opera, conducted by Kent Nagano and with a surreal, minimalist stage design by Achim Freyer, was a major success; productions in London and Los Angeles ensued. Unsuk Chin had already been fascinated by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” stories when still living in Korea and felt a close affinity with the books’ irrational dream world and its absurd shifts in reality, its language games, ambiguities and bizarre situations. But it was only after the death in 2006 of György Ligeti, whose own “Alice” opera never came to fruition, that Chin ventured to adapt this subject-matter, which suspends conventional coordinates of logic, causality and reason. Carroll’s wealth of allusions is reflected musically in a variety of references and stylistic parodies of existing musical forms: “The book’s quirky humour and intertextuality inspired me to write music that engages playfully with musical meanings and questions them – a musical house of mirrors, so to speak. I was looking for a musical equivalent for black humour. I had never done anything like that before.”3 The music of Alice in Wonderland is unusually pictorial and narrative by the standard of Chin’s other works, and thus stands very much in the tradition of opera. The operatic formal repertoire is also evoked in a playful, tongue-in-cheek manner.

Unsuk Chin

Chin’s music is rarely contemplative, not a “calligraphy of sound” bordering on silence, but is determined by roving forces that often drive in several different directions simultaneously. Prime examples of this vivid, polyperspectival energy in the orchestra include the single-movement rivers of sound of Rocaná (2008) and Chóros cordón (2017) or the restless onward surge of “Palimpsest” from Graffiti (2012/13).

However, almost all of Chin’s pieces develop their opulent sound from a reduced initial state, a kind of sonic primal cell from which the events evolve organically, as it were. In the Cello Concerto, this primal cell is the note g sharp, which determines almost the entire first movement; in the First Violin Concerto, it is the interval of a fifth, in Xi it is a soundless murmur (or human breathing) that forms the seed of multi-layered tonal processes that often return to the initial state again – a becoming and passing away of sound. The luscious charm of Unsuk Chin’s music often leads us to overlook that its lavishness is rarely purely affirmative, but can at any time become an outlet for terror. Kent Nagano is among the few to have pointed out this existential aspect: “But it [Chin’s music] also knows the other areas, the dark and deep zones and the insistent sounding out of and pushing into the uncomfortable. Behind a glossy, often enchantingly beautiful façade, the abyss always shines through.”4 In Chin’s large orchestral pieces, this “abysmal” quality often manifests in catastrophic eruptions, discharges and collapses in massive, luridly orchestrated tutti passages. The focus is often on a vehement use of the percussion section.

Unsuk Chin

One key medium of Chin’s musical language and its exploration of the potential of the large orchestra is the concerto, and her catalogue of works sees her engaging with this genre again and again. Over the course of 25 years, she has composed outstanding concertos for piano (1996/97), violin (2001 and 2021), piano and percussion (2002), cello (2006-08), sheng (2009) and clarinet (2014). However, these works interpret the relationship between soloist and orchestra in very different ways. While the concertos for violin and clarinet take up the classical antagonism between individual and collective, indulging in dramatic, confrontational passages and containing sections that are unusually elegiac for Chin, in the piano concerto and the double concerto the solo instruments become a key part of the musical fabric, the aim being that solo instrument and orchestra merge into a “super instrument”.
Chin’s ambiguous relationship to instrumental virtuosity is revealed particularly tellingly in the concertos. Even though it takes extreme forms, virtuosity is never an end in itself. Closely linked with the constructive aspect of music, it is an indispensable medium for the representation of complex structures. “What interests me musically about complexity and mannerism is the balancing act between order and chaos, the tipping from one to the other,”5 the composer acknowledged. Chin deliberately takes the musicians to places beyond their technical comfort zone as this uncertainty and potential overwhelm generates a particular intensity.

"I have a great affinity with the abstract, surrealist world of thought. Ever since childhood, I have experienced it in my dreams, in dream states interwoven with phenomena of light and colour, in which the laws of physics and logic are turned upside down. For me, these states were and are an existential experience and are a vital stimulus when composing."

Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin has always stressed that her music does not follow any programme or narrative thread, yet her works are inspired by diverse transcultural extra-musical sources from art and literature as well as from nature and the natural sciences. These sources of inspiration serve first and foremost as structural impulses for complex sound processes. The light-suffused sonority of Rocaná (2008) was sparked by Ólafur Eliasson’s installations The Weather Project and Notion Motion, which are based on physical phenomena; Cosmigimmicks (2012) relates to different forms of minimalist theatricality, from Asian shadow theatre to Beckett’s geometrical TV pieces; Graffiti (2013) reflects aspects of urbanism and street art; Mannequin (2014/15) was inspired by the fantastic literature of E.T.A. Hoffmann; the mass orchestral swirls of Spira (2019) are based on the mathematician Jacob Bernoulli’s concept of the growth spiral; and the transcendent Les Chants des Enfants des Étoiles (2019) reflects Chin’s passion for astronomy. However, although these works touch on extra-musical content, they are not pieces about themes and content, but transform their sources of inspiration into formal structures that ultimately are self-contained. Basically, Chin views the creation of music as a sphere of existence mediated beyond the conditions of conventional reality, a sphere that, in her case, is emphatically associated with dreams and their limitless imaginary worlds: “I have a great affinity with the abstract, surrealist world of thought. Ever since childhood, I have experienced it in my dreams, in dream states interwoven with phenomena of light and colour, in which the laws of physics and logic are turned upside down. For me, these states were and are an existential experience and are a vital stimulus when composing.”6

Skizze Doppelkonzert Unsuk Chin

The musical sources of inspiration evident in Chin’s work are no less diverse, however, and span a wide variety of eras and cultures. They rarely appear in the form of specific quotations as a kind of eclectic “spot the reference” game, but usually manifest as allusions or structural transformations, evincing Chin’s wide-ranging, transcultural interests: the scintillating abundance of percussive sounds in her works reveals her fascination with gamelan music, and her fondness for jazz is evident particularly (but not only) in the clarinet concerto (2015) and its final movement Improvisation on a groove. Chin’s interest in the vocal polyphony of the late Middle Ages is most clearly reflected in Miroirs des temps for solo voices and orchestra (1999). Here, Machaut and Perotinus flit through a score that oscillates between hypertrophic polyphony and a homophony rooted in organum technique. Here, the notions of mirroring and the palindrome prefigured in Machaut’s rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement are developed further. Frontispiece (2019) is a rollercoaster ride through late Romantic orchestral rhetoric in which “music history is condensed in fast motion” (Chin) and allusions to key works of European orchestral music from Brahms and Strauss to Stravinsky’s Sacre can be heard. Familiar dramatic orchestral clichés flicker for a second or two, and of course Chin takes full advantage of the opportunity for a caricatured final apotheosis.

Unsuk Chin
Unsuk Chin

Recent pieces such as the Alaraph – Ritus des Herzschlags (2022) prove that Chin’s compositions have lost little of their energy and engrossing intensity. Inspired by the pulsation of double stars and the percussive aspects of Korean court music, the orchestra is transformed into an elemental powerhouse, with a percussion section whose force seems to fuel an imaginary rite. At present, the composer is back in a completely different sphere: she is writing her second opera, which will be premiered at Hamburg State Opera in May 2025.

Translation: Margaret Hiley

Unsuk Chin

1 The title of chapter 1 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

2 Orig. “Ich verstehe mich nicht als koreanische Komponistin, sondern als Komponistin, die Teil einer internationalen Musikkultur ist (...).” Cited from Hanno Ehrler: Ordnung, Chaos und Computer. Betrachtungen zur Musik Unsuk Chins, in: Stefan Drees (ed.), Im Spiegel der Zeit – Die Komponistin Unsuk Chin, Mainz 2011, p. 32.

3 Orig. “Der skurrile Humor und auch die Intertextualität der Buchvorlage reizten mich dazu, eine Musik zu schreiben, die mit musikalischen Bedeutungen spielerisch umgeht und sie hinterfragt – ein musikalisches Spiegellabyrinth sozusagen. Ich suchte nach einer musikalischen Entsprechung für den schwarzen Humor. So etwas hatte ich vorher noch nie gemacht.” ...Zusammenprall verschiedener Arten unserer Kommunikation und unserer Erfahrung der Wirklichkeit..., Unsuk Chin im Gespräch mit David Allenby über ihre Oper Alice in Wonderland (2004–2007), in: ibid., p. 132.

4 Orig. “Sie kennt aber auch die anderen, die dunklen und tiefen Zonen sowie das insistierende Ausloten und Hineinstoßen ins Ungemütliche. Hinter einer glänzenden, oft berückend schönen Fassade scheint immer der Abgrund hindurch.” Kent Nagano, Unsuk Chin zu Ehren, in: ibid., p. 11.

5 Orig. Was mich an Komplexität und Manierismus musikalisch interessiert, ist die Gratwanderung zwischen Ordnung und Caos und das Umkippen vom einem ins andere.” Unsuk Chin, Gradus ad infinitum for audiotape (1989), in: ibid., p. 57.

6 Orig. “Ich habe eine große Affinität zur abstrakt-surrealistischen Gedankenwelt. Schon als Kind erlebte ich sie in meinen Träumen, in von Licht- und Farbphänomenen durchwirkten Traumzuständen, in denen die Gesetze der Physik und der Logik auf den Kopf gestellt werden. Sie waren und sind für mich eine existentielle Erfahrung und eine wesentliche Anregung beim Komponieren.” “Gemischte Identität” und “Sprachspiele”. Unsuk Chin im Gespräch mit Patrick Hahn, in: ibid., p. 178.